Consider the following tale from colonial times in the British Caribbean. An Anglican minister of education was sent to inspect one of the colonies’ schools. Wanting to see how they were being run, he decided to arrive unannounced at one of the secondary schools. As he approached the gate, a black boy of perhaps eleven years of age was hurrying in. The minister stopped the boy in the hopes of gauging some of the benefits of a good colonial education. He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Yes, sir,” the boy responded, nervous at being stopped by the white gentleman.
“Could you please tell me who knocked down the Walls of Jericho?”
The boy looked at the rather imposing white English representative of the empire. He immediately knew what to say. “Not me.”
The minister was flabbergasted. He grabbed the boy by the arm. “Come with me.” Entering the school, he demanded to see the headmaster. He was taken to an Afro-Caribbean man. Let us call that official Mr. Smith.
“Are you the headmaster?”
“Yes, sir. I am Mr. Smith.”
“Good. I am the minister of education. I am here to inspect your school. I just asked this young man who knocked down the Walls of Jericho, and you know what he told me?”
“What did he tell you, sir?”
“He said he didn’t do it!”
Mr. Smith looked at the frightened boy and then at the upset minister. He took off his glasses. Poor Mr. Smith had worked his way up through the demeaning colonial education system. He managed to secure sufficient training to become a schoolteacher and subsequently, through great effort, earned the title of headmaster. He made sure to hire a top staff and was proud of the many graduates who went on for better things than offered by the villages from which they came. After a sigh, he replied, “Sir, I have known this boy for a long time. If he said he didn’t do it, I assure you he didn’t do it.”
Outraged, the minister eventually got the governor general’s office on the line.
“What is it?” asked an official.
“I am at the Anglican school. I just asked both a student and the headmaster about who knocked down the Walls of Jericho, and you know what both of them told me?”
“What did they tell you, sir?”
“They said the boy didn’t do it!”
After a pause, the official responded, “I think you have the wrong department. Wait a minute, and I will put you in touch with Building and Waterworks.”
* * *
Talking about black and Black consciousness requires an exploration of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and missed opportunities, as well as all kinds of misses and missives that they occasion: anxiety, despair, dread, and fear. Thus, talking about them often leads to talking around them or, worse, about anything else but them.
The irony of avoiding a subject is that doing so may make it more present. The elephant in the room is the familiar metaphor. The effort it takes to avoid what is in plain sight requires identifying it while skillfully evading it. The motivation here is the discomfort, perhaps fear, the denied or evaded subject stimulates. In some cases, what is feared is what one may learn about oneself, the image of oneself that might emerge.
I recently spoke with a friend who was reading a book of reflections by white women intellectuals on how women see themselves. I asked her whether those authors’ perspectives on women and men were in fact specifically white. I explained I was reading writings of African and Indigenous American women who argued that much influential literature about the lives of women and men—about the lives of human beings—was about white people, and in fact white points of view and experiences supposedly stood for “human nature,” or “everyone.” Much of what is taken to be the way women and men behave is about how white women and men tend to behave. My friend, who, like me, is of African descent, was at first dubious of my claim, until I asked her to read the Mayo Clinic’s description of narcissistic personality disorder (also known as malignant narcissism). According to the Mayo Clinic, malignant narcissists have “an exaggerated sense of self-importance,” a “sense of entitlement” requiring “constant, excessive admiration,” an expectation of having “to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it,” an inflated sense of their achievements and talents, a preoccupation with “fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate,” a belief that they “can only associate with equally special people,” and a penchant for monopolizing conversations and belittling people they claim to be inferior. The clinic adds that people with narcissistic disorder expect “special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations”; often take advantage of others to secure their goals; ignore or are unwilling to recognize the needs and feelings of others; envy others and are convinced others envy them; are arrogant, boastful, conceited, and pretentious; and insist on having the best of everything such as “the best car or office.” Despite postures of self-importance, such people cannot handle receiving criticism. They become “impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment.” They’re oversensitive, and they react with rage and contempt and try to belittle others “to make themselves appear superior.” They suffer emotional difficulty and stress from a constant sense of their imperfection—in spite of insisting they are better than others—which reveal “secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation.”1
The reader can guess where this was going. I asked my friend to describe white people—not what describes every individual white person, but what many people, especially people of color (black, brown, red, etc.), think of when we imagine what it means to be white.
She laughed. The list of pathologies was the same.
Whiteness, understood here as a consciousness imposed on the world in which to be normal is to be white, is basically a group that crashes someone else’s birthday party and whose members tell everyone that not only are they amazing and are doing everyone a favor by crashing the party, but further that the celebration ought to be in their honor.
Such people have a well-orchestrated story of “superiority.” They belittle everyone else, consume the most, and get angry at not receiving special treatment for whatever they desire. Yet at the same time they are highly sensitive to receiving criticism and often hide what such behavior suggests—namely, profound insecurity. Such people are always the victims, even when they control the conditions of what affects everyone else. And where they do not claim to be victims, they rationalize their behavior as “human nature.” Supposedly everyone is like them. Their response is simply to prove the point through paradoxical denial of its applying specifically to white people. The irony is that this, too, confirms their whiteness in everyone being able to recognize it.
Why does such behavior flourish even in the face of its denial? In part, it persists because it is seductive. Many people, even among those dominated, want white supremacy to be what it claims to be because that would give some meaning to their suffering through making white domination seem just. They cannot, in other words, face its truth, which is, in fact, its lie. It is a set of beliefs and institutions handed down across generations saturated with bad faith.
White narcissism forces negative and false images of the self onto others. Beyond those, there are also special kinds of consciousness it produces:
There is the consciousness of being a “race,” which the white world produced, and which many people across all racial and ethnic groups have come to believe in, over the past few hundred years.There is the set of black perspectives, often called “black experience” and understanding, of that consciousness. That is what black people produced.There is the everyday life of black people when white people are not around or at least not on black people’s minds. That is also what black people produced—and continue to produce.And there is the active political transformation of the first, second, and third perspectives into a movement from “black” to “Black” consciousness.Think about the world that produced the first kind of black consciousness. A world dominated by “white consciousness,” white normativity, or, made plain, “white is right.” Although it may not be the world as every individually designated white person sees it, it is recognizable to most people in white supremacist societies from childhood to grave.2 No explanation into the production of this first kind of black consciousness would make sense without looking into the circumstances that led to the development of white consciousness, which has historically imposed negative self-images on many black people. Black people live, however, beyond negative projections of white consciousness. It’s not as though when black people look into the mirror while brushing their teeth, they lament, “Still black…,” followed by the wail of a blues guitar, and trudge on with the burden of doing “black things,” each of which is marked by a constellation of negative stereotypes of self-hatred or, worse, a profound level of ignorance, the result of which is delusional happiness.
If black people were simply what imposed negative images claim blacks to be, if we were those things whose sale in the market of flesh supposedly offered no points of view, many, perhaps most, white people would be relieved.
Yet black people do have points of view.
Most black people, though—whether as descendants of the enslaved or Indigenous colonized people—try to live their lives, come what may. Many did not survive. A remarkable number managed to persevere. Black life, whether that of plain old everyday folk or heroic freedom fighters—as well as sellouts, Uncle Toms, Sambos, and hustlers—is a complicated history of beauty and ugliness, joy and suffering, hope and despair, resilience and fatigue.
Many black people hold an extraordinary position of generosity to white people. From the perspective of white consciousness steeped in narcissism, the world comes down to perfection versus imperfection, the latter of which supposedly must be eliminated. That is why many white people, suffering from egological fragility, take accusations of being racist so personally. Most black people, on the other hand, see a world of imperfections, which we ascribe also to ourselves. When a black person meets a white person, the presumption, often verified, is that the white person has a deep-rooted belief in his or her superiority over peoples of color, especially blacks. Discovering humility in some comes as a pleasant surprise. For most black people, then, relationships with white people come down to a willingness to work with, live with, and at times simply survive white encounters. White people often hold all the cards. Those rude white guests at the birthday party, we should remember, also have the protection of the police, the government, and much, if not most, of society.
If black people had no points of view, there would be no need to look or think further. Commitments to truth, justice, and their cultivation in the quest to build a better world demand otherwise.
I had a peculiar conversation back in the early 1990s at a reception for a university colloquium at which I was the guest speaker. Nearing the end of our small talk, a white professor, about two decades my senior, asked if I had ever been in therapy. I found the question odd. “Why do you ask?”
She answered, “You seem … well … healthy. That’s not normal.”
Her comment stuck with me for years (which is perhaps unhealthy). In a way, a similar, tacit assumption often underlies interactions between most whites and blacks. In a white supremacist society, the bearers of that supremacy require the normalization of pathological blackness. That colleague was saying that to belong to her world—in the sense of fitting in, to the extent that that was possible—required me to be mentally ill. To some extent, as we will later see, she was right.
That colleague was also voicing a white need. Blacks are supposedly abnormal; therefore, for me to be “normal,” pathology must be there. She needed to see it.
Frantz Fanon observed back in the 1950s that reason took flight whenever black people entered white spaces.3 There has been some progress since then. Now reason exits slowly.
Fanon argued that a normal black person, having grown up with a normal black family, experiences neurosis with the slightest contact with the white world.4 There is already the conundrum. The white world is, after all, nearly everywhere. Made specific, Fanon meant the kind of direct interaction as the one I had with that white professor back in the 1990s. It’s an experience of reason creeping away.
Over the years, efforts to explain why reason seems to be so unreasonable under such circumstances have produced a vast body of literature and op-eds.5 In recent times rationalizations have homed in on the physicality of black people. Instead of referring to black persons or black people, there is a tendency, especially among black students and academics, to refer to black bodies.
The expression “black bodies” pops up often wherever antiblack racism raises its ugly, and at times polite, head. It is there on blogs, in news interviews, in editorials in major newspapers, in broadcast lectures, and in award-winning books ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.6 It makes sense since racism involves a form of two-dimensional thinking in which black people supposedly lack inner lives. Fanon referred to this as “the epidermal schema.” It refers to treating black people as mere surfaces, superficial physical beings without consciousness and thus a point of view—in short, only bodies. Yet in the midst of attention to black bodies, many blacks are left wondering what happened to black people. How has it become acceptable—indeed, even preferable—for black people to refer to ourselves as “bodies” instead of as “people” or as “human beings”?
It is as if many black people have surrendered to the view that we are what we are imagined to be by those who refuse to see us as human beings. It is one thing for nonblack people to look at black people from the outside, as though black people were only a surface—in a word, things—but for black people to do so is an extraordinary defeat. It is akin to conceding that we have no point of view. To have a perspective is to be conscious, to look onto others and, beyond them, to the world. That is what people do: people are embodied consciousnesses, “consciousness in the flesh,” the “lived body,” at least while we remain connected to reality.7 And more, with the addition of thought, consciousness in this sense is embodied mind.
So what happened to black people under the weight of black bodies?
A focus on the body ignores the importance of embodied mind, what it means to be consciousness lived and in the flesh. Why not look at black embodied consciousness and mind? Ignoring doing so, as we will see, is seductive because black embodied-consciousness-mind offers truth in antiblack societies. From such eyes, the horrors and injustice of such societies are, in a word, naked. It is no accident that one of the rationalizations for black inferiority in white supremacist societies is the Curse of Ham, who, as the biblical tale relates, looked upon his drunken, naked father, Noah. The theme of narcissistic rage continues.
Antiblack societies sustain themselves on pleasing falsehoods for whites such as white supremacy. Their project, in a nutshell, is to expand themselves from antiblack societies to making the world antiblack, leaving no remaining perspective from which white contradictions can be seen, can be naked. Such a goal, reaching so far beyond itself, requires dragging a whole lot of people into it. With blackness to keep at bay, practices of purification eventually lead to the other extreme: Can anything be white enough when the goal is to place at a distance all things black—or at least dark?
Truth, however, like nature, doesn’t negotiate. It need not give us what we want. White supremacy requires constant aggrandizement of whiteness, despite unpleasant realities.
We have already observed narcissism as an underlying feature of white supremacy through the example of the interlopers at the birthday party who declare their superiority to the other guests. The comedian Lewis Black once remarked that if such guests’ claims were true, others at the party would eventually have to eat them so they could get a bit of their “power.”8 We already know about white fantasies of African “natives” dancing around large cauldrons in which white victims simmer. The surest signs of the illegitimacy of white supremacy are not only these tales of narcissism, marked simultaneously by desire and fear, but also their history of force.9 Conquest, enslavement, and genocide demonstrate might, if not just chance. They lack, however, the satisfaction of being right. The failure to acknowledge the illegitimacy of white supremacy leads to the other kinds of evasion, at the expense of not only human but also many other forms of life.
Many black people look into the eyes of the death-dealing consciousness of white claims of supremacy with the question: How far will it go to sustain itself? The bloody history of lynchings, genocide, enslavement, and colonialism offers an answer. The director and screenwriter Jordan Peele allegorized this aspiration in his 2017 film Get Out. White supremacy wants nothing less than everything, even if that requires erasing all opposition, including its own conscience. Peele’s film uses the genres of science fiction and horror to explore what it means to be conscious of reality and “stay woke,” as the hip hop artist Childish Gambino puts it in his song “Redbone,” which plays through the opening credits. Though antiblack societies fear, and are even repulsed by, what has become known as the black body, they also desire to possess it—so long as it is lived and controlled by conscious white minds. The fear, then, is of black bodies inhabited by conscious black minds. Compare this with the past-celebrated and now-maligned phenomenon of “blackface,” which harkens for conscious white living minds beneath black skin. The possessed black consciousness there is offered as entertainment. Black consciousness in that instance is desirable to the extent to which whiteness is able to control and limit its possibilities.
So for whom is it desirable to see white consciousness living in black bodies, and for whom is it a source of anxiety, at times even terror, to encounter black bodies imbued with black consciousness?
Get Out’s opening credits beautifully announce a provocative thesis through Michael Abels’s song “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga.” The words are from Kiswahili. The translation is “Listen to your ancestors.” It is hauntingly sung in the low register and whispered by a chorus beneath images of passing trees reminiscent of what past enslaved people saw as they fled from enslavement. The daylight is bright, yet the mood is cold. The scene switches from trees along a highway to urban areas. The song “Redbone” is now the leitmotif as the camera reveals black-and-white photographs first of a dark-skinned black man in black clothing holding white balloons. His face is blurred to the point of making him in effect faceless. It moves to the image of a dark-skinned black woman’s exposed pregnant belly. She is wearing a white tube top. Her face, too, is hidden. An out-of-focus dark-skinned black man in a white T-shirt, his face away from the camera, is in the background, along with a black sport utility vehicle in an urban landscape. The sky is white. The next image, also in black and white, is a white pit bull leaping forth with a faceless dark-skinned black boy trying to hold him back by pulling his chain leash. There is a building in the background with three sets of windows with white shades—the first, with one three-quarters drawn and the other half drawn; the second, with both half drawn; and the third, with the only window fully drawn. The ground is bleak: dirt, stones, broken glass, and bits of scrap.
Copyright © 2022 by Lewis R. Gordon