The Slave against the Cyborg
If the social construction of the Black cyborg and her multiracial bloc are put aside for a moment, then there arises an opportunity to devise modes of reflection and collective organizing that engage foundational antiblackness. To move beyond the idea and praxis of the Black cyborg’s multiracial bloc is to let emerge transcendental, still mostly unimagined horizons of possibility that embrace fully, rather than avoid, or engage only obliquely, the ubiquity, centrality, and persistence of antiblackness. The slave, the embodiment of social death, of fundamental absence, can exist fully only if she embraces the imperative of transcendence. So that the nonslave can emerge, the slave must revolt. Just like the cyborg, the slave is a social fiction, a product of partial historical archives, collective imagination, and struggles against the antiblack empire-state machine. To be a social fiction is to be recognizable and effective in the collective; it is to incarnate the ungraspable. But the slave’s nonslave future is not visible on the cyborg’s horizon. Vis-à-vis the cyborg, the slave as a fiction and as a collective agent operates in a diametrically dissimilar symbolic universe. The slave is not interested in redeeming multiracial democratic empire-state structures that require her permanence as absence and abjection. The slave desires the anti-future of the nonslave.
Through the figure of the slave, this conclusion briefly explores imaginative terrains that appear once the Black cyborg is suspended as the sine qua non of progressive political praxis in multiracial, allegedly democratic settings. To suggest such transcendental imagination is not without a challenge for, before such transcendental imagination can surface, our current imagination, including our political imagination, necessarily immersed in antiblackness, needs to be recognized as such and eliminated. Our contemporary progressive perspectives on the social are limited by a normative multiracial political subjectivity that, as this work has shown, is unable or unwilling to address foundational antiblackness. Self-proclaimed progressive and even revolutionary outlooks often stem from a notion of multiracial alliances that depend and reproduce Black absence. Such outlooks identify a common enemy—heteropatriarchal, cisgender, White supremacist, imperial capitalism—in relation to which they derive common denominators of oppression across diversely racialized and gendered experiences. The emphasis on a common enemy and on common denominators of oppression crowds out the utter incommensurability of Black lifeworlds. We have seen examples of this crowding-out scenario in the midst of the diasporic uproar against police abuse perpetrated against unarmed Black people, in both Brazil and the United States. Yet this progressive stance has roots that go back to at least the 1960s, to a version of Black Power that affirmed the need for a global revolution against imperialism, and sought to bring together insurgent struggles across the so-called Third World. Here is George Mason Murray, the first Black director of the San Francisco State College English department’s undergraduate tutorial program, and eloquent Black Panther minister of education:
When we talk about becoming free, we have to talk about power, getting all the goods, services, and land, and returning them equally to the oppressed and enslaved Mexicans, Blacks, Indians, Puerto Ricans, and poor whites in the U.S. and the rest of the oppressed and hungry people of the world. . . . A revolution will smash, shatter, and destroy the oppressor and his oppressive system, return all the power, the milk, eggs, butter, and the guns to the people. . . . Listen to this: freedom is a state not limited to a particular culture, race, or people, and therefore, the principles upon which a struggle for human rights is based must be all inclusive, must apply equally for all people.
Immersed in the multiracial struggle that led to a five-month strike and to the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, the first of its kind in the United States, Murray and his allies employed an analytical framework that, while recognizing the centrality of Black accumulated insight in the transnational war against imperialism, emphasized the need for multiracial solidarity. In the midst of heavy militarized police presence, Murray celebrated “the first time in the country that barriers have been dissolved between black, brown, yellow, and red people.”
The Black cyborg’s origins are beyond the scope of this book. What i have shown is that the cyborg’s operation and imagination suggest linkages to Baldwin’s ideal Black political subject, which in turn reemerges, transformed yet recognizable, in this Black Power–inflected theoretical outlook and political practice. Michael Zinzun, like Murray and members of the Black Panther Party—as indeed its multiple and related Black diasporic political formations—embodied this reconfigured cyborg and analytical framework.
In this framework, the Black cyborg’s bloc projects a desired future that is achievable only when the wretched of the earth join forces. Now part of a planetary multiracial effort, at least in theory, the Black political subject, mirroring herself in the cyborg, is compelled to calibrate her demands to that of the Third World, which means that, while graspable gains may indeed be had (e.g., local numeric minorities become, on the world stage, a majority of allied constituencies, which allow them to yield greater power), an engagement of the antiblack structure of positionality—or Black abjection more simply—is left for a second moment, at best. Although Blacks in multiracial fronts will offer insight and strategy accumulated from the everyday encounters with antiblack institutions, the alliance is hardly founded on reciprocity, either locally or, as the example of Brazil shows, transnationally. Zinzun’s life trajectory, which intersects in multiple ways with this Black Power–inflected, Third World–conscious approach, illustrated this: while he was invariably at the frontlines of protests and, in his youth, of the war declared by the police and the empire-state against his political bloc, risking limb and life, save for rare exceptions, Michael did not find himself in the consistent company of nonblacks. Progressive nonblacks, especially Whites, on the other hand, though they hardly faced the same type of repression, often drew much political insight and capital from their alliances with Blacks. Such was the case in the United States as it was in England, Spain, South Africa, Namibia, and Brazil. By force of their singular global experience, and the specific accumulated analysis that stems from it, Blacks are often not only at the frontlines of collaborative efforts, but also at their vanguard. Often, Blacks will also be the most vulnerable to surveillance, physical violence, and death. A case in point: in the San Francisco State strike, “small groups of Latino, Asian American, and White students picketed the campus while members of the Black Student Union engaged in more disruptive tactics.” Since at least the 1960s, in Brazil, the United States, and South Africa, for example, multiracial progressive fronts, varying in their orientation from reformist to revolutionary, consistently produced examples of how their Black members, when caught by the repressive apparatus of the state, underwent punishment, including torture, far more intense than did their nonblack allies.
Having collaborated with the Black Panther Party in California in the early 1970s before joining the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur was deeply immersed in the anti-imperialist multiracial praxis. In the passage below, although she spoke mostly of the White left, her perspective applies to the analysis of anti-imperialist multiracial efforts:
Although i respected the work and political positions of many groups on the left, i felt it was necessary for Black people to come together to organize our own structures and our own revolutionary political party. Friendship is based on respect. As long as much of the white left saw their role as organizing, educating, recruiting, and directing Black revolutionaries, i could not see how any real friendship could occur. I felt, and still feel, that it is necessary for Black revolutionaries to come together, analyze our history, our present condition, and to define ourselves and our struggle. Black self-determination is a basic right, and if we do not have the right to determine our destinies, then who does? I believe that to gain our liberation, we must come from the position of power and unity and that a Black revolutionary party, led by Black revolutionary leaders, is essential. I believe in uniting with white revolutionaries to fight against a common enemy, but i was convinced that it had to be on the basis of power and unity rather from weakness and unity at any cost.
Shakur recognized the imperative of a social critique that centered on Black experiences. This centering of Black experiences had the immediate effect of making valuable Black accumulated collective knowledge, which was derived from and allowed for an autonomous analysis. Shakur does not say it in these words, but Black autonomous analysis is a necessary first step toward recognizing the specificity of the Black condition, which in turn necessitates a specific perspective on what social transfiguration means, and how it must be achieved. It is this specificity that is expressed in the phrase “and if we do not have the right to determine our destinies, then who does?” Still, like Murray and Zinzun, Shakur valued multiracial alliances. In her autobiography, she frequently mentioned her admiration of and will to struggle with progressive nonblacks, including Whites, Latin@s, Indians, and Puerto Ricans. Yet she also detected among Black radicals an unexamined drive toward multiracial “unity at any cost.” This is the drive that seems to have become canonical, both in the Black cyborg’s political formations and in critical social analysis, what i termed above the people-of-color framework. Shakur did employ the anti-imperialist multiracial perspective, yet she stressed the Black singular positionality. Crucially, she underlined autonomous and self-determined Black spaces and study as conditions of possibility for the appreciation and germination of Black transformative praxis. According to Shakur’s perspective, then, multiracial alliances were a possibility, not a requirement; if deemed relevant, they were to necessarily follow, and not precede, or much less disavow, Black self-determination. And even though she deployed an intersectional analysis of oppression, according to which race was one among many factors determining one’s position in the lifeworld, she also stressed the unique experiences of blackness. It is in this sense, then, that i interpret Shakur’s employment of the “slave” and “people of color” tropes in her 2013 open letter from Cuba: “My name is Assata Shakur, and I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the U.S. government’s policy towards people of color. I am an ex-political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984.” “I am a 20th century escaped slave”: Skakur is unambiguous about what defines her condition. Because it renders present a fact that is normatively understood as a finite event, part of the historical past—slavery—and since slavery is marked by social death, as discussed in the Introduction and several of this book’s chapters, Shakur’s narrative conjoins the contemporary condition of blackness to that of social death. Slavery and social death are thus specific to blackness (although slavery and social death are not necessarily and always reducible to blackness, as the discussion in the Introduction indicated). It follows that the condition of the slave is both related to yet distinct from that of the “people of color.” Shakur, the slave, is related to the oppressed multiracial masses insofar as she, a Black woman, is subjected to the forces of U.S. racialized capitalistic heteronormative subjugation. Yet the overarching logic of racialized capitalistic heteronormative subjugation is antiblackness. As we have analyzed in the contexts of juvenile incarceration in Texas and public security policies in Brazil, structural and foundational antiblackness works differently for Blacks and for nonblacks: it produces different social results, and indeed generates distinct social logics and their corresponding dynamics. In her writings, Shakur presented the institutional apparatus of justice as a contemporary actualization of slave law. For example, she equated to a lynching her preemptive criminalization in the March 25, 1977, murder trial of a New Jersey state trooper.
“The [empire-]state,” Joy James asserts, “has explicitly identified the slave” and confirmed the ontological condition of slavery—a condition that is reinforced by the carceral regime but necessarily exceeds it. The carceral regime, exceeding its legal and political underpinnings, establishes a social world of transgenerational hypersurveillance and dispossession that has rendered the Black obsolete. The definition of slavery as an acceptable punishment for a crime in the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which otherwise formally abolished slavery, solidifies slavery in the present tense, a juridical category legitimized by the current empire-state’s protocols. Fundamentally, the slave is the product of a transhistorical antiblack structure of positionality that attains actualization in myriad ways: from the cultural to the legal–political, from the unconscious to the empirical. In it, the Black, the socially dead, the slave, is in a relationship of antagonism, not conflict, with the state in particular, but with the citizen and the human more generally. The slave, already socially dead, expects to die tomorrow.
In chapter 1, i proposed a cycle of hypersurveillance and dispossession defining the transgenerational feedback loop between imposed segregation, punitive schooling, and the criminal justice system. The emphasis on the cycle was meant to contrast with the common notion that there is a linear, contained, and finite process that consistently subjugates Blacks. An example of a linear process is the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which leads an individual from punitive schools to the prison system. Absent in this linear perspective is the continuous, cyclical, transgenerational, ubiquitous, and structural nature of antiblack institutions and socially shared cognition. Generation after generation of individuals are removed from zones of containment (neighborhoods), targeted by empire-state institutions (the police and schools), immobilized in warehouses (prisons), and returned to zones of containment, where the process restarts. Continuous and expanding time, continuous and expanding spaces.
The expanded and cyclical perspective on structural and foundational antiblackness developed in this study gains further support in Shakur’s analysis. In a revealing dialogue with Eva, a Black woman who had spent about “10 years in the clinton correctional facility for women in new jersey,” Shakur describes contours of Black social death under conditions of permanent surveillance and repression. I quote at length because the dialogue also reveals the transcendental imagination of the slave, the dehumanized person who is aware of the panoptical and degrading essence of the antiblack social formation. Eva’s transcendental imagination, which takes her to Jupiter and anywhere else she can conjure up, is profoundly connected to her sharp and accurate depiction of the carceral state’s omnipresence. As Cedric Robinson would have put it, the slave’s structures of the mind, by necessity, analysis, and design, always transcend the almost unbearable here and now. The slave’s embodiment of the transcendental imperative—her willing immersion in accumulated revolutionary knowledge—suggests an epistemology that “granted supremacy to metaphysics not the material.” “This was a revolutionary consciousness,” Robinson asserts, “that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formation of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.” Assata and Eva’s mutual recognition is evidence of how the embodiment of the transcendental imperative is not only a categorically unique Black insurgent perspective, but also an effective strategy for preserving the “historical being” that, in spite of—and indeed precisely because of—the structure of antiblack positionalities, is not reducible to slavery, capitalism, and colonialism. While she experiences the consequences of capitalist exploitation and colonial dispossession, the slave’s condition is not explainable by these processes. Her dispossession is, fundamentally, of being. Neither simply a worker nor a colonial subject, the slave, in the antiblack structure of positionality, is the nonbeing that, by contrast, makes possible nonblacks to be. The slave makes this world possible, but she is not of this world:
My first encounter with Eva was when she came over to the bars and sat down outside my cell and told me she could astro-travel. She called it something like astro-space projection.
“I can go anywhere i want to, whenever i want to,” she told me. “I just come from Jupiter.”
“How was it?” i asked her.
“Can you show me how to project myself the hell out of here?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said, “I do that all the time. As a matter of fact, i’m not here right now.”
“No,” i said, “that’s not good enough. I want to project my mind and my body out of here.”
“You’ll be in jail wherever you go,” Eva said.
“You have a point there,” i told her, “but [i’d] rather be in a minimum security prison or on the streets than in the maximum security prison in here. The only difference between here and the streets is that one is maximum security and the other is minimum security. The police patrol our communities just like the guards patrol here. I don’t have the faintest idea how it feels to be free.”
Eva told me that she knew how i felt. She had to know. Any Black person in amerika, if they are honest with themselves, have got to come to the conclusion that they don’t know what it feels like to be free. We aren’t free politically, economically, or socially. We have very little power over what happens in our lives. In fact, a Black person in amerika isn’t even free to walk down the street. Walk down the wrong street, in the wrong neighborhood at night, and you know what happens.
As hypersurveillance and incarceration are inescapable, so is the realization that an existential and bodily apartheid structures Black experience. To not know freedom is to come to terms with slavery and social death. In contrast to the Black cyborg’s bloc’s reformist position relative to civil society and the empire-state, and being the nonsubject in contrast to which all other subjects attain relative measures of subjecthood, the slave has no demands other than the complete destruction of the reigning ideological and social order. “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” affirmed Shakur. The “historical being,” then, is that which emerges once the antiblack structure of positionality is recognized. It is the revolutionary drive, the vision, that results from the imaginative imperative, the anti-future imperative.
Shakur’s radicalization was in significant ways related to her immersion in the Black Panther Party. It is unsurprising, then, to find in the writings of one of the party’s main theoretical thinkers and leaders, George Jackson, substantial attention to contemporary forms of slavery and its attendant manifestations of social death. At San Quentin Prison, Jackson had initiated and coordinated an influential Black Panther chapter; much of the ensuing unprecedented prisoners’ movement, which garnered national and international attention, was credited to his ideas. One of Jackson’s well-known statements stresses the imperative of revolution, which is a result of the awareness of his social position of enslavement: “As a slave, the social phenomenon that engages my whole consciousness is, of course, revolution.” The slave serves as a proxy description of the present, of the Black collective condition. The slave is in a position of fundamental antagonism—not conflict, as the Black cyborg’s bloc would have it—with the empire-state and its symbolic fundamentals of sociality. For Jackson, the slave, antiblackness informs and is reproduced by this foundational antagonism. Antiblackness manifested as social and physical death requires at least two modes of critical reflection. First, an analysis of the structure of positionality that makes the Black expendable; second, the embracing of the dance of death, a prefigurative scenario in which the slave engages in the destruction of the cognitive and material conditions that determine her experiences. The scenario is one of negation, to be sure, but it is also generative insofar as the “historical being,” who recognizes her structural nonbeingness, comes to terms with the realization that, unlike the cyborg, there is nothing to salvage.
Below is a quotation illustrating Jackson’s analysis of the structure of positionality. This structure that continuously degrades the slave resonates with the diasporic logic and dynamics of antiblackness i examined in Brazil and the United States. The litany of quotidian neglect and abuse by the empire-state and members of the so-called civil society prove the accepted banality of Black suffering and premature death, the most graspable manifestation of a structuring antiblack antagonism and its unending and multiple actualizations. Antiblackness renders the experience of blackness permanently uncertain—the only certainty being, precisely, uncertainty. It is not a matter of whether brutalization and degradation will happen. It is matter of when. The Black is not (citizen, human) so that the nonblack is (citizen, human). Hence my son’s request for a bulletproof vest. Social death makes premature physical death socially acceptable and brutality predictable, banal. Social death, then, is the condition of possibility of premature physical death:
Born to premature death, a menial, subsistence-wage worker, odd-job man, the cleaner, the caught, the man under hatches, without bail—that’s me, the colonial victim. Anyone who can pass the civil service examination today can kill me tomorrow. Anyone who passed the civil service examination yesterday can kill me today with complete immunity. I’ve lived with repression every moment of my life, a repression so formidable that any movement on my part can only bring relief, the respite of a small victory or the release of death. In every sense of the term, in every sense that’s real, I’m a slave to, and of, property.
If the slave is to survive yet another day, civil society needs to be analyzed and approached as an antiblack war machine that operates at the pragmatic and the representational levels. Notice how in Jackson’s analysis the prison is only one aspect of an antiblack constellation of social forces—it is part of a continuum that structurally degrades Blacks. The social world of Black social death is a constantly replenished and expanding carceral system. The deputization of police powers, which nonblacks and Blacks alike perform, makes this carceral system ubiquitous and commonsensical; it suggests its hegemony. The carceral system exceeds the institutions of surveillance and control. The gratuitous violence that it inflicts on the Black is as ominous and as widespread as it is constitutive, expected, already represented, ever-present, transhistorical. This violence has nothing do to with what Blacks do, but rather with who Blacks are, or are not. Gratuitous antiblack violence is not dependent on any act the Black executes—it is not, as it is for the nonblack, contingent on the nonblack’s opposition to the hegemony (e.g., monitoring or protesting the police, not paying the landlord, striking against unfair work conditions and wages). The slave, then, is constantly subjected to violence. If she is to survive yet another day, she must engage in a concerted effort at insurgent thought and transfigurative action, which in theory at least opens up the range of possible outcomes. At minimum, Jackson’s proposal of embracing the dance of death announces an ambit beyond the Black social life of social death. Jackson, too, is deeply immersed in the imperative of Black metaphysics. He calls it revolution. It could not be more different than “long-range politics”: reformist, hopeful, multiracial “unity at any cost”:
To the slave, revolution is an imperative, a love-inspired, conscious act of desperation. It’s aggressive. It isn’t “cool” or cautious. It’s bold, audacious, violent, an expression of icy, disdainful hatred! It can hardly be any other way without raising a fundamental contradiction. If revolution, and especially revolution in Amerika, is anything less than an effective defense/attack weapon and a charger for the people to mount now, it is meaningless to the great majority of the slaves. If revolution is tied to dependence on the inscrutabilities of “long-range politics,” it cannot be made relevant to the person who expects to die tomorrow.
By negating its conflict-resolution protocols, the slave interrupts the chronos of the empire-state. She refutes the socially accepted concept of time as redemption. Instead, she embodies the vision of the anti-future.
By contrast, the Black cyborg’s multiracial bloc acts as if it is in a relationship of resolvable conflict with civil society and the state. Routinized and expected, the Black cyborg’s political bloc’s public presence—despite the cyborg’s own experiences of brutalization—denies the foundational and immovable antagonism between the Black and the antiblack social formation. The slave, by definition, cannot be present in spaces of political articulation for she is neither citizen nor human; her presence marks a fundamental antagonism with those spaces’ foundational principles; those spaces exist because the Black, qua slave, does not exist as either citizen or human. By embracing the dance of death, by rendering normative politics meaningless, by rejecting the chronos of the empire-state, the slave reclaims nonslave meaning.
The dance of death is the imagination of freedom. To recognize the antiblack constitution of the world is to come to the realization that, if the Black is to survive, she has no choice but to identify, oppose, and rebuild. She has to identify and oppose antiblackness at its root—the cognitive and structural aspects of antiblackness that endlessly actualize themselves in multiple social facts. And just as importantly, she has to embrace transcendence. Transcendence is the opposite of reform; it is the negation of institutional calibration. For example, how can the empire-state’s police be adjusted, tweaked, and bettered if the implicit social understanding that produces the very need for the police, that supports it, and that informs its policies and functionaries is unmistakably antiblack? Jackson, along with all Black persons who are honest with themselves, recognize that “anyone who can pass the civil service examination today can kill me tomorrow. Anyone who passed the civil service examination yesterday can kill me today with complete immunity.” Is a calibrated antiblackness a reasonable demand? To dance the dance of death, to embrace transcendence, is to give up on, or operate according to a conceptual matrix different than, the fight for incremental fractions of citizenship and humanity, which does nothing to change the paradigm that necessitates Black diminished existence.
The invitation to the dance of death has been extended to Blacks and nonblacks since at least the sixteenth century. The dance of death is not interested in the reform of the multiracial empire-state. It is not interested in a priori analogies between Black and nonblack experiences. It results from accumulated, collective, transhistorical Black knowledge, and affirms that there is nothing to be lost, nothing to preserve, when antiblackness structures our entire social world. The ensuing full experience of blackness allows for the engineering of a world that is not antiblack. In these terms, the invitation itself already prefigures a reality beyond the antiblack structure of positionality, for “the black who extends a hand to make contact with the Other has done so as a paradoxical act of faith by attempting the impossible, for no black can be equal to a [nonblack or] white in an antiblack world, but from the standpoint of acts like that of loving the dead, such an impossibility doesn’t matter. The act itself ‘is’ its own freedom, its own authentic upsurge, that transforms the impossible into the ironic. It is the absurdity of the act that makes it possible.”
It is the naturalized absurdity of antiblackness that should compel us to engage it and seek what seems impossible. Antiblackness makes transcendence via Black experience an imperative. In this regard, the transcendental urgency is akin to that of Afrofuturism, which “is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.” More specifically, transcendence is graspable in the attempts at Black autonomous organizing, such as those of Reaja ou Será Morta / Reaja ou Será Morto, that refuse the antiblack genocidal premises and conditions of the multiracial empire-state, its civil society, and their deputies, and embrace failure as a foundational principle. Failure, here, means the opposite of linear time, of success. Success, as uncritically accepted, is dependent on the empire-state logic and chronos of incremental inclusion of the previously excluded, of multiracial redemption and its mechanisms of Black co-optation; it is contingent on the disavowal of antiblackness. Failure, on the other hand, means the embracing of the fundamental and ubiquitous antiblack terror as that which must be unapologetically understood and combated. It means challenging the algorithm of antiblackness at the front lines of systematic and never-ending police killings, forced segregation, industrial imprisonment, denial of basic formal education, and vulnerability to poverty and early death by preventable causes, among many other urgent manifestations of antiblack genocide. Failure means incarnating the figures of the Boçau, the recently arrived enslaved African in the Americas who saw revolt as an imperative, and the Cabulos@, who carved autonomy in the midst of the antiblack social formation. Failure means the refutation of victimization—no to multiracialism at any cost, which means at the cost of Black lives; no to a political imagination, practice, and schedule, that reaffirms a multiracial social order that is irremediably antiblack. The transcendental imperative requires a type of Black self-determination that begins with the end of this social world, which means the suspension of accepted modes of normative antiblack subjectivities, and ends with a beginning. “You can go anywhere you want to,” Eva said, knowingly. “You just have to project yourself.”