a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I. “If I Knew It Was Going to Be This Much Trouble”
Once, while driving with my wife in her home state of Georgia, I passed a bumper sticker, “If I knew it was going to be this much trouble, I’d have picked my own damned cotton.”
For my wife, this sighting again confirmed her high school decision to leave the South for college in the North and never come back. But it made me think of the mindset of the people who would display or approve of this bumper sticker and what it said about them. Ostensibly, the bumper sticker proclaimed that our problems with race in the present weren’t worth whatever gains whites obtained from slave labor. The deeper implication? The owners of these bumper stickers really wished they could live in a world where blacks were not part of America.
Aside from its obvious racist overtones, such a bumper sticker represents a common misconception about the impact of slavery and the cotton industry on America, both in the past and in the present. In Empire of Cotton: A Global History, Sven Beckert makes a cogent and well-researched argument that slavery was instrumental not just to the cotton industry; that is too narrow a lens. Instead, Beckert argues that the wealth created by slavery and the cotton industry were essential to the creation of wealth in all of 19th century America, both in the South and the North. In other words, the economic progress of America, both before and after the Civil War, depended vitally on slave labor. We as a country would not be where we are today economically without slavery. Our current wealth is, in part, a result of our racist history. Even while conservatives complain of government handouts to blacks and other minorities, they never want to confront the myriad ways slavery acted as a free handout to the white population.
In some ways, books like Empire of Cotton are beginning to revise our understanding of the impact of slavery and racism on America. But when I first heard about this bumper sticker I was struck by its amnesia—that is, the absence of any real attempt to come to grips with how slavery affected the thinking and psychology of whites. Slavery shaped the ways whites thought not just about blacks but also about themselves; in the process, it formed and constituted their identity, particularly their sense of morality.
The bumper sticker posits slavery as simply a phenomenon of physical labor, as merely a choice concerning who would pick the “damned cotton,” whites or blacks. What the bumper sticker does not imagine is the enormous mental effort, the practical and conceptual thinking which was necessary to maintain and justify slavery, the psychological strain that it took white owners to enforce and believe in their superiority, sovereignty and mastery over other human beings.
To hold absolute power over another human being and, at the same time, to believe in one’s own good and righteousness while doing so, was not a simple task. It required one to live in constant fear, fear which was both conscious and unconscious. It required constant mental gymnastics, a constant fending off of contrary or resistant observations or feelings; it involved an insistent willingness not to see the humanity of the human beings one ruled over. It required a deep psychological, spiritual and philosophic blindness–almost pathological powers of denial.
In other words, the establishment and enforcement of slavery required obvious physical labor—torture and other punishments, organizing, overseeing and policing slaves, going after runaways, etc.—but it also required an enormous mental labor, which produced its own products, products which continue to live on in our society and in the minds of many Americans on into the present.
Thus, the sheer difficulty, the unwieldiness, and complications of enforcing and maintaining slavery are vastly underestimated by many in the present. Slaveowners were caught within both mental and practical contradictions which they struggled and failed to resolve, since those contradictions stemmed from the denial of reality—the slave was as fully human as the master.
In all this, the system of slavery rested upon the obliteration of this truth and the creation of lies: The master was supposedly the natural and God-appointed ruler of the slave. The slave was not quite human, was not as intelligent as the master, did not have the same emotional and psychological capacities. In this natural God-given order, supposedly the slave willingly and openly accepted the master’s superiority and rule.
But if all these assumptions undergirding slavery were truly the case, in theory, the master’s dominion over the slave should have been easily enforced. But of course, in practice, it was not. In Honor and Violence in the Old South, Betram Wyatt Brown writes:
Black and white struggles over slave autonomy never ceased. Masters often wearied of trying to impose their will on every occasion that reached their notice. As Genovese and others have shown, slaves in the field and kitchen were shrewd observes of “old mass” and knew how to exploit his grave weaknesses, largely in answer to their grim exploitation at “ole massa’s” hands. The irate owner, in helpless fury, could use the whip unmercifully—but mostly with counterproductive results. As John Blassingame has observed, under such conditions slaves became indifferent and worked less effectively than ever before, and some even risked their lives in open confrontation.
On the other hand, tolerant masters watched impotently as each new privilege begged for and granted, at once became plantation tradition and precedent for further requests.
The resistance of black humans to their slavery was constant and unrelenting, an oppositional force white slaveowners had to contend with and yet, at the same time, deny the existence of, since slavery was supposedly part of the “natural” order of things. Thus, slaveowners devised elaborate philosophic, pseudo-scientific and religious theories to rationalize and support the system of slavery, and this mental production did not occur by chance, but by conscious and constant creation and elaboration. And yet, when the theories and rationale met practice and the suppression of the rights and humanity of actual human beings, the conflicts and contradictions and breakdowns that occurred fueled both further mental production as well as the devising of new and greater methods of violence.
In theory, the master and slave were distinctly separate entities—ontologically, legally, politically, biologically, theologically, psychologically and culturally. But each day the practice of slavery indicated otherwise. The willed blindness of whites to this contradiction is part of slavery’s legacy, and its influences still shape our society today.
In any discussion of race in twenty-first century America, the end of slavery and the passing of Civil Rights laws in the 1950s and 60s are constantly cited as proof that either racism is almost entirely a phenomena of the past or is far less prevalent in contemporary America than those making racial critiques acknowledge.
Such an argument rests upon defining racism as primarily a legal practice. The abandonment of legal and governmental policies of outright discrimination were supposedly the major hurdles to racial equality in this country.
But what about the thinking, the conceptual frameworks, the psychological identifications that created all those legal and governmental racist policies of the past? Did they simply vanish once slavery ended or the Civil Rights Laws were passed? Did the ways people think and feel about race, and more specifically, did the ways white people think about blacks and other people of color drastically change overnight with the passing of the 14th amendment or the Voter Rights Act of 1965? Of course not.
Given the continued persistence of racial inequities in all areas of society, we must therefore ask: How has the thinking and psychology of whites on race in slavery’s past shaped the thinking and psychology of whites on race in the present? And how does such thinking and psychology continue to distort, derail and deny any true equality in the relationship between present day whites and blacks? In what ways does the gulf between a white defined reality and a black defined reality create a distance that still has not been breached?
II. Racial Ontology
Ontology is the philosophical study of being or existence and the categories of being and their relations. This involves the questions of what entities can be said to exist and how those entities can be grouped and related in a hierarchy and categorized through similarities and differences.
Most people in America now accept that the categories of race are not based on essential and significant biological differences. Instead, these categories are established through superficial, if often ambiguous, differences in appearance. This leads people to argue that the categories of race are not “real,” that they posit a difference which does not exist. Some people, mainly whites, further argue that because the categories of race are not “real,” they should not be used in current discourse. (And thus racism can no longer exist since the categories of race supposedly do not exist.)
At the very start then of any discussion on race, there is generally a debate on what is meant by “real,” that is, the nature of our reality. The definition of racial categories as “unreal” relies solely upon whether or not there is an essential biological basis for racial categories.
But such a position completely ignores the fact that America and Americans still evaluate and treat each other differently based on the categories of race. Wishing away race and its categories does not make it so.
Richard Wright once remarked that black and white America are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. Even if whites believe that their description of reality is the correct one, it is clear that this struggle still exists. And it exists on the level of how we categorize that reality, the terms which we use to do so, and the meaning we assign to those terms.
In the past few decades, the academic school of Afro-Pessimism has posited that the ontology of slavery continues into the present and still structures our thinking and our perceptions of the differences between Whiteness and Blackness. The language of this theory is often dense and foreboding and at times seemingly impenetrable; aside from questions of academic jargon, this difficulty is meant in part to prevent the type of simplifying or translating I will attempt to do here–and yet, the ideas underlying this theory are both useful and resonant and can aid us in understanding how deeply our racist past is embedded in the present. Indeed, when Afro-pessimist scholar Frank Wilderson spoke to a church group in Oakland, an older black woman came up to him and said something like, “I didn’t graduate from college and I’m not a scholar like you, but when you talk about how slavery is still with us, I know you’re right. That’s exactly the way I feel. Like a slave.”
In his book Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Wilderson argues that structures of modernity, our post-Enlightenment concepts of what is human and what it means to be free and what it means to be a citizen or part of civil society, are all predicated upon the ontological opposition of White and Black—or more pointedly, the relegation of Blackness to a realm of social death, outside the human and outside the definitions and relations of civil society: in other words, the meaning and category of Whiteness cannot be regarded as separate from the meaning and category of Blackness; the former is ontologically dependent upon the existence of the latter:
…African, more precisely Blackness, refers to an individual who is by definition always already void of relationality. Thus modernity marks the emergence of a new ontology because it is an era in which an entire race appears, people who, a priori, that is prior to the contingency of “transgressive act” (such as losing a war or being convicted of a crime), stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world. This, I will argue is as true for those who were herded into the slave ships as it is for those who had no knowledge whatsoever of the coffles. In this period, chattel slavery, as a condition of ontology and not just as an event of experience, stuck to the African like Velcro. To the extent that we can think the essence of Whiteness and the essence of Blackness, we must think their essences through the structure of the Master/Slave relation…I am also drawing a distinction between the experience of slavery (which anyone can be subjected to) and the ontology of slavery (which in modernity (the years 1300 to the present) becomes the singular purview of the Black). In this period, slavery is cathedralized. It “advances” from a word which describes a condition that anyone can be subjected to, to a word which reconfigures the African body into Black flesh. Far from being merely the experience of the African, slavery is now the African’s access to (or more correctly, banishment from) ontology.
Wilderson cites how the work of scholar David Eltis asserts that it would have been cheaper to institute chattel slavery upon white Europeans than enslave Africans; thus, the choice not to make slaves of serfs or prisoners or those in poor houses was a “bad business” decision. This less profitable decision was made on the surface for political reasons but it entailed a deeper and more complex ontological rationale: “…what Whites would have gained in economic value, they would have lost in symbolic value, and it is the latter which structures the libidinal economy of civil society.” Making whites chattel slaves would have stripped them from the social contract and this stripping would have problematized and infected the relationships between whites in ways that Europeans ultimately could not contemplate and act upon.
But with the entrance—or rather expulsion—of the Black from civil society, Whiteness and civil relationships between whites were unified rather than reified. Whiteness was human, was part of civil society and designated a citizen or potential citizen. Violence against Whiteness or whites could not be arbitrarily enacted but required justification; it needed to be justified as an act of war or as caused by legal transgression. Thus, whites, argues Wilderson, “are not ‘generally dishonoured,’ meaning they are not stigmatized in their being prior to any transgressive act or behavior…they are not ‘natally alienated,’ meaning their claims to ascending and descending generations are not denied them; and they have some choice in their relation, meaning they are not the objects of ‘naked violence.’”
In contrast, Blackness or blacks are not human, and therefore can never become citizens or act with the rights of citizens. Blackness is marked as being beyond civil society in a wholly separate and opposing category—that of the slave who is a priori dishonored and banished. Violence against the black body needs no justification, requires no prior act of transgression, no act of war, no breaking of the law, for the black does not own their body and because that body is not human; in that way, it is “dead” to society.* At the same time, the black body is fungible—that is, it can be owned and thus, bought and sold; it belongs to its owner, whether that owner is a person or the state. Therefore, while the parents of a white child constitutes a sacrosanct relationship between progenitor and progeny, the offspring of the black parent is the property of Whiteness and the white owner; there is nothing sacrosanct or inviolable in the relationship between the black parent and child, who are forever “natally alienated.”
When that working class older black woman addressed Wilderson after his talk, she intuitively understood and felt the connection between this difficult theory and the actual conditions of her life and those in her neighborhood. She understood that the state and the police regard Whiteness and whites as part of civil society, that White on White or the state on White violence is checked and requires justification and that White on black violence or the state’s violence on black does not require such justification and is, generally, not regarded by a crime in the justice system. She understood that the black body is always suspect because the Black and the black body are not a priori part of the body politic but instead are ontologically outside that body. She understood the connection between this ontology and the acts of the police and justice system and the racial disparities within the legal system and disproportionate overwhelming numbers of blacks in the prison population. She understood why there is a disproportionate number of black children whose parents are missing or in prison. She understood why someone like Trump could not believe that Obama could be a citizen, much less the legitimate President of the United States. This old black woman wasn’t a scholar but she was an experienced witness of what it means to be black in American society and that witnessing made her feel as if slavery was still a structuring presence in her life.
Every encroachment or potential encroachment of Blackness and the black into civil society is a threat not just to the rights and privileges of whites, but to the very definition and ontology through which Whiteness is established. The category of Whiteness does not make sense without the category of Blackness, and so far no amount of proclaimed good will or intention has made that distinction disappear.
In setting up this dichotomy between Whiteness and Blackness, Wilderson cites the essays of James Baldwin. For one cannot read Baldwin without encountering his frequent assertion that however much white Americans want to separate themselves from black Americans, the very means of their distinction, the very definitions, yoke them inextricably together, logically and yes, ontologically. To deny this puts Whites in a place of denial, a psychological repression of their own past which Whiteness created and enforced and which continues to create and enforce present day racial distinctions:
“To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.
This is precisely what the generality of white Americans cannot afford to do. They do not know how to do it–: as I must suppose. They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelous becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American.
Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage. One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World.
The slave is in another condition, as are his heirs: I told Jesus it would be all right/ If He changed my name.
If He changed my name…
The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white–: and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey.”
Part of the price for becoming white entailed the loss of or abandoning of ethnic identity (at times we see a romanticized and vague nostalgia for this loss in advertisements for DNA ancestry testing). But the price also most definitely required an acceptance of American’s racial hierarchy and white supremacism.
Thus, it demanded a severance between the new immigrants and the black population; it required that the immigrants imbibe a racial animus designed to reinforce perceptions of racial difference and establish white superiority and black inferiority. Baldwin asserts here that while white Americans feel the price of their ticket, they do not and cannot let themselves assess consciously what that price entails; they do not and cannot let themselves understand what it does to their own humanity, what toll it takes on their own psyches. And of course, they cannot and do not ask, Who made this the price of the ticket? Why are we white and those people, those black people, considered so different from us? Where did this all start?
* In a New York Times op ed about the young black man, Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging by two armed white vigilantes in Glyn County, GA, on Feb. 23, 2020, black philosopher George Yancy writes: “Historically, white people have always had this sort of power over black life, functioning as judge, jury and executioner. To understand Arbery’s death as anything other than predictable is to miss the persistent history of white supremacy in Georgia and throughout the United States…
What if I told you that as a black man living in white America I feel as if I am already dead? I imagine that your first response would be disbelief…But what is perhaps even stranger is that as a marked black man, I mourn my death in advance…
To be black in America is to spend a lot of time talking about how to avoid death.”
David Mura’s most recent book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity & Narrative Craft in Writing, which was a finalist for the 2019 Minnesota Book Award. He’s written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Book Award and was a New York Times Notable Book, and Where the Body Meets Memory. His novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Prize. Mura’s four poetry books include National Poetry Contest winner After We Lost Our Way, The Colors of Desire, which won a Carl Sandburg Literary Award, Angels for the Burning, and The Last Incantations. He is a faculty and board member of VONA, which serves for writers of color. “How We Think–Or Don’t Think–About It” is from his next book, The Master’s House: Stories Whiteness Tells Itself, which will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in Fall 2022.