Black Suffering as Catalyst
Multiracial Blocs in Diaspora
Drawing from the analyses of asymptotic forms of recognition, Black disidentification, and the Black cyborg, here i evaluate political assumptions informing oblique identification in two empire-states of the Black diaspora. I begin with a few words on how asymptotic recognition and disidentification relate to oblique identification. Asymptotic recognition is a form of oblique identification at its minimum. Latin@ kids in prison (chapters 2 and 3), even though they have experienced the same antiblack forces of transgenerational dispossession and hypersurveillance as Black kids, vis-à-vis Black kids they were nevertheless on a distinct life track, and were therefore under a distinct logic of social containment. Latin@ and Black kids hardly interacted and identified with each other. Relative to Black kids, Latin@ young men and women could reasonably expect less disadvantages in and out of prison even though they were, by nature of their shared areas of residence—occupied zones in the contemporary United States—similarly targeted by state-sponsored militarized policing and disadvantaged in punitive schools. Latino kids expected their family and friend support networks to provide them with material and affective resources in ways that Black youths could not realistically expect. Latin@ kids were the numeric majority in the juvenile prison, yet they were not subjected to the intensifying and increasing forms of punishment Blacks experienced the deeper they moved in the institutions of punishment; nor were they as disproportionately represented in prison as were Blacks: Latin@ kids were often represented in juvenile prisons approximately according to their proportion in the general population. The antiblack structure of positionality is such that Latin@s did not experience antiblack technologies of repression in the same intensity as did Blacks. Yet Latin@ young women and men were aware of structural and transgenerational forces of oppression that affected all of them. In this regard, even if only obliquely, they were aware of antiblack technologies of control and deprivation as the broad umbrella that affected everyone during, before, and after imprisonment.
This form of Latin@ asymptotic recognition of antiblackness suggests that the afterlife of slavery, informing current carceral regimes in the African diaspora, inevitably affect nonblacks, particularly the most vulnerable. In this multiracial dystopian scenario, the potential for nonblack recognition of antiblackness is at least a theoretical possibility. “If the prison continues to dominate the landscape of punishment throughout this century into the next,” ponders Angela Davis, “what might await coming generations of impoverished African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans?”
As happened during the 2013 mass protests in Brazil, Black disidentification occurs when Blacks recognize the antiblack logic organizing public–political mobilization. Chapter 4 showed that, even though the protests in Brazil addressed antiblack phenomena such as police brutality and unemployment (and therefore performed oblique identification of antiblackness), Blacks perceived in the nonblack (mostly White) protestors’ sense of entitlement to the public square, their conflict (as opposed to antagonism) with the police, and their negotiations with state representatives, including then president Dilma Rousseff, a fundamentally antiblack (and pro-nonblack) logic whose assumption placed the nonblack protestors at the heart of the empire-state’s constitution. Whereas nonblacks, and especially Whites, could voice their discontent in public, Blacks know that the public sphere, and civil society in general, is the stage of antiblack indiscriminate violence. Whereas nonblacks, and especially Whites, could generate and count on collective scandal when the police brutalized them, Blacks know that scandalous Black pain is an oxymoron. Whereas nonblacks suffered violence that was contingent on their protests against the established forms of power, Blacks know they are constantly the objects of gratuitous violence. Black disidentification, then, is a product of the capacity that nonblacks, and especially Whites, have to perform their belonging in the empire-state’s civil society. Nonblack, and especially White, capacity to perform belonging is anathema to Black belonging. The nonblack is a citizen because the Black is not.
In both asymptotic recognition (chapters 2 and 3) and black disidentification (chapter 4) there is potential for nonblack recognition of the Black positionality—at least recognition of Black suffering. But there exists a missing link: a disposition, a fact, a figure, an incentive that transforms the potential into actualization. The Black cyborg is the missing link, although it is not the only one possible. Yet the Black cyborg is certainly effective. The Black cyborg catalyzes nonblack recognition of Black suffering, even if oblique recognition. The Black cyborg makes possible the emergence of the multiracial bloc, engendering a familiarity with Black suffering that, in the cyborg’s absence, would remain faint at best. The Black cyborg allows for nonblack oblique identification of Black experiences.
The focus on oblique identification is useful because it explains how nonblacks, when addressing the excesses of the antiblack, violent, and corrupt empire-state, assume and/or suggest a familiarity with Black suffering. Such presumed familiarity is telling of the underlying logic informing the constitution of the multiracial bloc, which works for and imagines an improved democratic polis. Such assumed familiarity with Black suffering, however, is nothing new. It is precisely the obliqueness of the identification—its partiality, belatedness, unwillingness, and strategic employment as a tool to constitute democratic multiraciality—that allows the nonblack to recognize, address, employ, and thus render her own the quandary of blackness. This chapter will show how such assumptions of familiarity with Black suffering, and blackness more generally, are integral to the people-of-color concept, a critical component of the multiracial bloc. Importantly, it will illustrate how these assumptions also serve to disavow the acknowledgment of antiblackness as a foundational, structural, ubiquitous, transhistorical, and present fact.
Insisting on the wide-ranging effects of White supremacy across the racial spectrum, the people-of-color analytical framework allows for recognizing specific ways in which differently racialized groups are victimized, yet such differences are ultimately judged secondary to detecting and challenging the common source and assumedly comparable outcomes of racialized oppression and degradation. Both oblique identification and the people-of-color framework, then, require and generate the simultaneous acknowledgement of Black suffering, the assumption of common experiences across nonwhite racial lines, and the incapacity to engage historical, contemporary, and structural facts of antiblackness as foundational to the establishment of the empire-state and the current tableau of relationalities. Such incapacity to engage structural antiblackness is tantamount to the denial of antiblackness. The Black cyborg, central to the constitution of the multiracial bloc and its people-of-color praxis, paradigmatically incarnates the simultaneous acknowledgment of black suffering and the denial of structural antiblackness. The Black cyborg is the condition of the multiracial bloc—without the cyborg’s super/extrahuman knowledge, strength, and love, there is no multiracial bloc. At the same time, the Black cyborg is the product of the multiracial bloc insofar as the multiracial bloc provides the cyborg with the human resources and collective energy s/he needs to come about and survive. Still, the multiracial bloc’s method of operation requires that the acknowledgment of structural antiblackness be pushed aside which, in effect, disavows the very specific conditions and constitution of the Black cyborg, it disavows the very cyborg’s being. Such was evidenced not only in Michael Zinzun’s lifelong efforts at organizing collectively (chapter 6), but also during the multiracial protests following Amarildo de Souza’s disappearance (chapter 5).
The people-of-color framework is part of a paradigm shift that, in the United States at least, arguably became the post–civil rights era hegemony. Orienting research, policy making, as well as political organizing, the people-of-color framework claims to replace what is perceived as an undue emphasis on the Black–White binary. For example, Bonilla-Silva has proposed a “Latin Americanization of racial stratification in the USA,” according to which “the bi-racial order typical of the United States, which was the exception in the world-racial system, is evolving into a complex tri-racial stratification system similar to that of many Latin American and Caribbean nations. . . . Specifically, I suggest that the emerging tri-racial system will be comprised of ‘Whites’ at the top, and intermediary groups of ‘honorary Whites’—similar to the coloreds in South Africa during formal apartheid . . . , and a non-White group or the ‘collective Black’ at the bottom.” Even though Bonilla-Silva stresses that “the centrality of the Black identity will not dissipate,” to challenge the “new order,” “we need to short-circuit the belief in near-whiteness as the solution to status differences and create a coalition of all ‘people of color’ and their White allies.”
Howard Winant and others have suggested that the “beyond Black and White” perspective has been hegemonic in Brazil since at least the 1930s, which would qualify the tropical empire-state ideology of multiracial democracy as a precursor of similar tropes in the United States and elsewhere, tropes whose primary effect is to disqualify claims of the uniqueness and centrality of antiblackness as a structuring fact. By stressing common White-supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal, capitalist denominators of oppression, emphasizing race mixture (mostly but not exclusively in Brazil) and/or multiracial/multicultural conviviality (as a project or even as a reality, mostly but not exclusively in the United States), the people-of-color framework, in its progressive versions, simultaneously acknowledges the specifics of the lived experience of blackness and elides from critical analyses and organizational efforts a serious and sustained consideration of structural and foundational antiblackness. The people-of-color framework is able to locate and generate protest against Black suffering; yet the specificity of Black suffering as a product of structural and foundational antiblackness is negated when Black suffering becomes the point of departure from which multiracial, usually nonwhite allegedly analogous experiences of suffering are presented as evidence of White supremacy. White supremacy, in turn, is conceptualized as the oppressive force field that, if it is to be challenged, theoretically and experientially requires the people-of-color framework.
What i am pointing to is as simple as it is canonical. Think of the ways in which multiracial arguments for analysis and mobilization often operate normatively. In the Introduction i offered an auto-critique of my previous books, showing how they unproblematically employed a people-of-color framework. In what follows i generalize from decades of participating in progressive multiracial organizing efforts, in the United States and in Brazil. The organizing dynamics vary little depending on whether the person or group who conceives the effort is Black. Here is a schematic sequence of how the typical, progressive well-meaning multiracial organizing effort emerges, proceeds, and consolidates itself into a bloc:
- 1. It usually starts by focusing on an example of Black suffering—be it police abuse, domestic violence, AIDS/HIV infection, forced dislocation, unemployment, exposure to environmental toxins, or harsh school punishment;
- 2. It proceeds to move, almost always seamlessly, as if Black suffering is common to other nonblack persons;
- 3. Experiences of suffering by nonblack women, Latin@, Asian, Muslim, non-U.S. citizens, and impoverished persons or groups are used as examples to show their correspondence with the initial example of Black suffering;
- 4. In this attempt at showing correspondence between Black and nonblack suffering, Black suffering is presented as the suffering of the people of color—or at least it is perceived as the suffering that allows for the suffering of people of color to be brought to light, analyzed, analogized, and combated;
- 5. Black suffering thus becomes the catalyst that forms and consolidates the multiracial bloc;
- 6. Yet, unlike what happens with the catalyst in a chemical reaction, during the consolidation of the multiracial bloc Black experiences are diluted into, and made analogous to, those of the people of color;
- 7. What is specific, incommensurable, fundamental, structural, foundational, and some would say incommunicable about Black suffering gets lost.
Below is an example of an event organized in February 2015 by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) at the campus of the University of Texas to discuss Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness in the context of recent police killings of unarmed Black women and men in the United States. Besides suggesting a strategic appropriation of the Black Lives Matter approach, the passage illustrates the simultaneous recognition of Black suffering and the pivoting away from structural and foundational antiblackness. This simultaneity is unremarkable. A central component of the people-of-color framework, this simultaneity defines the multiracial bloc. The people-of-color framework is hardly a function of political orientation. It inhabits conservative, liberal, and radical analyses and practices. The self-proclaimed radicality of the ISO, which demands an end to mass incarceration (faintly radical at this point given that even major party presidential candidates endorse it) and capitalism, is at ease in the people-of-color world: “Following the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Jones, Larry Jackson, and dozens of other innocent people of color, a new movement is finding its place in the fight for justice. To succeed, the Black Lives Matter movement needs a solid understanding of where this systemic racism comes from and how it supports the ruling class. Join the International Socialist Organization for a discussion on why and how capitalism needs The New Jim Crow to survive, and what we can do to shut it down.” It is the seemingly normative ease with which the ISO moves from the state-induced and extralegal murders of Black people to “dozens of innocent people of color” that is at the heart of the people-of-color framework and the multiracial bloc it intends to bring together. An analysis of structural and foundational antiblackness as the source of Black death is pushed aside; systematic racism and capitalism become the common sources of suffering. The multiracial bloc gains a blueprint.
Examining oblique identification and the people-of-color framework as variations on the common themes of transracial (mis)recognition and solidarity, this chapter critically evaluates the ensuing ethical and political possibilities. What types of ethical orientation and political program can emerge when the nonblack-Black frame of reference (that posits the uniqueness and centrality of blackness, irreducible to “racism” and “capitalism” as discussed in the Introduction) is negated by or substituted for the practices of oblique identification and the people-of-color framework (that stress differentiated yet commensurable types of racialized victimization under White supremacy)?
To tether this chapter, i review significant aspects of the Black cyborg’s constitution and political performance that explain (a) the formation of the multiracial bloc that is aware of and wants to end Black suffering; (b) the multiracial bloc’s awe of and dependence on the Black cyborg; (c) the multiracial bloc’s unwillingness and/or inability to elaborate a compelling critique of foundational and structural antiblackness; and (d) the posthumous widespread absorption and performance of the Black cyborg. We are, in varied but significant measures, Black cyborgs. We are Black cyborgs when we address Black suffering and perform a belief in societal reform (despite the ineffectiveness of institutional reform as it concerns antiblackness); we are Black cyborgs when we insist on educating Blacks and nonblacks on social injustices whose multiracial relevance originates with the recognition (and eventually erases the specificity) of Black suffering; we are Black cyborgs when we evoke love (despite the enduring and structural antiblack hatred) as that which will make full transracial recognition possible; we are Black cyborgs when, despite all evidence to the contrary, we maintain our hope that nonblacks, once they recognize the dependence of our current concept of humanity on antiblackness, will eventually divest themselves from this corrupted matrix of humanity (and the psychological, social, and material advantages that accrue from it), and embrace an alternative, pro-Black, even post-Black praxis of collective belonging. Our performance of the Black cyborg is only possible, or made more plausible, because the Black cyborg, qua identifiable political bodily subject, has effectively vanished. What remains are her mind and spirit. Still, the death and absence of the cyborg, perhaps even more effectively than the living and present cyborg, furthers the imagination and practice of the allegedly progressive multiracial bloc. The death of the cyborg gives renewed hope to the empire-state’s project of multiracial integration.
The multiracial bloc is greatly dependent on the Black cyborg’s magnetism. Yet this magnetism also immobilizes and repels allies. Zinzun, like other Black cyborgs, fascinates, attracts, and compels. Those who become his collaborators and allies, even though willing to put in the work and take responsibility for their education, assume that the cyborg will provide the fundamental questions and strategies. Key components of the Black Power theses as developed by Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton, published in 1967, these assumptions have the positive effect of centering Black experiences in political praxis, thus minimizing or, ideally, neutralizing nonblack, and principally White, undue influence on collective efforts. These same assumptions, without the Black feminist critique, will tend to center Black cisnormative men’s experiences. Black cyborgs such as those suggested by Zinzun and Baldwin perform the disavowal of progressive Black women’s voices. Proponents of Black feminisms, and more broadly, radical organized Black women, have maintained the Black Power focus on Black experiences yet have valued transformative perspectives arising out of positionalities defined by the intersecting experiences of blackness and a combination of factors such as being female, LGBTQ, worker, placed in or outside the U.S. empire, and attuned to the metaphysical and spiritual worlds. Black feminisms, except perhaps the revolutionary strands as defined by Joy James, enact and/or expect their respective cyborgs.
Cyborgs like Zinzun often do the bulk of the conceptual, research, and organizational work required to show and oppose the ways in which antiblack processes affect Blacks and nonblacks. Michael’s extensive personal archives on racial dynamics affecting the criminal justice system, the environment, education, and health, even though often focused on the experiences of United States Indians, Latin@s, and vulnerable Whites, was organized primarily around conditions afflicting the Black. So were his educational efforts targeting Black and nonblack persons, especially the youth. Yet, perhaps because he wanted to preempt allies’ passivity, Zinzun’s approach departed somewhat from Baldwin’s. Baldwin’s cyborg was delegated with the historical–ethical mission to educate the profoundly ignorant nonwhite—principally the White. Zinzun’s cyborg, although still willing to do most of the educational work, nevertheless asked that Blacks and nonblacks be more invested in the labor of analysis and transformation. “I’ll work with you, not for you,” Michael often said, a variation on the Panther mantra “We’ll work with you, not for you.” And there are numerous examples of nonblacks doing just that. One of CAPA’s longtime collaborators and Michael’s close friend, Maybe Settlage, a White woman who decided to relocate from Atlanta and live in South Central Los Angeles to work at local schools, embodies this needed political investment from nonblacks—one that lessened Michael’s burden and also made more graspable the multiracial project. For nonblacks, this investment means a disinvestment of their nonblackness as a source of symbolic and concrete material benefits. A substantial aspect of nonblack participation in Black-led efforts is the recognition, by Blacks and nonblacks, that to render the multiracial analysis and action program more acceptable, nonblacks must commit to refine it, work on it, and carry it out.
However, the premise and act of centering Black experiences and knowledge can also produce hesitation and passivity, precisely what Zinzun often attempted to avoid. Because the Black cyborg tends to monopolize political analyses, nonblack allies, though willing to serve as foot soldiers, may feel they are not required, expected, or wanted as collaborators in the intellectual labor. When Zinzun said, “I’ll work with you, not for you,” he was possibly often heard as saying “We [Black cyborgs] will tell you what to do; you should just listen, follow our lead, and work accordingly.” And indeed, over a decade, in the various organizing strategy meetings where i witnessed Michael in action, his role, invariably, was that of (a) devising an agenda and making sure participants stayed focused; (b) providing the broad theoretical guidelines (e.g., to protest an individual case of police brutality is to mobilize diverse constituencies against a pattern of multifaceted institutionalized abuse on vulnerable communities); (c) laying out specific strategies on how to approach the media, elected officials, and the police; (d) suggesting a division of labor for the agreed-on action (protest, rally, press conference, etc.); and (e) donating varied amounts of financial resources, almost always unbeknownst to participants.
Adding to allies’ hesitancy and passivity, and indeed their resistance against sustained collaboration, was the impression that recognizing Black suffering and identifying with the Black cyborg was synonymous with entering an uncertain and fearful social universe. The universe of the cyborg is cut through the desire for change, which requires challenging established forms of power infused with symbolic and actual violence, and thus is intrinsically conflictive, insurgent, dangerous, and unstable. The cyborg’s universe is one where fear of bodily and mental harm is constant. Zinzun’s continued personal struggles with bodily and psychological injury, as well as with the death of family, friends, and collaborators, often provoked among his supporters a paralyzing and fearful awe.
Nonblack and Black participation in the everyday workings of both Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) and Community in Support of the Gang Truce (CSGT), as well as in the many events Michael helped organize in his more than thirty years of consistent activism, remained sparse. The assumption of the cyborg’s intellectual and moral preeminence, and allies’ hesitations generated by the proximity to the cyborg, make unsurprising this scant involvement. Zinzun achieved important victories in the courts; he stirred public debates on law enforcement and the need for a civilian police review board, which was the object of repeated animated but unsuccessful public campaigns starting in 1979; for a decade he successfully ran a television program focusing on his organizing efforts across the Black diaspora; he brought together warring gang factions; he started a number of local programs, such as speakers bureaus, computer literacy classes, and pest control initiatives, that led to autonomous sources of income for young people; and he established lasting alliances with like-minded organizations and individuals in the European, African, and South American continents. Yet such achievements were disproportionately dependent on his seemingly unbounded energy, charisma, organizational shrewdness, and financial resources. Zinzun never commanded a large, readily mobilizable bloc. Rather, his political effectiveness—his capacity to engage institutions of power—depended on the everyday and capillary one-on-one contact with various constituencies, and his capacity to seize unique moments, such as the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, and apply to those moments the wisdom accumulated in his lifelong everyday efforts. In short, Zinzun made sure that, when the dance of death started, he’d be ready. Yet his multiracial blocs of allies were not always on the same wavelength. So it was not surprising that, when Michael passed in 2006, CAPA and CSGT dissolved, and to this day there is a gaping vacuum once filled by his presence, charisma, and energy.
In the Brazilian cases analyzed in chapters 4 and 5, the Black cyborg emerges posthumously. The cyborg’s presence and effectiveness are the result of his and her forced absence. She is the latest victim of genocide. Genocide = systematic homicide. Cláudia da Silva Ferreira, like Amarildo and the countless Brazilian Blacks who succumb to empire-state-sanctioned genocidal dynamics, at times synthesize the multiracial bloc by generating empathy, research, and organizational efforts. Their superhuman qualities emanate from personal experiences of unspeakable terror, and in the capacity their ordeal has to galvanize a multiracial cross-class bloc of solidarity. Yet Cláudia (like Amarildo) becomes posthumously superhuman only after she has been thoroughly dehumanized, disfigured, assassinated, then lynched again. The memory of Cláudia and Amarildo’s suffering is mobilized as the substance that congeals otherwise scattered multiracial cross-class constituencies. Acquired postmortem, these martyrs’ charisma engenders recognition of Black suffering yet, as is characteristic of oblique identification and multiracial blocs, disables a sustained engagement with facets of structural antiblackness.
On March 16, 2014, in broad daylight, the dead body of Cláudia da Silva Ferreira was filmed hanging from a police car and dragging on the ground. The macabre scene extended for over 270 yards. Earlier that day, Ferreira, who worked in a local hospital, had been killed by two gunshots fired by the police. One shot entered her back, the other entered her neck. Ferreira—the mother of four and the foster parent of four nieces and nephews who lived in the same household—had left home that morning to buy bread. The police claim she was caught in the crossfire when they engaged drug dealers. Local residents disagree with the claim, and affirm Ferreira was killed when the police arrived in the community “already shooting,” as is common practice in law enforcement operations against alleged drug traffickers in historical Black residential areas. It is not difficult to imagine the scenes of police preemptive shooting when we go back to chapter 5 and revisit the UPP officers’ statements suggesting frustration at their pacifying roles and their wish to engage in armed confrontation in Black zones deemed irremediably criminal.
Ferreira’s gendered blackness was an important aspect around which multiracial protests quickly formed: “If she were a doctor, white, resident of Leblon [an elite area of Rio de Janeiro], and dragged on Ataúlfo de Paiva [a busy Leblon street], the commotion would have been far greater. But Cláudia da Silva Ferreira, 38, is ‘just another’ worker, mother, black, and impoverished.” Made by Felipe Aveiro, a self-described activist of Juntos! a multiracial coalition of progressive groups focusing on LGBT, Black, and workers’ rights, this indignant statement reflects the understanding of how social class, race, and place of residence intersect to produce the accumulation of both advantages and vulnerabilities depending on one’s positionality. I engage Aveiro’s article seriously for it demonstrates an honest and, in a multiracial context, rare attempt to grapple with blackness. This genuine indignation, multiplied by a robust social media and street campaign anchored in the images of Cláudia’s postmortem lynching, quickly led to a national commotion. It was as if Cláudia had been assassinated twice. It forced a commentary by then president Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff stated on her Twitter account that “Cláudia’s death shocked the country.” Yet, as Aveiro remarked, the president did not mention that the police killed Cláudia, nor that Cláudia’s neighborhood, like many others of similar characteristics, is subjected to routine militarized and murderous police operations. Aveiro suggests that, due to their structural disadvantages, residents of such neighborhoods are not able to generate social empathy. Quite the opposite. In the predictable pattern that characterizes police homicides, the implicated police officers initially tried to justify their action by claiming self-defense given that Ferreira “possessed arms.” The symbolic calculus informing such claims, similar to the one employed in the “Autos de Resistência,” is that blackness, poverty, and place of residence are easily equated with strong assumptions of criminality, which in turn justifies police-induced deaths. “The quotidian violence in favelas and peripheral areas of Brazil,” continues Aveiro, “are nothing but a reflex of our society that is racist, authoritarian, and organized according to segregationist economic values.”
Aveiro’s analysis goes on to connect Ferreira’s gruesome fate to that of Amarildo, which i analyzed in chapter 5. Both assassinations by the police are presented as evidence that the “greater debate about public security brought about by the . . .  street protests needs to be kept alive and approached with courage and honesty. Besides the debate about decriminalization of drug use . . . the issue of police demilitarization is urgent and necessary.” This statement shifts the focus to public policy, demanding a deep reform in police institutional structure and orientation. It also critiques the 2008 pacification policies and the UPPs analyzed in prior chapters. Speaking for Juntos! Aveiro demands that the state intervene in impoverished areas not through police repression, but by securing (rather than violating) individual citizenship rights and implementing education, health, recreation, and basic infrastructure programs. Making a case against the city’s capitalist orientation that privileges businesses and profits and disregards basic human rights, Juntos! offers its solidarity to Cláudia’s family and friends, and refuses to stay silent.
By referring to the 2013 street protests, and embracing Amarildo and Cláudia’s personal tragedies as the source of moral indignation that engenders the multiracial bloc, Juntos! activists produced an unflinching analysis of the corrupt Brazilian empire-state and its constitutive excesses, especially its historical brutality, anchored in capitalist exploitation, against the Black and the impoverished. In their attempt to single out blackness as an important aspect of the critique, Juntos! activists were unusually insightful.
Central to Aveiro’s analysis is the way it transmutes the systematic oppression of Blacks into moral energy. Cláudia and Amarildo, the victims of institutionalized dehumanization, become the enablers of multiracial recognition. Cláudia and Amarildo’s symbolic powers, which generate critical and expanded consciousness, render them unusual. Posthumously, Cláudia and Amarildo enable the composition of a movement that draws its ethical orientation from the realization of the methodical and unchecked institutionalized brutality affecting Blacks. Rendered martyrs of the multiracial bloc’s cause, deceased Blacks, having experienced unimaginable suffering, become more than human, superhuman, extrahuman. Cláudia and Amarildo, in their power to inspire analysis, compassion, and solidarity, become, in death, the cyborgs around whom the newly formed movement crafts its theoretical orientation, moral substance, and mobilization capacity.
The posthumous Black cyborg receives solidarity and compassion; she cannot give it. She is the object of study, not the subject of her own analysis. She is spoken for, not spoken with. The posthumous Black cyborg, while the galvanizing element of the political bloc, is absent: she produces the bloc, lends her symbolic and moral powers to it, but is not present, and therefore is not, in effect, of it. This curious present absence, or absent presence, is analogous to Zinzun’s position in the coalitions of which he was a vital participant. Cláudia and Amarildo, in death, and Zinzun, in life, made possible the multiracial bloc. In life, Zinzun offered endless compassion, recognition, and love; he received some of it back, but only partially. Cláudia and Amarildo, in death, received compassion, recognition, and love; in life, they were, from the eyes of the nonblack, the seemingly indistinguishable members of the dispossessed Black masses, and ultimately the predictable objects of empire-state- and society-sanctioned terror. Zinzun, in life, gave much more than he received; Cláudia and Amarildo, in death, received far more than their structural positionality allowed, far more than they ever imagined possible.
The inverted symmetry between the indispensable symbolic and practical roles Cláudia and Amarildo, on the one hand, and Michael, on the other, performed vis-à-vis their respective mobilized multiracial collectives, shows the placelessness the Black cyborgs occupy, and not only in such collectives. As well, the placelessness of the Black cyborg is symptomatic of the Black (non)subject’s absent presence in the world’s structure of positionality. The Black cyborg’s absent presence exemplarily reveals Blacks’ constitutive placelessness. When we expand our notion of what constitutes the African American positionality to include all Blacks in the Americas, and embrace the relational approach proposed in the Introduction, the insights of Erica Edwards become applicable to grasping the symbolic and practical functions of the Black cyborg. A charismatic leader, the cyborg “functions in contemporary African American culture as a spatiotemporal impossibility: caught between loss and promise, mourning and hope, yesterday and tomorrow, here and there . . . [she] can never actually exist in the present except as a specter.” This placelessness is a product of the timelessness, the transhistorical character of structural antiblackness. And this placelessness is indicative of the hesitancy with which antiblackness is acknowledged. In the multiracial bloc of sympathizers and genuinely concerned allies, while Black suffering and its connection to structural and institutional dynamics are recognized, Black suffering is not rendered its own, independent sphere of analysis, derivative of a specific, structuring logic. Rather, Black suffering is rendered analogous to the suffering of the impoverished and resident of the periphery (in Brazil) and the nonwhite (in the United States). Black suffering becomes the substance that enables transracial, pansexual, and multiclass congregations. Yet Black suffering is not engaged as a singular, defining, ubiquitous, and constitutive aspect of the very same polity that the progressive multiracial bloc wants to reform. The activists of Juntos! did show unusual will to engage Black suffering. In the absence of a critical and structural perspective on antiblackness, however, they could not comprehend that rather than anomalies or accidents, Amarildo and Cláudia’s fates were normative: predictable, ever present, timeless, merely prefigurative. Terror is a fact of Black life and death, not an aberration. As Black placelessness is paradigmatic of our social world, so is Black expendability. It now becomes all the more evident that, as much as the Black is dispossessed of material resources, including access to housing, quality education, and health, she is dispossessed, principally, of being. Whereas most radical activists of Juntos! demanded an end of the “racist system of capitalist exploitation,” as is possible to hear them say, to the Black only the end of the antiblack structure of positionalities will do. As the examples of noncapitalist political formations indicate, the antiblack structure of positionalities, because it formats nonblack ontologies while rendering Black ontology impossible, is impervious to calibrations in economic and political systems. The antiblack structure of positionalities precedes and shapes social management. Even though Cláudia was assassinated twice, and, like Amarildo, was killed even before she was born, the transgenerational, ubiquitous, and thus foundational aspect of antiblackness did not figure in the multiracial bloc’s analysis and moral indignation.
The Black cyborg’s bio/necrography evinces the pervasiveness of antiblackness. Yet, to maintain the cohesiveness of her bloc, the Black cyborg cannot emphasize the immanently antiblack genocidal nature of the empire-state. To do so would require a political project, not of reform, but of complete refusal and change. Framed by genocide, and embracing transfiguration as the only path out of structural abjection, blackness becomes untranslatable to nonblacks committed to redemptive multiraciality, which requires experiential common denominators. In this context, the partial recognition of antiblackness that glues the multiracial front would be revealed as a timid stance, or, less forgivingly, as farce. Black genocide can only be grasped once the full dimensions of structural and foundational antiblackness are engaged.
Zinzun’s lifelong challenges—poverty, hypersegregation, police and FBI harassment, the loss of several of his Black Panther collaborators to imprisonment and violent death by the empire-state, the incarceration and death of family members victimized by local violence—as he frequently remarked, were not his alone, but those of Black and vulnerable people everywhere. These forms of Black suffering were part of a historical pattern: systematic, institutional, ubiquitous, persistent, continuously present tense. Even though Michael spent most of his public political life valiantly pressing for institutional reform, his less-known long-standing affiliation to uncompromising organizations suggested he was fully aware of the constitutive, structural, and perhaps immovable antiblack core of the United States and indeed diasporic formations. He was a founding member of the National Black United Front (NBUF), a left-leaning and nationalist organization formed in the late 1970s in Brooklyn and based in Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s. Zinzun closely followed NBUF’s regional and national meetings, as the many letters and newspaper clippings in his files attest. For example, on May 14, 1997, Zinzun received the minutes of the NBUF’s Spring Central Committee Meeting in Houston, signed by the organization’s national chair, Conrad Worrill. A year earlier, Worrill called on the United Nations to label an act of genocide the charges that the CIA introduced crack cocaine to South Central Los Angeles. With the claim of genocide against the United States, Worrill voiced an informed analysis of the contemporary antiblack societal structures. According to journalist Chinta Strausberg, “Worrill said he believes there is a link between the introduction of crack cocaine in African American areas and the proliferation of imprisonment of African Americans, the three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy and mandatory sentencing. ‘We want the U.N. to affirm that genocide is taking place against Blacks in America,’ Worrill said.”
Yet, from the perspective of the people-of-color framework, the cyborg’s successful challenge against Black suffering and antiblack formations depends on rendering the Black experience translatable and compelling to nonblacks. The manner in which the cases of Cláudia and Amarildo were rendered legible to multiracial blocs, which emphasized Black suffering yet disavowed structural and foundational antiblackness, reveals this imperative of translatability. While Black suffering becomes episodically compelling, the claim of antiblack genocide—one that requires an analysis of antiblackness as ubiquitous and foundational—does not lend itself to such translation. The claim of fundamental antiblack genocide implicates the entire social formation—its institutions, modes of cognition and sociality, and of course its members—in its dependence on Black social and physical death. The claim of antiblack genocide requires a suspension of accepted progressive wisdom that stresses experiential commonalities between Blacks and nonblacks. The claim of antiblack genocide dramatically alters the political stakes. Rather than reform, what is now required is a complete destruction of formations of cognition, sociality, and resource distribution. If the Black is to become whole, repossess her being, the structures of the mind and of the lifeworld that make her a necessary nonperson need to be annihilated. It is therefore unsurprising that, even though Zinzun was a consistent NBUF supporter, his political bloc’s commitment to redeeming the empire-state project of multiracial inclusion made it impossible to openly endorse anti-antiblack genocide agendas.
Still, even avoiding the structural and foundational analysis of antiblackness, Michael’s lifelong efforts at building and sustaining a multiracial bloc showed that the possibility of translation across differentiated racialized experiences was hardly actualized. The CAPA office remained predominantly Black throughout its two decades, as did the staff and participants in key events to which Zinzun lent his energy and funds. For example, my own ethnographic witnessing as well as available documentation show only a sprinkling of Latin@, White, and Asian involvement in the planning of and participation in the 1996 commemoration of the gang truce’s fourth anniversary.
A similar insight can be drawn from the mobilizations that followed the deaths of Amarildo and Cláudia. Such actions would be quite unimaginable were it not for those individuals’ well-publicized deaths. It is this quality of being unimaginable in times other than when there emerges multiracial episodic outrage, derived from news and social media evidence of inflicted terror on Black bodies, that makes the coming to terms with antiblackness unlikely. As long as Black pain is perceived as episodic, rather than structural and foundational, antiblackness will remain unchallenged. Zinzun wanted to be ready for revolution, as were the activists of Juntos! Yet the multiracial blocs that congregated around Zinzun and Aveiro were unable to grasp that, above and beyond legal and economic integration, transfiguration required an unapologetic confrontation with structural antiblackness and its thorough destruction.
As long as, and only if, foundational and structural antiblackness is disavowed, the progressive multiracial bloc’s embracing of the empire-state project of integration, via political struggle, is morally sound and practically achievable. The Black cyborg’s enabling presence (even if physically absent) in the political spaces of civil society disavows antiblackness. Despite Zinzun’s numerous experiences of state violence perpetrated against him precisely because of his civil society interventions, his assertive public presence had the inevitable effect of disavowing the view that civil society is, for the Black, a permanent state of antiblack war. If the Black cyborg is able to survive, navigate, and even concoct significant victories in/against/with civil society, then civil society cannot be entirely or permanently antiblack. The same is true for the cases of Amarildo and Cláudia: their posthumous presence in the public consciousness and protest suggest that, after all, the Brazilian polis is not as antiblack as i’m indicating. Their allied blocs believed in and were willing to work for Black people’s full integration in the res publica. According to this perspective, rather than an impossible project of multiracial integration, the Brazilian empire-state, like Baldwin’s United States, although reluctantly so, is porous to Black demands, and therefore salvageable. The Black cyborg’s insistence and presence, despite the antiblack violence marking traditional public–political spaces, suggests that Black-led multiracial, oppositional mobilization on the terrain of civil society (as opposed to Black declaration of war against the so-called civil society that is already and always at war against Blacks) is not only doable but eventually effective. The preferred realm of the Black cyborg and her allied front, because the most effective in terms of political and legal gains, is not the Black counterpublic, but the unqualified public, the empire-state’s allegedly multiracial, democratic, and inclusive spaces of congregation and dialogue. By forgoing the analysis of foundational antiblackness, the Black cyborg operates as if the multiracial bloc in which she belongs is in resolvable conflict with civil society and the state apparatus. By resolvable conflict i mean that, analogous to the demands put forth by nonblack exploited workers, immigrant, women, LGBTQ constituents—the so-called junior partners of civil society—the Black cyborg’s demands are assumed to be legible by the deputies and managers of state power. If the demands of the Black cyborg’s bloc are legible, they are resolvable. The political game in which the Black cyborg participates addresses the empire-state without endangering its foundational cognitive and moral bases. The modern, diverse, idealized empire-state subjects of political action are not threatened in any way. Rather, they are celebrated, reconstituted, affirmed as permanent experiments, and lauded as the essence of the modern democratic project. Redemption is always right around the corner. History will show and save. The Black cyborg’s multiracial bloc is fundamentally optimistic; it embraces the future as the eventual realization of its dreams of reform.
However, the political game of multiracial democracy is suicidal when we recognize that the foundational, cognitive bases of the empire-state, irrespective of diasporic location, are antiblack. The antiblack structure of positionalities inaugurates and sutures this ongoing modernity. Suicidal elements notwithstanding, recent protests against Black suffering in Brazil and the United States suggest the persistence of socially shared assumptions defining the Black cyborg. Our analysis has shown the ways in which collective recognition of Black suffering animates the mobilization against the repeated homicide by the police of unarmed Black women, children, and men. The nonblack recognition of Black suffering, even if/when not directly related to the work of the Black cyborg, is nevertheless a similar phenomenon because both the work of the Black cyborg, typically exemplified in Zinzun’s trajectory, and the current multiracial protests (a) empathize with individual victims of police lethality perpetrated on Black people; (b) link such cases to the nonblack (“persons of color” in the United States; “the impoverished and the residents of favelas and the periphery” in Brazil); and (c) resist a sustained analysis of antiblack social, institutional, structural, ubiquitous, and foundational dispositions.
Such an analysis can be extended to events marked by the Black cyborg’s seeming absence. In the multiracial protests against police killings of Black women and men in the United States and in Brazil, the traditional, living (though essentially absent) figure of the Black cyborg does not seem immediately visible. The apparent absence of the Black cyborg from our transnational political moment may be the ultimate realization of the Black cyborg as the ideal charismatic leader/enabler of the multiracial bloc. The Black cyborg’s present absence, or absent presence, as embodied in the representations of Juan, Amarildo and Cláudia, Trayvon, Michael, Sandra, Freddie, and Laquan, among many other recent victims of empire-state terror, allows for a sense of intimacy with Black suffering as well as with a Black-centered analysis. This sense of intimacy establishes a consensus based on the (partial) recognition of Black suffering; and this consensus grounds the formation of multiracial blocs of solidarity and political pressure. It is the presumption of multiracial analytical openness to and affective awareness of Black suffering that preempts the emerging bloc’s coming to terms with structural and fundamental antiblackness.
In the physical absence (but persisting symbolic power) of the Black cyborg, we become supporters and versions of the multiracial front’s Black cyborg. Insofar as we assume to grasp Black suffering; inasmuch as we imagine understanding the Black experience; and as long as we mobilize our intellect and body to protest and reform the polity, we appropriate some of the cyborg’s defining qualities. As important, when we accept the multiracial premise that Black and nonblack suffering is comparable, we embody one of the cyborg’s fundamental concepts. We thus become, partially at least, Black cyborgs. The Black cyborg is further realized in the disavowal of a vigorous, no-strings-attached-with-the-world-we-know engagement with antiblack societal principles. And in her present absence, the Black cyborg lessens the hesitation that arises from actual physical and political proximity to her. Physically absent, the cyborg’s symbolic persuasion intensifies. When we embrace the Black cyborg as an agent of a potentially hegemonic multiracial front, we perform the occlusion of antiblackness. We thus perform, obliquely, the multiracial project of the empire-state.
As it is constituted, however, the empire-state has no place for the Black, except placelessness. What social world are we prefiguring when we embrace the people-of-color framework and the multiracial bloc’s oblique identification with Black suffering? What are we giving up when we refuse to imagine beyond the empire-state’s imaginable, and refuse to dance the dance of death?
Introducing the figure of the slave, this book’s conclusion suggests that, if we are to move beyond the limitations of current multiracial formations and their complicity with empire-state projects, then alternative political horizons must be explored. Embracing the imperative of transcendence, the figure of the slave frontally engages the modern foundational symbiosis between blackness and social and physical death. It is a foundational symbiosis because it gives life to the living nonblack and kills the Black dead, thus structuring the republic. Transcendence becomes an imperative insofar as, for the Black to un-die, she must destroy that which kills her before birth. And even though George Jackson and Assata Shakur, who explicitly embrace the transhistorical slave as the paradigmatic and transcendental revolutionary agent, focus on the nuts and bolts of this society’s necessary destruction, it is the precipice, the unknowable that comes next, the pregnant syncope, that constitutes the temporary objective. This means that the ultimate objective cannot be imagined for it requires that we first lose our coordinates; that we become culturally incompetent, unable to imagine according to our current parameters of imagination; that we transfigure, destroy our current world, and thus unlearn antiblackness: such is the dance of death. And to destroy our current world will demand that, in the words of Huey Newton, we first commit revolutionary suicide.