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BLACK MEN,

BLACK
FEMINISM
Lucifer’s Nocturne

Jared Sexton
Black Men, Black Feminism
Protester rests during a November 2014 demonstration in Oakland, California,
against the grand jury decision in the case of Officer Darren Wilson. Image
reproduced with permission from Reuters Pictures
Jared Sexton

Black Men, Black


Feminism
Lucifer’s Nocturne
Jared Sexton
Department of African American Studies
University of California
Irvine, CA, USA

ISBN 978-3-319-74125-3    ISBN 978-3-319-74126-0 (eBook)


https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74126-0

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To DAS, in memoriam, for a love too big to appreciate in one lifetime.
To CJD, for putting me on a path before I could see my own way.
Contents

1 Speak of the Devil   1

2 Where Manhood Lies 41

3 Unbearable Blackness 75

Index 107

vii
List of Figures

Fig. 1.1 Stan (Henry Sanders) and his wife (Kaycee Moore) argue with
Stan’s friends, Scooter and Smoke, on the front porch in
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978). Image reproduced
under terms of fair use 8
Fig. 1.2 Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) finds himself chained to an armchair in
the basement in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Image
reproduced under terms of fair use 26
Fig. 3.1 Protester rests during a November 2014 demonstration in
Oakland, California, against the grand jury decision in the case
of Officer Darren Wilson. Image reproduced with permission
from Reuters Pictures 93
Fig. 3.2 Dorothy (Barbara O.) holds her daughter, Luann (Susan
Williams), in Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979). Image
reproduced under terms of fair use 96

ix
CHAPTER 1

Speak of the Devil

Living alone never ensures what a boy will become, but black men,
above all, are the boys spared long enough to live.
—Stacia L. Brown, “We Have Known Black Boys (But None Have
Been Bullet-Proof)”

Abstract  This chapter introduces the problematic of black masculinity in


an antiblack world. It draws, to that end, upon legal scholar Paul Butler’s
The Chokehold and literary critic Darieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection.
“Lucifer” is discussed as a useful name for the complexity of black mascu-
linity in theory, culture, and politics. Readings of Charles Burnett’s Killer
of Sheep (1978) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) help to illustrate some
of the main points.

Keywords  Black feminism • Black masculinity • Devil • Get Out


• Killer of Sheep • Lucifer • Policing

1
Black masculinity is always something extraordinary; it is also always some-
thing extra ordinary. Whatever it may turn out to be, in any given context
or situation, however it is defined or refined, it is never unremarkable, least
of all for those living and dying under its heading. It is, from most every
vantage, foreign and domestic, the site and sign of ravage and ruin, and of

© The Author(s) 2018 1


J. Sexton, Black Men, Black Feminism,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74126-0_1
2   J. SEXTON

revelation too. Insofar as it signifies the greatest exception to the rule and
the furthest deviation from the law, it returns no less to claim or to be
claimed by a proof of the rule and an institution of the law. Hyper-­
masculinity, one supposed characteristic of the forms of life in question, is
both abandonment and recuperation of the desire for dominant masculin-
ity, for masculinity as dominance. It misses the mark by overshooting or
overwhelming it. Likewise, though, black masculinity is often enough fig-
ured as hypo-masculinity, as lacking, as wanting; it would seem to repre-
sent a certain failure of masculinity as well. In either case, we find
masculinity in and as permanent crisis.
We might wonder how this can be so: a phenomenon seemingly too
much and too little of itself by virtue of its most controversial qualifica-
tion—black. Would it make a difference to describe black masculinity as an
oscillation between surplus and deficit, or even a paradoxical insistence of
both less and more at once, or neither? If black masculinity suggests a
limit-case, we must ask, what is masculinity at all that one can have too
much or too little of it, in turn and in tandem? Is there, by contrast, really
such a thing as masculinity that is necessary or needed, one that is indeed
proper to anybody? Is black masculinity, then, not a negative instance of
the very masculinity to which it lays an illegitimate, even illegal, claim and
by which it is claimed, imperiously, as too-much-too-little? What better
way to outline its conditions of emergence and contestation than through
a figure of ambivalent value?
I borrow that last phrase from Jonathan Munby’s (2011) survey of
“criminal self-representation in African American popular culture,” Under
a Bad Sign. There, Munby is interested in how depictions of the “bad-
man” have permeated black popular cultural production throughout the
twentieth century (and indeed for much longer) as a strategy for register-
ing and resignifying the tropes of race, class, gender, and sexuality hierar-
chically organizing the larger society. The broad appeal of the badman’s
resistance, Munby suggests, is soldered to equally strong concerns about
his liability to the well-being of the good people of the neighborhood:

As a figure of ambivalent value to the community that both venerates and


fears him, the badman-pimp-hustler-trickster of black folklore clearly vio-
lates the doctrine of racial uplift that is meant to pave the way to equality. He
is antithetical to that which the leaders of the struggle against racial subor-
dination have required and invoked to legitimate their cause: the idea of a
unified and virtuous black community. He claims a name (possession of a
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    3

reputation) through the disrespecting of other’s names (bragging and best-


ing others through superior insult exchanges—leading more often than not
to murder) (Munby 2011, 9).

The sense of fear, however, is not restricted to those committed to the


accommodationist doctrine of racial uplift, those promoting middle-class
mores for a narrow politics of respectability. This is not only a worry about
fueling racist myth and stereotype. Nor is it a fear confined to the badman
per se, but rather to the actual or potential elements of the badman within
any black man whatsoever. For as we see already in the symbolic amalga-
mation of the trickster with the pimp and the hustler, the badman is, as
well, one who can and does exploit those within the community more
vulnerable than himself—principally women and children, but also weaker
men of any age. The badman surely flouts bourgeois social norms and
breaks the white man’s law, but he also attenuates or undermines the pros-
pect of any radical transformation initiated by black collectivities them-
selves. Legendary blues guitarist Albert King sang the eponymous 1971
track, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” declaring in a late verse: “Wine and
women is all I crave/A big legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave.”
King’s downtrodden illiterate protagonist, whose only luck is “real bad
luck,” raises the question of how black masculinity can serve the cause of
an unlawful and unseemly freedom without retaining or resorting to gen-
erational, gender, and sexual violence, at home or on the street, and
thereby contributing to the reproductive oppression of black communi-
ties. Put the other way around, the question is raised whether there can be
a black feminist reconstruction of black masculinity without retaining or
resorting to law enforcement and thereby contributing to the reproduc-
tive oppression of black communities.
Stacia Brown’s (2014) above elegy, written in the immediate aftermath
of Michael Dunn’s mistrial for the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis in
Jacksonville, Florida (he was later convicted at retrial and sentenced to life
without parole), spoke about the communal hope that black boys be
allowed to grow up, “reaching bullet-free adulthood,” but, as she was
quick to add, this requires their “outreaching everyone’s fear” (emphasis
added), not only that of white police and vigilantes. If black men live in
the shadow of the badman, as figures of ambivalent value—loved/hated,
desired/feared, embraced/rejected, and so on—then any (real or imag-
ined) promise they hold or (real or imagined) threat they pose would
invariably contaminate one another as its obverse or underside. So too
4   J. SEXTON

would any support for and defense of that promise or any opposition of
and defense against that threat. This is just another way to say that if black
masculinity is riven by a certain structural ambivalence, and by ambiguity
no less, then any black feminist critique of its impetus, source, aim, and
object cannot help but be similarly torn. Developing habits of language
adequate to address the resultant complexity—the permanent destabiliza-
tion of our ideas of moral clarity, ethical certainty, political direction, and
conceptual rigor—remains the pressing task at hand.
Lucifer’s Nocturne is not, however, a critique of black feminism, nor is
it an attempt to contribute to black feminist thought. It is a commentary
on some examples of black men’s attempts to take up and take on black
feminism, for better or worse, and, more specifically, some of the basic
assumptions that have guided, or misguided, those efforts in the last gen-
eration. In what follows, we interrogate some of the more taken-for-­
granted intellectual postures adopted by black men writing about black
feminism and highlight those who have written from other, perhaps more
critical vantages in order to depart from a prevailing discourse on “black
male feminism” (Awkward 1995, Lemons 2008, Neal 2015) that has
likely left many black readers—across the range of genders and sexuali-
ties—unsatisfied, unenlightened, or uninspired. This text should be read,
then, as a respectful disagreement with, or dissensus within, the project of
raising “black feminist consciousness for black men and boys,” as one
recent initiative put it (AAPF 2017).1 Not because there is a problem with
“a vision of racial justice rooted in a Black feminist ethic of liberation.”
Indeed, the thrust of this short book is to sustain that point and even to
draw out how some of black men’s best efforts to participate in such an
ethic are themselves shot through with false humility and resentment.
Rather, the inquiry pursued here is prompted by the unremarked, if
unavoidable, tension between, on the one hand, reclaiming “a vision of
racial justice that centers the concerns of all Black lives” by displacing the
exclusive focus on the concerns of black men and boys and, on the other,
“acknowledging and advancing the need to center the concerns of Black
women and girls at the heart” of that vision. These may be two sides of the
same coin, but the relation between these twin political moves nonetheless
remains hazy. If we can see the manifest problems with an exclusive focus
on the concerns of black men and boys, and if we can note as well that
centering the concerns of black women and girls is not only a critical
improvement but also a crucial precondition for true racial justice, it is
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    5

not, for all that, apparent how the concerns of black men and boys (or
black women and girls, for that matter) should be most productively
reframed in the process. What happens after the space-clearing gesture, in
the wake of the intervention?
Legal scholar Paul Butler (2017a) writes in Chokehold: Policing Black
Men: “The challenge for any project that focuses on African American
men … is to highlight the particular ways in which black men are stereo-
typed without marginalizing the experiences of African American women
in the process” (Butler 2017a, 8). The problem, of course, is that this
gendered particularity is precisely what is in question. Black feminist schol-
ars and activists have long argued that black women and girls are in no
ways spared from forms of state-sanctioned racial violence that predomi-
nantly target black men and boys, even if they experience them at varying
rates. Additionally, black women and girls must combat forms of state-­
sanctioned racial violence that predominantly target them, including vio-
lence committed against them by black men and boys (Richie 2012;
Ritchie 2017). Which is to say that black women and girls most certainly
have it worse in an antiblack world because they inhabit the social loca-
tions at which racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism (among other
systems) intersect with and powerfully augment the ravages of life under
capitalism, and vice versa. But does this imply, in turn, that black men and
boys necessarily have it better? Is it not possible to conceive of antiblack-
ness in such a way that black women and girls are uniquely positioned by
its operations and, at the same time, share with black men and boys what
Angela Davis termed “the deformed equality of equal oppression” (Davis
1972, 89) forged under the slave regime and permutated in our ostensibly
post-emancipation society?2 Is there not a way to talk, in this case, about
topological figures of difference without boundary?3
Butler glosses the logic of the police power in what he claims is its for-
mative encounter with black men, a logic encapsulated in dynamics of a
literal chokehold:

A chokehold is a process of coercing submission that is self-reinforcing. A


chokehold justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does
not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance
because of the vice grip that is on it. This is the black experience in the
United States. This is how the process of law and order pushes African
American men into the criminal system. This is how the system is broke on
purpose (Butler 2017a, 4).
6   J. SEXTON

He continues, in anticipation of those who would restrict the implica-


tions of his study to some criminal element within black communities (i.e.
to the badman), to elaborate the explanatory power of a figurative vice
grip, his concept-metaphor of the Chokehold:

But the Chokehold applies to all African American men, not only the broth-
ers who are locked up or have criminal records. It is insidious enough that it
clamps down on black men even when there are no cops around. The
Chokehold demands a certain kind of performance from a black man every
time he leaves his home. He must affirmatively demonstrate—to the police
and the public at large—that he is not a threat. Most African American men
follow the script. Black men who are noncompliant suffer the consequences
(Butler 2017a, 8).

There are a few points worth underscoring here. First, of course, is that
the chokehold brooks no genuine response. One cannot, under any cir-
cumstances, comply with a chokehold because it invariably provokes one’s
resistance; we might even say that it imposes one’s resistance upon oneself.
Worse still, it then uses that resistance against itself, since the chokehold
does not only persist to the extent that it is resisted, it also tightens. One
cannot comply and one cannot escape; there is no mediation or negotia-
tion in this direct relation of force. Second, the chokehold applies indis-
criminately, which is to say gratuitously, to all black men, regardless of
prior record or current activity, regardless of time or place. Third, the
chokehold is not limited to the sworn officers of law enforcement a­ gencies;
it represents a larger conception of the police power that extends to the
general public (including, Butler makes clear, black communities). Fourth,
the purpose of the chokehold is to demand that black men demonstrate
they are not threats to public safety. But as Butler’s own evidence and
argument plainly show, black men are thought to be a threat in their very
being, and not for any particular conduct or performance. It is, therefore,
as impossible for black men to follow the required script as it is for them
to submit to the chokehold.
This slippage in Butler’s analysis is telling, and common: black men are
shown to inhabit an impossible predicament, a type of damnation, if you
will, but somehow they are afforded an entirely unfounded notion of
choice in the matter. Stated slightly differently, black men are shown to be
facing a forced choice—you can comply and slowly choke or you can resist
and choke even faster, but since the chokehold forces you to resist, you
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    7

can only resist and choke faster—and then the unyielding force that under-
writes the “choice” drops out of the discussion at key moments. I suspect
that this slippage is related fundamentally to the other slippage in ques-
tion, namely, between statements about black men and statements about
all black people. “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because
that is what they are paid to do,” writes Butler in a recent article for the
UK Guardian. “Virtually every objective investigation of a US law
enforcement agency finds that the police, as policy, treat African Americans
with contempt” (Butler 2017b). If law enforcement agencies serve as the
avant-garde of a larger police power, that is, an antiblack state and civil
society, then it is in fact the general public that treats black people with
contempt, routinely hurting and humiliating them as policy and not only
as practice, de jure and not only de facto. Butler, in short, has put his finger
on an organizing principle.4
What does it mean to be differentiated by gender (or sexuality or class
or…) under these conditions? Female gender in black, not unlike youth or
old age or disability, generally intensifies structural vulnerability and
affords none of the traditional protections. Male gender in black inconsis-
tently mediates structural vulnerability but affords none of the traditional
entitlements. Power in black is a negative affordance, a capability for
immiserating the lives of others without a capacity for ameliorating one’s
own, like a seesaw that works in only one direction, down. Dominant
claims in black reproduce domination without dominance, except as a
force multiplier for borrowed institutionality. There is no familiar figure of
speech to describe this strange algebra: x < y but y ≯ x. To insist otherwise
is to commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. There is much
to recommend this latter intuition, but we are encouraged by the histori-
cal record to suspend the lawful definition and hold at bay the inverse
relation of a non-strict arithmetical inequality. We need to think counter-
intuitively here, or attest to the counterintuition already at work in our
practical–theoretical labor.5

2
One of the most moving scenes in Killer of Sheep (1978)—Charles
Burnett’s masterpiece about everyday life in the ghettoized black neigh-
borhoods of post-rebellion Watts, Los Angeles—takes place about midway
through the narrative. The protagonist, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), is
sitting on the front steps of his modest single-story bungalow, talking
8   J. SEXTON

wearily to two old friends from the neighborhood, Scooter and Smoke.
They are soliciting Stan’s participation in a violent crime, probably involv-
ing murder or, short of that, use of his pistol and a referral to someone
who might serve in his place. But Stan rebuffs the request with all the
indignation he can muster and tells them firmly that, whatever has hap-
pened in the past, he’s out of the criminal life for good now. Stan’s wife
(Kaycee Moore) overhears the tense exchange and walks out onto the
porch just as Scooter and Smoke suggest that Stan is something less than
a man for working long hours in a deadening line job at the local slaugh-
terhouse and languishing between shifts in the confines of his domesti-
cated home life. She confronts them (during an improvised exchange; see
Fig. 1.1) in defiance of their narrow framing of the situation and in defense
of her own life in the neighborhood, with Stan and their children, as much
as, if not more so, her husband’s contested manhood:

Fig. 1.1  Stan (Henry Sanders) and his wife (Kaycee Moore) argue with Stan’s
friends, Scooter and Smoke, on the front porch in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep
(1978). Image reproduced under terms of fair use
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    9

STAN’S WIFE: Why you always want to hurt somebody?


SCOOTER: Who me? That’s the way nature is. I mean, an animal
has his teeth and a man has his fists. That’s the way I
was brought up, god damn me.
SMOKE: Right on.
SCOOTER: I mean, when a man’s got scars on his mug from dealing
with sons of bitches everyday for his natural life. Ain’t
nobody going over this nigger, that’s just dry long so.
Now me and Smoke here, we’re taking our issue. You
be a man if you can, Stan.
STAN’S WIFE: Wait! You wait just one minute! You talk about being a
man and standing up. Don’t you know there’s more to
it than with your fists, the scars on your mug, you talk-
ing about an animal. Or what? You think you’re still in
the bush or some damn where? You’re here. You use
your brain, that’s what you use. Both of you nothing ass
niggers got a lot of nerve coming over here doing some
shit like that.

As Stan’s wife (who, like his son and daughter, is never named in the
film) lays into Scooter and Smoke, she walks down off the porch and onto
the sidewalk to stand face to face with the two men. In doing so, she shifts
the symbolic geography of the scene in a crucial way. Stan is no longer
positioned liminally (on the steps) between the conventionally competing
demands of the home (Stan’s wife on the porch) and the street (Scooter
and Smoke on the sidewalk) and the vexed question of his labor—gainful
or dignified, dependent or independent, formal or informal, manufactur-
ing or service, productive or reproductive—is displaced as well. Instead,
Stan’s wife stands encircled by men whose dispute will determine which
costs she will have to pay inside and outside the home. If Stan runs the
streets, she must worry about him being killed or injured or going to
prison. If he works at the factory for low wages under dangerous and dis-
tressing conditions, she must worry about his physical, mental, and emo-
tional exhaustion and the deterioration of their relationship. And she must
attend to the effects that this dilemma holds for their son and their daugh-
ter, each in gendered ways: the older son (Jack Drummond) already being
initiated into the same juvenile mischief, and acute financial need, that
might become criminal enterprise before long; the younger daughter
(Angela Burnett) watching and wondering whether and when in the
10   J. SEXTON

course of her life she might attach herself to the fortunes of one or another
of her opposite numbers or find a way to survive otherwise. Stan’s wife
breaks the circle of that dispute among black men, intervenes upon it, and
sets new terms of debate.
Killer of Sheep, in this and many of its other aspects, eschews, rather
than reinforces, the racist patriarchal trope of the castrating black matri-
arch whose overbearing nature allegedly stifles black male aspiration.
Burnett rather directly, if sympathetically, satirizes the whole dialectic of
emasculation and remasculinization through the able use of hyperbole and
humor, criticism and candor. Stan’s wife is thus able to step around and in
front of him—not over or on top of him as the cliché runs—in a gesture
of radical solidarity, if not active leadership, against the gender preroga-
tives of dominant masculinity. Her intervention is not interference in
Stan’s affairs, then, not even primarily with the designs of Scooter and
Smoke. It is, above all, a rejoinder and an invitation to “use your brain”
that is based in an insistent recognition of the thinking-feeling interiority
and critical faculty that an antiblack world would deny them altogether.
There is no self-righteousness in this move, despite the disparaging final
flourish. Even her passing reference to “the bush” need not be read as
defamatory or, for that matter, as exclusive to the career of African-derived
people (though the association is quintessentially represented by that his-
tory). Rather, we might see a much broader question being posed here
about the denaturalization of both “man” and “animal” in the production
of racial and gendered differentiation. What this pivotal scene holds open,
to the credit of both Moore and Burnett in collaboration, is the practical
possibility of “a kind of symbiotic blend or melding between our human
categories,” one that is “trying to go through gender to get to something
wider” (Spillers et al. 2007, 304).
Complicating gender in this way is not tantamount to circumventing it
as a useful category for historical analysis, a principle of social organiza-
tion, a term of political mobilization, or a point of ethical orientation; it is
not, in short, a means to “escape the female again” (Spillers et al. 2007, 305).
To the contrary, such activity must chart a double movement, invariably
acknowledging that “gender is an issue for everybody” while, at the same
time, “attempting to look beyond the feminist project to a larger human
project” (Spillers et al. 2007, 305, 304) or, we might add, a formulation
of the inhuman. In light of the historical production of racial blackness,
this would necessitate reference to both a deconstructed notion of gender
difference—one illuminated, say, by the insights of Marxist feminism, the
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    11

critical elaboration of speech-act theory, and the relevant discoveries in


psychoanalysis—and an a priori material-discursive problematization of
gender by the apparatus of modern slavery: undoing gender and
ungendering.6
Stan’s travail might be emblematic of both the difficulty involved for
black men “to really think about something else as you come to that
option” (Spillers et al. 2007, 305) of being or becoming patriarchal and
the desire to avoid or escape what James Baldwin famously termed “the
male prison” (Baldwin 1985; Miller 2016). Stan’s namesake is most likely
a diminutive of “Stanley,” a nomination with an interesting dual geneal-
ogy: an Old English given name meaning “stone meadow” and a Slavic
surname meaning “one who achieves glory.”7 Stanley, then, might signify
the stone in the meadow, the figure of stability in the open field; the glori-
ous one, venerated, ennobled, famous. But Stan, the diminutive, falls
short of such surety and grandeur, and its etymological link to the Proto-­
Germanic stāna ̨ (“to stand”) would indicate, moreover, that Stan lacks
something requisite to standing as such, his name not quite granting him
the title. In fact, we seldom see Stan upright in the film, especially in
medium or full shot. He is most often sitting back, leaning forward, kneel-
ing down, bending over, or reaching past, in short, inclining toward some-
thing or other, whether at work or at home, on an errand or an outing.8
The one time we see Stan upright he is dancing tentatively with his wife
in the living room to Dinah Washington’s classic 1960 rendition of “This
Bitter Earth.” As his wife becomes aroused, touching his shirtless chest
and arms toward the end of the song (just as Washington strikes that last
hopeful note—“I’m sure someone/May answer my call/And this bitter
earth/May not be so bitter after all”), Stan abruptly steps back and walks
away, unable to reciprocate her affection and maintain the intimacy of the
scene. Something about the traditional arrangement for an upright man—
what Lindon Barrett (1997) called “the prescribed mathematics of hetero-
sexual domesticity as well as its rationalization of libidinal energies”
(124)—puts him off and, eventually, out of the frame. Insofar as he is an
upright man, assuming the strictures of that designated role and posture,
Stan seems unable to enjoy his life or contribute much to the lives of those
closest to him.
Scooter and Smoke would pretend to make a stand and take their
“issue” (a term having to do most immediately with loot or booty, but
also ambiguously related to disagreement or protest as well as progeny or
offspring—one can see readily how all of these meanings become troubled,
12   J. SEXTON

again, by the structural effects of racial blackness). They throw down with
the normative striving to “be a man, if you can” as the last best response
to unrelieved domination and, while they cannot convince Stan to join
them just now, they nonetheless rattle him in the process. I refer to this
scene as pivotal to the narrative development of the film because it is
immediately after the encounter with Scooter and Smoke that Stan
attempts the desperate pursuit of manhood by other means, no more and
no less futile. He resolves to spend what’s left of his hard-earned paycheck
to purchase a salvaged motor for an old car sitting idle in his backyard for
some indefinite amount of time. Reviving the vehicle would demonstrate
not only a traditionally masculine facility with tools and machines—sup-
plementing his workaday life in the mechanized environment of industrial
killing—but also a minimal distance from those neighbors he takes to be
examples of genuine poverty and thus greater feminization. After he and
his friend Bracy negotiate the deal, they load the engine precariously in the
back of their flatbed pickup truck, only to have it fall off and break into
pieces in the street when they attempt to drive away. They note with only
the most passing resignation that the engine is beyond repair and so leave
it, and all it symbolizes, behind as scrap.9
Killer of Sheep is one of the best illustrations of this structural failure of
normative striving for black men. Although Stan is no typical patriarch, we
see plenty of fine examples in his neighbors. But while each of them may
have brute strength and proclaim their ability to menace those who cross
their paths—men, women, and children—the lasting impression we have
is of their impotence. They threaten, they harass, they denigrate and
denounce, but they possess no determinate power and, what’s more, no
real authority. This is true across the generations, from the young boy on
the bicycle who curses the young girls on the sidewalk (only to get hit
upside his head and lose his bike) to the military veteran arguing (while
peeking around the corner) with the pistol-packing girlfriend who’s just
thrown him out of her home (and promising to blow his head off) to
James mouthing off to Delores in Silbo’s apartment (and getting kicked in
the head by her as a result). These depictions of gendered violence, run-
ning from mild to severe, do not serve to minimize the seriousness or
systematicity of the intramural issue, even as they’re portrayed with levity.
Rather, they suggest that (unthinking) black men and boys can cause
problems for black women and girls, to say the least—indeed, they can
ruin their lives—but they cannot elevate themselves accordingly. What
seems a barrier to advancement at another’s expense is a potential blessing
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    13

in disguise. Realizing the latter would require one to “use your brain,”
and the best use of that untapped intellectual capacity, for the community
of black men and boys, would be to seize “the specific occasion to learn
who the female is within itself” (Spillers 2003, 228). Needless to say, the
pathway to that decision is fraught.

3
A few words are in order about the subtitle of this brief study: Lucifer’s
Nocturne. The associations between black men and the devil in western
thought are obvious enough. Frantz Fanon’s (2006) midcentury explora-
tion is among the most well known. But the figure of Lucifer, whose
namesake only ambiguously attaches to the devil after a certain historical
period, is more complex than the conventionally negative cipher would
suggest. More to the point, the status of the devil has shifted radically
across the history of Judeo-Christian theology and that semantic instabil-
ity holds some interesting ramifications for thinking about black masculin-
ity today. In the opening pages of The Prince of this World (2016), Adam
Kotsko recalls the courtroom testimony of Officer Darren Wilson of the
Ferguson Police Department who described the late Michael Brown in the
moments before shooting him to death as a “demon.” I quote his passage
at length:

The alarming imagery of Wilson’s remark, however, highlights another, less


noted phenomenon: the prominence of theological language in the main-
stream media discussion of the black victims of police shootings. Again and
again, we learn that the victims were “no angels.” Now the same might be
said of all of us, insofar as we are merely human. Yet the context in which
this imagery is deployed shows that being “no angel” is effectively a euphe-
mism for being a “demon”—a being hardwired for evil. The victims’ records
are invariably scoured for any hint of criminal activity, as though a single
misdemeanor offense singles them out for summary execution. Their every
word, action, and attitude during the police encounter are adduced as evi-
dence of a dangerous rebelliousness that could be ended only with lethal
force. What this line of inquiry aims to establish is not simply that the vic-
tims have committed a crime but that they are criminals. What they do is
taken as a symptom of what they are—a point that becomes painfully clear
when we recall how often victims’ family connections are used as evidence
of their supposedly inherent criminality (Kotsko 2016, 1–2).
14   J. SEXTON

That the (white) police always insist that their (black) victims had a
choice in how the encounter unfolded, whereas they, in the discharge of
their duties in the service of the state, are always simply reacting to the
situation created by the eventual victim, suggests that this theological lan-
guage is doing the work of secular ideological justification:

In other words, the victim’s actions are morally culpable because (within the
media narrative) the victim has all the moral agency in the situation. In con-
trast, the officer’s ostensible lack of any agency or choice places his action in
the sphere of sheer necessity and thereby renders it morally irrelevant. In
short, in the mainstream media discourse on police shootings, the theologi-
cal imagery of the demonic (or, euphemistically, the non-angelic) appears as
part of a complex and seemingly contradictory discourse on moral agency.
This discourse aims to legitimate, or at least explain away, unjustified and
destructive actions taken by representatives of the powers that be—and to
blame the victims for their own victimization (Kotsko 2016, 3).

However, we learn this has not always been the case. In fact, the earliest
formulations of demonology were aimed at diagnosing and denouncing
the persecution of the weak:

Indeed, theology has often served as a weapon against oppression and injus-
tice. Perhaps surprisingly, that was initially the case for demonology, which
emerged in Jewish communities facing persecution and violence at the
hands of imperial conquerors. Their oppression was so severe that they sim-
ply could not make sense of it in any other way than by positing that their
tormenters were the agents of some kind of spiritual force that was opposed
in principle to God’s justice and his plans for his people. This cosmic oppo-
nent, whom God would soon defeat, is the original form of the theological
figure we know as the devil (Kotsko 2016, 3).

The devil, in its earliest imagination, was aligned with the oppressive pow-
ers of the anti-Judaic state. Only later, as Christianity became ascendant in
Europe and nascent European nation-states developed imperial aspira-
tions, did that ancient anti-Judaism become a component part of medieval
and modern Christian demonology, essentially inverting the narrative
terms and the ethical orientation. Christianity, in other words, had largely
become a state (and statist) religion, divorced from its subversive and
insurrectionary history and teachings, and the discourse of race provided
the hinge for that massive transfer (Carter 2008).10 “Behind Wilson’s
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    15

t­estimony, then, there stands a profound theological reversal: the devil,


having originated as a theological tool of the oppressed, has become a
weapon of the oppressor” (Kotsko 2016, 4).
Wilson’s casting of Brown in demonic terms, like the aspersions cast on
so many other black victims of state-­sanctioned violence, resonates with
the inescapable Chokehold described by Butler above. It has the effect of
rendering difference as ontology—invariant, inescapable, eternal—so that
law enforcement becomes vital to the production of race as such, a prime
site for the violent division of whiteness and blackness, good and evil, vir-
tue and vice. But if racial blackness, and the black man in particular, is now
so closely associated with the figure of the devil (eclipsing and augmenting
the historical place of Jewishness, and the Jewish man in particular, in the
racist imagination), it would seem that attempts to prove one’s angelic
qualities provide no defense against persecution whatsoever, all such pleas
and petitions serving only to reinforce the idea of a devilish deception,
“the father of lies.” In any case, that sort of defense can only push the
stigma down the line, to some other supposedly more deserving figure,
when what is necessary is to work with and through the devil one knows.
“Lucifer” might be the name of the inversion of the inversion, not so
much to set the record straight, once and for all, as to restore a lost sense
of radical confusion to the relationship between “Devil” and “God.” It is
the name, after all, associated with the archangel before the fall, but also
from before the advent of Christianity itself. Lucifer, from the Latin lux,
means “shining one” or “bringer of light” and it bears a complex etymol-
ogy. Lucifer is the Latin correlate of the Greek Phosphorous, who is per-
sonified in ancient mythology as the son of Eos, the Goddess of the Dawn,
and either Astraeus, the Titan God of the Dusk, or Cephalus, a mortal
Athenian—mama’s baby, papa’s maybe. Phosphorous was also the name
given to the planet Venus, visible in the predawn morning sky; Hesperus
was the name given to the same celestial body when it appeared in the
evening sky at dusk. The misleading nominal distinction between the twin
appearances of Venus—Phosphorous the Morning Star, Hesperus the
Evening Star—would give rise in the early days of modern analytic phi-
losophy to Frege’s Puzzle, providing occasion for the great mathematician
to examine the logical relations between sense and reference (Frege 1948).
We have seen already that Phosphorous is typically translated into Latin
as Lucifer and it is important to note that Hesperus can be translated simi-
larly as Vespers. But given that we are exploring the strange route by which
Lucifer, the bringer of light, becomes the proper name for the Prince of
16   J. SEXTON

Darkness, traversing the polarities between darkness and light, it would


seem fitting to translate the latter more loosely as Nocturne (from noctur-
nus meaning “of or belonging to the night”). Here the nocturne, a work
of art or musical composition dedicated to the evening or night, is coun-
terposed to the aubade, a song or poem greeting the dawn or new day; but
it is also implied within it, because we cannot precisely establish the divi-
sion between the darkest moments of the night and the dimmest lighten-
ing of the sky in the first place. Lucifer’s nocturne, then, is inspired by the
combination and dissolution of the opposition of light and dark, night and
day, as well as by the doubled representation of dawn and dusk, those
phases of indefiniteness that confound our spatiotemporal moorings by
definition.
To think of black men and boys, and of black masculinity more gener-
ally, as the effect of such creative, deconstructive labor suggests not only a
redefinition of the terms of evil incarnate, but also, more importantly, a
method of operating from within the dominant terms of engagement, a
marshaling of resources immanent to the imposed situation, resources
that are renewable and ready at hand because they are inherent to the
constitution of the encounter itself. Theologian Matthias Albani raises an
apposite point in this regard: “It cannot be by chance that Christ, the
beloved son of God, is designated in 2Pet 1:19 as a ‘morning star’ who
rises in the hearts of believers ‘until the day dawns.’ The Vulgate translates
the relevant passage: ‘donec dies inlucescat et lucifer oriatur in cordibus
vestris.’ According to this Latin translation Christ is the true morning star
or Lucifer … not Satan” (Albani 2004, 86). Well beyond the compensa-
tory value offered by any image of a black Jesus, though, Lucifer appears
as the name of the Devil and of God or, better, the name for the zone of
indetermination between them, before their separation and after their
recombination, the term of their inability to separate one from the other,
their originary inmixing; it is the urtext for the crisis of category.
The prevailing biblical discourse of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven and con-
sequent deterioration as Satan—indeed, the common identification of
Lucifer with Satan since the early Middle Ages (Albani 2004, 62)—is
drawn, in part, from pre-Christian legends of the morning star, from the
Greek myth of Phaeton (or, in another vein, Icarus) to the Canaanite story
of Attar. All of these cautionary tales have in common the leitmotif of
hubris or, as we would more commonly know it today, pride: the first and
most serious of the capital vices otherwise known as the seven deadly sins.
The ancient narrative illustration of the prototypical sin—the sin that
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    17

supposedly opens onto the whole range of sins because it is the first offense
against God—is then progressively linked, over the course of several cen-
turies, to a more global figuration of the personified adversary of God, the
enemy of all that is good. The rise of monotheism, in other words, had the
ancillary effect of promoting “mono-demonism,” a condensation of evil
(Hankiss 2001, 147). All sin thereafter derives from and repeats the prob-
lem of pride, pride becomes the defining characteristic of the devil, and
the devil becomes, in turn, its sole author and major representative. The
overriding objective of Christian morality would be to instill the counter-
vailing virtue of genuine humility.
The secular correlate of this humbling moral instruction in progressive
and radical political circles today is evident in the normative expectation to
“check your privilege,” that is, to unlearn one’s indoctrination by domi-
nant ideologies and to divest from one’s interests in reproducing oppressive
systems of power. For black men and boys engaging in the practical–theo-
retical activity of black feminism, this entails, at minimum, good faith
efforts to undo their interpellation by antiblack heteropatriarchy and its
intersectional culmination in transmisogynoir (Carr 2016). This program
of critical political education is unimpeachable, and yet the halting and
blinkered approach of its student body raises larger questions about the
conceptual and ethical differences between the particular forms of pride
that encourage and enforce the ill-fated quest for dominant masculinity in
black and the universal problem of hubris as it shapes and structures the
entire struggle to bring about a gender-inclusive vision of racial justice. To
help mark this distinction, we could do worse than consult the following
passage from the second volume of Paul Tillich’s (1957) Systematic
Theology:

The word hubris [ὕβρις] cannot be adequately translated, although the real-
ity to which it points is described not only in Greek tragedy but also in the
Old Testament. It is most distinctly expressed in the serpent’s promise to
Eve that eating from the tree of knowledge will make man equal to God.
Hubris is the self-elevation of man into the sphere of the divine. Man is
capable of such self-elevation because of his greatness. […] The greatness of
man lies in his being infinite, and it is just this temptation of hubris into
which he universally falls through destiny and freedom. Therefore, one
should not translate hubris as “pride.” Pride is a moral quality, whose oppo-
site is humility. Hubris is not the special quality of man’s moral character. It
is universally human; it can appear in acts of humility as well as in acts of
pride. […] All men have the hidden desire to be like God, and they act
18   J. SEXTON

accordingly in their self-evaluation and self-affirmation. No one is willing to


acknowledge, in concrete terms, his finitude, his weakness and his errors, his
ignorance and his insecurity, his loneliness and his anxiety. And if he is ready
to acknowledge them, he makes another instrument of hubris out of his
readiness. A demonic structure drives man to confuse natural self-­affirmation
with destructive self-elevation (50–1).

This critical distinction helps to displace the restricted moral economy


of pride and humility with the general ethical imperative of keeping faith,
which could be summarized in this context as a radical and radicalizing
ethos of living with lack, rather than seeking an attitude of piousness. So,
instead of inverting the ill-fated quest for dominant masculinity and pur-
suing the equally ill-fated quest for a redeemed masculinity (a sort of
political apokatastatis), black men and boys might proceed on the basis
of finiteness, not fallenness. This ethics of faith could also be understood
as a form of “impious fidelity” to the event of abolition, which is best
represented today in the black feminist movement for reproductive jus-
tice.11 Under this banner, black men and boys alongside black women
and girls would together cultivate a black feminist ethics of dissensus in
a collective enunciation or shared articulation of a common but non-
identical (internally stratified, conflict-ridden) predicament: how to get
free?
In Assembly (2017), the most recent addition to their popular Empire
sequence (and a title in the Oxford University Press series in “Heretical
Thought”), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write of “a new Prince
emerging on the horizon, a Prince born of the passions of the multitude”
(xx). For them, this new figure, appropriated from Machiavelli and refash-
ioned for the twenty-first century, is not “an individual or even a party or
leadership council, but rather the political articulation that weaves together
the different forms of resistance and struggles for liberation in society
today. This Prince thus appears as a swarm, a multitude moving in coher-
ent formation and carrying, implicitly, a threat” (Hardt and Negri 2017,
xxi). We might infer a link between the explicit, phobic threat projected by
the general public onto black men and boys, wherever they may go, or
onto black masculinity, however it is presented, and the implicit, manic
threat carried by the political articulation of “a path of freedom and equal-
ity, a path that poses the task of putting the common in the hands of all,
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    19

managed democratically by all” (Hardt and Negri 2017, xxi). If the new
Prince augurs this double threat, demonic and democratic alike, we can-
not avoid the conclusion that the multitude, as it were, actualizes itself in
and as a Dark Prince. But the Dark Prince does not only, like Christ, bring
“about a kind of democratization of the royal privilege of a beatific afterlife
as believers follow and participate in Christ’s way of salvation” (Albani
2004, 86). More fundamentally, he profanes the “empty throne, the sym-
bol of Glory … in order to make room, beyond it, for something that, for
now, we can only evoke with the name zoë aiönios, eternal life” (Agamben
2011, xiii).
Lucifer is a figure that pushes us “to think politics … beginning from
the inoperative disarticulation of both bios and zöë”(Agamben 2011, 259),
which is to say think about supporting and sustaining forms of life inde-
pendent of the trappings of sovereign power, including the hallmarks of
conventional manhood and the structures of kinship linked to its pre-
sumptive centrality—paterfamilias.12 There is a wonderful phrase in
Darieck Scott’s (2010) Extravagant Abjection that aptly describes the site
of this inoperative politics, where the political articulation of the assembly
proceeds through disarticulation: “where manhood lies.” The present
study is inspired by Scott’s attempt to reformulate the historical problem
of masculinity in black arts and letters, no less in black politics, as a failure
to affirm the failure to establish the rites of passage to manhood or to
access its powers and privileges. It is Scott’s argument that this failure of
attainment is not to be lamented but, conversely, engaged as an experience
(of pain and pleasure, or the pleasure of pain, of suffering and enjoyment,
or the suffering of enjoyment) that might be enabling, liberating, and
productive of new modes of individual and collective subjectivity. In his
words, “the ascension to a liberated black male identity must involve not
only the recovery of the memory of the black male body’s [physical and
sexual] violation but also the recovery of the painfully acquired knowledge
of other modes of being male than the model of phallocentric mastery”
(Scott 2010, 150).
This is not, first and foremost, a problem of adequately figuring black-
ness in and as male/female embodiment or masculine/feminine perfor-
mance (though these are no doubt complex challenges in any case). It is,
before that, a double, or redoubled, question of black feminism emerging
from a convolution of gender differentiation from the start. We know
20   J. SEXTON

well, in the wake of much poststructuralist thought, that there is differ-


ence at the heart of every origin; there is no simple origin guaranteeing the
integrity or stability of any identity, no lost origin to recover despite the
lures of nostalgia (Marrati 2005). But the history of racial slavery has ren-
dered that theoretical insight in the starkest of terms. Racial blackness, as
the necessary condition for enslavement in the modern era, entailed mani-
fold processes of deracination and homogenization, such that previous
fictions of descent and destiny, distribution and direction were thrown
into disarray. To become New World African or African-derived, whether
enslaved or nominally free, would involve a tradition of ceaseless invention
without foundation, a tradition wherein all sorts of internal dissent, dis-
tinction, and diversification would require efforts best described as unlaw-
ful or lawless. Slavery is suspension of the Father’s law, the myriad rules
and regulations that establish and maintain the patriarchy from cradle to
grave; it provides for those rendered objects of property a possible escape
route from the reigning moral order as much as it forecloses claims of
legitimate kinship and authorizes unlimited violence against life and limb.
The question renewed in each generation is whether such constitutive
exclusion—or constitutively exclusive inclusion—from a society structured
in dominance affords freedom to pursue equality otherwise.
Freedom, for Scott, is to be found in the non-compensatory, non-­
defensive, affirmative transformation of loss into power. Not the taken-­
for-­granted power of “robust self-endorsement,” but rather “a
counterintuitive power” whose “conditions of appearance are defeat and
violation” (Scott 2010, 9). He writes:

[I]in the horror which shattered African kinship groups on these shores, and
in the convoluted and ridiculous and ugly ideology which justified and con-
tinually reproduces that shattering, we may nevertheless glimpse through
this other mode of being male the model of another world, another form of
connection between people … a kind of subjectivity in which we vault over
the high walls that mark the limits of family and gender roles, in which we
could recover what we have disavowed; it is a vision that moves beyond the
merely parochial and constrained bonds of paterfamilias and everything that
we build in imitation of paterfamilias, to begin to see connections that force
us to embrace a wider community because to do so is the only way we can
embrace and empower ourselves—a vision predicated on, perhaps all but
impossible to see unless we look through, the translucent prism of blackness
(Scott 2010, 151–2).
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    21

4
Looking through the translucent prism of blackness is the enabling conceit
of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017)—a “social thriller” about a black man,
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), in the present-day United States going to meet the
parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), for the first time.
The film was released to universal acclaim among professional reviewers and
diverse audiences, both nationally and internationally, and it grossed over
$250 million worldwide against a modest $4.5 million budget, becoming
one of the most critically and commercially successful black-directed films
of all time (Harris and Brueggeman 2017). Peele has been catapulted into
an elite status shared by only a handful of other black filmmakers, all men
save one, who have helmed Hollywood productions earning nine figures or
more, including: Ava DuVernay, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray, Albert and
Allen Hughes, Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, John Singleton, Tim
Story, Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Forest Whitaker.
Peele is joined on this short list by only one other director under the
age of forty, Ryan Coogler, whose contribution to the Rocky Balboa fran-
chise, Creed (2015), followed upon the strong reception of his Fruitvale
Station (2013), a moving chronicle of the last day in the life of Oscar
Grant, a young black man from Oakland, California, who was shot and
killed by an officer of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Police.
(Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan, who plays both Creed and Grant,
collaborated again on the 2018 Marvel Studios blockbuster, Black Panther,
starring Chadwick Boseman in the title role.) Peele and Coogler, along-
side rising stars like Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned) and Academy Award
winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), represent a new generation of black
filmmakers who were born post–civil rights and came of age, critically and
creatively, in the post–Cold War world of neoliberal multiculturalism and
neoconservative colorblindness and its suite of dismal characteristics.
But Get Out is fundamentally concerned with staging and confronting
something more directly related to the “extravagant abjection” explored
in Scott’s study above. It has been described as a film that “dares to reveal
the horror of liberal racism in America” (Bakare 2017) and, while there is
surely something to that claim, the film’s target seems far more expansive,
a statement on the very rudiments of modern society. It works against the
pervasive tendency to relegate history to the past and, moreover, to reduce
the massive history of racial slavery to a recent peculiarity of British colonial
22   J. SEXTON

North America and the United States, much less the American South,
rather than framing it as a global-scale enterprise from its inception; one
involving centuries-long European imperial rivalries as well as the compet-
ing interests of emerging independent states in throughout the Americas;
one involving the whole development of capitalism and its discontents, the
eventual fusion of liberal democracy and social hierarchy, and, to all of
those ends, the incessant pursuit of advanced medicine, science, and
technology.
Get Out is, then, a living history of the global present. Casting Kaluuya,
a London-born child of Swahili-speaking Ugandan immigrants, in the
starring role as an African American was one way to index the diasporic
dimensions of Peele’s vision, as was the inclusion of UK-based Flanagan
and Allen’s World War II (WWII)–era hit “Run Rabbit Run” (urging the
hunted animal, “Don’t give the farmer his fun!”) and film composer
Michael Abels’ Swahili language main title track “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga”
(roughly, “listen to the elders”) as musical bookends. Regarding the suit-
able disposition toward that history, Peele tasks his composer—a black
Midwesterner who is formally trained in West African drumming, gospel,
blues, and jazz as well as classical orchestral music—with creating a
soundtrack that pursues a deliberate displacement of the specific African
American setting of the story in order to make it less hopeful:

I was into this idea of distinctly black voices and black musical references, so
it’s got some African influences, and some bluesy things going on, but in a
scary way, which you never really hear. African-American music tends to
have, at the very least, a glimmer of hope to it—sometimes full-fledged
hope. I wanted Michael Abels, who did the score, to create something that
felt like it lived in this absence of hope but still had [black roots] (Weaver
2017).

So when Peele relates, in an audience talkback, that the “real thing at


hand here is slavery” (Harris 2017,) he does not simply mean some resid-
ual problem of racial inequality, but rather the active and ongoing produc-
tion of racial domination: slavery as the real thing at hand, here and now,
but, again, not only as an African American’s local concern.
Get Out attempts, on that score, to capture history by taking “control
of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger” (Benjamin 2007, 255).
At the heart of the film is Chris’ childhood memory of his mother’s death,
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    23

her sudden and permanent absence: she was the victim of a hit-and-run
driver while walking home from work one evening. Chris, an 11-year-old
latchkey kid raised in a single-headed household, waited alone for her
return, mindlessly watching television in a state of paralyzing shock and
anxious denial. He learned from the police report that his mother survived
for several hours before succumbing to her roadside injuries that night,
dying “in the early morning, cold and alone,” as he later says in a dis-
traught confession to Rose. Just before that scene, Chris admits under
hypnosis by his Rose’s psychiatrist mother, Dr. Missy Armitage (Catherine
Keener), that he did not call anyone at the time because “it would make it
real.” That memory of his silence and inaction, prompted by a desperate
attempt to preserve the irreality of his mother’s life after death, becomes
the psychic kernel of Chris’ sustained guilt and the principal means by
which he is rendered captive, subject to the Armitages’ violent designs.
Because he cannot bear to lose his mother, Chris is especially vulnerable
to becoming stuck in “the sunken place” to which he is phenomenally
banished. There he finds himself horrified, looking on at his life “as a pas-
senger,” watching it on a small screen like “an audience” of one, “able to
see and hear what [his] body is doing,” but unable to make any decisions
or determinations of his own. Peele’s visual concept-metaphor dramatizes
for contemporary viewers the central mechanism of enslavement, a situa-
tion marked by a “severing of the captive body from its motive will, its
active desire” (Spillers 2003, 206). Accepting his mother’s loss has to do
not only with Chris coming to terms with his inability to rescue her in this
particular case, or even to ward against her mortality in general. It also has
to do with Chris coming to terms with his mother’s inability to protect
herself and her child against all harm, including the harm of her premature
death, to recognize that there are limits, period, to his mother’s capacities.
It has to do, that is, with his preempted opportunity to separate effectively
from her as much as his still unfolding alienation in the language of his
lived experience (Fink 1997).
Beyond that, though, Chris must learn the fine art of discerning which
of those maternal limitations are particular to her mortal casing and cir-
cumstance (and constitute a manifest injustice demanding courage) and
which of them are universal aspects of finitude (and constitute an existen-
tial given requiring serenity), or both. The achievement of his reasonable
happiness, or what Freud might call his ordinary unhappiness, depends
24   J. SEXTON

entirely upon the gift of that wisdom. It may also save his life and limb.
This wisdom recurs throughout the tale as a kind of black good sense—at
once an open secret and an inside joke—that is shared between the know-
ing black spectator and the prescient speculations of Chris’ best friend and
non-father figure, Rod (Lil Rel Howery). In the meantime, Chris subli-
mates an unaddressed and overwhelming grief into the cultivation of a
powerful vision, an eye driven to capture monochrome photographic
images of the daily surround, images described admiringly by the blind
white man who will bid for “rights” to take sole possession of his body and
mind: “so brutal, so melancholic.”
We can infer a similar dynamic at work for Walter (Marcus Henderson),
Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), those unwitting
black people who were abducted and taken over by dead, dying, or dis-
abled white people prior to Chris’ ordeal. Each of their underlying selves
is brought to the fore, momentarily crowding out their white owner-­
occupiers, by the blinding flash of Chris’ camera—Logan issues the epony-
mous “GET OUT” as a cryptic warning to Chris at the slave auction lawn
party, while Walter convinces Rose in the climatic scene to hand him a
rifle, presumably to kill Chris, and then fatally shoots her with it instead,
before turning the gun on himself—or the flash of recognition brought on
by some poignant comment—Georgina takes on a blank stare and spills
the iced tea she is pouring when Missy recalls the death of her in-laws and
she begins crying through her stunned look and choked words when
Chris, during their tense bedroom encounter, confides his discomfort
around large groups of white people. The literal or figurative flash that
shutters and freezes the eyes is the moment of danger in which captive
black subjects try to seize control of a memory in captivity; it is the
unwatchable flash of history as an unbearable knowledge about which
there is no direct way to testify. In this sense, the Sunken Place seems more
like the doubling effect of a waking nightmare, the creation of a dream
within a dream, a solitary confinement within a more general, and more
elaborate, incarceration, a mise en abyme of antiblackness, where
­experience of social mobility gives way to a perpetual falling deeper into
and farther out of the world.
The crucial scene: Chris is induced in a state of heightened suggestibil-
ity to revisit the screen memory of his mother’s demise. He does not
imagine her suffering body directly (we see a doubled refraction of that
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    25

agonizing figure, first through the body of the deer that is struck and
killed by Rose while driving to her family home and again through
Georgina’s badly injured body after Chris runs her over inadvertently in
the course of his escape, a point to which we’ll return). Instead, he implies
its present absence in the clip of his young self, sitting on the bed, dressed
in pajamas, immobile before the flickering television screen. Importantly,
we cannot see what young Chris is watching; the content of the program-
ming is unwatchable because the screen is unseeable from the dreamer’s
vantage. It is the form of his watching that unnerves him and his engage-
ment with the medium that seemingly enables it, that technology most
associated with the personal and political pacification of the post–civil
rights Reagan/Bush era and the postwar Eisenhower era before that: the
TV, the idiot box, the boob tube (Johnston 2007; Lingre 1994). His
unconscious response is to make it his life’s mission to become an active
viewer, a seer, a witness versed in the aesthetic and technical aspects of
professional photography, a social commentator with a complex docu-
mentary impulse.
The menacing, mind-number television, sapping all strength and dis-
abling the critical faculties, reappears in the penultimate sequence of the
film to inform Chris of his impending fate: he will lose his mind, for all
intents and purposes, as a rich and powerful white man assumes physical
control of his body, appropriating his refined tastes and hard-won talents
in the process. We again see Chris from behind, now strapped into a
cotton-­stuffed leather armchair (Fig. 1.2). There is initially nothing to see
on the television screen until it flickers on and the departed patriarch, Dr.
Roman Armitage (Richard Herd), appears in an outdated video to explain
the evil genius of the collective project he has spearheaded with and for his
racist community. “The Coagula,” as it is called, heralds the more perfect
dispossession of the enslaved, one in which black people are rendered
more perfectly into beasts of burden, domesticated animals directed
almost entirely by the whims of their white or non-black handlers, as we
duly note Hiroki Tanaka’s (Yasuhiko Oyama) attendance at the auction
and his impossibly overloaded question—“Do you find that being African
American has more advantage or disadvantage in the modern world?”
It stands to reason that the supplanting of his executive function is what
renders the whole scene unwatchable for Chris, who turns away from the
screen with the same dejected incredulity that washes over his face in the
26   J. SEXTON

Fig. 1.2  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) finds himself chained to an armchair in the base-
ment in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Image reproduced under terms of fair use

moment he confirms that Rose has seduced and betrayed him. But, as the
project name suggests (cogere: to gather, combine, restrict, or drive
together), and the careers of Walter, Georgina, and Logan clearly demon-
strate, the “real horror story” of “being black in America” is the forced
and permanent bonding, the “monstrous intimacies” (Sharpe 2010) that
white society imposes upon its black counterparts. The violent cohabita-
tion entailed in the Coagula brain transplant is only the most obvious
incarnation of this relation, but it is there all along in Chris and Rose’s
interaction.13 And it is present in all of the shameless poking, prodding,
ogling, and groping exhibited by the Armitage family and friends, their
relentless, consuming overfamiliarity. The desire, the life-and-death need,
to escape from antiblack whiteness—to get out—is inversely proportional
to black people’s exposure, not to white people per se but to an under-
standing of the actual situation, the real thing at hand.
Get Out wasn’t hailed as a major statement about black gender and
sexuality upon its release in February 2017 (a preplanned Black History
Month event), as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was in the fall of 2016; nor was
it criticized on that front, like the anti-feminist train wreck that piled up
around Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) around the same time.
Yet, the film, not unlike Peele’s previous work, offers a subtle treatment of
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    27

black masculinity as a sensitive and complex undertaking, a navigation of


the interval between the vagaries of pedestrian life and the valor of indi-
vidual or collective protest.14 Our black male protagonist, in search of
sufficient resources for the life course, comes face to face with the active
connections between his own idiosyncratic suffering and the “historical
trauma” (Silverman 1992) of modern slavery, the intertwining of psychic
formation and social formation. Chris experiences, in the most acute ways,
how interracial dynamics are at work in the intramural relations among
black people, how political forces are at work in personal travails, transhis-
torical problems in historic instances, universal principles in particular
examples, and vice versa. And he undergoes this profound, multidimen-
sional lesson all while transforming his longstanding melancholia into a
properly punctuated mourning of his mother’s untimely passing. He
comes, finally, to understand that the son’s fate is linked, inescapably, to
the mother’s plight, a point that Chris comprehends, evoking the likes of
Frederick Douglass or, better, Nat Turner, through a violent “struggle to
death” against a series of antagonists.15 During that struggle, he realizes
that the way he has memorialized his mother—as a source of eternal
guilt—has become a positive hindrance to his own ability to see clearly
enough to survive, let alone to thrive. It has blocked his ability to remem-
ber her, and so to live with her memory rather than to defend against it.
He allows his mother to become an elder, an ancestor, a spirit, and no
longer a specter (whose ghost story haunts the scene of his imaginary
paralysis) or a nightmare (whose inhuman, tormented moaning jolts him
awake).
There is a clever subversion of the inherited narrative of slave revolt—or
civil rights demonstration—as heroic masculine endeavor here. For,
though Chris fights off half a dozen captors and dispatches them in suc-
cession, en route to becoming the unlikely “Final Girl” (Clover 2015), he
is aided and abetted in his escape from beginning to end, making it some-
thing more like the general rebellion of a motley crew, or an unholy alli-
ance.16 He is able to avail himself of the cotton stuffing inside of the leather
armchair in the basement where he is confined because his hypnosis
induces a symptomatic scratching at the seams, which is to say his troubled
memory of his mother’s violent disappearance provides a contraband
tool.17 He stops his ears with pilfered wads of cotton and, as a result, keeps
his wits until he is untethered by Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry
Jones), on the way to what would have been his first and final neurosur-
gery. After braining Jeremy with a lawn bowling ball and leaving him for
28   J. SEXTON

dead on the floor, Chris then impales Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley
Whitford), with the antlers of a taxidermied deer’s head mounted on the
wall. These first two counterattacks could be seen as the beginning of the
deceased (black) mother’s revenge against the (white) men that would
hunt and kill those who are vulnerable like her; and this vengeance spares
none of those (white) women who are passively or actively complicit with
their plan. Chris, carrying the buck’s (cotton) stuffed head, becomes a
hybrid creature of sorts, pointing up the deep relations between the hier-
archical differences called race and species, gesturing toward a potential
continuity between black freedom and animal liberation (Harper 2012).18
Chris’ confrontations with Georgina and Missy, though violent, are not
colored by the same aggression on his part. He initially allows Georgina to
flee, in fact, and he kills Missy in immediate self-defense, almost reluc-
tantly, after he essentially allows her to stab him through the hand.
Georgina is, as noted, struck by the car Chris is driving as he flees and
instead of simply finishing her off, he picks her up and attempts to take her
with him as some kind of belated rectification of or redemption for his
preteen failure to act on his mother’s behalf. When Georgina comes to—
wig now askew, surgical scar in full view—and attacks him in earnest, Chris
not only grudgingly steers the car into a tree to end her assault, and her
life, but also puts his own life at risk to do so. By the time Rose begins her
pursuit, armed with the hunting rifle that has killed so many deer in the
past, Chris has switched from fight to flight. He is quickly tracked down by
Walter, the former Olympic hopeful, but with the flash of his camera phone
he enlists Walter’s former self to defend him against Rose and the return of
her grandfather’s wrath. Realizing that Rose is still alive, though barely,
Chris crawls over to her and begins to strangle her. However, he abandons
the coup de grace midway, not because he comes to his senses or softens his
heart, but rather because he realizes that Rose is perversely enjoying the
fact that she and her family have driven him to murderous rage.
Perhaps Rose is smirking because she knows that, though Chris has
won the battle, he will lose the war and surely find himself in prison for life
(perhaps while the Coagula project continues elsewhere). This is, in other
words, a resistance to slavery bound to failure and futility in any external
and objective sense. The original ending of the film has Chris arrested and
incarcerated for what appears to a racist criminal justice system like a black
man’s homicidal rampage against an upstanding white family and their
loyal servants. But the alternative, “happy” ending that Peele opted for in
the official release, in which Chris is rescued by Rod in his official
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    29

Transportation Security Administration cruiser, provides only a strained,


momentary reprieve (the police will likely arrive tomorrow after all) and so
the benefits of Chris’ great effort are, for him, ultimately interior and sub-
jective: he was able to act and not only to react with regard to his impos-
sible situation, but just as importantly he was able to act in concert, to
accept help, however improbable, where before he insisted, to a fault,
upon his own self-reliance.
If Chris winds up as a black male “Final Girl,” he becomes so only inso-
far as he affirms himself as his mother’s son. And apparently the third time
is a charm. Chris’ mother is killed, as it were, three times over: once, off-­
screen, on the night of the original accident; then again, by proxy, when
Rose hits the deer (that Chris identifies with his mother and himself); and
once more, by proximity, when Georgina (who, as semblant or double,
reminds Chris of his mother in the flesh) is killed by Chris’ (un)intentional
crash. Far from a violent rejection of the mother, though, Chris’ decision
to become a hit-and-run driver himself, to rehearse and appropriate the
earlier tragedy, serves to kill the spectral presence of his mother’s haunting
screen memory, and thereby allows him to remember her in a way that
enables his working through, rather than maintaining his unconscious rep-
etition.19 Not for nothing, the pivotal psychic shift gets underway when
Missy (Missy A., Miss Ann) cures Chris of his smoking habit, a “nasty,”
“dangerous” habit that supposedly poses a grave threat to Rose as well.
The cessation of smoking does not make Chris safer, however, which in
this case would mean becoming absolutely docile or, more precisely,
sedated, lobotomized. It has the opposite effect of fanning the sparks of
disagreement, disobedience, and defiance Chris has harbored—where
there’s smoke there’s fire—and tapping into the burning embers of anger
and outrage buried within his more familiar feelings of guilt and reticence;
anger and outrage and, above all, despair. The memory of eleven-year-old
Chris is one of a despairing child, a child staring into a blank, featureless
screen, in the absence of hope, without expectation or future, frozen in
time like a brutal, melancholic image. Despair, from the Latin desperare: to
be without hope or expectation, but also, for the same reason, to be with-
out apprehension or fear.
“Fire is a reflection of our mortality,” says Dean. But mortality is exactly
what the Armitage family and their clients will not accept, convinced as they
are of their own divinity: “We are the gods trapped in cocoons.” As if the
tendency to believe in their exulted status, and their self-arrogated right to
confiscate black bodies as their own vessels of transcendence, were not his-
30   J. SEXTON

torically rooted in the myth of white (enough) embodiment. The conun-


drum that presents itself here is, of course, that if white people want to
continue living a public life as white people, they must violate the very
sanctity of white life that sanctions the Coagula project in the first place.
And if they want to preserve white personalities in black bodies, they run
the risk of developing an antagonistic experiential knowledge and perspec-
tive as they go about their public lives—they might become black people in
body and mind, despite their best intentions. The provisional solution,
which can only be a stopgap measure, is to withdraw into an ever-­shrinking
private life of seclusion. The resultant spectacle of white-acting black bod-
ies, or black-looking white people, has a radically denaturing effect, a kind
of Schuylerian performance of the social construction of racial difference
and a potent reminder that such constructedness has never presented an
insurmountable barrier to its deployment (Schuyler 2018; Sharfstein 2011).
How, then, to get out of an antiblack world? The brutal spectacle and
hyper-masculinity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship hold no appeal.
Fought within the parameters of the infamous Octagon, one can always be
overpowered by greater force or speed (like a leaping deer struck by a
sport utility vehicle). Chris is predisposed to this point, but he grasps its
major insight only by degrees. At the dinner table, Jeremy extols the vir-
tues of the Japanese martial art of jujutsu, by contrast: “See, the thing
about jujutsu is … strength doesn’t matter. It’s all about this [pointing to
his head]. It’s a strategic game, like chess. It’s all about getting two, three,
four moves ahead.” It’s an ominous point, since Jeremy is not only taunt-
ing Chris for his “genetic makeup” and presumably superior physical
prowess, but also signifying on the fact that Chris is “two, three, four
moves” behind the family that has duped him. Chris begins formulating
an initial response to his increasing unease with the strange goings on at
the Armitage estate by resisting their advances. “I’m good actually, thank
you” (when he declines Dean’s suggestion of hypnosis); “Yo, I’ve got a
rule” (when he rebuffs Jeremy’s attempt at “play fighting”), and “Wait,
wait, wait” (when he tries to thwart Missy’s command to sink into the
floor). When he is cornered in the living room, he charges headlong at
Jeremy and when he wakes up strapped to an armchair in the basement, he
reflexively strains and bites and claws. It is only when he relinquishes con-
trol, pauses his frenetic activity, and looks at what he has done (i.e. ner-
vously pulled out some cotton stuffing from the arm of the chair) that he
moves toward a different strategy: accepting the reality of the attack,
blending with its overwhelming force, and tactically redirecting it toward
other ends.20
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    31

Chris eventually accepts that he is, as his friend Rod says jokingly over
the phone, “on display” and rather than continue attempting to escape the
indignity, anxiety, and vulnerability involved in his hyper-visibility, he
blends with the power of the all-seeing eye and assumes his appearance,
actively playing the role of the subdued and allowing the plot to unfold.
His countersurveillance—including personal observations, candid photo-
graphs, and fact-checking text messages to Rod (his lifeline to a black else-
where)—becomes effective only when he lets go of his desire to dictate the
terms of engagement: to talk his way through the awkward visit, to set firm
boundaries when his interlocutors intrude, and, at the extreme, to muscle
his way out the scene when he is finally surrounded.21 His conventionally
masculine approach gives way to an affirmatively feminized one, a reorien-
tation away from the white father’s project and toward the black mother’s
potentiality. His outreach to the other erstwhile black people on the
grounds, his compassion for and communion with other animals, his broad
defense of creaturely life, all draw inspiration from his devastated maternal
relation. This is not a form of naturalism, however, but rather a materialism
of the body and the mind to which it gives rise and that takes on a life of its
own, a transcendence immanent to the milieu, like blackness up from slav-
ery and still trying to get out, pulling at a thread in the absence of hope.

Notes
1. For an introduction to the politics of dissensus, see Rancière (2010). For a
discussion of dissensus and feminist ethics in particular, see Ziarek (2002).
2. Of course, Davis (1972) was attempting in this early article to establish,
amid the Black Power movement and against the prevailing political com-
mon sense, that black women did in fact suffer the sort of violence often
thought to be restricted to black men under slavery, a point made again,
from a different approach, in the following decade by Spillers (1987). So,
the initial context of publication should not be lost, even as a different
inflection can and, I think, should be read from this landmark study today.
3. The application of topology to research in the humanities and social sci-
ences is far too complex to broach here. But for some leads on how to
approach this question, from within the psychoanalytic perspective that has
advanced it furthest to date, see Greenshields (2017), Ragland and
Milovanovic (2004), and Teyssot (2013).
4. This is a lesson we can generalize from the insights of recent research into
the history of segregation in the twentieth-century United States. Essentially,
the distinction assumed to obtain between the de jure segregation of the
32   J. SEXTON

Jim Crow system and the de facto segregation of the urban centers of the
North, Midwest, and West Coast break down upon close scrutiny, revealing
that both historical forms of segregation are structured by public policy and
private practice. See, for example, Freund (2010) and Rothstein (2017).
5. For instance, we could pursue the ramifications of the counterintuitive point
made some twenty-five years ago by historian Elsa Barkley Brown: “We have
still to recognize that all women do not have the same gender” (Brown
1992, 300). This point about the fundamental modification of all social cat-
egories set off by the qualifier “black” is richly extended by Christina Sharpe’s
(2016) compelling notion of “anagrammatical blackness.”
6. On “undoing gender” and “ungendering,” see, respectively, Butler (2004)
and Spillers (2003). Spillers signaled the tension between these theoretical
(and ethico-political) positions already in 1987, when she first published
her most famous essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” She wrote there:
“‘Sapphire’ enacts her ‘Old Man’ in drag, just as her ‘Old Man’ becomes
‘Sapphire’ in outrageous caricature. In other words, in the historic outline
of dominance, the respective subject-position of ‘female’ and ‘male’ adhere
to no symbolic integrity. At a time when current critical discourses appear
to compel us more and more decidedly toward gender ‘undecidability’, it
would appear reactionary, if not dumb, to insist on the integrity of female/
male gender. But undressing these conflations of meaning, as they appear
under the rule of dominance, would restore, as figurative possibility, not
only power to the female (for maternity), but also power to the male (for
paternity). We would gain, in short, the potential for gender differentiation
as it might express itself along a range of stress points, including human
biology in its intersection with the project of culture” (Spillers 2003, 204).
Affirming gender undecidability, or the undoing of gender, must be
rethought from within and with respect to a population group for whom
gender differentiation, as a principal marker of human status and standing,
is forcibly denied, foreclosed, in the historic instance.
7. In the latter case, the surname was also eventually popularized as a given
name after the canonization of the eleventh-century Bishop of Krakow,
Saint Stanislaus the Martyr, the patron saint of Poland. The Bishop was
executed by King Bolesław II after he challenged the King’s abuse of
women, a charge leading to the King’s excommunication and soon there-
after by his deposition and exile.
8. On the gendered politics of bodily “rectitude” in western thought, see
Cavarero (2016), who argues that constructions of dominant masculinity
and femininity are routed through the postural ethics implied by an open-
ness to or defense against eros and its ability to upset one’s equilibrium:
“Inclination bends and dispossesses the I. As is often said, the attractions
of love remove self-control from the I, causing it to get carried away and
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    33

to exit itself: this, precisely, is the meaning of ek-stasis. Erotic inclination,


accordingly, has an intrinsically ecstatic effect, even without the ultimate
enjoyment that some, not surprisingly, call ecstasy” (Cavarero 2016, 7).
Stan, like the other black men and boys in the film, is only the focal point
of an entire mise-en-scène of disorientation, disappearance, peril, and
vulnerability.
9. This scene might be viewed as a dramatization of one aspect of Frantz
Fanon’s notion of a social “engine failure” in the critique of racist society,
and his recourse to reading symptomatically where philosophical engage-
ment is unavailable: “If there can be no discussion on a philosophical
level—that is, the plane of the basic needs of human reality—I am willing
to work on the psychoanalytical level—in other words, the level of the
‘failures,’ in the sense in which one speaks of engine failures” (Fanon
2006, 12). It is important, given the setting of Burnett’s film, that Fanon
resorts, as it were, to psychoanalysis as a means of counteracting the narcis-
sism equally responsible for the “degradation of those who would make
man a mere mechanism” and that “on which he relies in order to imagine
that he is different from the other ‘animals’” (Fanon 2006, 12). Fanon
opens a path for thinking together the fate of the black slaughterhouse
worker and the fate of the slaughtered sheep as something other than anal-
ogy or poignant metaphor. We are dealing with the general and the par-
ticular effects of man’s refusal “to admit that he is nothing, absolutely
nothing,” something that “amounts to nothing more nor less than man’s
surrender” (Fanon 2006, 12).
10. For historical treatments of the evolution of the figure of the devil in western
societies, see Almond (2014), Oldridge (2012) and the teratology by Russell
(1977, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1988). For philosophical meditations on the devil,
see Flusser (2014) and Rickels (2008). For a humorous literary account of
the contemporary world from the devil’s perspective, see Ducan (2002).
11. The phrase “impious fidelity” is borrowed from Stewart-Steinberg (2011).
The notion of fidelity to “the event” is drawn from Badiou (2013). See
also Norris (2009), for a reader’s guide. On black women and abolition-
ism, see Jones (2007) and Yee (1992). And on black feminism in/as the
reproductive justice movement, see Ross and Sollinger (2017).
12. For more on Agamben’s thought, including his central concept of the
“form of life,” see de la Durantaye (2009).
13. Rose’s mocking regrets and faux apologies when it is finally revealed that
she, too, is part of the conspiracy to capture Chris are foreshadowed
throughout the film: in her facetious responses to his suggestion to give
her white parents advance notice that her new boyfriend is black, to his
questions about Walter and Georgina’s inexplicable hostility toward him,
to his insistence that he “knew the guy” (i.e. Andre) that presented himself
during Logan’s “seizure,” and so on.
34   J. SEXTON

14. Get Out says less about black femininity as a function of both the topical
focus of the film and, I think, some genuine respect for who can and should
speak in the name of black feminism. The feminist sensibility of the director
was indicated in varied ways during his collaboration with Keegan Michael
Key on their successful sketch comedy show (e.g. the progressive gender
politics of the “Pirates Chantey” skit) (Krule 2015). But one can also see
this “progressive black masculinity” in Peele’s drawing of the main charac-
ter, Chris, who exhibits none of the traditional bravado or braggadocio,
who reveals his emotional vulnerability, who comes across as thoughtful
and reflective, leery but un-intimidated, comfortable in his own skin even
when out of his element, a good sport even when he has strong reason not
to be, and so on. Chris reads nuanced social cues from the outset—from
whites and blacks alike—and, while he is deeply involved in an interracial
relationship, he is clearly linked to black community, unlike Sidney Poitier’s
Dr. John Prentice in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(1967), one of the film’s many intertextual references (BAM 2017).
15. For a discussion of the “master–slave dialectic” and the “struggle to death”
in the philosophy of G.W.F.  Hegel and their implications for an under-
standing of slavery and its abolition, see Buck-Morss (2009) and O’Neil
(1996).
16. The gender ambiguity of this generic mainstay is redoubled, since the Final
Girl traditionally is already “boyish”: “That quality makes her a congenial
double for the adolescent male [the prime audience for horror films]. As I
put it in the book, she is ‘feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a
way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of
the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of
male competence and sexuality” (Clover 2015, xii). And yet, while the
Final Girl is, in the main, a vehicle for (white) male fantasy, Clover also
notes that recent developments have altered the picture in some ways:
“Taken together, these films offer variant imaginings of what it is, or might
be, like to be a woman—to menstruate and be pregnant, to be vulnerable
to and endure male violence, to be sexually violated. What new-regime
horror showed us is that at least some male audiences were willing to make-
believe these sensations. Whether this is a good or a bad thing for women,
given the inescapability of these and other parts of our identity, is far from
clear” (Clover 2015, xiii). In Get Out, this “boyish” quality takes on other
connotations given the contradictory resonance of the epithet “boy” as
well as the equally racist hyper-masculinity attributed to black men.
17. I was drawn to this point, and to the above point about the Final Girl, by
the “Feminist Guide to Get Out” website (Kane et al. 2017). The authors
discuss the symbolism of Chris’ détournement of the cotton thread during
his escape as a critical appropriation of the disinheritance of slavery.
  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL    35

18. This rethinking might proceed from an observation made by Karl Marx in
Capital, Vol. 1: “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpa-
tion, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population,
the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning
of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of Black skins, signaled
the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production” (Taylor 2016, 206).
More to the point, he wrote: “Without slavery you have no cotton; with-
out cotton you have no modern industry” (Taylor 2016, 206). This link is
reinforced once more in Get Out by the racist cop’s passing comment that
Rose should call animal control, rather than the police department, if she
hits and kills another dear. Given the strong correlation between black
people and deer in the film’s symbolic economic, the conflated political
functions of policing and animal control become more apparent.
19. Chris’ working through of the guilt complex is indicated ambiguously in
the original ending that Peele opted not to use. Chris is not rescued by
Rod in that version, but rather arrested by the police, tried, convicted, and
sentenced to prison. During his first prison visit with Rod, Chris tells his
friend that, though he is locked up and holds out no hope of an appeal:
“I’m good … I stopped it, you know? I stopped it.” If Chris is talking
about putting an end to this particular psychic anguish (who knows what
prison holds in store for him), then it is connected to his decision to act in
defense against the onslaught. This is not to say that he accepts prison, as
it were, but that he can affirm his negative capability (“I’m good”) even
under the most extreme conditions—and those conditions are, in fact,
coextensive with black existence. What we lose in the official release ending
is the image of Chris’ reconstruction, a reconstruction in which his nomi-
nal circumstances worsen, but his radical psycho-political bearing becomes
more actualized.
20. Jujutsu, the “gentle art” or “yielding technique,” was developed as a
means of unarmed defense against an armed and armored opponent, typi-
cally a samurai warrior with long sword (katana) and leather- or steel-
plated military uniform (kozane gusoku or tosei gusoku) (Kano 2005).
21. This structure is repeated like a fractal in every individual contest. For
instance, Chris is able to use the knife against Missy only after he allows her
to stab him with it in the palm. When he then fights Jeremy at the front
door, Chris cannot simply slip out of the chokehold and force the door
open against Jeremy’s countervailing restraint. It is only after he allows
Jeremy to kick the door closed—and thereby to expose his leg—that Chris
is able to stab him with the knife, knock him off balance, and finally kill
him with a series of stomps to the head.
36   J. SEXTON

References
African American Policy Forum. 2017. Imagining Otherwise: Black Feminist
Consciousness for Black Men and Boys. Vassar College, July 20–24. Accessed
1 August 2017. goo.gl/58Y4nG.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2011. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy
of Economy and Government. Trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford, CA: Stanford
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CHAPTER 2

Where Manhood Lies

They said I was wild, untamed, devilish. That I was lost to this world.
For my part, I don’t mind. My dreams, moving slowly, tell me
I’m home….
—David Marriott, “Cut”

Abstract  This chapter surveys the academic literature on “black male


feminism,” with a critical focus on the foundational work of literary critic
and cultural historian Michael Awkward since the 1990s. Contrasting
readings are presented of scholars David Marriott on “blackness and
deathliness” and the late Aimé Ellis on the pursuit of freedom through
“death-dealing violence” and “death-discovering sex” between and among
black men.

Keywords  Black feminism • Black masculinity • Michael Awkward

1
Prompted by the devilish black masculinity to which the epigraph alludes,
a wild and untamed presentation indifferent to the warnings of white soci-
ety and the lynch mob’s unlawful law enforcement, this chapter reflects
upon the academic field of study on black men and masculinity in and
beyond the United States, as it is informed by the scholarly literature of

© The Author(s) 2018 41


J. Sexton, Black Men, Black Feminism,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74126-0_2
42   J. SEXTON

black feminist and queer theory.1 The field of study seeks to do many
things, but it meditates most centrally on the question of black male femi-
nism, or pro-feminism, and the broader development of progressive black
masculinities.2 This question is, of course, not entirely novel,3 but it con-
tinues to take its cue in the present generation from literary critic and
cultural historian Michael Awkward’s well-known 1995 essay, “A Black
Man’s Place in Black Feminist Criticism.”4 Awkward is, at this writing, the
Gayl A.  Jones Collegiate Professor of Afro-American Literature and
Culture at the University of Michigan and the author of six books over the
past 25 years or so, including a memoir that serves as a sort of pivot
between what we will discuss as the two major stages of his research. He is
also at work on a new and germane research project—“A Horribly
Mangled Monstrosity: Disfiguring/Refiguring Black American Masculinity
after Emmett Till”—as a faculty fellow at the UM Institute for the
Humanities. 
For now, we will focus on this important essay from the mid-­1990s.
There, Awkward suggested that for black men to participate in and contrib-
ute usefully to a black feminist project, they would have to follow up in an
intellectually rigorous manner Hortense Spillers’ earlier consideration of
“the distinctive nature of the Afro-American male’s connection to the
‘female’” (Awkward 1995, 53). In what follows, we would like to think
about the problematic of progressive black masculinities, or a possible black
male feminism, not, as much writing in this vein has attempted, in order to
suggest a finer public morality or better code of conduct, but rather to won-
der about preliminary matters of framing. In talking about the problematic
of progressive black masculinities, we mean to indicate, following Althusser
(2014), the theoretical or ideological framework in which the concept is
used, centering on the absence of problems as much as their presence.
My research to date has repeatedly addressed questions of political alli-
ance, coalition, and solidarity. My first book, Amalgamation Schemes
(2008), was a critique of the post–civil rights discourse of multiracialism in
the United States in light of what Frantz Fanon terms the “prelogical” or
“paralogical” affect of antiblackness that I found to be animating it, how-
ever unwittingly or unconsciously, across its internal political differences.
In that text, I outlined, among other things, the gendered dimensions of
that antiblack animus and tracked the ways that it condensed around fig-
ures of the violating black male and the consuming black female, where
the one-drop rule of hypodescent was described variously as “ethnic [or
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    43

racial] rape” on the one hand and the crushing oblivion of “the black
hole” on the other. These tropes of black violence, or what I termed fan-
tasies of “oppressive black power,” represent an inversion of deeply sedi-
mented relations of domination—what legal scholar Anthony Farley
(2004) calls “white-over-black”—as well as an obfuscation of a history of
sexual violence, principally and paradigmatically against black women and
girls but encompassing black men and boys as well.5 Contemporary mul-
tiracialism relies upon an enabling erasure of state-sanctioned antiblack
sexual violence—which is to say a fundamental negation of radical black
feminism’s naming and combating of such violence (Hine 1997)—in
order to valorize itself as redemptive, or at least ameliorative, in the pres-
ent and future tenses.
As an elaboration of this approach, I am completing another book that
examines similar dynamics in the processes of multiracial coalition-­
building—an overlapping discourse of multiracialism—wherein what I call
“the proprieties of coalition” are provoked and governed by an acute or
atmospheric fear of real or imagined black sexual violence.6 Finally, in a
related text, Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing (2017), I exam-
ine popular cultural representations of black masculinity as figures of state-­
sanctioned authority in the post-9/11-era United States. In each case, the
films bear out Marlon Ross’ (1998) observation that “the global image of
dominant masculinity is inordinately scripted in … mass media spectacles
of U.S.  Black men” in particular (599–600). Such images of “blacks in
officialdom” should not be simply contrasted in a “best of times, worst of
times” way with the racist associations of violence, illegitimacy, and dis-
possession that monopolize the signification of racial blackness in public
discourse; rather, the former should be understood as an extension of the
latter. In thinking about progressive black masculinities, then, the critical
protocol must be wary. The comments below are an exercise in such wari-
ness about the prospects of a black male feminism insofar as it is under-
stood as a matter of morality, rather than ethics.

2
To begin, let us recall that the privileged aspect of arguments made in
Spillers’ (1987) landmark article, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” takes
shape as follows:
44   J. SEXTON

If we can account for an originary narrative and judicial principle that might
have engendered a “Moynihan Report,” many years into the twentieth cen-
tury, we cannot do much better than look at [William] Goodell’s reading of
the partus sequitur ventrem: the condition of the slave mother is “forever
entailed on all her remotest posterity.” This maxim of civil law, in Goodell’s
view, the “genuine and degrading principle of slavery, inasmuch as it places
the slave upon a level with brute animals, prevails universally in the slave-­
holding states” [Goodell 27]. But what is the “condition” of the mother? Is
it the “condition” of enslavement the writer means, or does he mean the
“mark” and the “knowledge” of the mother upon the child that here trans-
lates into the culturally forbidden and impure? In an elision of terms,
“mother” and “enslavement” are indistinct categories of the illegitimate
inasmuch as each of these synonymous elements defines, in effect, a cultural
situation that is father-lacking. Goodell, who does not only report this
maxim of law as an aspect of his own factuality, but also regards it, as does
[Frederick] Douglass, as a fundamental degradation, supposes descent and
identity through the female line as comparable to a brute animality. Knowing
already that there are human communities that align social reproductive
procedure according to the line of the mother, and Goodell himself might
have known it some years later, we can only conclude that the provisions of
patriarchy, here exacerbated by the preponderant powers of an enslaving
class, declare Mother Right, by definition, a negating feature of human
community (79).

We see here that Spillers is observing something about the permutation


and, indeed the degradation, that the institution of slavery undergoes as it
becomes racialized in the modern era, an emergent quality that illuminates
the “provisions of patriarchy” and, in the process, reconstitutes what we
think we know about both and their conjoint role in the formulation of
human community, or a species-being distinct from “brute animality.” She
continues:

Even though we are not even talking about any of the matriarchal features
of social production/reproduction—matrifocality, matrilinearity, matriar-
chy—when we speak of the enslaved person, we perceive that the dominant
culture, in a fatal misunderstanding, assigns a matriarchist value where it
does not belong; actually misnames the power of the female regarding the
enslaved community. Such naming is false because the female could not, in
fact, claim her child, and false, once again, because “motherhood” is not
perceived in the prevailing social climate as a legitimate procedure of cul-
tural inheritance.
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    45

The African-American male has been touched, therefore, by the mother,


handed by her in ways that he cannot escape, and in ways that the white
American male is allowed to temporize by a fatherly reprieve. This human
and historic development—the text that has been inscribed on the benighted
heart of the continent—takes us to the center of an inexorable difference in
the depths of American women’s community: the African-American woman,
the mother, the daughter, becomes historically the powerful and shadowy
evocation of a cultural synthesis long evaporated—the law of the Mother—
only and precisely because legal enslavement removed the African-American
male not so much from sight as from mimetic view as a partner in the pre-
vailing social fiction of the Father’s name, the Father’s law.
Therefore, the female, in this order of things, breaks in upon the imagi-
nation with a forcefulness that marks both a denial and an “illegitimacy.”
Because of this peculiar American denial, the black American male embodies
the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion
to learn who the female is within itself, the infant child who bears the life
against the could-be fateful gamble, against the odds of pulverization and
murder, including her own. It is the heritage of the mother that the African-­
American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power
of “yes” to the “female” within (79–80).7

For Awkward, to actualize the potential of Spillers’ concluding


thoughts, studies of black men and masculinity would need not only to
envision “liberating possibilities of an acknowledgment of the ‘female’
within the black community and the male subject,” but also to note
“potential dangers inherent in such an attempted adoption by historically
brutalized Afro-American men whose relations to a repressed ‘female’ is
not painstakingly (re)defined” (Awkward 1995, 54). His concern is that
intramural relations of gender hierarchy and violence can and will be rep-
licated, rather than rejected, by black men’s engagement with black femi-
nism if it does not begin with the much humbler principle to, as it were,
“first do no harm.” This would seem to be the case for any community of
men broaching any feminist project whatever, and he seems to suggest as
much in his quarrel with the contributors to the anthology Men in
Feminism (1987), edited by Alice Jardine and Paul Smith.8 Yet for
Awkward this principle bears singularly on black men because the very
historical conditions that have provided “the specific occasion to learn who
the female is within itself”—that is, the violent law of slavery that “removed
the African-American male not so much from sight as from mimetic view
as a partner in the prevailing social fiction of the Father’s name”—have
46   J. SEXTON

produced “an overwhelming number of Africa’s American male descen-


dants as males-in-crisis” (Awkward 1995, 56). In other words, the condi-
tions of possibility for “a non-oppressive black male relationship to
feminism” are also the conditions of its impossibility (Awkward 1995, 55).
Or so it would seem.
Awkward’s essay is too complicated to offer a fulsome reading of its
entire text, its involvement with various currents in black women’s critical
and creative writing, the history of its controversial reception, and its rela-
tion to his larger body of work within the limited space of the present
study. I want to focus more narrowly here upon the peculiar entanglement
of Spillers’ richly enigmatic claim with Awkward’s stated desire to escape
the sins of his father. Given the central place that Awkward’s work holds in
the subsequent development of the study of black men and masculinity and
the related initiation of a black male feminism or pro-feminism, it would
seem that, in a very crucial way, the nascent enterprise pivots around the
extended attempt to read these final paragraphs from the closing section of
Spillers’ most widely cited publication. In Awkward’s estimation: “For the
purpose of theorizing about a black male feminism, perhaps the most pro-
vocative, enlightening, and inviting moment in feminist or in ‘womanist’
scholarship occurs in Hortense Spillers’s ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An
American Grammar Book.’ Indeed, Spillers’s essay represents a fruitful
starting point for new, potentially nonpatriarchal figurations of family and
of black males’ relationship to the female” (Awkward 1995, 51).
Provocative, enlightening, and, above all, inviting: Awkward suggests
that the principal cause of his excitement about Spillers’ essay (and he
seems to be interested only in this one), and those other authors he liber-
ally associates with womanism,9 has to do with what he considers a certain
openness, a permeability or permissiveness, in the conception of gender
difference. “Rather than seeing the ‘female’ strictly as other for the Afro-­
American male,” he writes, “Spillers’s afrocentric revisioning of psycho-
analytic theory insists that we consider it an important aspect of the
repressed in the black male self” (Awkward 1995, 52). I don’t know that
Spillers has anywhere referred to her writing as “afrocentric” (even with a
small a) and Awkward’s treatment of Spillers’ revision of psychoanalytic
theory here and elsewhere is glancing at best. But the pop psychological
reduction of psychic formation at work here is nonetheless telling. If the
requirement of black male feminism consists in undoing the repression of
the “female” within, then the goal would seem to be within grasp of an
earnest and effective individual or group therapeutic procedure.
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    47

Additionally, the openness of the conception of gender difference that


Awkward finds in his reading of womanism suggests a rather familiar pro-
gram of action: “a recognition on the part of both black females and males
of the nature of gendered inequities that have marked our past and pres-
ent” would be followed by “a resolute commitment to work for change”
(Awkward 1995, 52). Fortunately, for black men, “Black womanism
demands neither the erasure of the black gendered other’s subjectivity, as
have male movements to regain putatively lost Afro-American manhood,
nor the relegation of males to prone, domestic, or other limiting positions”
(Awkward 1995, 52). In other words, womanism is not an aspiring black
matriarchal inversion of the aspiring black patriarchy, a curious assurance
from a self-identified black male feminist, to say the least. Above all, though,
womanism, or black feminist criticism, “has not only created a space for an
informed Afro-American male participation, but it heartily welcomes—in
fact, insists upon—the joint participation of black males and females as
comrades” (Awkward 1995, 52, emphasis added). Here the black male
feminist is arguing at once with several parties, real or imagined: patriarchs
of all stripes, of course, but also nay-saying and pessimistic white feminists
and their white male allies (as represented in the volume by Jardine and
Smith), and, most significantly, suspicious and territorial black feminists.10
That Awkward would distinguish the possibility, and even the probabil-
ity, of black male feminism from the reputed “impossibility” of white male
feminism stands to reason, if what distinctively enables (but also disables)
the former’s present outlook is the “peculiar American denial” of the black
male that leaves him, like the black female, “robbed of the parental right,
the parental function” (Spillers 1987, 78). But what would seem, at first,
to be an unavoidable difference of structural position based in the history
of racial slavery and its afterlife turns out to be, for Awkward, an adjustable
difference of attitudinal disposition born of a failure of will. Put somewhat
differently, despite the larger study’s interest in “race, gender and the
­politics of positionality,” the argument advanced on this score is stub-
bornly attached to its own best intentions. This may explain why Awkward
downgrades Spillers’ radical analysis of the denial of parental function for
black men to a liberal understanding of “limited access to ‘the prevailing
social fiction’ of masculinity” (Awkward 1995, 54). What Spillers identi-
fies in the sentence that contains “the prevailing social fiction” is not mas-
culinity per se (whatever that may mean for Awkward), but “the Father’s
name, the Father’s law.” This may seem hair-splitting, but the imagina-
tion, if not the practice, of black masculinities beyond or without need or
regard for the Father is precisely what is at stake.11
48   J. SEXTON

On my reading, Spillers is not suggesting, as Awkward does, that black


men have become “males-in-crisis” due to their historically limited access
to dominant masculinity. Were this the case, we would be hard-pressed to
explain why what Awkward calls the symptoms of “males-in-crisis,” most
notably gender and sexual violence, are ubiquitous, cutting across lines of
race and class and region. To aver that black male violence is indexed to
relative powerlessness is not only to erase or ignore the violence of power-
ful white (or other non-black) men, but also, more importantly, to theo-
rize violence from the profile of its agents rather than its targets. If black
women, as a group, face higher rates of gender and sexual violence—and
we know that most gender and sexual violence, like nearly all interpersonal
violence, is intra- rather than interracial in nature—it is not because black
men are simply more violent than their non-black counterparts.12 It is,
rather, because black women are more vulnerable than their non-black
counterparts as a matter of the structural conditions of their everyday
lives. In other words, it is the powerlessness of black women, not the
brutality-born-of-powerlessness of black men, that accounts most ade-
quately for the interpersonal violence they face, including, as we will learn,
the violence endured by Awkward’s own mother at the hands of his father.
A nearly exclusive emphasis on the right conduct of black men guides
Awkward’s project, and this continues to be the case for the growing
research on progressive black masculinities that has followed in its wake.
There are speaker’s benefits attached to this mode of discourse. First, it
suggests black men’s political destinies rest in their own hands, at least
with respect to black women in general and black feminism in particular. I
am not calling this unilateralism. Awkward is clearly committed to learn-
ing from black feminism and not simply imposing his version upon the
field of theory and practice. But one is struck, at the same time, by a pro-
found ambivalence about black women’s leadership, which is also to say
their critical evaluation, of black men’s appropriations of and contribu-
tions to the traditions of black women’s cultural, intellectual, social, and
political labors. Awkward would like to be embraced as a comrade rather
than an enemy or a traitor, where the latter takes the form of a (mere)
lover or an abuser or both. And, as it turns out, to be a black male femi-
nist, to be a comrade to black women, is, in this account, to be a good
black father. Stated the other way round, to be a good father is to be a
black male feminist. This, in any case, is how Awkward interprets his
mother’s troubling childhood commandment: “Don’t be like your father.”
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    49

In his memoir, Scenes of Instruction (2000), written in the years imme-


diately following “A Black Man’s Place” and meant to serve as an elabora-
tion of its background and context, Awkward describes the roots of his
turn toward black feminism this way:

Having come of age intellectually in the late 1970s and early 1980s during
the emergence of feminist criticism and theory and of black literary theory
as important academic discourses, it would have been impossible for me to
have avoided them. But I was, indeed, attracted to these discourses in part
because they provided me a way of thinking about my own life, including
the fact that I loved my mother, who was an alcoholic and who, particularly
when she was drunk, offered her four children detailed accounts of her vic-
timization. Sympathizing with my father, who broke my mother’s right arm
and left wrist, terrorized his small children, and withdrew abruptly from our
lives, was impossible. For me, loving my mother required that I try to under-
stand why she drank, why she frequently neglected her children’s needs, and
why she remained so emotionally remote during much of the first two
decades of my life. Loving her meant recognizing logical connections
between my father’s brutality and her drinking. Even before I started ele-
mentary school, I knew that to consider only the pain that her alcoholism
caused me would have meant that I did not take her pain, her stories, and
her cautionary injunction, “Don’t be like your father,” seriously enough (4).

Awkward captures the essence of the relation more economically still:


“Doing anything but pursuing black feminist insights would have meant
being like my father” (Awkward 2000, 4, emphasis added). This misun-
derstanding of obligation leads to the installation of a moral binary and a
melodramatic narrative code. Awkward associates his emotional burden—
“I could no more have rejected feminism than I could have chosen not to
love my mother”—with the sense of political mission that animates the
history of black feminism.13 Yet, it is an odd mission indeed that consists
primarily of avoiding implication or, better yet, self-incrimination. What
sort of life, moreover, can one hope to live if its driving force is restrained
violence and the dread that it is never securely at bay?
Despite his attempts to align with the motives of the black feminist writ-
ers he has studied for two full decades at the time of the memoir’s publica-
tion, Awkward expresses his personal and professional attraction to black
feminism as a sort of unacknowledged forced choice. I do not mean here
the sense of moral obligation or duty noted above, but rather the unre-
marked description of his mother’s imposition, “particularly when she was
50   J. SEXTON

drunk,” of “detailed accounts of her victimization” at the hands of


Awkward’s then non-resident father. For Awkward to write that his mother
“offered” such accounts implies that her four children needed to or
wanted to hear or, more importantly, had the option of not listening to
these “family narratives that spoke hauntingly of my absent father’s physi-
cal, verbal, and spiritual abuse” (Awkward 2000, 4). How are these scenes
of instruction—the anguish and overwhelm they inflicted—not under-
stood by the author as part of the abuse of children, of himself and his
siblings, abuse that, if it does not originate with the mother, is certainly
repeated and extended by her? How might the mother learn to speak to
her children about her own experience of abuse, at multiple scales, in a
way that does not abuse them in turn?
It is important to underscore that Awkward, in his telling, has little or
no firsthand experience of his father, since his father reportedly left the
family home before Awkward’s first birthday. Which is to say, his felt sense
of mission and inherited responsibility to negate his father’s violent legacy
is engendered primarily by his mother’s words, by her account and her
narrative about the father’s brutality, and the spectacular effect they have
for framing her scarred skin, her drinking, and her frequent parental
neglect as signs of injury at the father’s hand. Awkward’s interpretation of
his mother’s victimization (i.e. what has happened to her) is, in this way,
overdetermined by her victimhood (i.e. who she has become as a result).
So much so that Awkward is left without language—and without permis-
sion—to speak about his own victimization, or that of any other black
males, including what occurred in childhood at his mother’s hand, except
to regard such mistreatment as the potential source of the future victim-
ization of black females. His mother’s abuse of her son, then, can only
appear as her displaced self-defense against his father. The son thus inherits
not only his father’s sins, but also his penance. In Awkward’s moral crime
scene, there are victims and perpetrators, and the roles are strictly
­delineated in gendered terms, a strange reflection of his “acceptance of the
bedrock feminist claim that men as a class oppress women as a class”
(Awkward 2000, 4). Like the forgetful comparison of white male and
black male feminisms above, the endorsement of this maxim of an unre-
constructed white feminism appears at a key moment. (Black feminism, by
definition, problematizes the very notion of men or women as a class.14)
And because for Awkward the experience of victimization reduces to the
identity of victimhood, to articulate black male victimization at all involves
an unconscionable usurpation of black female victimhood, an identity theft
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    51

and a rhetorical inversion of positionality in gender hierarchy. That is, it


exposes the aspiring black male comrade “to charges that I have visited
upon my mother a discursive violence similar in intensity to the unimagi-
nable physical pain she suffered at my father’s hands” (Awkward 2000, 5,
emphasis added).15
For Awkward this is a genuine conundrum: black males must become
feminists in order to avoid becoming a threat and danger to black females,
but to the extent that black males proclaim their feminist commitment
they become a threat and danger to black feminism itself. Damned if you
do, damned if you don’t; however, it seems to matter which damnation
you accept. Awkward suggests that the latter risk is the good and necessary
one and so he spends the bulk of his professional life making a case to the
court of black female public opinion. After publishing two books and edit-
ing a collected volume of academic criticism dedicated either to black
women’s creative writing or to theoretical debates about their reception
and interpretation, Awkward’s memoir might be read as a capstone to his
black male feminist trilogy. And the genre he initiates in that later text—
“autocritography”16—provides a template for subsequent research on the
formation of progressive black masculinities.17 If we follow the fuller itin-
erary of this career in letters, however, we learn that Scenes of Instruction,
rather than consolidating the black male feminist enterprise, serves instead
to culminate it, after which point things proceed downhill with the force
of gravity. The repressed figure of the abused black male (child) returns in
a new guise and the once feared betrayal of the black female (adult)
becomes the apostate’s rallying cry.18

3
Nearly a decade on from Awkward’s last major feminist statement, he
would regain a measure of notoriety with his extended public defense of
the conservative white male radio talk show host Don Imus, after the latter
held forth on his April 4, 2007 morning broadcast with denigrating rac-
ist/sexist comments about the predominantly black Rutgers University
women’s basketball team. Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat
(2009) fails to be the daring, against-the-grain criticism its author hopes it
to be. It misunderstands, or simply misuses, its own argument about the
scapegoat function that the “Imus Affair” served, a passing media event
condensing and deflecting sustained critical discourse about the history of
racial oppression in the United States. Instead, Awkward occupies himself
52   J. SEXTON

with the oversensitive reflexes of black America, including those feminists


counted among its number, which collectively have yet to evolve a sense
of humor.19 Lest this strike one as the dispiriting about-face of an erstwhile
ally, rest assured that the contradiction is more apparent than real. Sure to
raise eyebrows with this dubious missive, the former advocate of a robust
black male feminism offers the following by way of explanation:

In early 2000, around the time I began watching Imus, my memoir, Scenes
of Instruction, was published. The book explores my complex relationship
with my mother and my cultural education in what it meant to be a black
male, an education that made me suspicious of received notions of blackness
and patriarchy. Taking a cue from Jean Toomer, whose best-known work,
Cane, encapsulates his temporarily deep yet conflicted immersion in black
American culture, I intended the memoir to be my carefully orchestrated
“swan song” as a black male feminist scholar. Burned-out, frequently on
edge, and certain that I’d contributed all I could to what I understood was
a valuable discussion, I knew that I’d continue to incorporate what I’d
learned about racialized forms of gender discrimination in my teaching and
writing and that I was no longer interested in remaining at the center of
what had been, for me, a terribly contentious battle. […]
Frankly, I’d grown tired of enduring such experiences of mistrust, mis-
reading, and suspicion, tired of struggling to demonstrate my sincerity, tired
of trying to be what I was never sure I could become in the first place—a
black version of Flannery O’Connor’s hard-to-find good man—despite and
because of the strength and fortitude such a role required.20 And I think I
was, fundamentally, simply tired of “women” as an essentially abstract con-
cept: tired of trying to live up to what I thought these mythic beings and
their real-life counterparts wanted me to be; tired of the disappointment I
imagined in their eyes and saw in their writing when they perceived me as
having failed them in some critical way; tired of the sometimes irresistible
impulse either to strike out or to hold back whenever I was compelled to
articulate my own disappointment with them. I was not strong enough to
endure the rejection, failure, lies, professional backbiting, guilt, mistrust, and
disdain I was encountering. And seeing no end in sight to my disciplinary
and personal isolation, I wanted so badly to escape it or, at the very least, to
feel less vulnerable, so vulnerable, in fact, that I fully understood the impulse
behind Celie’s heartbreaking line in The Color Purple, in which she describes
her self-protective response to endless misery: “I make myself wood.”21
Unwilling and unprepared to continue to operate as an unwelcome guest
in black feminist discourse, I began both to rethink what I had believed was
a well-mapped-out intellectual project that would take me my entire career
to complete and to formulate scholarly and pedagogical goals that didn’t
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    53

including positioning myself as a sacrificial lamb or a ferocious lion at the


center of disputes about what I and others could (and could not) see, hear,
and feel because of our maleness. With the help of such necessary manly
accoutrements as a figurative injection of testosterone and some bigger
balls, I sought the strength to confront a world that had, in both personal
and professional ways, proven truly an essentially rough, cruel, and—I was
shocked to learn, despite my self-protective cynicism and my close reading
of Ernest Hemingway’s early novels—heartless place.
It was in such a state that I discovered Imus in the Morning (Awkward
2009, 57–8).

Rough, cruel, heartless: keep in mind that the world to which the
author is referring is constituted by his personal and professional treat-
ment at the hands of self-identified feminist black women. If you didn’t
know better, you might think this was Don Imus himself describing those
black women who became the butt of his most infamous joke. The reso-
nance indicates Awkward’s identification with the scapegoat—the sacrifi-
cial lamb misrecognized as a ferocious lion—across the racial divide, made
possible by the untenable analogy drawn between race and gender differ-
ence without consideration of their related historical formation. Burying
Don Imus is, then, best read as the displaced continuation of Scenes of
Instruction, consumed as both are with the exoneration of men charged
directly or indirectly with the abuse of black women. The racial mistrust
and animus that incapacitates black America’s rational faculties in the later
book is a refraction of the gendered mistrust and animus that ostensibly
drove Awkward to quit black feminism as a professional vocation and redi-
rect his (masculine) energies. The gist of his argument in both instances
has to do with the moral priority of sincerity and good intentions behind
the individualized acts of the powerful, and the ancillary insistence that
they mitigate or even nullify material effects or outcomes. Perhaps it goes
without saying that structural analysis of practice and position cannot
withstand the assertion.
This does not represent a degradation or regression of the critic.
Elements of this now more strident pronouncement, clarified by the
slackened decorum brought on by fatigue, have marked the discourse
from its inception. Shot through the seminal meditation on the responsi-
bility of black men to the theory and politics of black feminism, and to
gender equality more generally, is the undercurrent of unresolved anguish
taking form around the enigmatic signifiers of a mother’s suffering trans-
lated, all too literally, into an impossible deontological instruction: “Don’t
54   J. SEXTON

be like your father.” The injustice of that early maternal rule—unjust


because it could be, and likely was, understood by the young boy as a
prejudgment of malefaction, perhaps a form of original sin, attached to his
mortal casing and requiring of him a life of incessant penitence—was then
unjustifiably generalized and attributed to the critical judgments of his
professional peers, and from there projected onto communities of black
women writ large. If there were not black feminist contemporaries to find
fault with the project inaugurated by Awkward’s Inspiriting Influences:
Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels (1989), then we
suspect they would have to be invented. The black male author at middle
age, in a movement of discursive self-defense forcefully compared to the
self-­preservative instinct of a renowned black woman literary character
subjected to “unimaginable physical pain” at the hand of her husband,
seizes upon the opportunity of a pointed critical review in order to relieve
himself, finally and at long last, of the burden of the essentially abstract
concept of “women” and their testosterone-draining, ball-busting con-
demnation.22 In doing so, Awkward not only confirms, in the light of
retrospection, the wariness of “benign paternalists or Pygmalions as the
Trojan horse on gender battlefields” expressed by Joy James (2002,
152).23 He also reveals that what a black male feminist so named might
seek in a coalition with black feminists is something more, and more cor-
rosive, than an “uncritical embrace,” namely, amnesty and forgiveness.
The logical correlate of victimization bestowing eternal victimhood is
criminal action bestowing unregenerate criminal being, two sides of a
structure misrecognized as an essentialist snare. Awkward sloganeers
“existence precedes essence” for the purpose of elevating moral conduct
above all else, opening the possibility, and expectation, for the appearance
and appreciation of good black men, and good fathers foremost. This may
be a laudable effort in the black populist imaginary, and there is a cottage
industry about it, but it seems to veer off at an acute angle from Spillers’
deconstruction of the ideology of black father-lack. Redeeming black men
as men, and fathers moreover, does nothing fundamental, and maybe not
even anything important, to displace the “the prevailing social fiction of
the Father’s name, the Father’s law,” and for at least two reasons. First, the
good-black-mandate, as I will call the heavily freighted demand for black
men to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient,
cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent,” only adds to the impossible
moral obligation of “burdened individuality” that has characterized the
travesty of nominal freedom since the formal end of the US Civil War in
1865 (Hartman 1997).24 It is, in other words, a racialized gender trap.
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    55

Second, the good-black-mandate, even and especially for those that


approximate its ideal, participates in the ideological justification of a “post-­
emancipation” state and civil society seeking to enforce, as the late Lindon
Barrett has it, “the prescribed mathematics of heterosexual domesticity as
well as its rationalization of libidinal energies” (Barrett 1997, 124).25 Far
from a universal effect of historical capitalist patriarchy, we are reminded
forthwith that race, “as a series of prohibitions on social desire and sexual
practice, prohibitions stabilizing and ensuring the transmission of identify-
ing phenotypical traits from generation to generation … amounts fore-
most to a set of fundamental prohibitions on the discharge of sexual
energies” (Barrett 1997, 110). Nowhere is this “worrying over the coding
and dissemination of visible but unstable physical traits” more pro-
nounced—for everyone concerned—than with respect to racial blackness
(Barrett 1997, 110). In an antiblack world, in which one is “more of a
human being to the extent to which one is not black,” the good-black-­
mandate does not escape compliance (Gordon 1997, 61). Rather than
approach the question in the terms of moral duty, then, it might be more
apposite to formulate it as an ethical response to the address of the other.
The ethical call of black feminism should not be confused with the sort of
negative injunction that haunts the text of black male feminism or the
positive example at the heart of progressive black masculinities. What
complicates this ethical call immediately is not simply that it is impossible,
as is Awkward’s lament, but rather that it is strictly unanswerable. It is
incumbent upon black men to announce themselves—in an extra-moral
sense—to contemporaries that cannot, and perhaps would not even if they
could, serve as their auditors.26

4
If black men cannot expect black women to instruct them in their critical
engagement with the project of black feminism—surely because the latter
bear no obligation to do so, but also because the ethical demands of black
feminism are an ongoing and evolving challenge for them too—then it
stands to reason that black men will have to venture something unknown,
and at their own risk, in order to forge a response without a prescription.
Poet and literary critic David Marriott is, not unlike Ellis, among those
attempting to pursue the task at hand and his example provides a sort of
counterpoint, or supplement, to the discourse of progressive black mascu-
linities. In his extraordinary text, On Black Men (2000), he asks this
56   J. SEXTON

pointed and poignant question: “what value do black men themselves possess
as free black men” (xiv)? Pointed because we rarely find in academic writing
a language so shorn of equivocation and ornament, returning us to the
most basic order of questioning and deriving its complexity from there.
Poignant because it arouses in the reader inchoate feelings of overwhelm-
ing magnitude, a level of half-formed excitation and enervation not easily
bound to discourse. The question may turn out to be strictly unanswer-
able, or perhaps incalculable. Upon reading this question, and pondering
it appropriately, one might be moved to inarticulate rage or grief or tears,
perhaps to hysterical laughter. One might even close the book or burn it
or bury it. Worse, one might make recourse to the defense of trivialization
or familiarization. One might say that there is little new here that we have
not already heard ad nauseam. In any case, one cannot help but restage the
“vicious pantomime of unvarying reification and compulsive fascination”
that characterizes the haunted lives of black men, across the multitude;
repeating the demand that black men “become interchangeable with the
uncanny, deeply unsettling, projections of culture” (Marriott 2000, xiv).27
Marriott does not deploy the phrase “deeply unsettling” here as a term
of moral denunciation. Rather, drawing from and elaborating upon the
singular work of Frantz Fanon, he uses it to describe a profound psychic,
which is also to say somatic or bodily, disorientation attendant to the for-
mulation, ascription, and inhabitation of racial blackness in the historic
instance. This disorientation, a permanently unsettled state, plays out in
lived experience with significant internal differentiation. In the current
theoretical environs, we might say that it is shaped importantly, sometimes
crucially, by a matrix of social processes of class division, color distinction,
regional specification, and gender and sexual variance. Always importantly,
sometimes crucially, for we are also addressing the scale, or moment, at
which, as Wahneema Lubiano (2005) has it, “the complexities are covered
by the shadow cast by the people so multiply black.” The relation of ten-
sion between these scales and moments enveloped in shadow lies at the
heart of any attempt to comment upon, let alone study, the lives of black
men and boys, however the parameters are set. For not only must one
offer an account of racial blackness as a matter of “sexuated” embodiment,
one must also inherit the crisis of the categories of gender and sexuality
therein and interpret them in living color.28
Marriott—in a series of readings of James Baldwin, Alexander Crummell,
Langston Hughes, Isaac Julien, Alaine Locke, René Maran, Sidney Poitier,
John Edgar Wideman and Richard Wright, among others—has set the bar
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    57

for the study of black men and masculinity in the contemporary moment
(Marriott 2000, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011). The research is extensive, the
writing eloquent, the analysis exacting; but, more importantly, Marriott’s
critical and creative project demonstrates how the study of black men and
masculinity opens of necessity onto the fundaments of the idea and exis-
tence of the modern world. It does this, as Zakiyyah Jackson (2011)
notes in a subtle reflection, through its “ability to bring into focus the
world’s collective disavowal … of the centrality of antiblackness for the
production of the world’s sociality” (358). While Marriott’s “singular
focus on black men,” primarily though not exclusively in the United
States, might give pause to any black feminist evaluation, Jackson finds
nonetheless, and through this focus, “important contributions to queer of
color theory and to black feminism” insofar as it “interrogate[s] rather
than reinforce[s] masculine entitlements” and “offers a rigorous explora-
tion of identification rather than a reification of identity” (Jackson 2011,
358). In both respects, Marriott’s oeuvre “speaks to the existential paradox
of blackness … namely, to have subjectivity while one’s subjecthood is
constantly negated, one’s voice made inaudible by cultural fantasy, and
one’s ego assailed by an Other that is inseparable from the self” (Jackson
2011, 358).29
Jackson’s generative reading of Marriott’s work is a paradigm case for
the potential of research on black men and masculinity to contribute use-
fully to the project of black feminism and queer theory. On that score, it
may be that the contribution is realized only belatedly, in precisely that
sort of critical transaction and communication, that moment of interpreta-
tion and interlocution. That is to say, the best of these meditations, dat-
ing back in black public discourse to at least the mid-nineteenth century,
“on what we now call the social constructions of race and gender and
specifically on the engendering of Black manhood” (Ross 1998, 607)
could and should—and the possibility is only that—embrace the sort of
transformative practices adopted especially, but not exclusively, by black
women to improve the lives of black people of all genders within a radical
vision of a whole other world. Matt Richardson (2012), among a cohort
of scholars, is pursuing that horizon of possibility with great acuity, asking
and addressing, with more than a nod to the intellectual protocol of
Hortense Spillers, “what it would mean for black men to embrace the
feminine within themselves” (362). For Richardson, the vista opens up to
the extent that we accept, foremost, a deceptively simple premise: “The
structural meeting of black manhood and femininity does not have to be
58   J. SEXTON

an occasion for distress” (Richardson 2012, 362).30 Distress could give


way to decision, consternation to crisis.31
Jackson, in turn, identifies (with) the stakes of a crisis regarding the his-
tory and future of black masculinity in Marriott’s text, finding that “the
work demanded that I recognize that a disaster had taken place, at once
intimate and removed.” And in response: “I chose to serve as witness to a
level of devastation that quite simply cannot be represented” (Jackson
2011, 357). This ethics of witnessing the disaster and devastation atten-
dant to formations of black masculinity, or the engendering of black man-
hood, is both a trial intramural to black community and an impasse
inherent to black masculinity itself, confounding and convoluting it from
within. The juridical valence embedded in the notion of the witness sug-
gests a paramount and perverse relation to law, in the most general sense,
and begs the question of whether anyone can relate to black men, or to
figures of black masculinity or manhood anywhere, as anything but the
police power and its surrogates.32 It is not for nothing that Jackson’s
engagement with Marriott and the worrisome territory he traverses com-
mences thusly: “With Marriott as my guide, I gazed on the murky waters
of black men’s identification with a criminal culture” (Jackson 2011, 357).
Identification is what witnesses do before a police lineup of criminal sus-
pects; identification is what witnesses do with the perpetrator or victim of
a crime, with the defendant or plaintiff of a trial; identification is what next
of kin do in the morgue; identification is what one does with an image of
others or oneself (as another) in a criminal culture: a culture of criminals
(criminal culture) or a culture defined by its criminality (criminal culture).
Given that black women are the principal victims of black men’s identifica-
tion with a criminal culture, internecine fratricidal street violence notwith-
standing, we cannot avoid asking whether this identification is anything
but an obstacle to the emergence of a “new black man” (Neal 2015).
But I am interested in asking whether there isn’t something excessive—
a surplus—in the depictions of a dominant masculinity-in-black, “some-
thing mysteriously important,” as the late Aimé Ellis (2011) put it. Black
men’s murky and fluid identification with a criminal culture is the central
theme of Ellis’ study, If We Must Die: From Bigger Thomas to Biggie Smalls.
The author is concerned with recovering through cultural criticism the
complexity and capaciousness of black men’s negotiations with racial slav-
ery and its afterlife, placing emphasis on how that historic struggle has
permutated within the social, political, and economic conditions of the
late capitalist United States, post–civil rights, post–Cold War, post-9/11.
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    59

He draws deftly from the archives of twentieth-century black popular cul-


ture, tracking the inventions, reinventions, and interventions of black
male creative intellectuals across the domains of literature, music, film, and
television from the Jim Crow era to the Obama administration. And he is
attempting to illustrate the effects of a certain double operation in black
men’s practices of everyday life in a way that takes readers beyond any
celebrations of resistance as defiance or subversion.
Where many other scholars brim with concern for the élan vital of
black men over and above the structural conditions that precede, prompt,
and preempt their lives and labors, Ellis bears the weight of a different
sense of agency, or rather a different concept of history that denaturalizes
and complicates the assumption of agency embedded in the critical appa-
ratus. For Ellis, glossing the work of Saidiya Hartman in both Scenes of
Subjection (1997) and Lose Your Mother (2007): “antebellum slavery, Jim
Crow society, and, more recently, the proliferation of the prison-industrial
complex from the mid-1970s on constitute … the political and cultural
legacies of terror and death for enslaved and, subsequently, freed black
subjects.” He continues: “Moreover, [these periods] are unavoidably
blurred by black subjects whose lives, memories, and generational ties tra-
verse these cultures of terror, both reiterating and detemporalizing the
‘threat and deployment of actual-death’” (Ellis 2011, 134–5). This ren-
dering maps slavery as spatially and temporally unbounded, such that
black subjects inhabit and inherit terror and death as milieu. As such,
“self-representation” becomes accordingly “(self-)representation.”
Ellis draws upon literary scholar Abdul JanMohamed’s (2005) concep-
tion of “death-bound subjectivity” and pairs it with anthropologist Michael
Taussig’s (1987) “space of death” in a treatment of “the varied ways in
which poor urban black men in the United States are formed within, by,
and against a culture of racial terror and state violence” (Ellis 2011, 5).
Ellis seeks to bring this space of death back into critical view precisely
because “it is, paradoxically, this same history of terror and violence that
has supplied many black male writers, musicians, and filmmakers with an
unlikely horizon for imagining freedom, a horizon upon which freedom is
charted in relation to overcoming one’s fear of death” (Ellis 2011, 5). An
imagination without recourse to transcendence, this is an immanent free-
dom within “death’s ubiquitous domain,” “this sullen psychic space”
(Ellis 2011, 5, 9). The challenge, then, is to examine “(the potential for)
radical black male subjectivity” in and through “the ­self-­affirming embrace
of deathly violence and death-defiance—both real and imagined—in the
60   J. SEXTON

cultural psyches of poor urban black men” (Ellis 2011, 8). Black men, for
Ellis, are not formed wholesale prior to this violence and thereby faced
with a moral choice to replicate it or refuse it; rather, they are constituted
by it, and so the operative ethical question becomes one of working with
violence as a means and a medium at varying scales.
Ellis pushes readers to take seriously black male cultural production, not,
as it often the case, to selectively highlight the progressive or radical ele-
ments therein despite the conservative or reactionary elements, but rather
to contemplate how even, and perhaps especially, in the most unseemly and
objectionable moments there is a possibility “to both deterritorialize and
reoccupy the critical terrain of black masculinism through a critical practice
of ‘criss-crossing’ analytical moves involving the simultaneous reading of
race, gender, class, and sexuality” (Ellis 2011, 18). By a circuitous route, he
returns repeatedly to the figure of the thug, or gangsta, as that “figure of
ambivalent value” whose menace and threat is properly undecidable and
whose promise is almost undecipherable (Munby 2011, 9).33 Ellis writes of
“a thug imaginary that tellingly encompasses not only the patriarchal and
homophobic policing of black male [and female] bodies by black men but
also the elusive traces of something mysteriously important,” indicating in
this vein that “black male sexualities serve as one of the key locations for
grappling with both the space of death and the death-bound subjectivities
it shapes” (Ellis 2011, 121, 122). He finds that “the thug imaginary works
at once to expunge and mask homosexual desire through sexual violence,”
suggesting that this “something ­mysteriously important” has to do cru-
cially with black male same-sexuality (Ellis 2011, 121).34
After presenting cogent readings of Richard Wrights’ Native Son,
Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna
Holler, and critical commentary on the musical careers of rappers Eazy-E,
Tupac Shakur, and Biggie Smalls, Ellis concludes with a discussion of neo-­
soul singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo’s most famous
music video, “Untitled: How Does it Feel?” Ellis reads the latter as a
(self-)objectifying scene “engaging a palpable anxiety about the erotic vio-
lence shaping black male subjectivity in contemporary U.S. popular cul-
ture … a racial and gendered economy in which they are imagined and
imagine themselves as at once desired and under siege” (Ellis 2011, 142).
He links this erotic violence—which, pace Marriott, turns black men in the
cultural imagination into “erotic meat”—to an even more profound vio-
lence that bans black men from the polity tout court. The works of (self-)
representation, the expression, so to speak, of a subject under erasure—a
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    61

subject, bracketed by definition—produces a bizarre effect wherein “the


force of racial terror emanates out of the black male body itself,” even if it
does not originate there (Ellis 2011, 127, emphasis added). The anxiety-­
provoking eroticism of black men indexes the embodiment of a constitu-
tive exclusion that founds the violence of law enforcement. How to undo
this? Amid all of the deathly violence on display, something mysteriously
important might be limned in the conspicuous absence of genuine atten-
tion (rather than, say, moral panic or morbid curiosity), within the inter-
disciplinary field of black studies as much as anywhere else, to “the
prevalence of consensual death-discovering sex between black men in pris-
ons and on the outside,” something that can perhaps be apprehended only
by a sensibility that understands those spaces to be one—living on, in and
after death (Ellis 2011, 122).35
As we turn our attention to the criminal culture that marks black mascu-
linity across the life course, we can speculate about how the concerns of
black men and boys might be most productively reframed as a black ­feminist
matter, rather than the other way around. It is not so much that the aims
and objects of black feminism are, as it were, ultimately in the interest of
black men and boys as it is that the gendered interests of black men and
boys, whatever those may be, are already anticipated and addressed within
black feminism. They are, as we will see below, announced in the discourse
of black feminism in the name of their most radical potentiality. As some
black feminist activists and advocates push the ongoing Movement for Black
Lives to pursue a more gender-inclusive vision of racial justice by document-
ing meticulously that (cis- and trans*) black women and girls also face forms
of state violence typically assumed to be targeted prototypically, if not solely,
at (cishet) black men and boys; others have argued that the whole range of
state-sanctioned violence, including pervasive racial profiling and recurrent
police shootings, can be understood most fully and resisted most compre-
hensively through the framework of reproductive justice advanced, in one
form or another, by black feminists since the Reconstruction era. The latter
approach aims to transform the conditions of possibility (and impossibility)
for blackness and antiblackness alike.

Notes
1. There is an extensive literature already, but for some recent examples, see
Anthony (2013), Crawford (2008), Davis (2017), Drake (2016), Dunning
(2009), Ellis (2011), Gerstner (2011), Greene (2008), Harris (2012),
62   J. SEXTON

Hoston (2016), Ikard (2007), C. Jackson (2011), Lemelle (2010),


Lemons (2008, 2009), McCready (2010), McCune (2014), McGuire
et al. (2014), Munby (2011), Murray (2015), Neal (2013, 2015), Noguera
(2008), Orelus (2010), Pochmara (2011), Richardson (2007), Scott
(2010), Snorton (2014), Taylor (2008), White (2008), White (2011),
Woodward (2014), and Young (2007). For a great critical overview of the
field, see Drake (2016), especially the Introduction.
2. Joy James (2002) marks a distinction between the black male feminism
espoused, for example, by Awkward (1995), Lemons (2008), and Neal
(2015), and the pro-feminism espoused by Gordon (1997) and Carbado
(1999). I will collapse that distinction for the sake of economy, but also
because I see an underlying commonalty to the approaches.
3. See, for historical context, Byrd and Guy-Sheftall (2001) and Lemons (2009).
4. The essay was first published in Awkward (1995) and reprinted, subse-
quently, in Roof and Wiegman (1995), Carbado (1999), James and
Sharpley-Whiting (2000), and Byrd and Guy-Sheftall’s (2001).
5. On the history and culture of racist sexual violence against black men, see,
for instance, Marriott (2000, 2007) Scott (2010), Wallace (2002), and
Woodward (2014).
6. For earlier versions of this formulation, see Sexton (2007, 2010a, b).
7. The essay is reprinted in Spillers (2003) with some modification. The
phrasing of the crucial passage in the latter publication is slightly different:
“the black American male embodies the only American community of
males handed the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself”
(228, emphasis added). Spillers’ revision of the passive clause “which has
had” into the active verb “handed” matters upmost; it installs an agent—
the black female, and the black mother in particular—of the black American
male’s learning opportunity. But then, this agency is ambiguous, for
Spillers also notes, in the same passage, it is because of the peculiar
American denial of parental function to the black male that an opportunity
is afforded, whether had or handed.
8. Awkward is dismayed that Stephen Heath and other contributors, both
men and women, cannot find a means of affirming the possibility of a genu-
ine male feminism. Awkward might be happy to learn that the consensus a
generation later among white public intellectuals is more sanguine. See, for
instance, Tarrant (2009), Berlatsky (2014), and McDonough (2014).
9. Awkward’s use of the term and concept “womanism” is imprecise. He uses
it interchangeably with “black feminism” and generally to distinguish,
crudely, between those black feminist thinkers that he feels some affinity
for, that is, those most open to the prospect of a black male feminism and
those he does not, that is, those with the most questions about the pros-
pect of a black male feminism. On the history and development of woman-
ism and its relationship to black feminism, see Phillips (2006, 2012).
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    63

10. “Nevertheless, in relation to the potential development of a black male


feminism, I am troubled by what appears to be a surprisingly explicit
determination to protect turf … black feminist literary critics do not best
serve the discourses that concern them by setting into motion homeostatic
maneuvers intended to devalue all forms of inquiry except for those they
hold to be most valuable (in this particular case, a female-authored schol-
arship that emphasizes Afro-American women’s writings of black female
subjectivity)” (Awkward 1995, 50). Aside from the tautological accusa-
tion that black feminist critics value only what they value, one can see here
how Awkward inflates the healthy suspicions and informed judgments of
black feminist critics into a self-defeating policing, echoing “in unfortu-
nate ways those of antifeminist male critics, white and black, who consider
feminism to be an unredeemably myopic and unyielding interpretive strat-
egy” (Awkward 1995, 50).
11. Gary Lemons (2006) repeats much the same misreading in his own impor-
tant essay, “To Be Black, Male, and ‘Feminist’: Making Womanist Space for
Black Men.” There he chastises the contributors to Men In Feminism, stat-
ing: “If all feminist men concluded as [Stephen Heath] does that our rela-
tion to feminism is indeed an impossible one, we would never get on with
the task at hand—to end sexism and the oppression of women. The history
of black male pro-feminist relation to women’s movement against sexism
shows that despite the patriarchal baggage all men carry, we can be men
without being oppressors of women” (Lemons 2006, 107, emphasis added).
This move rests upon a misreading of the anthology. He writes: “Men in
Feminism raises a fundamental question as to whether male feminists can
work to empower women in non-patriarchal ways. In “Male Feminism,”
Stephen Heath addresses this question asserting that ‘[m]en’s relation to
feminism, is an impossible one … politically. Men have a necessary relation
to feminism … and that relation is also necessarily one of a certain exclusion
… no matter how “sincere,” “sympathetic” or whatever, we are always in a
male position which brings with it all the implications of domination and
appropriation …’ (1). The idea that men cannot in feminist alliance with
women politically subvert the power of male supremacy is like saying white
people in anti-racist solidarity with black people cannot divest themselves of
white supremacist thinking” (Lemons 2006, 106–7). Heath is, quite clearly,
speaking to matters of what Awkward calls “positionality” not matters of
ideology. Moreover, Heath does not declare that “men cannot in feminist
alliance with women politically subvert the power of male supremacy,” but
rather that in any such alliance men will experience an “impossible” relation,
“one of a certain exclusion,” because they will inevitably inhabit “a male
position” that is implicated with “the power of male supremacy” in a way
that women will not be, that is, as agents of gender domination and appro-
64   J. SEXTON

priation. After dismissing through leaps of logic such political-intellectual


caution, Lemons then concludes similarly: “(Black) male feminism as a poli-
tic of intervention (opposing sexism in black communities) represents a cru-
cial step toward educating men on the ill-effects of male domination.
According to bell hooks, the struggle against sexist oppression will be most
successfully fought when men undergo feminist transformation—only when
we are challenged by women to understand that the oppression of women
is a form of self-oppression. Women can no longer afford to theorize men
on the margin of feminism when sexist practice impacts the lives of women
daily as its victims and men as its perpetrators. Women accepting progressive
men as feminist allies end [sic] the stigma of feminist movement as a separat-
ist enterprise. While separatist thinking may free women from the presence
of men, it does not eradicate sexism in the society at large. Instead, it mirrors
the very sexist behavior feminist women seek to end” (Lemons 2006, 107).
12. The outstanding exception is, of course, represented by Native women,
whose rates of abuse index conditions of structural vulnerability derived
from ongoing settler colonialism and manifest in overwhelmingly interra-
cial forms of gender and sexual violence (Smith 2005). See also, generally,
INCITE (2006), Sokoloff (2005), and Richie (1996, 2012).
13. “Indeed, my personal and intellectual interests often seem less a matter of
choice than part of a ‘mission’ that I ‘felt duty bound to fulfill,’ to echo
Paule Marshall’s evocative line in Praisesong for the Widow” (Awkward
2000, 4).
14. The literature underlying this point is far too vast to cite. For some land-
mark texts, see Carby (1999), Collins (2008), Davis (1983), Giddings
(2007), Guy-Sheftall (1995), Hine (1999), hooks (1999), Hull et  al.
(1993), James et al. (2009), Lorde (2007), Mirza (1997), Roberts (1998),
Smith (2000).
15. I cannot help but think that Awkward unconsciously mangles, and thereby
undercuts, Spillers’ rewriting of the old adage regarding material and sym-
bolic violence in “Mama’s Baby”: “We might concede, at the very least,
that sticks and bricks might break our bones, but words will most certainly
kill us” (Spillers 1987, 68, emphasis in original).
16. “If autobiography is a genre in which contributors shape their self-repre-
sentations in response to earlier texts, ‘autocritography’ is a self-reflexive,
self-consciously academic act that foregrounds aspects of the genre typi-
cally dissolved into authors’ always strategic self-portraits. Autocritography,
in other words, is an account of individual, social, and institutional condi-
tions that help to produce a scholar and, hence, his or her professional
concerns. Although the intensity of investigation of any of these conditions
may vary widely, their self-consciously interactive presence distinguishes
autocritography from other forms of autobiographical recall” (Awkward
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    65

2000, 7). Note the strong emphasis on greater reflexivity and conscious-
ness, on the one hand, and lesser strategic self-portraiture, on the other.
The net effect is to deliberately and knowingly, nay honestly, lay bear one’s
conditions of emergence, something more confessional than the sort of
“critical self-inventory” advanced by West (2009). Contrast this with the
critical approach in the “biomythography” written by Lorde (2011). See
also, Russell (2009): “In the preface to her ‘autobiography’ Zami, Lorde
describes her work as born from a fusion of ‘dreams/myths/histories that
give the book shape.’ To the authorial signatory, she assigns the following:
‘A Biomythography by Audre Lorde.’ The term biomythography unequiv-
ocally signifies on the autobiographical form. If autobiography is tradition-
ally believed to refer to accurate, chronological, and stable representation
of the events of one’s life (even if only illusorily so), then for Lorde ‘bio-
mythography’ refers to the self-conscious act of destabilizing such conven-
tional dictates” (60).
17. See, for a recent example, McGuire et al. (2014). The authors draw the
central concept of their research from Mutua (2006).
18. On the history and politics informing the problem of child abuse in black
communities, see Patton (2017). She argues there that black children are
more vulnerable than their non-black counterparts given the structural
conditions of antiblackness, and that both this structural vulnerability and
the collective desire among black caretakers to protect them from harm
serve to compound and to normalize their abuse.
19. “At work in all of these cases is an abiding sense of racial mistrust—and
animus—so deep that it appears to diminish the capacity of black Americans
to ponder events rationally. I recognize the legitimacy of this animus,
which I admit I too feel at times. But I suspect that its appearance in
response to incidents like the Imus controversy is largely the result of the
still-unresolved trauma from which black Americans continue collectively
to suffer because, notwithstanding Barack Obama’s historic election and
other indisputable signs of progress, our nation still has barely addressed,
yet alone begun to atone for, its racially motivated sins. Consequently,
manifestations of such animus must be carefully monitored and, when nec-
essary, identified as wholly unhealthy for the black body politic” (Awkward
2009, xv). We see here that Awkward is analogizing the irrationality of the
black community regarding antiblackness generally with the irrationality of
black women regarding misogynoir specifically. Put differently, black peo-
ple generally act like irrational black women specifically, which of course
suggests that black women act most irrationally due to compounded and
overwhelming animus born of unresolved trauma. So where Awkward is
initially concerned with how the unresolved trauma of black men contrib-
utes to the gendered suffering of black women (principally in the form of
66   J. SEXTON

interpersonal violence), he later inverts his emphasis to focus upon the


supposedly deleterious effects for black men of the unresolved trauma of
black women and, likewise, the deleterious effects for white men of the
unresolved trauma of all black people. In the latter case, those less powerful
and more vulnerable “impose” irrational judgment upon black men and
white men respectively, and this presents a problem serious enough for
Awkward to pen (at least) two books describing and denouncing it.
20. It may be important to note what O’Connor’s famous 1953 short story
involves, and it is anything but the titular good man. In brief, a middle-
class Southern white man named Bailey suffers the trifling of his unnamed
mother (known only as “Grandmother”) during an attempt at a family
vacation with his wife and children. His mother’s meddling and deception
lead the family into a fateful encounter with the gang of an escaped pris-
oner (a poor white man called “The Misfit”) who is convicted of murder.
The Misfit’s gang eventually kills the entire family in an off-road wooded
area and Bailey’s mother is the final victim. The Misfit shoots her to death
after she reaches out to him tenderly and says, “You’re one of my own
children.” The Misfit then utters the infamous line: “She would have been
a good woman … if [there] had been somebody there to shoot her every
minute of her life” (O’Connor 1993, 51).
21. We recall that Celie makes this statement in relation to a life of physical,
sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of black men, most centrally her
stepfather, Pa, and her husband, Mr.___.
22. It is stunning that Awkward expresses his disillusionment with black femi-
nists by appropriating so iconic a figure of black women’s suffering, and at
precisely the moment she is testifying to her experience of her husband’s
brutality: “He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never
hardly beat them. He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the
room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself
wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear
man” (Walker 1982a, 23). The phrase “prejudgment of malefaction”
above is an oblique reference to the title of the short story accompanying
the publication of Walker’s most celebrated novel (Walker 1982b).
23. James’ (2002) incisive critique of works by Awkward (1995), Gordon
(1997), and Carbado (1999), and that critique’s relation to her prolific
writing (James 1996, 2013) warrants a careful and detailed reading beyond
the scope of this chapter. While I interrogate different aspects of Awkward’s
project in the current chapter, I was prompted to reread his seminal chap-
ter largely due to its inclusion in James and Sharpley-Whiting (2000) and
I have been greatly instructed by both James’ specific criticism of Awkward
and her larger defense and elaboration of black radical feminism.
24. The long list of noble attributes is cribbed, tongue in cheek, from the offi-
cial oath of the Boy Scouts of America.
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    67

25. He writes, by contrast, of other possibilities: “Unanticipated desires might


arise which could not be contained within the terms of heterosexual
domesticity. Desire might play itself out in no prescribed terms at all, no
terms except those of its own treacherous and unruly drives” (Barrett
1997, 118). This passage is a point of departure for a genuine theorization
of the practice and imagination of “badboys,” or, simply, “black men,” in
a privileged but non-exclusive relation to blackness, that is to say, in the
mix.
26. There is an instructive analogy here to the relation between the psychoana-
lytic cure and conventional healing therapies. Christian Dunker (2011)
writes that psychoanalytic “therapeutic action is not based even on a deon-
tological type of word. It is certain that an analyst may sometimes make a
deontological intervention … but it is not from obedience to these injunc-
tions that one hopes for any progress during the curing process” (30). So,
after indicating that black men must seek resources for an ethics of rela-
tion—with black women, with themselves, and with other others—in nei-
ther negative moral injunctions nor positive moral examples, we can state
more clearly that there is an opposition between ethics and morality at
hand. “This, however, does not authorize us to proclaim that there is any
type of constitutive and specific negation of the form of power involved in
such [moral] practices. That is, it is not sufficient to say that there is an
opposition … that would exempt [ethics] from these strategies of power. It
must be shown how [ethics] depends internally on the practices of nega-
tion or of counterpower derived from points of de-stabilization of the
hegemonic [moral injunctions and examples] and their respective regimes
of truth” (Dunker 2011, 30). Regarding “auditors” Lacan (2006) writes
about the aim of analysis in the full speech of the subject: “For my part, I
would say that she verbalizes it, or … that she forces the event into the
Word [le verbe] or, more precisely, into the epos by which she relates in the
present the origins of her person. And she does this in a language that
allows her discourse to be understood by her contemporaries and that also
presupposes their present discourse” (212). For a critique of the possibility
of full speech for the black, see Wilderson (2010), especially Chap. 2, “The
Narcissistic Slave.”
27. See also, Elizabeth Alexander (1995), who writes: “we all want to look at
black men, whether we are gay or straight, black or white, male or female.
The desire to look is veiled … but the real reason for looking, no matter
who we are, is the sex of it” (161).
28. On the concept of “sexuation,” or the psychic formation of sexual differ-
ence, derived from the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, especially
in its distinction from social constructionist notions of gender difference,
see Salecl (2000), Morel (2011), and Ragland (2012). In her introduction
to the edited volume, Salecl writes: “For Lacan, sexual difference is not a
68   J. SEXTON

firm set of ‘static’ symbolic oppositions and inclusions or exclusions (het-


erosexual normativity that relegates homosexuality and other ‘perversions’
to some secondary role), but the name of a deadlock, of a trauma, of an
open question, of something that resists every attempt at its symbolization”
(Salecl 2000, 2). The “unrelieved crisis” regarding categories of gender
and sexuality (and class and …) produced by the law and logic of racial
slavery is, in part, what Spillers’ oeuvre tracks so adroitly. However, if for
Spillers and other theorists in African American studies—including Rizvana
Bradley, Saidiya Hartman, Sharon Holland, Zakiyyah Jackson, Matt
Richardson, Darieck Scott, C. Riley Snorton, Calvin Warren, and Tiffany
Willoughby-Herard—we cannot think about gender and sexuality as sepa-
rate social categories that apply according to an arithmetic of privileges and
penalties; if, that is, we have to wonder what gender and sexuality might
mean in the first place given the ongoing historical context of racial slavery,
that does not therefore abdicate or minimize the need for a robust black
radical politics that is explicitly feminist, queer and socialist, at least. In fact,
the particular instability or indeterminateness of black genders and sexuali-
ties heightens that need and, moreover, affords it the greatest potential.
The resultant politics are not simply difficult—that is true of all politics—
but also exceptionally intricate.
29. Jackson’s notion of subjectivity without (sanctioned) subjecthood might
provide a means, for the black male, female and/or genderqueer, for think-
ing about masculinity without (sanctioned) manhood.
30. See Richardson (2013) for an elaboration of the larger conceptual frame-
work mobilized in the cited article.
31. Jacques Derrida spent half a century elaborating upon the generativity of
crisis and decision for a whole range of practices—social, political, eco-
nomic—and how distress and consternation arise, in part, from a refusal to
think (about) the conditions of indetermination and undecidability that
make possible not only any ethics worthy of its name, but also all move-
ment and development whatsoever. See, for instance, Derrida (1978) for
his thoughts on crisis and decision; see Wood (2009) for exposition and
explication on the earlier text; and see, finally, Bass (2006) for a discussion
of how deconstruction might inform a “strange ethics” of care.
32. On blackness and the police power, see Wagner (2009). If we can think of
Alexander’s (1995) observations above in relation to Wagner’s arguments
in the presently cited source, then we might talk henceforth about the
eroticized surveillance and sexual regulation that attend all looking at
black men and boys, however such are defined.
33. Jonathan Munby’s (2011) is a study of “the black badman figure” and it is
that figure’s particular ambivalence, for the black community, that he is
interested in exploring. And yet, he also notes in an antiblack world “the
ordinary character of the black life-world is one where one is unavoidably
  WHERE MANHOOD LIES    69

guilty—‘guilty of blackness’” (8). The slippage between this ontological


criminality and the mundane criminality of empirical acts of lawbreaking cre-
ates a productive tension in the text. For a different treatment of the “black
badman figure” or the “bad nigger” and his relation to the emergence of the
“nigga” in the post–civil rights era, see Judy (1994). Judy says apropos of the
latter: “A nigga is that which emerges from the demise of human capital,
what gets articulated when the field nigger loses value as labor. The nigga is
unemployed, null and void, walking around like … a nigga who understands
that all possibility converts from capital, and capital does not derive from
work” (Judy 1994, 212). Consider this, again, alongside Marriott’s question
above: “what value do black men themselves possess as free black men?”
34. I arrived at a similar observation in a critical discussion of the early prison
writings of Eldridge Cleaver, another figure of black masculinity fusing
reactionary criminality, especially the use of gender and sexual violence
against women (and men), and radical political possibility (Sexton 2003).
35. On black male same-sexuality beyond the terms of sexual identity, see
McCune (2014) and Snorton (2014). For different, though related, dis-
cussions of “consensual death-discovering sex” between men, see Dean
(2009) and Bersani (2010).

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CHAPTER 3

Unbearable Blackness

O, speak obliquely, if at all, of History and its slaves.


—Tisa Bryant (2007), Unexplained Presence

Abstract  This chapter explores the ethics and politics of violence as a


question for black feminism, in the special light cast by the ongoing move-
ment for black lives. It suggests that the problem of state-sanctioned vio-
lence against black men and boys can and should be recast as a matter of
reproductive justice under the leadership of black women and girls. It
closes with a parable about black men’s engendering and undoing by black
feminism.

Keywords  Black feminism • Black Lives Matter • Black masculinity


• Policing • Reproductive justice

1
You explain that the political movement gathered beneath the “Black Lives
Matter” banner has amplified and updated the longstanding demand to
end state-sanctioned violence against black people and populations in and
beyond the United States. You outline how the eponymous slogan has pro-
liferated over several years, circulating especially across social media; and
how it now links, rhetorically if not conceptually, a range of racial justice

© The Author(s) 2018 75


J. Sexton, Black Men, Black Feminism,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74126-0_3
76   J. SEXTON

campaigns across an expansive geography and a complex network of local,


state, national and international organizing efforts. You point to its inscrip-
tion on posters and placards throughout the visual archive of the demon-
strations, ongoing at this writing, following the killing of Michael Brown by
Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in early August 2014.1
“#BlackLivesMatter is both a call to action and a response to the ways
in which our lives have been de-valued.” For you to utter this deceptively
simply declarative statement amid “an infinite array of dangers” is no mean
feat (Hartman 1997, 63). Even as you try to come to terms, impossibly,
with the absurdity of the world that this claim indexes, you are still unsure
of what is signifying in what you’ve just said. Black Lives Matter: how so
and to whom, in what ways and by what means, when and under what
conditions, precisely? What, moreover, does it mean to matter at all, much
less for life or a life to matter, for lives to matter, let alone for black lives to
matter? Do black lives matter only when taken together, or taken apart, or
taken apart together? Black lives are (a) strange matter.
You think also, in this moment, about the unspeakable, perhaps
unimaginable ways that black lives have been devalued and you have trou-
ble determining when to start the story—or history or mythology or
fable—or how far afield to draw your sphere of concern. Who, after all, are
your people? And, again, did or do those lives have value in the first place?
Did or do they not, rather, antagonize value? Can black lives as such be
counted and counted upon, in or as a form or principle? Are they account-
able or are they supernumerary? Add to that the fact that you cannot but
wonder about the sort of action that might respond to that devaluing, or
originary non-value, and to speculate, indeed, about forms of value or
anti-value created or derived otherwise: the value of a color, of all color
and colors, or the notes of another score. The usual repertoire won’t do.
And what of your allies, coalescing around the matter or mattering of
black lives lost or taken, today all clamoring that they are so much with
you as to be you too? Which side you are on is easier to assert than to
ascertain. Your beautiful statement of a universal particular is turned on its
head, the agglutination of the world’s largest particular universal, voiced
in radical newspeak. Get out and testify, make it plain. The police are
marching with you now as well, expressing sympathy and solidarity with
the people, your people, denying their social function in the selfsame
moment of execution. You are losing track of where policing ends and
protesting begins. Get out and clarify, speak on it. Take action. You want
to imagine a practice in “the default of the political, in the absence of the
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    77

rights of man or the assurances of the self-possessed individual, and per-


haps even without a ‘person,’ in the usual meaning of the term” (Hartman
1997, 66) You raise the ultra-political possibility of a “spooky action at a
distance”—think otherworldly, act non-locally (Emerging Technology
from the arXiv 2012).2
“Black people in the United States and worldwide are the only people
… for whom it is not productive to speak in terms of police brutality.” Not
because police brutality, as it were, is not a pervasive problem and mortal
threat, but rather because the reigning political philosophy has been built
upon fundamental concepts and categories inadequate for the analysis.
“The world,” or at least that political world in which legible claims and
nameable losses are characteristic, “is not ready to think about policing in
the way that it affects black people. We are policed all the time and every-
where” (Wilderson 2014). You wonder what to do in a world like this.
How many dimensions does it entail? “What shape does resistance or
rebellion acquire when the force of repression is virtually without limit,
when terror resides within the limits of the socially tolerable, when the
innocuous and the insurgent meet an equal force of punishment”
(Hartman 1997, 63)? Innocuous or insurgent, it makes no difference. You
are never innocent, so you waste no breath pleading with a “redeeming
adjective” (Kelley 2008, 108). It makes you want to throw up both your
hands and holler, “Don’t Shoot!” You do not doubt that they will and you
halfway wish they would, again, here and now. “Don’t shoot!” or “Go
ahead and shoot!” What’s the difference?3 You wish them out of existence,
their whole world. And finally:

You come to this, here’s the marrow of it, not moving, not standing, it’s too
much to hold up, what I really want to say is, I don’t want no fucking coun-
try, here or there and all the way back, I don’t like it, none of it, easy as that
(Brand 1997, 48).

But this is not a positive program. This is, as you are wont to say, a poli-
tics without claim or name. You won’t even concede that it’s negative
dialectics. It is much worse than that, or much better, depending on the
vantage, and the wish. You do everything “with the acknowledgment that
conditions will most likely remain the same.” The slogans are for the press,
and that imaginary audience you say you must address, but in your heart
you know they aren’t true, performative contradictions all. You mask that
knowledge because you think you need allies to protect against isolation,
78   J. SEXTON

because you think solidarity is always and only engendered by coalitions,


because you think you need friends beyond those whose raised hands like
yours make no earthly difference, except to elongate the target, because
you think you have some already. You need to be reassured that you have
not fallen prey to resignation or fatalism or irresponsibility, that you have
not given up on struggle as a way of life, as living. No, you cannot but
recognize, if no one else will, “the enormity of the breach instituted by
slavery” (Hartman 1997, 51).
That breach establishes the fundamental project of a negrophobic state
and civil society, and you feel it set violently against you, not as an idea, but
in your very body, your “actual being” (Fanon 2006, 142). The breach is an
established fact for you, from the cradle to the grave, and you have nowhere
from whence to go once more unto it. You are in the breach and of it. We
all are, you say, but few listen. You are never innocent and you realize the
children must know it too. You wonder what is the minimum age for the
loss of innocence or its absence. The children know that innocence is not
black. They never had it to lose. And they will have occasion to learn as
much, over and over again. You live out a valueless form of life whose value
exists as potential in and of another world, a higher-­dimensional space. Your
death in this world, however, is nothing, it is less than nothing, and “as
such, this death is never assumable as possibility” (Marriott 2007, 230).
You cannot protect yourself and you will not be saved. You will teach
that lesson to the young ones and pass it on to them as a mission or a
curse. You cannot protect them with your love or advice, you cannot clois-
ter them, and no one has yet devised an art of war sufficient to the task.
The hatred of the world is upon you. It is also within you. It is the sub-
stance of your waking dreams. None of which in any way diminishes your
desire to fight the good fight. You understand now that black lives matter,
not in or to the present order of knowledge that determines human being,
but only ever against it, outside the limits of the law. You sense in this a
displacement of the human held up between your eventful protests against
a non-human status and your everyday celebrations of an inhuman excess
otherwise known as black power.4

2
Let us assume that the concept of the human, or a certain dominant con-
ception of the human, stands in the way of any collective and insurgent
revaluation of black life as such. Yet, the specter of captivity that haunts
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    79

black experience is both the condition of possibility and the condition of


impossibility for the displacement of the human as such.5 To think further
about such conditions one could do worse than lend attention to a pro-
vocative “forum on violence” featured in a 2012 issue of The Feminist
Wire, cofounded by Tamura Lomax and Hortense Spillers. Omar Ricks,
editor of the forum, opens his commentary with the following question:
“How can we be ethically opposed to some forms of violence while being
in favor of others?”6 On the one hand, this is a version of the paramount
question internal to left politics, a question about the consistency of radi-
cal analysis and practice in face of “cross-cutting issues” (Cohen 1999) or
of outright conflicts of interest. In this sense, the question bears directly
on the possibility and the potential, the form and the function of coalition.
And it bears repeating here that the etymology of the word “coalition”
relates to nourishment: to coalesce is to nourish one another, to supply
what is necessary for life, together, whatever that may be. This is also a
question, with reference to the exemplary work of Wahneema Lubiano
(1999), about the ways that the state structures or solicits the desire and
identification of its erstwhile radical opponents and enemies, such that
state violence gains and retains the aura of legitimacy, or at least inevitabil-
ity, even in the eyes of its victims and at the direct expense of the legiti-
macy of one’s own constituent insurgency or one’s very sense of self.
On the other hand, the question can be inflected in a distinct but
related way, as a matter of how to theorize and to politicize violence in the
midst of violence, to indicate the wetness of water while submerged in it,
if you will, and to ask affirmatively and even pragmatically rather than criti-
cally or poignantly: “How can we be ethically opposed to some forms of
violence while being in favor of others?” I am highlighting the multivalent
nature of Ricks’ opening question, and pointing up the dialectical relation
between the two inflections I’ve offered, with a keen regard for what
seems a crucial aspect of The Feminist Wire’s stated mission. From the
website:

The mission of The Feminist Wire is to provide socio-political and cultural


critique of feminist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics pervasive in all
forms and spaces of private and public lives of individuals globally. Of par-
ticular critical interest to us are social and political phenomena that block,
negate, or limit the satisfaction of goods or ends that humans, especially the
most vulnerable, minimally require for living free of structural violence. The
Feminist Wire seeks to valorize and sustain pro-feminist representations and
create alternative frameworks to build a just and equitable society.
80   J. SEXTON

Life, freedom, structure, and violence: pausing for the moment and
reflecting on the difficulty of these four terms and the preposition that
might properly join them, we sense that the object and the aim of critique
may not only obdurately diverge but also entail their own persistent obscu-
rity. Especially regarding the most vulnerable. The complexity and convo-
lution held at bay by any too-eager assent to the ideal of “living free of
structural violence” become readily apparent if only some alternate phras-
ings are entertained: free of, free from, free for, free to—how are we think-
ing of living free, of life and freedom here? Of violence, from violence, for
violence, with violence, within—what do we mean by violence? And why
qualify it as structural? Recalling our guiding question—“How can we be
ethically opposed to some forms of violence while being in favor of oth-
ers?”—does this formal distinction about structure bear on the pursuit of
the ethical demand? Structural violence: compared to what? Can the
structural form of violence be delimited and, if so, how? In other words,
can we conceptualize it and, if so, can that conceptualization be perceived,
and can that perception be represented? Need it be, in order to do some-
thing about it, assuming one is ethically opposed to it? Need it be assum-
ing, too, that this opposition is also an endorsement of “the satisfaction of
goods or ends that humans, especially the most vulnerable, minimally
require,” whatever and whoever those might be?
Of course, the state does not mean to call attention to structural vio-
lence when it uses the language of terror and wages endless war against it.
But is that what is meant by the state’s opponents and enemies when that
language is appropriated and rearticulated as critique? Or is there some-
thing more at stake in the critical intervention than an inversion of the
terms of opprobrium, even if that inversion is strategically or tactically
useful or even politically necessary? Indeed, critique worthy of its name is
always involved in something more, but not less, than adjudicating culpa-
bility for injustice and issuing moral denunciation. This is true not simply
because critique is often issued to consolidate a base, to preach to the
converted, as it were, rather than to proselytize. We hasten to add that
there is no problem with that sort of preaching, as long as we keep in mind
that preaching at its prophetic best, say, in the tradition of black liberation
theology, has genuine pedagogical value that exceeds any inspiration and
rejuvenation it might produce (Howard 2014). It educates as much as it
agitates, given that conversion to any political position or conviction is not
an event but an asymptotic process. Critique reaches beyond judgment of
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    81

this sort because it is inevitably involved in another problem of the first


order: the problem of formulating the very nature of the problem itself.
Ricks is surely posing an ethical question in his editorial commentary, a
question of how we might position ourselves as partisans in the matter of
violence, in a forum on violence, a place of assembly of the people to dis-
cuss the matter of violence in a context characterized by violence, a struc-
ture, a strange form of relation, a dynamic, perhaps, frozen in space and
time. Concerning violence, however, Ricks and the dozen and a half con-
tributors to this forum are also formulating a question about the nature of
the violence in question. They are asking, in a series about slavery and
colonialism, immigration and nativism, gender and sexual violence that is
by turns essay, meditation, reportage, fiction and poetry—they are, in
essence, asking: what are the forms of violence we oppose and favor? To
these philosophical queries—one ontological, the other ethical—we
should add two more—one epistemological, the other aesthetic: how do
we know anything at all about the forms of violence we oppose and favor,
and how might that knowledge or that violence be represented?
In A Map to the Door of No Return (2001), Dionne Brand cites philoso-
pher David Turnbull, who writes in his well-known 1989 study of com-
parative cartography, Maps Are Territories, “In order to find our way
successfully, it is not enough just to have a map. We need a cognitive
schema as well as practical mastery of way-finding” (Brand 2001, 15).
Brand responds to the point:

This door [of no return] is really the door of dreams. This existence in the
Diaspora is like that—dreams from which one never wakes. Then what here
can be called cognition let alone a schema? A set of dreams, a strand of sto-
ries which never come into being, which never coalesce. One is not in con-
trol in dreams; dreams take place, the dreamer is captive, even though it is
the dreamer who is dreaming. Captured in one’s own body, in one’s own
thoughts, to be out of possession of one’s mind; our cognitive schema is cap-
tivity (Brand 2001, 29, emphasis added).

She continues, as if anticipating charges of pessimism: “But what of all


rebellions, emancipations, political struggles for human rights? Aren’t
these part of the schema, too?” “Yes,” she replies. “Except for the per-
petual retreats and recoveries. In the Diaspora, as in bad dreams, you are
constantly overwhelmed by the persistence of the spectre of captivity”
(29). To be overwhelmed in this way suggests a loss of bearings; and to
82   J. SEXTON

lose ones bearings is to lose the very means by which any loss whatsoever
can be registered; it is to lose the capacity for loss … “even though it is the
dreamer who is dreaming.” Brand writes of “the sudden awful liability of
one’s own body’ produced, singularly, by the dispossessions of slavery,
‘the epidemic sickness with life that would become hereditary,” and “the
antipathy which would shadow all subsequent events” (21). None of
which recommends feelings of belonging or sympathy or togetherness.
These are dreams and stories that never coalesce.
At the outset of her reflections, Brand relates an anecdote from her
childhood in which she asks her grandfather for the name of the people
from which her family descended. Her grandfather says that he knows but
cannot remember if she continues to pester him with her question. So she
waits, for days and then weeks, months, years. No answer. Eventually, she
reports:

The name of the people we came from has ceased to matter. A name would
have comforted a thirteen-year-old. The question however was more com-
plicated, more nuanced. That moment between my grandfather and I sev-
eral decades ago revealed a tear in the world … the rupture this exchange
with my grandfather revealed was greater than the need for familial bonds.
It was a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being (Brand 2001,
4–5, emphasis added).

A rupture in history, in the quality of being, slavery bears on more than


the complicated genealogy of African-derived populations in the
Americas—what Brand calls “the end of traceable beginnings” (5)—and
so cannot be addressed fully by any historical account or sociological
investigation or cultural anthropology, valuable as those might be. It can-
not be addressed fully by any aesthetic inquiry, even if such is necessary.
And, ultimately, slavery cannot be addressed fully if it is only addressed as
a matter of black experience, rather than the epochal transformation it
inaugurates on a global scale: “a tear in the world” is not something that
happens solely to Africans; it is something that happens to everyone, and
with radically incommensurate effects. Is the language of structural vio-
lence, then, adequate “to describe that loss of bearings” (Brand 2001, 21,
emphasis added) and the paradoxical orientation, the cognitive schema, it
continues to provide for every claim to and for history, being, and world?
This question animates what Michael Hanchard (1999) calls “Afro-­
Modernity,” an ensemble of expressions and commentaries that are not
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    83

only “responses to the Middle Passage and racial slavery’ but also ‘to the
age and the technological, normative, and societal conditions that made
the Middle Passage and racial slavery possible” (247, emphasis added). The
question of the possibility of racial slavery is, we might say, the question of
the possibility of global modernity itself, including the development of
historical capitalism and the advent of European imperialism and its colo-
nial devolutions. It bears repeating, following the rather different
researches of Hortense Spillers (2003) and José Buscaglia-Salgado (2003),
that the Middle Passage begins along lines of longitude, north to the
Mediterranean basin by the mid-1400s, well before the Iberian transatlan-
tic enterprise is conceived, much less commenced. As the latter writes in
his Undoing Empire:

The fact is that when we think of the Atlantic contact zone as the place when
the world of modernity/coloniality emerged, it is possible to say, at least
with regards to two of the components of the constitutive triumvirate, that
there was a contact zone in the Old World before there was contact in the
New World. In this sense … and contrary to commonly held beliefs and
longstanding prejudices, the mulatto world [constituted along the African/
European axis] predated and conditioned what would later become known
as mestizaje (Buscaglia-Salgado 2003, 48).

Whatever veracity there is to the description of the mulatto world as a


contact zone, it is not the truth of the matter, any more than it is the truth
of the matter to talk about racial slavery as one among many forced migra-
tions in modern history. Or to talk about racial slavery as a species of racial
oppression or an aspect of the coloniality of power or a variety of social
death or even a form of genocide. If one attends to the movement of
Brand’s thought here, and reads it alongside Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin,
White Masks (2006), with which it remains in a sort of silent dialogue, one
cannot but hear the resonance of the metaphysical destruction that the
revolutionary from Martinique attributes to “the Slavery that dehuman-
ized my ancestors” (179)—a rupture in the quality of being.
When Fanon upbraids his comrade Jean-Paul Sartre for forgetting that
“[the black] suffers in [their] body quite differently from the white”
(Fanon 2006, 117), he does not simply mean that the “species division”
that characterizes racial slavery produces forms of suffering exclusive to
the enslaved African, though this may indeed be the case. Fanon, like
Brand, is identifying a way of suffering that has no analog and that can
84   J. SEXTON

produce no witnesses, not only because the words of such testimony can-
not but be smothered (Kofman 1998), but also, and more importantly,
because racial slavery is “a phantasmatic history of a never happened that
keeps on happening.” It is not only unrepresented or unrepresentable; it
is “present but without presence” (Marriott 2007, 6). David Marriott
(2007) will call this “the occult presence of racial slavery, nowhere but
nevertheless everywhere, a dead time [that] never arrives and does not
stop arriving”; not loss, “but the devastation of never having had” (xxi).
His work, again, like Brand, is “about what lives on from that happening,
and about a projected future so dismal that it is impossible to remember
why we should long for it to be fulfilled” (Marriott 2007, xxi).
As noted, Hanchard speaks of the normative conditions that made the
Middle Passage and racial slavery possible. We can read in that reference
an attempt to supplement, without diminishing, the analysis of political
economy by discerning the libidinal economy that underwrites and sutures
its social dynamics. And so in its formulation of power, and particularly of
the nature and role of violence, Afro-Modernity does not only seek to
describe the operations of systems, structures, and institutions, but also to
anatomize the fantasies of murderous hatred and sexual consumption and
unlimited destruction that motivate the realization of such violence. It is
an analysis, in other words, of how antiblack fantasies attain objective value
in the political and economic life of society and in the psychic life of cul-
ture as well. These fantasies do not render blacks, like much of the planet’s
inhabitants, subject to death in an economy of disposability; rather, they
subject blacks to “the interminable time of meaningless, impersonal dying”
(Marriott 2007, 231, emphasis added). There is a critical difference here.
The legacy bequeathed by racial slavery, “that black life is meaningless and
so black death is meaningless,” is

a legacy in which death is nothing … neither a passage nor a journey, but


simply the arbitrary visitation of a catastrophic violence … a death that cannot
ever die because it depends on the total degradation and disavowal of black
life. […] This is no longer death but a deathliness that cannot be … brought
into meaning. This is death as nothing, less than nothing; as such, this death
is never assumable as possibility (Marriott 2007, 230–1, emphasis added).

Spillers (2003), in her own earlier critical idiom, approaches this domain
in terms of “the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and
valuation” (208). What she finds, in a survey of American culture spanning
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    85

the century and a half since the Emancipation Proclamation, is not some
great variation and shifting in the discourse apropos of the career of the
African American in the United States. Instead, she finds, in a famous pas-
sage, that “dominant symbolic activity … remains grounded in the origi-
nating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time
nor history, nor historiography and its topics, show movement, as the
human subject is ‘murdered’ over and over again by the passions of a
bloodless and anonymous archaism, showing itself in endless disguise”
(208). This finding, if taken seriously, chastens our desire to discover in
political and popular culture something new about contemporary repre-
sentations of racial blackness, whether we designate this moment post–
civil rights, post–Cold War, post-9/11, and so on.
If the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation continue to
ground dominant symbolic activity across the longue durée, it is nonethe-
less the case that their endless disguises continue to adapt and mutate to
meet the exigencies of the now. Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly
than in the discourse of the contemporary “pro-life” movement, suggest-
ing something of the lability and lethality of these originating metaphors
in the nexus of biopolitics and neoliberalism. We are prompted here by
Dani McClain’s brief but insightful article, “The Murder of Black Youth
Is a Reproductive Justice Issue” (2014). She writes therein of the need to
reframe the matter of antiblack police violence as an element of the repro-
ductive oppression of black women:

Often such events are covered as a story about race, police violence, white
supremacy or laws that protect murderers from prosecution. But the killing
of Michael Brown, like the killing of many young black people before him,
is rarely framed as a feminist issue or as an issue of pressing importance to
those who advocate for choice, self-determination and dignity as they relate
to family life (McClain 2014).7

To approach the matter of Ferguson through the conceptual lens of


reproductive justice, to understand it more generally as a question of black
feminist politics, does not only draw attention to the fact that black women
and girls also suffer the forms of state-sanctioned violence typically associ-
ated with black men and boys—that is, they are killed directly by police
officers, security guards, and vigilantes. It also holds in place the under-
standing that every time these same forces kill black men and boys they are
also victimizing, directly and indirectly, those black women and girls who,
86   J. SEXTON

by and large, raise and care for them. One of the overarching advantages
of this critical perspective is its ability to shift away from a narrow emphasis
on the attack on black masculine empowerment—what used to be called
“manhood rights”—to a far more expansive formulation of assault on
black reproductive freedom. What might it mean to stand on its head the
patriarchal assumption that black women’s suffering is a disgrace to black
men and rethink the gendered violence against black men as a component
of gendered violence against black women? This violence, properly under-
stood, encompasses the broad capacity of black people to reproduce as a
people, including the freedom from structural violence that might consti-
tute conditions of livability, but it is aimed most precisely at the nullifica-
tion of black female sexual autonomy—“the right to have children, not
have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy envi-
ronments” (McClain 2014).

3
Some will recall, on that score, that during the 2004 US presidential elec-
tion season, President George W.  Bush signaled his pro-life voter base
during a televised debate with Senator John Kerry, when he offered that
the principal criterion for his selection of Supreme Court Justice nominees
would be “the Dred Scott case, which is where judges years ago said that
the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights.”8
Pulitzer Prize–winning conservative journalist Paul Greenberg (1994)
writes more pointedly that, for this generation, “our own Roger Taney,”
Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court in 1857, is Justice Harry Blackmun,
“author of [the majority opinion in the 1973 case] Roe v. Wade, the Dred
Scott decision of our time.” As these examples indicate, the contemporary
pro-life movement claims Dred Scott v. Sanford as its legal and political
touchstone, through which it attempts to generate what historian Milton
Sernett (1980) calls “public ethics by similitude” (461). In his examina-
tion of the “loop-back” tactic that draws a reactionary political movement
as a parallel to or extension of “the whole Black freedom and civil rights
struggle,” Sernett argues:

In retrospect, the campaign for Black freedom appears as an untarnished


good, and the names of such evangelical zealots as Wilberforce, Woolman,
and Weld echo down the corridors of history. In retrospect, the abolitionist
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    87

impulse, which fostered tactics of moral suasion and political action, is seen
as having opposed a moral blight gravely threatening to the highest Christian
ideals and the social and moral order which was to be modeled on them
(474).

We might debate the idea that “in retrospect, the campaign for Black
freedom appears as an untarnished good” to all concerned parties, but it
does seem clear that the pro-life movement—like so many other post–civil
rights campaigns left, right, and center—is attempting rhetorically to
establish “Black freedom” as “an untarnished good” insofar as their iden-
tification with or citation of such an ideal might afford the moral high
ground. But when applied with some rigor, the analogy between the
denial of legal personhood to the fetus and the denial of legal personhood
to the slave, alongside the identification of the pro-life movement “with
the moral forces generated by the social and political revolution of … the
whole Black freedom struggle,” produces a number of perverse effects.
Taken at its most basic, the analogy of the fetus and the slave recasts the
womb as a slave estate and fetal development as a condition of servitude
or, better, a state of captivity—fetal space is transmogrified into fatal space
as the pro-life movement reveals its hostility not simply to abortion, but to
pregnancy per se. It is on the basis of this misunderstanding that the con-
servative Reverend Clenard Childress (2011), founder of the New Jersey–
based Black Genocide Project, can transpose the conventional pro-life
message for a presumptively black audience: “The most dangerous place
for an African American to be is in the womb of their African American
mother.”9 On first blush, the right to life for the fetus is conflated in this
discourse with the right to liberty of the slave. However, to maintain con-
sistency, or allow for mutual contamination, we must see that both rights
would apply in both cases, such that the right to liberty for the fetus
unfolds as a matter of escape, a liberty for infants with a fugitive status that
will characterize their duration of residence in the free territory of the
postnatal world—birth canal as Underground Railroad. The more radical
prospects of the cessation of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery in
this event would entail the total destruction of female reproductive capaci-
ties, sterilization performed by political obstetricians in the very place oth-
erwise idealized and defended as the origin of life. In fact, the abolition of
fetal slavery, as it were, would be secured only by the transcendence of
sexual difference altogether.
88   J. SEXTON

If we reverse the direction of the metaphoric transfer, things become


even more peculiar. The slave estate in its turn becomes a nurturing, pre-
sumptively white womb wherein the civilizing mission is incorporated into
the innermost membrane, or intima, of the uterine lining. Racial black-
ness as the sine qua non of enslavement is devolved into a form of prenatal
animation—“stuff floating,” as one advocate terms it, in amniotic fluid
somewhere between the embryonic and the fetal, between swelling and
sucking, “a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand
as ‘humanity,’ is inherent to being-human” (Badiou and Slavoj Žižek 2009,
82). Yet, because the proslavery arguments of a Justice Taney would assert
not only the perpetual servitude of the slave but also the perpetuity of the
slave estate, the resultantly interminable pregnancy blurs the line between
the womb and the tomb, deranges the space and temporality of birth and
death, and produces an unviable gestation that never comes to term. It
produces, in a word, an unbearable blackness. Emancipation in this schema
could only take the form of violent intervention, a cesarean birth, so
named from the ancient Roman Lex Caesarea permitting the procedure
for the sake of preserving the life of a royal child against complications
fatal to the mother. For the slave power, the inevitably preterm delivery of
immaculately conceived interracial issue could only result in infant mortal-
ity (a.k.a. “extinction thesis”) or adoption (a.k.a. “repatriation thesis”).10
In this scenario, then, sexual reproduction is not transcended; it is sus-
pended indefinitely.
But whereas the authors of this analogy declare prenatal blackness to be
unbearable because it is unable to leave the womb, the cross-racial identi-
fication of a presumptively white pro-life activist inhabits the figural space
of the unborn because it is unwilling to leave the womb. That is to say, a
political initiative that in every respect betrays profound negrophobia
turns out to be, at its most vulnerable and most strident moment, beholden
to a repressed desire to be black, to be that indeterminate “stuff floating,”
sustained by a ubiquitous and omnipotent force whose enveloping pres-
ence is directly sensed. The refusal thus lodges itself in a fantasy of prena-
tal non-mortality, a form of animate existence impervious to what Jacques
Lacan (1998) alluded to as a castration prior to sexual difference; this is a
hallucinatory projection of the primordial, elemental, undifferentiated
vita that blacks, in the racist imagination, are supposed to enjoy. If, in Life
as Surplus (2008), Melinda Cooper is correct in suggesting that dominant
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    89

symbolic activity figures America as “the unborn born again” (152), then
her analysis of the coalition of the institutions of finance capital, science
and technology, and the religious right must be augmented to account for
the darkness at the heart of this “lust for unalloyed life … a death drive
that wishes death away” (Eigen 2006, 81). And if the dehumanizing con-
ditions of enslavement are defined, in part, by “the end of traceable begin-
nings” (Brand 2001, 5), then the political fantasy of a non-descript unborn
sensuous thing is no less inhuman. Pro-life advocates, much like their pro-
slavery progenitors, accuse the opposition of the “alienation of (natural)
affections”—whether among members of the white race generally or
between mother and child specifically—but their archaic minstrel dream
fixates on a force greater than the putative threats of a desire that is way-
ward (i.e. miscegenation) or unfruitful (i.e. abortion). The true preoccu-
pation of the pro-life movement, its central object of dread and fascination,
is the total cancellation of desire and, hence, the elimination of pleasure
and pain, by an uninterrupted enjoyment.

4
What, then, might a black girl or woman do with her own body, with her
child or kin, in her dwelling, on the printed page, in song, in flight? And
how might this thinking out from the problematic of black feminism ram-
ify upon the open range of black sexual practice and gender performance?
How to remark what is always already marked? This is a question of pos-
sibility of the first order. It may be that the remedy to dispossession lies
not in the spirit of claiming or reclaiming possession but rather in the para-
dox of an even greater and willed dispossession. But how, under constant
assault, to defend what cannot be possessed, to affirm what cannot be
claimed?
Let us consider comments offered by Tamura Lomax in an interview
for The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Scholars and Activists
Speak Out About Why ‘Black Life Matters’.” There, Lomax avers that we
live in a moment “where white safety equals black murder, where black
resistance is read as black terror, where black blood caulks the grounds on
which we walk.” Her response to such conditions is as follows: “My …
goal as a black feminist mother of two teenage sons, and for every mother
and father who’s lost, or fears losing, a child, is that we change the narra-
tive, that we foreground both black rage and black hope” (Mangan 2015,
90   J. SEXTON

emphasis added). It is suggested here that one can see readily the need to
foreground black rage (though, given the general conditions, what
requires explanation is that we see so little, not so much), but we must ask
after the nature of an equally pressing emphasis on black hope. What
would one hope for in a scenario where one’s murder is required for oth-
ers’ peace of mind? More fundamentally, the effects of this social violence
against oneself hold together the very basis of the status quo, shoring up
the cracks in its foundation, bolstering the platform of its reproduction.
(Not for nothing, the earliest forms of caulking were used to make water-
tight seams for wooden boats. And we know something of the ways that
black blood was pressed into service for such maritime adventure.)
We might read “rage” and “hope” here in implicitly gendered terms, as
Lomax’s double emphasis is intertextually linked to the contemporaneous
intervention on the “Black Lives Matter” movement and its correspond-
ing social media meme. The African American Policy Forum’s 2015 report
and media campaign, #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against
Black Women, encapsulates a ongoing critical rejoinder to the singular
focus on black male victims of police violence.11 The AAPF maintains:

#SayHerName gathers stories of Black women who have been killed by


police and who have experienced gender-specific forms of police violence,
provides some analytical frames for understanding their experiences, and
broadens dominant conceptions of who experiences state violence and what
it looks like (Crenshaw and Ritchie 2015).

Though #SayHerName is framed as a compliment to #BlackLivesMatter,


it also bears the trace of a corrective. Strange too since the latter is, from
its inception, a queer feminist proposition at least. #BLM would not seem
to require modification or specification or expansion against a presump-
tively male and heterosexual victim of antiblack violence, precisely because
it is that insistent modification and specification and expansion, the collec-
tive enunciation of a tradition of black queer feminist activist intervention
and leadership dating back most immediately to the international demon-
strations following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the mur-
der of Trayvon Martin the previous year. Such leadership—radically
democratic in form and content—has only continued and grown since
that time (Pierre-Louis 2015). The phrase was coined by Patrisse Cullors,
Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi in order to challenge expressly “the narra-
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    91

tive out there about black men being the only ones … impacted by state
violence” and to assert, likewise, that when “we’re talking about Black
Lives Matter, we’re talking about all black lives” (Smith 2014, emphasis
added): Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride and Eric Garner and Aiyana
Stanley-Jones and Sean Bell and CeCe McDonald and Jonathan Ferrell
and Rekia Boyd and Tanisha Anderson and Yvette Smith and Miriam
Carey and Shelly Frey and Malissa Williams and Shereese Francis and
Tarika Wilson and so on.
How, then, did a black radical political–intellectual project generated
largely by the labor of black queer women and informed centrally by the
discourse of black feminist and queer theory become associated, again and
still, with a masculinist and heteronormative popular reception? How,
moreover, to forge a different public understanding of its aims and
­objectives, its principal terms and concepts, and its actual constituency? In
short, why is the hashtag and slogan—Black Lives Matter—not sufficient
to mark the intervention and announcement of Cullers, Garza and Tometi?
Why is their decision to employ that phrase deliberately, even provoca-
tively, and to claim the fullness of the meaning of unspecified black lives,
supplemented by the introduction of a novel rallying cry? Does it not
make an enunciative difference when black queer women invoke the par-
ticular universal blackness of their movement?

Our hope is that this document will honor the intention of the
#BlackLivesMatter movement to lift up the intrinsic value of all Black lives
by serving as a resource to answer the increasingly persistent call for atten-
tion to the Black women killed by police. This document offers prelimi-
nary information about the police killings of Black women that have not
galvanized national attention or driven our analysis. The information pre-
sented here is organized around two themes. First, we seek to highlight
the fact that many killings of Black women could be understood within the
existing frames surrounding racial profiling and use of lethal force. The
solution to their absence is not complex; Black women can be lifted up
across the movement through a collective commitment to see what is in
plain sight. Second, we present cases that highlight the forms of police
violence against Black women that are invisible within the current focus on
police killings. The challenge here is to expand the existing frames so that
this violence is legible to activists, policymakers and the media (Crenshaw
and Ritchie 2015, 3).
92   J. SEXTON

Is it only the intention of #BLM and not the accomplishment? But


then, again, is it possible to lift up the intrinsic value of any black lives, let
alone all? Perhaps we cannot remedy the trouble with the latter adequately
and build, as we must, “a gender inclusive movement to end state vio-
lence” unless we can address more basically the problem with the former.
The late Lindon Barrett, one of the last generation’s most incisive theo-
rists of gender and sexuality in the field of black studies, did not mince
words when opening an article on the murder of high-profile black men
with this striking line: “The dead body is one thing; the dead black body
another” (Barrett 1999, 306). For Barrett, because racial blackness is “so
fully defined by and within desire,” the dead black body cannot assume its
own death as “a site obdurately outside all desire.” Rather, because the
defining desirability of racial blackness “demands regulation, also by defi-
nition,” the inert figure of the dead black body “has a highly useful social
valence … a highly consequential social production” that is both ­profitable
and subjectivizing for that collectivity “allowed to take public form in col-
lective recognition and negotiation of the crisis” (Barrett 1999, 306). The
overriding question is, once more: “how do we create a world where black
lives matter,” to everyone or, rather, to everyone else as well? What econo-
mies—political, libidinal, symbolic—must be destroyed or negated, what
others forged or affirmed?
With respect to the evolving visual archive of the movement for black
lives, I find myself returning to an image I want to call, in the spirit of this
book, “Lucifer’s Nocturne.” Photographer Stephen Lam captured the
image for the Reuters international news agency during a November 2014
protest in Oakland, California, following the grand jury decision not to
indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson,
Missouri, earlier that year (Fig. 3.1). Although the image presents what
might be taken as a cliché of young black male defiance—the prototypical
target of state violence as the prototypical agent of protest, betraying a
recto/verso oscillation between vulnerability and threat—it displays sev-
eral elements that cut suggestively against the grain. On the one hand, we
have some familiar dramatic elements: within the nighttime setting, the
bright white ring of fire establishing the border of the depth of field, form-
ing a semi-circle behind the photograph’s central figure, blurred flames
rising overhead; the illuminated façade of buildings reflecting the soft
orange incandescence in the background, punctuated by concentrated
bursts of halogen streetlight; the vague outline of a crowd, of protesters or
police or both we cannot discern. There is, as well, the acute juxtaposition
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    93

Fig. 3.1  Protester rests during a November 2014 demonstration in Oakland,


California, against the grand jury decision in the case of Officer Darren Wilson.
Image reproduced with permission from Reuters Pictures

of the ubiquitous political slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” carefully hand-


brushed in black paint on a white mounted placard and the anonymous
graffiti, hastily written with black spray paint on the inside panel of the
open lid of a nearby dumpster, exhorting the passing reader: “Kill Cops.”
One cannot help but notice that were the dumpster closed properly, the
latter injunction—criminal, insurrectionary—would remain concealed
amid things thrown away and discarded by society, energy and material
recycled and refurbished to maintain the status quo. In this scene, how-
ever, the lid seems almost blown open by some incendiary force, scattering
bottles, loose papers, and scraps of metal, and setting the vicinity ablaze.
On the other hand, the high contrast between the asymmetric violence
of and against the state is displaced by the strange repose of the young
black man, our Lucifer—“the shining one,” “the bringer of the dawn,”
“the morning star”—resting with his weight shifted back, reclined and
feet outturned, arms upon his knees, pensive perhaps, in the midst of
burning refuse. There is an unusual sort of composure here that does not
strike us as resignation or fatigue so much as the secular miracle of “think-
94   J. SEXTON

ing in disorder,” to borrow a phrase from R. A. Judy (forthcoming). The


delicacy of such political-intellectual activity, indexed by an almost palpa-
ble abeyance of kinesthesia, is underscored by the fact that this image
captures a black body set upon the forklift pallet where usually there is
commercial cargo accumulating in storage, processed in the circulation of
capital, or exchanged in the realization of value. Though replete with the
trappings of contemporary consumer culture—dark sweatpants and
bomber jacket, highlighted brand-name training shoes, a designer watch
and trendy bracelets, ear buds to a portable media player placed gently on
the ground—the lost interval between (the vulnerability of) pedestrian life
and (the threat of) protest collapses the narrative of progress into the eter-
nal, or sempiternal, time of slavery. And with that narrative goes the eman-
cipatory pretense of access to, and perhaps investment in, civil society and
its most salient accoutrements, including, one must hope, heteropatriar-
chal gender and sexual discipline. This rather different cool pose indicates
something of the transformation of dominant aspirations that are possible,
or at least imaginable, in apprenticeship to this movement: the reeduca-
tion of a black radical political culture as a movement for all black lives,
precisely because it “centers those that have been marginalized within
Black liberation movements.”
Returning to Lomax, we see that she is no stranger to what Audre
Lorde (2012) famously called “righteous rage.” Indeed, Lomax defends it
elsewhere against all those who would, for instance, advise black mothers
of slain children to manage their anger (Lomax 2014). And still, she is
careful to distinguish and even to distance rage from violence, and she
would seem to solder rage and hope together lest the former become
despairing or vengeful. In foregrounding black rage with black hope, I
suspect she means to avoid, say, the tragic violence of an Ismaaiyl Brinsley,
whose self-styled retaliatory execution of two officers of the New  York
Police Department and subsequent public suicide in December 2014 was
preceded by his shooting and wounding a former intimate partner, a black
woman named Shaneka Thompson—an entrenched pattern in which
black men commit reactionary forms of domestic violence they under-
stand to be prefatory to or preparatory for public acts of insurrection
against the state, a pattern that, I would add, reposes fundamental ques-
tions about what constitutes revolutionary (and reactionary) violence in
the first place.12
To be sure, there is a venerable tradition in defense and celebration of
black feminist rage. But is there such thing as black feminist violence? Not
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    95

(only) a tradition of black women militants engaged in armed struggle


normatively associated with men, from the nineteenth-century historical
accounts of Harriet Tubman, after whose military exploits during the US
Civil War the black lesbian feminist Combahee River Collective took its
name, to the twentieth-century emergence of African women soldiers in
the socialist-inspired anti-colonial wars of liberation, depicted powerfully
by the titular “Bush Mama” in Haile Gerima’s 1979 film; but rather (also)
a tradition of black women’s violence as a distinct form or mode of action;
not black feminists that deploy or make recourse to violence but ways and
means of violence that are black and feminist. If black rage and hope are
thought to combine into a non-compliant but non-violent alloy, is there
not a way to think, by contrast, about a violence indifferent to hope, a
violence unmotivated by rage, a violence irreducible to the dialectics of
love and hate? Is there a violence that, as Nikki Giovanni once said, simply
“cannot take the weight of a constant degradation” (Fowler 1992, 96), a
violence that operates as a response per se, as what we might call a defense
without positive content, and thereby unavailable to reactionary appro-
priation? Is this not a subtext of Saidiya Hartman’s (1997) discussion of
the 1855 Missouri Circuit Court case of 19-year-old Celia, a slave, who in
defense of herself against institutionalized rape and sexual assault by her
master beat him to death with a stick, dismembered his body, and burned
the remains? Or, returning to Bush Mama, would this not be another way
to consider the case of the protagonist Dorothy, who in defense of her
daughter against state-sanctioned rape and sexual assault by an officer of
the Los Angeles Police Department stabs him to death—in media res—
with the sharp end of an umbrella (Fig. 3.2)?
How might an exploration of the possibility of black feminist violence
reframe even those contemporary campaigns of support for black women
in defense of themselves, those black women who, as Mariame Kaba (2014)
powerfully phrased it, “have had no selves to defend” (3)? For CeCe
McDonald, who in 2011 stabbed to death Dean Schmitz in her defense
against a racist, transphobic attack by Schmitz and his friends in Minneapolis,
Minnesota (Cox 2016); for Marissa Alexander, who in 2010 fired a warn-
ing shot from a pistol to stop an attack from her abusive husband, Rico
Gray, in Jacksonville, Florida (Hauser 2017); for the New Jersey 4 (Patreese
Johnson, Renata Hill, Venice Brown, and Terrain Dandridge), who in
2006 were accused of beating and stabbing Dwayne Buckle in the course
of defending themselves against his sexist, homophobic harassment and
assault in Manhattan, New  York (Doroshwalther 2014); for Cyntoia
96   J. SEXTON

Fig. 3.2  Dorothy


(Barbara O.) holds
her daughter, Luann
(Susan Williams), in
Haile Gerima’s Bush
Mama (1979). Image
reproduced under
terms of fair use

Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison for her conviction, at the age of
16, for the 2004 murder of 43-year-old Johnny Allen in Nashville,
Tennessee (Birman 2011); for Montilla Seewright, one of the ten “Sisters
in Pain” granted clemency in 1995 by outgoing Governor Brereton Jones
for the 1992 shooting of her abusive boyfriend, Roy Page, in Louisville,
Kentucky (Beattie and Shaughnessy 2000); for the late Debbie Peagler,
who spent 26 years in prison for the 1983 murder of her abusive boyfriend,
Oliver Wilson, before her conviction was overturned in 2009, less than a
year before her death from cancer (Potash 2011).13
None of the above cases involves self-defense against an agent of the
state in the discharge of a duty, a point that encourages us to revisit and
reconsider especially the momentous 1974 case of Joan Little, who, at the
age of 20, killed a white male prison guard in defense against his sexual
assault while in custody at the Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North
Carolina. Little’s case was a touchstone of radical politics in that moment
and the improbably successful legal defense was spearheaded by black
women’s national and international organizing (Davis 2002). The “Free
Joan Little” campaign drew upon and contributed to the longstanding
collective efforts of black women to resist physical and sexual violence,
including mobilizations around the 1944 interracial sexual assault case of
Recy Taylor that involved the dedicated work of one Rosa Parks and
played a pivotal role in developing the political infrastructure of the mod-
ern Civil Rights Movement (McGuire 2010). This is the historical tem-
plate: on the one hand, white male state officials, or deputies of whatever
race-gender configuration, claiming fear for life and limb before the imagined
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    97

threat of a conglomerate blackness and deploying lethal violence with


impunity, or professing a self-arrogated right to the body and acting with-
out compunction; on the other, black women and girls, in particular,
inhabiting “long centuries of unregulated violence” (Spillers 2003, 19),
seeking an impossible and inadmissible defense by any means necessary, up
to and including recourse to the deadly strike.14
Such proposition runs the risk of elevating use of violence to the level
of principle—rather than a tactic among others in a broad strategic inte-
gration—with the concomitant risk of implying a threshold of resistance
to establish the political phenomenon in the first instance. But “by any
means necessary” is not to be conflated with “by any means available,”
which is how too many misinterpret the idea. The aim of raising the pre-
ceding questions concerning violence of a black feminist provenance is to
pursue some other means of communicating with, and within, a frequency
whose transmission is too often broken up by interference or signal loss.
Let this account of protests over the November 2014 police killing of
Aura Rosser, who was shot dead in her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan,
during a domestic dispute response, serve as a prompt:

There, a young black woman who had shared a jail cell with Aura Rosser
grabbed the megaphone. “If you don’t know, we are at war! And you can’t
fight war with peace. Tomorrow we go to war,” she yelled. An older white
woman in the crowd, a product of the New Left generation, yelled back,
“No, tomorrow, we go to work, to work together.” The young woman
responded, “Y’all ain’t hearing me” (Editors 2014). 

5
In a provocative essay on the relationship between photography and
lynching at the turn of the twentieth century in his book, On Black Men
(2000), Marriott describes the production of racial blackness in the white
imagination as an “afflicted,” “fatal way of being alive”: a figure reduced
through captivity and mutilation to something that “don’t look human”
(15). At the turn of the twenty-first century, as the violence of an authen-
tic upheaval now turns in the void and the floating stuff of reactionary
dreams is backlit by the diagnostic imaging of the three-dimensional sono-
gram, racial blackness reappears as an affected, fetal way of being alive,
both unborn and undead: blackness unbearable and unburiable. In his
later text, Haunted Life (2007), Marriott, in a rather direct line of thought,
maintains:
98   J. SEXTON

[B]lackness has become a right to death that sees in death its most essential
property. The essence of blackness, its origin or its possibility, would be this
right to death; but a death denuded of that … sovereignty that gains from
death its own sacrificial mastery … and maintains itself in it. This is life as the
work of death, a work born of fidelity to death, but death without transcen-
dence (226).

The pursuit of this right to death—which is not to be confused with a


right or a willingness or even a wish to die—poses an ethical question, one
posed most famously by Fanon, about whether “this death, which testifies
to a lawless violence almost beyond representation, can be redeemed, in
turn, by black revolutionary violence” (Marriott 2007, 231), a violence
set loose by nothing less than an affirmation of a tear in the world itself.
And so I offer in closing one last contribution from Ricks (2012), a
fable about a day in the life of an Africanized honeybee. I preface it with a
paragraph from the Wikipedia (2014) entry about the notorious species:

Africanized honey bees, known colloquially as ‘killer bees,’ are some hybrid
varieties of the Western honeybee species (Apis mellifera), produced origi-
nally by cross-breeding of the African honey bee A. m. scutellata, with vari-
ous European honeybees such as the Italian bee A. m. ligustica and the
Iberian bee A. m. iberiensis. The hybrid bees are far more aggressive than
any of the various European subspecies. Small swarms of Africanized bees
are capable of taking over European honeybee hives by invading the hive
and establishing their own queen.

Finally, “Africanized: A Story”:

She swung at me with her open left hand. I had been deeply ensconced in
my work—as workers must be—and I didn’t execute quickly enough. She
grazed me with her pinky, and I felt the crushing pain of a broken wing as I
spun a corkscrew across the back corner of the kitchen and ricocheted off of
a rare, intact portion of the torn screen through which I had grown accus-
tomed to entering.
When I touched a pulsating, translucent strand of hair that had emerged
prematurely (and unattractively) from her 27-year-old chin, she hissed
through her nostrils and twitched in her smug chauvinism at the merest hint
of cross-species contact, causing me to slip and land with a thump near the
wrist of her resting forearm.
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    99

It all took me by surprise. I had harassed many humans. None but those
temporary squatters had dared take a swing at me in all my days—and cer-
tainly no one with such good hand-eye coordination had lived in this old
bungalow since the days of the Originals. And so I had not been accustomed
to landing so hard.
In the course of my twenty-three-day life as a worker, I had always been
able to land with careful grace, where and when would best please the
Queen. And I had avoided these kinds of fights with the same grace.
But this human was different.
She appeared to feel a deep sense of entitlement to this space, our space.
And since our concerns could not be reconciled with hers, we couldn’t
coexist here, and I surmised that she must be possessed of a passionately felt
will to annihilate all my kind. Against this I would be absolutely powerless.
And I faced the terrifying reality that I could not reason with her. It was all
going to end here at the terminus of her slender, auburn-freckled arm.
I felt all my days collapse into this moment and decided for the only Last
Act of Glory afforded me. I plunged my barbed stinger into an open pore.
The last thing I heard was a roar, probably an obscenity in some human
language.
To me, it was Gospel Music.
I had wanted to die pretty much like this. Not old and full of weeks, and
abandoned beneath some creeping vine where I had been competing with
those fucking hummingbirds for all eternity. And not from the disoriented
starvation of that dreadful electromagnetic field near the cell phone tower.
This was the way to go. Locked in struggle with an organism that had
directly threatened the hive. For the Queen.
And so I shifted what remained of my weight forward and felt the sub-
lime jouissance of self-evisceration just milliseconds before the Screaming
One squished the only body I had ever known (Ricks 2012).

Notes
1. The phrase was coined by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
In addition to the slogan’s ubiquitous presence at protests in downtown
Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, “Black Lives Matter” was displayed on ban-
ners at venues in the greater St. Louis area both prestigious and popular,
including Powell Symphony Hall during a performance of the St. Louis
Symphony Orchestra and at Edward Jones Stadium during an NFL
Monday Night Football broadcast of the St. Louis Rams. The slogan
quickly went viral across social media and can be seen readily at protests
nationally and internationally as well (Garza 2014).
100   J. SEXTON

2. This is, of course, Einstein’s famous phrase describing his critique of quan-
tum mechanics in the interwar years of the early twentieth century. The
idea of rethinking political action in light of developments in quantum
physics, thereby updating figures of political theory drawn largely from the
Newtonian paradigm, is being advanced most pertinently by da Silva
(2013), but see also Hage and Kowal (2011).
3. This speech act is often dramatized by a mocking choreography of group
surrender, wherein demonstrators collectively display their empty hands,
palms open and overhead, to the police. Some go so far as to kneel down
and interlace their fingers behind their heads. Before long, others will lie
face down. Perhaps eventually they will handcuff themselves and line up
against the wall, or along the sidewalk. In satirizing this paradigmatic
encounter between black people and the police, the scene nonetheless
presents an aporia: “Is it possible to consider, let alone imagine, the agency
of the performative when the black performative is inextricably linked with
the specter of contented subjection, the tortuous display of the captive
body, and the ravishing of the body that is the condition of the other’s
pleasure” (Hartman 1997, 52)?
4. I am informed on this point by the ongoing public dialogue between Alain
Badiou and Slavoj Žižek as encapsulated in their coauthored text (2009).
Badiou states there: “‘Inhuman’ must be understood as the affirmative
conceptual element from within which one thinks the displacement of the
human. And this displacement of the human always presupposes that one
has accepted that the initial correlation is the link between the human and
the inhuman, and not the perpetuation of the human as such” (82, empha-
sis in original). Žižek, in turn, elaborates on this link with a riff on the
Kantian indefinite judgment, stating: “[Saying] ‘he is not human’ is not
the same as [saying] ‘he is inhuman’—‘he is not human’ means simply that
he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while ‘he is inhuman’ means
… that he is neither human nor [non-human], but marked by a terrifying
excess which, although it negates what we understand as ‘humanity,’ is
inherent to being-human” (21–2). On the notion of black power, a form
of power that is black, rather than Black Power, a form of power for blacks,
see Scott (2010), where he writes: “This power (which is also a way of
speaking of freedom) is found at the point of the apparent erasure of ego-
protections, at the point at which the constellation of tropes that we call
identity, body, race, nation seem to reveal themselves as utterly penetrated
and compromised, without defensible boundary. ‘Power’ in this context
thus assumes a form that seems repugnant or even nonsensical, for its con-
ditions of appearance are defeat and violation” (9, emphasis in original).
5. Dionne Brand (2001) writes: “In the Diaspora, as in bad dreams, you are
constantly overwhelmed by the persistence of the spectre of captivity”
  UNBEARABLE BLACKNESS    101

(29). For a brilliant discussion of the displacement of the human within the
historical formation of black culture, see Keeling (2005).
6. The question is deeply reminiscent of the political and intellectual labors of
Joy James, evident from her first major work, Resisting State Violence
(1996) to her recent volume, Seeking the Beloved Community: A Feminist
Race Reader (2013).
7. On this score, see also Lomax (2014), Silliman et al. (2004), and Roberts
(2002).
8. For a discussion of this comment in historical context, see Greenberg
(2009), especially Part III.
9. For a critical discussion of African American participation in the “pro-life”
and other rightwing movements, see, for instance, Dillard (2002) and
Prisock (2003).
10. For a good critical discussion of Frederick Hoffman’s notorious 1897
“extinction thesis” regarding the fate of the American Negro, see Roberts
(2009), especially Chap. 2. On the nineteenth-century movement to repa-
triate African-derived people in the United States, see Burin (2005).
11. The African American Policy Forum, a think tank founded by legal scholar
and political commentator Kimberlé Crenshaw, partnered with the Center
for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia University and
Soros Justice Fellow Andrea Ritchie in preparing and revising the report.
12. I thank Dr. Selamawit Terrefe for making this crucial point in conversation.
I hope, in this light, to revisit an earlier analysis of the notorious career of
Eldridge Cleaver, former Minister of Information for the Black Panther
Party for Self Defense and radical political exile turned conservative
Republican pundit, evangelical Christian and, still later, member of The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Sexton 2003).
13. The defense campaigns in these and many related cases have argued, in lieu
of a right to kill one’s abuser per se (which opens the difficult question of
what constitutes abuse as such and when such a condition is properly
established), for revised and expanded legal notions of imminent danger
and appropriate force. For more on the history and present of such legal
defense work, and the political organizing that sustains them, see Kaba
(2014) and the website of the national organizing project Survived and
Punished: http://www.survivedandpunished.org/.
14. Spillers herself mused about something in this vein during her 2014 Koehn
Lecture at the University of California, Irvine, “Some Speculations on
Sentiment: Women and Revolutions” (presenting themes later reprised in
her 2014 W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University). Amid a critical
reading of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s acclaimed 1979 novel, Sally Hemings,
Spillers described a pivotal moment of clarification for the eponymous
enslaved protagonist regarding her master and eventual President of the
102   J. SEXTON

United States, Thomas Jefferson, who, in lamenting his forlorn paternal


legacy, has just disavowed the four sons shared by him and Hemings: “I
don’t have four sons,” he states. “You have four sons” (Chase-Riboud
2009, 276). Spillers delighted in the fictional Hemings’ response, which I
quote at length: “Silence. I had burned for him and I had birthed for him.
Seven times I had descended into that valley from which neither his wife
nor one of his daughters had returned. And my sons stood as testament
and hostage to a body I could never call my own. I felt an explosion of
insulted motherhood, all red and brown, like the leaves scattered on the
lawn outside the window. His back was turned to me. My eyes sought the
iron poker lying within my reach near the chimney. I wanted to strike that
broad blue-sheathed back. I wanted to strike and strike again, with all my
strength, to smash him. Oh God, I wanted to kill him, for now, after all
these years, I understood what he had understood from the beginning, but
had not had the courage to tell me” (276). Spillers subsequently con-
cluded her lecture with this powerfully apposite comment: “What our writ-
ers have paid imaginative witness to is the fact that there is no human
loneliness and alone-ness remotely comparable to that of the enslaved
beyond the reach and scope of love and freedom. The day that the enslaved
decides to act out the threat of death that hangs over her, by risking her
life, is the first day of wisdom. And whether or not one survives is perhaps
less important than the recognition that, unless one is free, love cannot and
will not matter.”

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Index1

NUMBERS AND SYMBOLS Scenes of Instruction, 49, 50,


#SayHerName campaign, 90 52, 53 (see also Black male
feminism)

A
Africanized honeybee, 98 B
Alexander, Elizabeth, 67n27 Baldwin, James, “the male prison”, 11
Alexander, Marissa, 95 Barrett, Lindon, 11, 55, 92
Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness Bell, Sean, 91
and the Critique of Birth of a Nation, The (2016), 26
Multiracialism, 42 Black feminism, 4, 42, 53–55, 57, 61
See also Multiracialism Black Genocide Project, 87
Anderson, Tanisha, 91 Black kinship, 43, 47, 89
Antiblackness, 57 Black Lives Matter, 75, 76, 78, 90, 91,
gendered dimensions, 42 99n1
Awkward, Michael, 42, 48, 50, 51, 53, Black male feminism, 4, 16–18, 42,
54, 62n2, 62n4, 64n15, 66n22, 46, 47, 54, 62n9, 63n10, 64n11
66n23 Black masculinity, 1–3, 27, 58, 61
“A Black Man’s Place in Black eroticism of, 55, 60
Feminist Criticism”, 42, 45, 47 as figures of state sanctioned
Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a authority, 43
Scapegoat, 51, 53, 54 problematic of, 42

 Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.


1

© The Author(s) 2018 107


J. Sexton, Black Men, Black Feminism,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-74126-0
108   INDEX

Black masculinity (cont.) Davis, Angela, 5


progressive, 42, 48, 55 Davis, Jordan, 3, 91
the good-black-mandate, 55 Derrida, Jacques, 68n31
Black Masculinity and the Cinema Dred Scott v. Sanford, 86
of Policing, 43
Black matriarch stereotype, 10
Black mothering, 89 E
Blacks in officialdom, 43 Ellis, Aimé J., 58–61
Black women’s autonomy, 86, 90 thug imaginary, 60
Boyd, Rekia, 91
Brand, Dionne, 77, 81–84, 100n5
Brinsley, Ismaaiyl, 94 F
See also Thompson, Shaneka Fanon, Frantz, 33n9, 42, 56, 83, 98
Brown, Cyntoia, 95–96 Feminist Wire, The, 79
Brown, Michael, 76, 85, 92 Ferguson protests, 92
See also Ferguson protests; Wilson, See also Brown, Michael
Darren Ferrell, Jonathan, 91
Brown, Stacia L., 3 “Final Girl”, 27, 29, 34n16, 34n17
Brown, Venice, 95 See also Get Out
See also New Jersey 4 Francis, Shereese, 91
Burnett, Charles, 7, 10, 33n9 Frey, Shelly, 91
See also Killer of Sheep
Bush Mama, 95
Butler, Paul, 5–7 G
the chokehold, 6, 15 Garner, Eric, 91
Garza, Alicia, 90, 91, 99n1
See also Black Lives Matter
C Gender and sexual violence, 43, 48,
Carey, Miriam, 91 49, 51, 64n12
Celia, a slave, 95 against Black men and boys, 43, 85
See also Hartman, Saidiya against Black women and girls, 43,
Cleaver, Eldridge, 60, 69n34, 101n12 48, 53, 85, 95–97
Color Purple, The, 52, 66n22 Get Out, 21, 22, 24, 26
Combahee River Collective, 95 gender politics, 27, 30, 31,
Cooper, Melinda, 88 34n14, 35n19 (see also Racial
Cullors, Patrisse, 90–91, 99n1 slavery)
See also Black Lives Matter Giovanni, Nikki, 95

D H
Dandridge, Terrain, 95 Hanchard, Michael, Afro-Modernity,
See also New Jersey 4 82, 84
D’Angelo, “Untitled: How Does it Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri,
Feel?”, 60 new Prince, 18
 INDEX 
   109

Hartman, Saidiya, 59, 68n28, 95 devil in western thought, 13, 16


Heath, Stephen, 63n11 inversion of the inversion, 15
See also Black male feminism zone of indetermination, 16
Hemings, Sally, 101n14
See also Spillers, Hortense
Hill, Renata, 95 M
See also New Jersey 4 Marriott, David, 84, 98
Hooks, bell, 64n11 On Black Men, 55–58, 60, 97
Hypodescent, 42 Martin, Trayvon, 90
McBride, Renisha, 91
McClain, Dani, 85, 86
J See also Policing, as a reproductive
Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman, 56–58 justice issue
See also Marriott, David McDonald, CeCe, 91, 95
James, Joy, 54, 101n6 Middle Passage, 82–84
Johnson, Patreese, 95 Moonlight, 26
See also New Jersey 4 Movement for Black Lives, 61
Judy, R.A., 69n33, 94 See also Black Lives Matter
Moynihan Report, 44
Multiracialism, 43
K multiracial coalition building, 43
Kaba, Mariame, 95–97 proprieties of coalition, 43
Kaluuya, Daniel, 21–22 Munby, Jonathan, 2–3, 60, 68n33
See also Get Out
Killer of Sheep, 7–13
King, Albert, “Born under a bad N
sign”, 3 New Jersey 4, 95
Kotsko, Adam, 13–15
See also Wilson, Darren
O
O’Connor, Flannery, “A Good Man is
L Hard to Find”, 52
Lacan, Jacques, 67n26, 67n28, 88
Lemons, Gary, “To be Black, Male,
and ‘Feminist’: Making P
Womanist Space for Black Parks, Rosa, 96
Men”, 63n11 (see also Black See also Taylor, Recy
male feminism) Peagler, Debbie, 96
Little, Joan, 96 Peele, Jordan, 21–22
Lomax, Tamura, 79, 89–91, 94 See also Get Out
Lorde, Audre, 65n16, 94 Policing, 60–61, 76–78, 91–93, 97
Lubiano, Wahneema, 56, 79 as a reproductive justice issue,
Lucifer, 19, 92, 93 85–87
110   INDEX

Q Stanley-Jones, Aiyana, 91
Queer theory, 42, 57 Survived and Punished,
101n13

R
Racial blackness, 20, 88, 92, 97 T
Racial slavery, 83–84 Taylor, Recy, 96
afterlife of, 47 Terrefe, Selamawit, 101n12
as explored in Get Out, 21, 24, Thompson, Shaneka, 94
34n16, 35n18 Tillich, Paul, 17
gender, 5, 10–11, 42–44 Tometi, Opal, 90–92, 99n1
kinship, 20, 43–45 See also Black Lives Matters
Richardson, Matt, 57–58, 68n28, 68n30 Tubman, Harriet, 94–96
Ricks, Omar, 79–81, 98 Turnbull, David, 81
Roe v. Wade, 86 See also Brand, Dionne
Rosser, Aura, 97

V
S Violence, how to theorize or politicize,
Scott, Darieck, 19, 21, 68n28, 100n4 78–81, 84, 94
“where manhood lies”, 19 structural, 79–82
Seewright, Montilla, 96
Sexual regulation, 68n32, 86–87
See also Policing W
Smith, Yvette, 91 Wilderson III, Frank B., 67n26
Spillers, Hortense, 42, 57, 68n28, Williams, Malissa, 91
82–85, 97, 101–102n14 Wilson, Darren, 13–15, 76, 92
“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, See also Brown, Michael; Ferguson
43–47, 64n15 (see also protests
Awkward, Michael; Hemings, Wilson, Tarika, 91
Sally) Womanism, 46–47, 62n9