Black against Universe
The Particular is Particular
This week, Whoopi Goldberg said that the Holocaust wasn’t about race. She said that it was, instead, about man’s inhumanity to man. People were outraged. They said that her refusal to identify Jewish people as victims of racism and choice to locate anti-Semitism within a different register of dehumanization was ignorant. They said her suggestion that antiBlackness is different from anti-Semitism was anti-Semitic. Underneath it all was an expectation and demand that Blackness and Black suffering exist as something to be analogized to. That they not be singular creations contended with on their own terms and in their own contexts, but only perceived to the extent that they are assimilable. Whoopi was forcefully reprimanded and put back in her place for the mere implication that the genocidal processes of racialization and are distinct from the genocidal processes of ethnic cleansing. In a conversation about why schools shouldn’t ban the books Maus (about the Holocaust) and To Kill a Mockingbird (about antiBlack racism in the US South), she highlighted how attempting to educate people about race has become so inflammatory that it results in irrational distortions and censorship, creating a culture of perpetually missing the point. In her precision, she attempted to create space to see the Holocaust more clearly. To prove her point, ABC suspended her from her job for 2 weeks.
Each year during Black History Month, a popular contrarian take circulates that Black History Month is racist because it exists. It’s said that the real way to honor Black people and Black history is to abolish it. In lieu of its abolition, Black History Month is tolerated so long as it’s accompanied by the tag line that “Black history is American history.” The acknowledgement of Black history is accepted so long as Black particularism is rejected. Because if Black suffering is undifferentiated from the suffering of the world more broadly, then nothing has to be done beyond reciting platitudes about how we all need to be better, kinder people. And, in that way, no one has any more responsibility than anyone else — the task for rich people is the same as the task for poor people and the task for white people is the same as the task for Black people since we’re all just trying to make it in this world where, when you think about it, life really isn’t fair for anyone given that we all go through things and everyone’s a little racist, right?
The idea is that Blackness and Black suffering have no particular salience apart from being portals to a larger, universal salience. Universalism acknowledges something as valuable to the extent that it has broader applicability. Black experiences are only recognized to the extent that other people can relate. The problem is that the promise of universalism isn’t the development of a deep interrelation that leads to freedom and justice (whatever that might mean), the promise of universalism is absolution. The collective agreement that “it all comes out in the wash.” Except that it doesn’t. Except that the African-descended population of this country remain subjected to institutionalized unemployment, existence as an impoverished underclass, and a generational pipeline from segregation to prison. These realities requires a particular, sustained consideration that eradicating the “stigma of Blackness” with simple tokenism (Black Supreme Court nominees included, although appreciated) fails to address.
Laying claim to Black History Month is far more threatening than laying claim to universalism. It demands that the sociopolitical upheavals which produced Blackness infiltrate our ways of knowledge and make way for psychic emancipation. It rejects the alienation — seeing images of Blackness everywhere, but enduring perpetual depravity; being branded as everything and nothing — that universalism attempts to impose. It insists on a self and collective realignment. Psychic emancipation doesn’t lead to a desire for invisibility and absorption into assimilationist fantasy. It leads to a desire for revalorization of the language, dress, and cultural techniques attending Black existence.
Black particularism calls into question the things that universalism takes for granted. It opens the foreclosed assumptions of Enlightenment philosophy to renewed scrutiny— what is democracy? is an antiBlack democracy still a democracy? what is fascism? is an antiBlack democracy actually a fascist state? what is a human? what is a slave? can a slave become human? what is property? can a human become property? can a human become a thing? what happens when the same powers who decided to turn a human into a slave and a thing eventually decide to turn a slave and a thing back into a human? is the humanity of those former slaves and things the same as the humanity of those humans who had always been recognized as such? Taking Blackness seriously requires rethinking the ways that civilization as we know it has come into being.
The power of history is in its capacity to locate and explain the forces animating the present and shaping the future. Black history is squandered when exploited for sentimentality, aptly characterized by James Baldwin as “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion” and “the mark of dishonesty.” Anyone can endlessly weep over the past while singing “We Shall Overcome” and gazing at photos of Black protestors being hosed by white supremacists and attacked by dogs. The power of Blackness has been and always will be in its capacity for prophecy.