“People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery” is an article written in 2010 by UC Irvine professor Jared Sexton. The article follows Sexton’s thought process as he makes his way to understanding the afterlife of slavery as is applicable to the academic world and the current world. He discusses how the afterimage of slavery can be understood the symbol of the refugee, the postcolonial government, and female enslavement. While comparisons are made to other forms of oppression, Sexton concludes that the lives of African Americans are set apart from others by virtue of their existence. He then advocates that others understand this reality so that through their recognition of African American struggle, they can create meaningful change in the system.
The historical and cultural context is two-fold: first, actual slavery, and secondly, modern day events. The first context is broad and wide-ranging, but Sexton imagines it as the “singular commodification of human existence”. Slavery as a period of US history is of paramount importance to Sexton’s work. Thoroughly understanding how slavery functioned as a system is crucial, as it haunts the references that Sexton makes, and is persistent in his words. Slavery was more than just forced labor – it was coated in blood and visualized in chains. To even attempt describing this peculiar institution here is impossible, so instead, for context, certain pivotal characteristics are given here. Sexton emphasizes the natal alienation of slaves, that is, the separation of slaves from their mothers and cultures. From slave-traders who took away slaves from their villages, to slave-owners who intentionally separated children from mothers by selling the children elsewhere, the evisceration of slave families was a given. The point is as such: slaves were removed from the comfort of the womb, left undefended and never nursed. Thus, the slave mother becomes the central figure for analysis. In a sickening sense, they gave birth to their own chains – more slaves that kept the system alive. As Sexton writes, “Gender, if at all appropriate in this scenario, must be understood as indissociable from violence, the vicious refiguration of rape as mutual and shared desire, the wanton exploitation of the captive body tacitly sanctioned as a legitimate use of property, the disavowal of injury, and the absolute possession of the body and its ‘issue’(Sexton 33)”. Not only was rape of female slaves legal, it was encouraged because it would let slavery thrive.
That idea really becomes the basis of another characteristic of the slave: what Sexton calls “singular commodification”, the idea that slaves were nothing more than tools, where slaves are “rendered as flesh to be accumulated and exchanged” and nothing else. The treatment of slaves are property and the legitimatization of that idea through law reduced human beings to bodies, whose existence was for utility alone. That leads to the final idea to be understood about slavery: that violence against black bodies was not only structural, it was gratuitous. That is, violence was freely given to blacks because they were property and because it was beneficial. The whippings, the rapes, and the tortures were all aimed towards accumulating for black bodies for more use. As such, Sexton draws on this environment to lay out some central tenets of slavery: the absence of society for slaves, and the non-human status of black bodies.
All of this, of course, is backgrounded by the American government. To even suggest that USA is blameless in slavery is folly, despite however much the school system or mainstream media likes to soften that idea. One of the founding ideas of sociology from Max Weber is that the state is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory” (Weber). Slavery, and its violence, was 100% legitimized by the state. Slavery was so grounded in law that the two were inseparable. That is, anything that spoke of “property” in law books was directly speaking of slaves as well. The pervasiveness of violence against slaves was so rooted that it would be almost impossible to divulge them. For example, Sexton brings up the “disavowal of injury” (Sexton 33) – that is, the government made exceptions to humanity in the case of slaves whereby they could be hurt by owners to the extent that it was not even recognized. Another form of state-sanctioned violence would definitely be the creation of jurisprudence designed to keep blacks in a state of social death. In the case of black women, this system is exemplified “by the 1855 circuit court case State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave, in which the defendant was sentenced to death by hanging on the charge of murder for responding with deadly force to the sexual assault and attempted rape by a white male slaveholder” (Sexton 33). In other words, “justice” was so perverted that a rape was condoned, even encouraged, to the point that resistance to violence against blacks was condemned.
The second context surrounding the article is rooted in modern culture. To understand the current position of the black individual (if indeed individuality exists for blacks), Sexton contextualizes their situation in that of the “camp” and the “refugee”. He explains that refugees are foreigners in the world and have no power whatsoever: they are forever separated from “home” and reside in “camps”, where they are treated to whatever governments deem right for them. Then, he explains how this relates to blacks by saying, “More simply, we might say to the refugee that you may lose your motherland, but you will not ‘lose your mother’”(Sexton 41). Modern culture also depicts oppression under an umbrella of generality where black oppression is just one of many. Sexton is necessarily responding to a world where black oppression is fought like every other oppression and progress is perceived because of the election of a black president.
Academic context is also really important in this case. The school of afro-pessimism is the background to this article. To define: afro-pessimists referenced like Frank Wilderson and Saidya Hartman believe that society is structured in a way that black lives do not matter, and that only through a radical turning point can society be redefined to give blacks equal footing in the world. To be clear: the key word for afro-pessimists is black, not racism. That means that issues concerning are deemed entirely different struggles than those of blacks. As Sexton writes, “Black existence does not represent the total reality of the racial formation — it is not the beginning and the end of the story — but it does relate to the totality; it indicates the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system” (Sexton 56). Wilderson would very much agree, viewing the system as a place where blacks were non-human, red [people of color] as sub-human, and whites as human (Wilderson). Stated simply, society is built with the oppression of blacks underfoot (and not necessarily racisms against those of other colors) – understanding that point is the key for afro-pessimists to move forwards towards a radical shifting point.
Themes and Styles
Sexton writes with grace and elegance in his work. He uses lots of vocabulary that strike his points on the head with stunning prose. The first tool he uses is allusion. Drawing from outside sources that are well-known helps him paint a more complete picture of his argument. Often he uses quotes in place of his arguments because they are just so powerful and they fit right into what he is expressing. Take the quote: “More simply, we might say to the refugee that you may lose your motherland, but you will not ‘lose your mother.’” (Sexton 41), for example. By itself, someone reading this quotation might be decently confused. However, in context, this writing combines two different authors to make Sexton’s point in a very stunning fashion. First, he is speaking of refugees – what Agamben calls homo sacer, or bare bodies (Agamben). Agamben’s idea is that refugees are the essence of identity-less individual because they lack a motherland. When Sexton reads this, he agrees that Agamben is right in that refugees cause crisis, but he takes that idea to the next level when he points out that slaves are the ultimate refugees in that they lose mother and motherland – with “lose your mother” being a direct reference to Hartman’s foundational work: “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” (Hartman). Sexton’s ability to explain all this in one compact sentence is amazing, and this technique is employed throughout his essay.
There are a few main themes that emerge. The totality of slavery is super important for Sexton: one gets the feeling from reading that the afterlife of slavery is starkly contrasted and really fleshed out in his work. Another theme that brings itself out is that history becomes condensed in Sexton’s eyes. Ever since slavery, there has not been progress for Sexton, and that plays into his argument for the modern day African American.
Sexton is saying that slavery lives on in the flesh of black bodies, and that rather than progress having been made, society has simply reconfigured itself to retain control of black bodies. He writes from the perspective that people consider the Civil Rights Movements of the 60’s as the big game-changer, and the election of Obama being a triumph. Sexton denies this as progress. He cites the incarceration of black bodies as part of the truth: that without an analysis of history in the lens of black oppression, there is no progress (witnessed through the film Bush Mama). This is really interesting, especially because in 2017, there has been little progress on mass incarceration, and many would argue that movements like Black Lives Matter have not been able to make substantial change. The modern political climate is edgy with racial tension, and Sexton is saying that very much like the refugee brings “immediate crisis” to the concept of “nation-states”, the black body being empowered is bringing crisis to the government ever since it was founded in a time of slavery.
First scene of Bush Mama, a 1975 film by Haile Gerima. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Himxf4s_qgk
There is obviously a lot of critical conversation surrounding something as thought-provoking as Sexton’s work. The most common arguments that critical theory tends to shoot back at afro-pessimists is this idea that other oppressed groups can join with black protestors. There is this idea that the crossing of narratives brings more value to the conversation: that, for example, gay black narratives represent an intersection of culture that needs to be reworked. One thinker pushing this thought is Agathangelou, who specifically examines how black bodies are marked as queer. Many would also suggest that African Americans are not fully capable of experiencing social death: the type of isolation from culture that afro-pessimists claim is so totalizing in black lives. These would be relatively new thinkers like Makalani that try to enact positive change through government. Another popular thought is to view the US as a settler and to “link racisms”. Here, Glenn considers this idea, “different racisms cannot be made equivalent by drawing analogies … However, I do argue that the structure of U.S. settler colonialism rests on social, economic, and political underpinnings that link racisms” (Glenn).
And yet, there is also a lot of support for Sexton’s ideas. His portrayal of the black struggle has been used as the background of new critical thought. The historical sources he draws upon lead to good conclusions that other people cite often. Some of the thought of Black Lives Matter certainly takes its thought from Sexton and his school of thinking. Prominent thinkers building upon Sexton include Fred Moten. Overall, there is a sense that Sexton is the spiritual successor to anti-blackness scholars like Wilderson. His thoughts are young and vibrant, bringing new fresh content and framing analysis to the field. Moten, draws upon Sexton as such: he takes this idea of radical change and rereads it in the context of spontaneity. In other words, he tells us that Sexton is absolutely right: society is so formulated and rigged that the only way the black body can change is through radical action, improvised moves that the system can’t predict.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Paris: Seuil, 2003. Print.
Agathangelou, Anna M. “Neoliberal geopolitical order and value: Queerness as a speculative economy and anti-blackness as terror.” International Feminist Journal of Politics15.4 (2013): 453-476.
Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. “Settler colonialism as structure: A framework for comparative studies of US race and gender formation.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1.1 (2015): 52-72.
Hartman, Saidiya. Lose your mother: A journey along the Atlantic slave route. Macmillan, 2008.
Makalani, Minkah. “Black Lives Matter and the Limits of Formal Black Politics.” South Atlantic Quarterly 116.3 (2017): 529-552.
Moten, Fred. “Blackness and nothingness (mysticism in the flesh).” South Atlantic Quarterly 112.4 (2013): 737-780.
Sexton, Jared. “People-of-color-blindness notes on the afterlife of slavery.” Social Text 28.2 103 (2010): 31-56.
Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation.” (1965)
Evans, Brad, and Richard J. Bernstein. “The Intellectual Life of Violence.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 05 Oct. 2017.
Moten, Fred. “THE CASE OF BLACKNESS.” Criticism 50.2 (2008): 177-218. JSTOR. Web. 05 Oct. 2017.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982. Print.
Sexton, Jared. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions 5 (2011): n. pag. Fall 2011. Web.
Wilderson, Frank B. Incognegro a Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. Cambridge, Mass: South End, 2008. Print.
Wilderson III, Frank B. Red, white & black: Cinema and the structure of US antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010.
Keywords: Antiblackness, Afro-pessimism, black bodies, color-blindness, gratuitous violence, Jared Sexton, social death, race politics