What did I do to be so black and blue? – Louis Armstrong
If blackness operates as a free-floating category, something decoupled from any real person up until the point that it is prescribed to or by a black subject, how then is this reconciled with a black subjectivity that is necessarily invisible within a hegemonic spectacle? The black body and the black subject therein is a functional object, a target, of Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy’s dominant cultural notion of blackness. It is because of this power dynamic that blackness does not remain a signifier without meaning or an empty category without content. The anti-black social products of this power dynamic have been produced by social configurations that differ from the arsenal of oppression we observe in our modern context. However, prior to chattel slavery and global imperialism, some institutions of power are common between fundamentally different historical periods. Many, if not all of those the institutions present today in our social reality have legacies that have enabled new techniques of subjugation to develop. The total consequences of white hegemony, chattel slavery, and global colonization working concurrently create the invisibility of black subjectivity. As black subjects, we are confronted with this reality: by existing, we negate dehumanizing objectifications of blackness without a visible recourse through which to communicate our humanity as it is presented by a hegemonic spectacle.
This acknowledgement is a dissociation from representation or reform in society that is always erasing the possibility of existing outside of categories known by the white gaze, which is positioned to externally impose methods of identification. To recognize this oppressive juxtaposition is to relegate oneself to the knowledge that there is no possibility of humanizing representation within an exploitative system dependent upon race-categories that stratify subjects as othered objects within a hierarchy.
Black identity as prescribed by a hegemonic understanding of blackness inscribes a normalized race caste onto bodies that can be recognized as black. In the context of IWSCP and its constitutive anti-black temperaments, blackness is a deliberation upon what techniques of subjugation are most appropriately assigned to persons who can be said to possess a black body. The degree to which a life can be lived through grappling with these assignments by hegemonic power is the degree to which a racialized subject can be considered human within a given historical epoch. Yet, humanity itself is a discourse wherein protections, entitlements, and vulnerabilities are sanctioned–delineated by institutions and cultural practices of power. Humanity as an ethical consideration or system is fundamentally separate from the truth of our human-ness. Our fundamental human existence is that state of living in the world that precedes the temporality of our own conscious life within a constructed social reality. We are unmistakably human, yet positioned in relation to each other by power dynamics that aim to restrict the scope of this understanding. The invisibility of these maneuvers by power throughout our lives forecloses an egalitarian future that would permanently imperil the machinations of exploitation.
Black subjectivity, or black invisibility, then, is most appropriately understood as a type of positionality between and within varying systems and techniques of power that operate in concert with each other to produce the effects of race that are intelligible across cultures. Reclaiming what black identity is begins with the recognition and affirmation of our individual structural positions and constitutive histories in a hegemonic present. Radical black subjectivity is the cognizance of our perpetual arrival in a social world. To arrive in this social reality, with its own genealogical origins in history, is to appear concurrently with blackness. The black oppositional gaze is necessarily positioned in this way that unveils racially exploitative obstacles and oppressive subjects, making them vulnerable to upheaval.
Knowing that visibility is required for hegemony to operate effectively is a practice of self-preservation. The extent to which the consequences of falling in and out of view becomes known by a subject is a direct consequence of experiencing either mode of being within IWSCP.
While this significant positionality is unique, it is not separate from historical events that are of constitutive significance in identity formation. The positionality of race and blackness constitutes our arrival in our particular relationships and proximity to others in our social reality. Power does operate as an external force, as something always appraised as negative or violent. At the same time, power is internalized and reproduced to accomplish effects of control that negative or violent power is unable to produce without destabilizing the entire system. Much of this power articulates itself at the level of identity, rituals and behaviors that are learned, acquired, and then identified as an extension of a subject’s own will. This social dimension of power is intended to prevent the bodily effects of institutional power dynamics on our socialization from becoming transparent in our culture.
If we speak about historical events in their totality, we are then speaking about densely packed sequences of actions and social arrangements that are essentially separate from their human subjects. In this broad sense, they are conditions that are universal in our period. These ever present actions are all constitutive events in each of our personal histories as well as our present. At the same time, how these conditions manifest in human identity are precise and deliberate techniques administered to create social inequity. However, these specific applications are not universal, as power is assigned separately with varying configurations, purposes, and targets. These dynamics, their differences, are instinctually known by the invisible black subject who lives life within Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy hypervisible within the spectacle of social relations. Constitutive events are qualitative elements of black subjectivity. The circumstances that configure us as black within social reality are unique to the formation of each of our individual identities. The totality of these identities and manifestations of subjectivity are all located within a field of power that collapses into and is contained by blackness as a cultural signifier in hegemonic discourse.
Implicitly, perhaps subconsciously, we are spurred into recognizing ourselves as human subjects who are situated in relation to each other by language. Despite the abundant similarities, capacities for empathy, synchronicity, and other qualities needed for harmonious cohabitation, power is suffused such that difference is highlighted. “Ability” within the hegemonic spectacle is the permittance to navigate the laws of the state. To deconstruct these constitutive events is to uncover why social disparity comes to attach itself to bodies. Blackness is positioned purposefully in racial discourse through hypervisibility–the ease with which blackness is projected upon a body which reflexively becomes black in intelligible social life.
Constitutive events, ultimately, are products of history. Our notions of human civilization and its development are contingent upon the gradual advancement of institutions and their respective powers. The roles of these institutions have been purposed to secure dimensions of social life that can socialize future generations to view applications of power as permanent and normal. Viewed this way, religious institutions, cultural / familial rituals, agricultural methods, and organized techniques of violence (the state) are all practices that enable constitutive events to occur. Advancements in the aforementioned social strategies mark various historical epochs, each denoting a new qualitative threshold of potentialities cemented by different deployments of institutions.
The Inadequacy of Pessimist Optimism
Blackness understood in this context exists as an institution. Blackness is created by the total configurations of power that are tasked exclusively with affecting black bodies. Race understood as some stable category is the product of hierarchical and exploitative social practices focused on organizing specific uses of labor through a caste based system. The appearance of blackness as a social concept with a specific purpose is inextricable from slavery and the degree of dehumanization marking institutions of enslavement in history. Chattel slavery, marked by its brutal attacks on black families (a legacy most black people carry today in their last names), the absolute violent denigration of black bodies, and the total exclusion from wealth in class/caste based society collapses into a mode of living in society which has been posited as social death or black fungibility. These abhorrent social consequences are constitutive events for everyone who has been produced in these historical periods, and they are uniquely formative elements of black subjectivity.
This truth of black subjectivity seems to lend itself to the suggestion that black liberation is realized by inclusion in class/caste society instead of being permanently excluded from it. Others who accept this conclusion about the nature of wealth then posit that blackness as an institution must be elevated above class / caste civilization as we know it. This exclusion from wealth, however, is the condition on which wealth is created. Wealth viewed this way is the usurpation of black life. Similarly, the intelligibility of blackness is contingent upon the existence of race as a social dimension of power.
Omitting the historical predecessors of anti-black power dynamics (religion, gender, statehood, agriculture, familial structures, currency) enables the assumptive belief that a produced social effect of power (i.e. race) is an actualized way of being and is an inescapable dimension of human relationships. This reading of human civilizations misses the consequential histories of institutions that preceded and enabled slavery to emerge as a social order. These particular genealogies of power and knowledge coordinate to create the psychological architecture of social life. The techniques of subjugation in our past and our present do not preclude alternate liberating and humanizing sequences of constitutive events in our future.
To be constituted by a race system then curiously positions us in relation to each other. We are coming into being in such a way that we recognize our blackness by adorning identity narratives that more or less equip us to survive hypervisibility under Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy varying in their roles, their powers, their subjections.
When we problematize black liberation, we are coming to identify various sites of struggle. Religious institutions and its incitements into religious social life have been a historical blueprint for wielding cultural power and running a nation state. Within these institutional systems we find the prescription of gender roles, castes / classes, hierarchical authority figures, and currency. These techniques of power and exploitation are the predecessors to global colonialism and IWSCP which has hyperspecialized in the stratification of races, as they have been arranged by a white gaze. The White Gaze has subsequently been characterized by this specific historical positionality. It inherits the techniques of social assignment and creates new thresholds of living qualities that are inversely related to each other. White Supremacy, in this way, is paradigmatic supremacy. Its power is contingent upon its ability to create a totality of social consequences that eclipse all dimensions of its social life. The paradigm of the White Gaze is idea that every race is being observed and judged by another race according to its ability to coexist alongside or within white supremacist power structures. This “quality” of life is based on a very limited perception of what constitutive events are possible as hegemonic discourse has identified them. Simply put, a quality life is one that is positioned at the top of the hierarchy with an astronomical quantity of capital, unquestioned permittance to act without intervention from the state, and immunity from social degradation. It is no coincidence that these notions of success are embodied by our exploiters.
Suffocated so much so by these bleak state of affairs, struggling to assimilate to these systems for the chance to possess wealth is interchangeable with the struggle to possess a comparable wealth without resorting to assimilation. The latter of these deferences to power is relegated to nationalism in a global hegemonic discourse. Nationalism is a trap of capitalism and Imperialism, as it is compelled to delineate its borders, its conditions of citizenship, of rights and vulnerabilities before a state. The lie of Nationalist liberation recuperates both the idea of paradigmatic supremacy and bourgeois aspirations for capital. In addition to these attempts to grapple with the disparities of wealth, there then is also the incitement to destroy society altogether. This destruction is far more abstract than the trope of the “anarchist” apocalyptic chaos circulated by capitalist media. Destruction of social reality, in this way, is an attack on all constitutive events because they are all ostensibly implicated in the oppressive power dynamics that produce our suffering. The constitutive events of our present; however, are the products of the specific configurations of power deployed in our past.
These dispositions towards intimidating histories of exploitation and oppression assuage the anxiety of living a life of contradictions. Yet, if we return to the oppositional gaze as our site of radical operation, we can begin to see that these political orientations are really a refusal to reshape a future that is not exploitative. These refusals are the result of weary disillusionment with the possibility of freedom. Where one seeks to replicate the positive productions of oppressive power, the nihilist abstention from existence precludes the possibility of creating a future humanizing social reality. This inaction is the goal of eclipsing paradigmatic supremacy; the ability to imagine a future outside of the reach of Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy has been systemically obfuscated.
This includes our ability to imagine our relationships to each other outside of patriarchal conceptions of gender. Patriarchy fashions and manipulates gender as a lens through which subjects are recognized so that gendered bodies can become the object of another dimension of power. In this way, gender organizes and prescribes roles and duties to bodies such that it can operate alongside race to enable concurrent manifestations castes and classes to develop. Internalization of these specific constitutive events are reproduced in conceptions of liberation that include entitlement to patriarchal roles and heteronormative assumptions about identity. This interplay of subjections makes for configurations of oppression that vary in intensity and form. As a social institution, gender is deployed outside of and within the white gaze. Operating in this context through exclusions and inclusions of bodies from different manifestations of power prescribed according to which gender identities are avowed or disavowed by a subject of patriarchy. Ultimately, constitutive events compel us to observe power that has already been created and deployed. It is for this reason exactly, that the task of shaping and creating a future social architecture of constitutive events is the fundamental condition of liberation from exploitation.
The Invisible Insurrection
So we return to the positionality of the black oppositional gaze that is invisible to the White Gaze. Invisibility is a state of living in the margins of society. The margins are the home of our subjectivity. These are the spaces in our environment where it becomes possible to suspend and locate fractures in the structure of paradigmatic supremacy. Where the invisible black subject reveals themself, they are attempting to disrupt or expose power, challenging its status as ever present. Wherever Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy imposes itself, it is looking to trap history, our constitutive events and temporality, in an oppressive singularity with a trajectory unto itself. In this way, oppression is the practice of paralyzing the present in order to secure a homogenous future. If our constitutive events and possibilities are sufficiently accounted for and prescribed by power as it exists today, the social outcomes of our behavior sanctioned by the state will always necessarily endorse the existence of IWSCP.
Such are the conditions set by the spectacle of hypervisibility. Viewing visibility as sufficiently entrenched within hegemonic power within the present, Invisibility is then representative of our future trajectory. Blackness which becomes incomprehensible to the white gaze is best positioned for the oppositional gaze to expose and dismantle the violence of the state. Radicalized black subjectivity operates in the underground margins eroding those institutions that produce the desired constitutive events of hegemonic power in our present reality.
Invisibility is not a mask or a cloak that can be worn and discarded, invisibility is the condition of black existence. Embracing, relishing, and hibernating within invisibility is the promise that black subjectivity will be present in the future. To recognize oneself as an invisible black subject is to plan for an eventual confrontation with the white gaze. With each confrontation between the black oppositional gaze and the white gaze, the defeat of Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy becomes a greater possibility. Such a defeat of systemic power in this way is liberates us by securing a future where exploitative constitutive events are extinct and unable to reappear. New physical and temporal space for black subjectivity to find expression in the absence of paradigmatic supremacy marks an unprecedented capacity for black creativity to arrive in a humanizing future. This orientation towards black liberation may be known colloquially as afro-futurism.
Afro-futurism is the praxis of viewing blackness as a way of being that will succeed the present conditions of Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. The black oppositional gaze sees its own trajectory diverge away from oppressive constitutive events in our present. Where the defeatism inherent in apologism, reformism, assimilation, and other refusals to shape a liberating future all grasp at or accept the presence of the white gaze and its constitutive histories to survive, Afro-futurism grasps at black invisibility as both a tool and weapon for exposing and dismantling IWSCP in order to build a humanizing future.
The praxis of Afro-Futurism is both a practice of liberation and a means of discarding aspirations, possessions, and entitlements that encode the terms of our oppression in prescribed identities. This is not a call for dispassionate transcendance from our social reality; invisibility is only a description of how we are positioned within a hostile world. Afro-Futurism viewed this way is the promise of insurrection against a hegemonic present. We are not looking for harmonious coexistence with any form of exploitation. We, Afro-Futurists, are creating the potentiality for self-realization in a future social reality that makes space for us to be safe within our own bodies.
-M.I. Jazz Freeman