OUR BODIES, OURSELVES
Today every one of us knows that criminality is not the consequence of the hereditary character of the Algerian, nor of the organization of his nervous system. The Algerian war, like all wars of national liberation, brings to the fore the true protagonists. In the colonial context, as we have already pointed out, the natives fight among themselves. They tend to use each other as a screen, and each hides from his neighbor the national enemy.
Conversion is most valuable if it throws a revealing light not only across our own past, but across the social life of which we are part, and makes our repentance a vicarious sorrow for all. The prophets felt so about the sins of their nation. Jesus felt so about Jerusalem and Paul about unbelieving Israel.
Sunday afternoon, October, 15, 1995, found me blinded by the double-light of the cathode-ray tube of my television and the pixel screen of my laptop computer. It seemed that every time I looked up from my computer, there on the TV screen was another black person denouncing the Million Man March. When Congressman Gary Franks of Connecticut, a black Republican, appeared on the television to denounce the March, the scales fell from my eyes, and in the next moment I was on the next train to Washington, D. C.
I had initially mocked the Million Man March and Day of Atonement. I did not want to attend a men’s-only march, and I did not want to atone for anything. I had enthusiastically attended the March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives on April 9, 1989, but this did not seem to promise the same happy experience. I am glad that I changed my mind. The event may have been a new moment in the history of the body.
The gender-segregation policy was part of the performative nature of the Million Man March. The black body is a "phobogenic object, a stimulus to anxiety."7 The black body’s availability for the amusement park thrill is at the core of the race-pleasure experience of American life. The black woman, like the black man, is a phobogenic object with its own history of objectification. Black men and women together would have been trangressive in a way that would not have constituted an antispectacle. Women and men together would have made the march a family affair. A black family march would have been another civil rights protest, not an antispectacle.
The antispectacle of a million black men was shocking. We shocked ourselves by appearing in such miraculous numbers, producing the largest march in the history of this nation. We shocked ourselves by not frightening each other. The race-pleasure economy of colorline depends upon the idea that black men can exist only in shackles or in riots. We were neither shackled nor rioting. We were, thus, no longer providing the spectacle of the black body.
The "Day of Atonement" theme gave the Million Man March a feminist edge:
[W]e dare to atone. . . for not resisting as much as we can sexist ideas and practices in society and in our own relations and failing to uphold the principles of equal rights, partnership and responsibility of men and women in life, love and struggle.8
This feminist edge came from the recognition that black men, not black women, have served as the primary agents of white power in the Neocolony. Black men, not black women, have most enthusiastically embraced "domestic" antiwoman violence, public fratricidal ultraviolence, sexuality-without-caring, reproduction-without-parent- ing, illiteracy, narcotics, and habitual unemployment. Black men have played the role and enjoyed it—we have been the primary conduits by which white power has entered the black community. In the words of the Mission Statement, "some of the most acute problems facing the Black community are those posed by Black males who have not stood up."9 The Day of Atonement was an attempt, by over one million black men, to recognize our complicity in the creation and maintenance of the colorline.10 It would have been a mistake to attempt a gender-integrated March before the men had acknowledged the sin of patriarchy. Perhaps, just perhaps, now that sexism in the Neocolony has been so publically decried, we will begin to listen to those who would lead us out of patriarchy.
The Day of Atonement was a conversion experience. It marked the beginning, perhaps, of a new social gospel: "Conversion has usually been conceived as a break with our own sinful past. But in many cases it is also a break with the sinful past of a social group."11 This new gospel recognizes that the wife-beater and other practitioners of intimate terrorism,12 the "gangsta," the "player," the "deadbeat dad," the high-school dropout, the addict, the pusher, and the willfully unemployed are all forms of pleasure-in-submission to white fantasies by embracing the black role. The Mission Statement makes this point clear:
6. . . . we dare to atone:
a. for all our offenses, intentional and unintentional, against the Creator, others and the creation, especially those offenses caused by accepting the worst and the weakest conceptions of ourselves;
b. for not always following the best teachings of our spiritual and ethical traditions of Islam, Christianity, Judaism (Hebrewism), Maat, Yoruba, Akan, Kawaida and all others; and sacrificing and ignoring the spiritual and ethical in pursuit of material things;
c. for over-focusing on the personal at the expense of the collective needs of our families and our people;
d. for collaborating in our own oppression by embracing ideas, institutions and practices which deny our human dignity, limit our freedom and dim or disguise the spark of divinity in all of us;
e. for failing to contribute in a sustained and meaningful way to the struggle of our people for freedom and justice, and to the building of the moral community in which we all want to live;
7. And thus we commit and recommit ourselves on this day and afterwards to constantly strive to be better persons, live fuller and more meaningful lives, build strong, loving and egalitarian families, and struggle to make our community and world a better place in which to live.13
Adolph Reed, a critic of the Million Man March, writes that "this was the first protest in history in which people gathered to protest them – selves."14 Reed, through sarcasm, misses the point. Minstrelization and criminalization are realities. The colorline does transform bodies into fantasies. People do become that which their oppressors would like them to be. Atonement for one’s complicity in the creation of an abject object-self does not mean that one is "shifting the discussion away from public policy to victim-blaming underclass ideology."15 Reed confuses de-Minstrelization and de-Criminalization with blaming the victim.
Each of these identities, no less than United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Bigger Thomas, Willie Horton, and Gunga Din, or any other "responsible" or "irresponsible" member of the subaltern community, is a mask that, to use Claude Mackay’s words, "grins and lies." Every nonrevolutionary identity formation is a form of self-willed enslavement to the race-pleasure system. The race-pleasure economy of neocolonial order depends upon the cooperation of the native bearers.
I was reminded of a day in Washington, D. C., perhaps in 1991, when I was still working as an Assistant United States Attorney. On that white winter day I had a surreal moment on the Metro. I was the only man among about forty people on the car until a slightly wobbly twenty-something Rastafarian got on board. He surveyed the bus filled with women and said, "Where are all the men?" He answered his own question, "Everybody’s in jail."
The Rastafarian then began a short sermon: "Babylon is right here, right now. Pharoah is right here, right now." All of the women on the train nodded or spoke, "That’s right," in assent. The Rastafarian had revealed the way in which the colorline had invaded all of our lives. The "crimefighters" at the United States Attorneys Office, myself included, were colonizers. Our work, as colonial agents, was to manufacture recidivism and implant it in black, latino, and poor white bodies. We cloaked the dirty pleasures of this task in the rhetoric of crimefighting. When pressed, of course, we drugwarriors admitted the hallucinogenic nature of our war. That is, we admitted that our tactics increased the very problem we were ostensibly combating. We were the midwives of spectacle in drugwarrior drag. And the spectacle, the object of our midwifery, reproduced itself in the hearts and minds of all its observers. Happily, the Million Man March was an open event with room even for me.
The Million Man March was an ecumenical event that showed startling, new possiblilties for coalition building. The morning began with a Muslim prayer call in Arabic. I, like at least one million other marchers on the Mall that day, am neither Muslim nor Arabic, but, as a so-called black man, the foreign makes me feel at home. The unfamiliar is welcoming when, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, "home is where the hatred is."
No one was carrying an American flag. I saw dozens of banners that day—Jamaican, Guyanese, African, Pan-African, Black Nationalist, and the red, gold, and green of the Rastafari—everything but the red, white, and blue of the U. S.A. The Mission Statement also expressed this turning away from symbols of oppression like the flag of the United States of America and a subversion of symbols of oppression like the Mall:
Finally, we call on the government and the country to recognize and respond positively to the fact that U. S. society is not a finished white product but an unfinished and ongoing multicultural project and that each people has both the right and responsibility to speak their own special cultural truth and to make their own unique contribution to how this society is reconceived and reconstructed.16
The spirit of disloyalty and pleasure-in-exile were unequivocal.
We were united by the absence of our masters. I flashed back to the Middle Ages of my imagination, and it seemed as though the Christian infidels had fled and we ruled Jerusalem, for a day. Standing there in that temporary autonomous zone, I experienced Washington, D. C., as a free person, for the first time.17 We all did. "Nobody wanted to let go of what we’d had there. What we’d had was a fleeting wonderful moment of what you might call ‘community.’"18 Deconstruction was the basis of that "fleeting wonderful moment" of community:
There is doubtless this irrepressible desire for "community" to form, Derrida says. . . "but also to know its limit—and for its limit to be its opening." There is an "irrepressible desire" for people of common purpose to join hands, for women and men who have "dedicated," which means "given," themselves to an end or purpose, to come together, convenire. One might even dream of a community of dreamers who come together to dream of what is to come. Responding to this irrepressible desire, we might say that a "community" in deconstruction would always have to be what he calls "another community," "an open quasi-community," which is of course always a "community to come" and a "community without community." A community for Derrida ought always to be marked precisely and paradoxically by an exposure to a "tout autre [that] escapes or resists the community," something that "appeals for another community."19
Each moment in the antispectacular society is defined by its anticipation of the next moment, the moment that resists this turn of the kalaidescope in favor of the next. The Day of Atonement was an anticipation of a community to come and a deconstruction of the community that gathered on the Mall. At the cusp of the twenty-first century, no less than in the midst of the nineteenth, "To have its sins forgiven mankind has only to declare them to be what they really are."20
The most amazing moment came when the organizers of the March announced their intent to gather a collection to defray expenses. It began inauspiciously with a depressingly mainstream request to wave one dollar in the air. The millions of dollars were meant to show us a sign of what is possible if we abandon the philosophy of possessive individualism. This was mildly interesting. The March organizers then began to collect donations. The harvest was plentiful, but the gatherers were few. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. In a spontaneous display of love, trust, and solidarity, people began passing fistfuls of dollars, from friend to friend and stranger to stranger, in the direction of the collection bags and buckets, each to each with total assurance.
The loudest cheers of the day came when Jesse Jackson announced that "Newt Gingrich and Clarence Thomas organized the March." Jackson had also warned of the latest mutation of the prison – industrial complex, privatization. The open secret of the criminal justice system’s manufacture of criminality was contested. The same investors who were loath to leave Apartheid South Africa are now turning to invest in the incarceration of American blacks.
Finally, what escaped the notice of many was the role of the Nation of Islam in organizing this momentous event. The black community is a largely Christian community. It is also an open community, and so it was that hundreds of Christians found themselves at the March without any spirit of contradiction. The Nation of Islam is widely recognized for its salvation of many thousands gone. A church composed of "catchers in the rye," it has fashioned a theology of rescue, the rescue of the "many thousands gone" the way of drug abuse, violence, and criminality. It performs this rescue, it is true, out of an essentialist vision of race, gender, and sexuality, but it performs nevertheless. Perhaps, despite itself, it has rescued the black body from its identity as the black body.
The Million Man March and Day of Atonement was a mass experience of the black body recognizing itself as a fetish object. The fetish object that recognizes itself as a fetish is no longer object but subject. Our ecstatic embrace of pathological narratives has shown us our own power over ourselves. Our pleasure in the theatrical labor of race-pleasure provision through the erasure of millenia of social scripting has set us free. As a result of this "work done at the limit of ourselves," we are in "the position of beginning again." Jean Genet uses the expression "entre chien et loup (literally, between dog and wolf, that is dusk, when the two can’t be distinguished)" to describe:
The hour in which—and it’s a space rather than a time—every being becomes his own shadow, and thus something other than himself.
The hour of metamorphoses, when people half hope, half fear that a dog will become a wolf. The hour comes down to us from the Middle Ages, when country people believed that transformation might happen at any moment.21
Genet uses this expression in Prisoner of Love, his chronicle of his times spent with the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to portray the space in which the Fedayeen and the Panthers lived their entire lives. I use this expression, "between a dog and a wolf," to portray the present situation of the black body in America. The Million Man March created a new space in which the black body could become something other than itself. As objects, we were limited to the script written by our oppressors. As subjects, we can create a new history. We can refuse to be what we are. Nothing is forbidden, and everything is possible.
It does not matter that the Million Man March and Day of Atonement lacked a specific program. There are too many programs:
[T]he formation of oneself as a thinker and a moral agent, which develops only through historical struggles, must be understood as the creation of a work of art rather than the execution of a program. The energy of that work of art is an ecstasy, a transcendence of man and
The art of identity formation cannot be reduced to a program:
It should be re-affirmed that the creation of a counterculture, in itself a haphazard, chancy and unpredictable affair, has profound political implications. For while the Establishment, with its flair for survival, can ultimately absorb policies, no matter how radical or anarchistic,
. . . how long can it withstand the impact of an alien culture?—a culture that is destined to create a new kind of man?23
The situation created on the Mall made possible the emergence of a desire "so new that it is but an intuition in the collective heart."24 It was a complicated subversion of the spectacle of the native bearer. An impossible object entered the videodrome, the antispectacle of the Neocolony not turned against itself. The colorline cannot exist without its willfully degraded subalterns. The subaltern identity, the black body, may no longer exist. A new identity seems to be taking shape around desires the colorline cannot satisfy. The black body has unmoored itself from both the negative constraints of biopower and the positive constraints of pleasure-in-submission, and no one knows what the painting of tomorrow will look like.25
1. Anonymous tract that appeared in Internationale Situationniste, No. 7, 1963, as "The Bad Old Days Will End," in The Incomplete Work of the Situa – tionist International, translated and edited by Christopher Gray (Paris: Free Fall Publications, 1974), 41.
2. James Baldwin, "An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis," in Angela Y. Davis and Other Political Prisoners, eds., If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (New York: Third Press, 1971), 19.
3. Medea Benjamin, "Interview: Subcommandante Marcos," in Elaine Katzenberger, ed., First World, Ha Ha Ha!: The Zapatista Challenge (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1995), 68.
4. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), 311.
5. Ibid., 309.
6. Walter Rauschensbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1918), 99.
7. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967), 151.
8. National Million Man March/Day of Absence Organizing Committee, The Million Man March/Day of Absence, Official Document (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1995), 5-7.
9. Manifesto of the Million Man March on Washington (1995), 2.
10. This did not, however, mean that the March absolved the government of its role in the production of black unhappiness. The Mission Statement, in a section entitled, "The Challenge to the Government," was unequivocal:
We call on the government to also atone for its role in criminalizing a whole people. . . for spending more money on imprisonment than education, and on weapons of war than social development; for dismantling regulations that restrained corporations in their degradation of the environment and failing to check a deadly environmental racism that encourages placement of toxic waste in communities of color. And of course, we call for a halt to all of this. (Mission Statement, 11)
11. Walter Rauschenbusch, supra note 18, at 99.
12. For a discussion of "intimate terrorism," see Michael Vincent Miller, Intimate Terrorism: The Deterioration of Erotic Life (New York: Norton, 1995), 28-29. Miller argues that love and power are so intertwined today that we have created a culture of abuse. In our culture of abuse, love has become a site of political struggle. We do not struggle to change the mind or heart of our partner; rather, we struggle for the upper hand. When love fails, as it often does when it is conceived of as a scene of battle, we continue to fight with and demoralize one another (168-71, 183-85, 213). The Million Man March and Day of Atonement was, in a sense, a recognition of the deterioration of erotic life.
13. Mission Statement, points 6a-e, 7.
14. Adolph Reed, "Triumph of the Tuskegee Will," Village Voice, Oct. 31, 1995, 31. Reed warns:
Farrakhan is a fascist, and he would be if there were no white people on the planet. His vision for black Americans is authoritarian, theocratic, homophobic, and, like nationalists everywhere, saturated in patriarchal ideology.
Reed’s warning is well taken. Those who fight fascism must be careful lest they become that which they fight. However, Reed fails to realize that the Million Man March was not a Farrakhan Inaugural; rather, it was a celebration of hidden possibilities unveiled by the new ambience of the Mall.
15. Adolph Reed, "Triumph of the Tuskegee Will," 31.
16. Mission Statement, 13.
17. Hakim Bey, T. A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Brooklyn, N. Y.: Autonomedia, Anti-copyright, 1985).
18. Those words, uttered by an anonymous white nineteen-year-old and quoted in a New Yorker magazine account of Woodstock, describe completely my feelings and those of the million men who attended the march. Quoted in "A Fleeting, Wonderful Moment of Community," in Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines, eds., "Takin’It to the Streets": A Sixties Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 611.
19. John D. Caputo, "Community without Community," in John D. Ca – puto, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 124.
20. Karl Marx, "For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing," in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 15.
21. Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love (Hanover, N. H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1992), 220.
22. James W. Bernauer, "Michel Foucault’s Ecstatic Thinking," in James W. Bernauer and David Rasmussen, eds., The Final Foucault (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), 71.
23. Richard Neville, "Play Power," quoted in Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents From Lettrisme to Class War (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), title page.
24. Subcomandante Marcos, "Chiapas: The Southeast in Two Winds, A Storm, and A Prophesy," in Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiques of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, trans. Frank Bardacke and Leslie Lopez (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 47.
25. Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism," in Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Wisdom Library, 1957).