The term Blackness resists definition. It eludes cognitive capture. Blackness is not a concept but it feels like one; it is not a descriptor, but it acts like one. I know a lot of terms operate like this, but blackness hits different. It dispossesses you. The moment you think you’ve understood it, blackness will rob you, leaving you bereft of your own resources. Thinking with La Marr Jurelle Bruce, I might say this: if there is anything to be said about blackness, it is that it is unruly.
I cannot tell you what blackness is because blackness doesn’t follow the rules.
I might try and tell you what blackness does, but that would also be futile—because blackness doesn’t follow the rules.
(I should say, up front: I choose to leave “blackness” uncapitalized. I do this because—again, along with Bruce, I do not read blackness as a proper noun. For me—and I do mean for me—capitalizing blackness traps it within the realm of the “proper,” locking it down to fit a particular epistemic and grammatical formulation that would turn blackness into a substance. Others can, will, and should disagree. In fact, that disagreement speaks precisely to the unruliness of blackness—the unruliness that is blackness—that I’m trying to underscore in this essay.)
Maybe that’s why blackness is always under attack. Perhaps “antiblackness” is nothing more—and nothing less—than the enforcement of rules, the announcement of order in the face of unrepentant unruliness. Cognitive schemas develop, categories form, and blackness gets caught in the fray. Violence ensues. But this capture is never total. Blackness cannot be eradicated; antiblack violence is, and always will be, a stopgap measure. Blackness remains—in and as unruliness.
We might therefore understand the various iterations of black study as interpretations of blackness’s excessively unruly movement. For some, this unruly excess is generative in a positive sense. For others, antiblackness overdetermines the generativity of black unruliness—which is, in the end, a redundancy, for to be black is to be unruly. Wherever one stands, it’s clear: blackness doesn’t play by the rules.
This essay meditates on black unruliness. As such, this essay will also not follow the rules. Instead of tracking what blackness might be, this essay sits with what thinkers have said. You will find no definitions here, and you certainly will find no roadmap. Roadmaps seem futile in the face of brazen and dispossessive refusal. In the face of blackness, one is left to do nothing but wander, nomadically traversing through a few central positions along the way.
Perhaps our wandering might clarify something about blackness. Maybe this wandering will offer us a way to think blackness in relation to political theology. But that cannot be determined in advance; blackness doesn’t allow for that. So let us wander, even if incoherently, and see where that takes us.
First stop: 1997 in the United States. We could have stopped at another point in time: perhaps back in 1903 with DuBoisian double consciousness, or in 1967 with the publication of the English translation of Black Skin, White Masks. Maybe we stop at 1969, where an upstart theologian by the name of James Cone popularizes a tradition of thinking blackness and the divine together. Or we could have stopped at 2005, when an anthology refuses the dichotomy between blackness and queerness, showing that they “interanimate one another.” Each of these moments shows different sides of blackness, refracting black unruliness through different prisms.
The year 1997 is another turning point. It is when a groundbreaking text emerges: Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to claim that, at least in the fields of literature, cultural studies, philosophy of race and embodiment, and black religious studies, Scenes shaped how blackness has been viewed since its publication.
(We’ve already situated blackness within the sociopolitical formation that is the United States. One wonders what might happen if we turned the prism and went to the Caribbean or traveled to Kenya or Ghana or Britain. There are so many possibilities, but we must make a choice. And we must acknowledge, right away, that this choice is itself a kind of violence. Alas.)
In Scenes, Hartman gave us language for what many of us already knew: emancipation was a ruse. There was no freedom, only more subjection. Scenes gave us the goods, showing us that, at least since modernity, the terms “slave” (which is a position of subjection) and “black” could not be disentangled. To think blackness is, as Scenes argues, to think the logic of subjection that the slave symbolizes; moreover, that subjection didn’t end after Lincoln signed a piece of paper. It only mutated.
The power of Scenes is its unflinching attention to the ordinary. While some are tempted to turn to spectacular scenes of antiblack violence, Hartman takes up scenes of black people being made to dance and instances where black “joy” was nothing more than a coerced and empty performance. Grounding antiblackness in the quotidian, Scenes disabuses its readers of the ability to deny the pervasive violence of antiblack rule.
Though Hartman doesn’t deploy the term “unruliness” in any sustained fashion, Scenes underscores the sociopolitical (and perhaps categorical) imperative to keep blackness under rule. The presence of blackness stands as a challenge to “normative order, normative form,” and law emerges to quash that challenge, to bring it back under control.
For some, Scenes announces the inescapable overdetermination of antiblackness.A certain reading of Scenes might conclude that antiblackness is not merely a historical phenomenon, but an ontological one; read in this way, antiblackness sustains the being of the world and is, therefore, an ontological structure that is impossible to dislodge.
Unless, of course, you decide that ending the world is the only solution.
And if you came to this conclusion, you might be an afropessimist. So, we’ll wander there.
When Death is the (Watch)word: Afropessimism and Black Nihilism
Afropessimists want all the smoke. For good reason, too: frustrated with all-too-easy turns to sentiment and hopefulness, afropessimists take Hartman seriously, underscoring that all these discourses of black joy and black resistance do not stop the onslaught of antiblackness. This perpetual onslaught suggests that antiblack violence isn’t contingent. It’s necessary: “the structure of the entire world’s semantic field,” prominent afropessimist Frank Wilderson writes, “is structured by anti-Black solidarity.”
It’s hard to argue against the afropessimists. Just take a look at the world, they seem to say. How many more hashtags do we need? How much more evidence of black subjection and death do we need to chronicle? The overwhelming amount of sanctioned and justified antiblack violence only underscores the analytic precision that afropessimists bring to the table. To dis/miss all the evidence is to engage in the worst of folly. The unruly makes the world of rule(s) possible; blackness—and therefore black people—are slated to die in the name of rule.
Death is critical here. Drawing from particularly Frantz Fanon and Orlando Patterson, afropessimists underscore how blackness is not simply called to physically die but also to engage in a living death, a “social death” as they might say. “Black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society,” Jared Sexton writes. The “world” is antiblack and, as such, blackness is relegated to the (Fanonian) zone of non-being, the (Pattersonian) province of the socially dead. As such, afropessimists claim that the only way for blackness—and therefore black people—to have any chance is for the world to end.
“Ending the world” might seem straightforward; burn it all down, the phrase seems to suggest. But afropessimists also know that “ending the world” might mean ending the concept of “world” as well. The very idea of “world”—the very idea of a kind of social network—indicates a yearning for coherence and cohesion that, for afropessimists, will always exclude and destroy blackness. Taking black unruliness seriously, those who think with afropessimist frameworks announce the inherent and necessary violence and death that black unruliness engenders.
It is one thing to disagree with—or at least have a different perspective from—afropessimist frameworks, and we’ll wander in that direction in just a moment. But it would be foolish to dismiss or ignore them. Afropessimists aren’t mere gadflies whose only goal is provocation. Close readers will detect an intense care for blackness, a profound passion to destroy the conditions of black suffering, subjection, and death. Afropessimists know of black unruliness. They also know what happens when the unruly meets the world of rule, and they are clear: black unruliness is not a cause for celebration.
But there are others who see things differently.
When Life is the (Key)word: Hope and Optimism in Black
Maybe blackness—which is to say, unruliness—is to be celebrated. Fred Moten certainly thinks so. He tells us that “celebration… is black study.” He, too, knows of blackness’s unruliness; he’s attuned to what Ashon Crawley calls blackness’s “resistance that is prior to power.” For Moten, this is cause for “celebration”; with a slight shift in perspective, Moten underscores how the interminable violence of antiblackness speaks to a black excess that cannot ever be fully captured.
Some have framed the attention to black excess as a kind of “optimism,” emphasizing how blackness exceeds antiblack violence. “We… must believe,” Marquis Bey writes, “that things are not wholly contingent upon the context in which they are sired.” Thinkers in this tradition seek to catch something of a glimpse of possibility, of generativity, of life in black unruliness. They tell us that even if there is no way out—even if black life will always be visited by antiblackness and its unyielding violence—there is something to be said about black life as life. Unruliness, after all, forces a different kind of encounter.
In a way, thinkers in this tradition also ask us to look at our surroundings. Pay attention, they seem to say, something’s happening right in the midst of all this violence. Ashon Crawley calls this something “otherwise possibilities”; the normative world—the world of rules, where black unruliness is always and already visited by violence—is not the only world, he claims. Other worlds are possible, and though the content of these other worlds cannot be determined in advance, they were and are made, worked out through practices of joy, of sociality, of relation. They do not stave off the violence, but they do show us other ways of living.
Though thinkers in this tradition are often pitted against afropessimists, the differences between the two traditions are a matter of emphasis. Turn to black unruliness as an excessive force of possibility, and you’ll proclaim the power of the otherwise right here and right now. Tend to the effects of black unruliness—which is to say, sit with the reality of black death—and you’ll prophesy the world’s destruction. Both perspectives are necessary.
But they aren’t the only ones. There is another tradition that has long known of blackness’s unruliness. Though it draws from and often grounds these other two perspectives, black feminism proclaims the deconstructive power of black unruliness—especially when it comes to concepts of care, maternity, and agency.
Black Feminism: When Gender isn’t Just Gender
Ungendered. Man. Plasticity. The list could go on and on. The choir of thinkers, poets, activists, and scholars who have come under the loose heading of “black feminism” have contributed heavily to our capacity to glimpse blackness. What we can say is this: black feminist thinkers do so much more than emphasize “gender difference.” Some of them, like Hortense Spillers and Angela Davis, expose its failures; others, like Sylvia Wynter, subject its normativity to scrutiny; and still others, like Zakiyyah Jackson, underscore how blackness—particularly in its incarnation as black flesh—is the maternal material that both engenders and sustains “gender” and its manifold violence. Normative—which is to say, white—conceptions of “queerness” cannot handle the unruly presence of blackness—especially black women. To think blackness and gender together is to behold the deformational work that black unruliness can and will do.
Consider, for example, the concept of care. Care is often refracted through the maternal, and while white feminists remain preoccupied with whether “motherhood” should be something to which women should aspire, black feminists like Joy James and Christina Sharpe place care under scrutiny, calling our attention to care’s stabilizing and violent capacities. Assuming that antiblackness is intransigent, Sharpe announces black care as a practice of “defending the dead,” of tending to those who live deathly lives and suffer painful deaths. Such care does not afford us rosy outcomes. In fact, as James points out, care might be the “captive maternal” work of stabilizing black communities—which, in turn, the state incorporates into its oppressive apparatuses. According to James, care doesn’t stave off the violence, but instead serves to keep it at bay long enough for the state to keep doing what it does. Subjecting care to scrutiny in different ways, Sharpe and James underscore that even black care is unruly; it can be as violent as it is stabilizing.
Care is often captured in the discourse of the maternal. But, as Spillers and Kimberly Juanita Brown point out, the maternal is a fraught term when it comes to blackness; the maternal subjugates and fractures mothering, denying legitimacy to even the physical act of reproduction. When one has been made into an object of reproduction, “motherhood” becomes “at once the central theme of citizenship (the ability to make more citizens) and the central theme of slavery, the antithesis of citizenship (the ability to carve slaves out of other slaves)” (Brown, 2015). Antiblackness regulates one’s reproductive capacities, denying one a legitimate claim to maternal care while also demanding that one continue to produce children—which is to say, more slaves, more “units of accounting” (Spillers, 1987). In an antiblack world, blackness can make children but cannot have them. While white feminists try and underscore the problematic of the female body, black feminists underscore black female flesh as a site of profound regulation, a space where the rule (which is to say, antiblackness) bears down upon black flesh to make it do what the world needs.
But blackness is unruly.
And that unruliness will always find itself visited by regulation.
Black feminists know this.
As do black “optimists” and afropessimists.
Our wandering has brought us different places, calling our attention to the various ways that black unruliness shows itself in the world. Some tend to the violence of rule, others show how black unruliness will persist beyond the rules, and others show how black unruliness exposes the fallacy ofrule. I could have spoken of black nihilism and its powerful interventions. I could have explored the queerness of black unruliness. There’s so much to be said.
But this sampling offers a lesson for political theology. Black unruliness exposes the inherent violence of the sovereign. From one perspective, sovereignty is about rules, and about who gets to enforce those rules. The very notion of sovereignty speaks to a game of life and death. After all, rules are enforced with the threat of (physical and social) death, and in the face of black unruliness, the threat of death continually pervades black life. Perhaps, then, what black unruliness offers to political theology is nothing less than a prophetic announcement of the sheer terror of the sovereign. Returning to Hartman one more time, black unruliness discloses how even the most mundane realities are imbued with sovereign power: whistle in a store and you might find yourself visited in the night by white men wishing to kill you; smoke a cigarette in your car, and you could find yourself on the worst end of police violence. Black unruliness calls our attention to the precarity of rule, the constant crisis that is the act of ruling.
Maybe blackness disrupts that.
Maybe it succumbs to it.
Either way, blackness is unruly.
And that unruliness is always worth considering. Always.
After having been made aware of the resonances between my work here and La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s brilliant text, How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind, I have revised this piece to reflect engagement with his work. I apologize for not having done so sooner.
Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).
Speaking of black unruliness, perhaps the most prominent recent text that announces blackness as unruly is La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind. Developing what he calls a “mad methodology,” Bruce explores the various trajectories of madness—as phenomenal (and therefore phenomenological), as medicalized, as rage, and as psychosocial—to underscore the ways that madness has been explored and expressed through black cultural production. Bruce’s explorations of madness underscore the relationship between blackness and unruliness through the various prisms of disability studies, black studies, and philosophical analysis.
Crawley, Ashon. Blackpentecostal Breath: the Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).
Bursting on the black (religious) studies scene with beauty and passion, Blackpentecostal Breath meditates on the blackness central to Pentecostal history and aesthetics in order to underscore the “otherwise possibilities” operative amidst the violence of antiblackness. From the practices of preaching and shouting, to the movement of sound and the generative incoherence of glossolalia, black Pentecostal life, Crawley argues, inaugurates and sustains a mode of alternative social life that affords the possibility of cultivating joy and love amidst pain and trauma.
Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Reinvigorating the field of black studies with critical precision, Scenes advances the thesis that emancipation was a ruse, and that “subjectivity”—at least in terms of the law—did and does not afford black people the freedom or “agency” promised to others. Hartman argues that before emancipation, the enslaved were not simply subject to spectacular forms of violence but also more quotidian forms of constraint and subjection—from being forced to dance or be “happy” to becoming the objects of a structure of white liberal empathy that afforded them no freedom but eased white consciences. Post-emancipation, Hartman chronicles how the law did not provide the freedom it promised, but instead reinforced black subjection through the legal framing of crime and the economic necessity of black labor.
Moten, Fred. “Black Op,” PMLA, Vol. 123, No. 5 (2008), 1743-1747.
Perhaps the first announcement of what would eventually be called “black optimism,” “Black Op” is a short piece that underscores Moten’s position on blackness. Here, Moten claims that though blackness is “a dehiscence” that is visited by all kinds of violence, it nevertheless moves in ways that cannot be fully captured, disfiguring normativity in the name of alternative modes of sociality.
___. “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism, Vol. 50 (2008), 177-218
Moten is difficult to synthesize. “The Case of Blackness” is indicative of this difficulty. Suffice it to say, though, that “The Case of Blackness” is an extended reading Frantz Fanon in relation to questions of ontology and aesthetics. Here, a few of Moten’s central conceptual contributions come to the fore: the fugitivity of blackness and the paraontological distinction between blackness and black people—which, in the end, opens the door for blackness to exceed those beings called “black.” “The Case of Blackness” is one of Moten’s most popular essays, due in no small part to its staunch commitment to the excessive force that is blackness.
____, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 112, No. 4 (2013), 737-780.
This annotated bibliography could have tracked Moten’s monographs, but his essays have been highly influential. “Blackness and Nothingness” is no different. This essay returns to the differences between “black optimism” and afropessimism once again to underscore how both approaches are two sides of a similar coin. Moten clarifies that the distinction between the two approaches is largely a difference in emphasis; both think with questions of subjection, death, and the hold of the ship, but Moten’s approach focuses on the life—however precarious and painful it may be—that is fostered in the space of black sociality. Underscoring how “nothingness” is anything but absence, Moten speaks to the plenitude of blackness—even and perhaps especially as it is lived under the duress of antiblack violence.
Sexton, Jared. “The Social Life of Social Death,” InTensions, Issue 5 (Fall/Winter, 2011)
Perhaps the most concise explanation of afropessimist thinking, “The Social life of Social Death” is Sexton’s response to what had been called “black optimism.” Here, Sexton moves through film, history, and theory to demonstrate how blackness remains, always and already, the constitutive outside of normative society, clarifying his position relative to thinkers like Fred Moten.
_____, “Unbearable Blackness,” Cultural Critique, No. 90 (Spring 2015), 159-178.
Here, Sexton deepens and broadens his discussion of afropessimism, deconstructing the hope within the Black Lives Matter movement to show how “resistance” itself does not afford the possibilities of and for change that many activists might seek. Sexton is not merely a gadfly here, though; his argument is that, in the face of certain death, one can choose how they die; he ends this essay by meditating on a short story where a bee chooses to sting someone even as it knows it will die. When life is not an option, the only choice one might have is how they leave their mark on and in this world.
_____, “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign,” Critical Sociology, Vol. 42 (2016), 583-597.
“The Vel of Slavery” clarifies the distinction between antiblackness and settler colonialism. Put simply: settler colonialism kills people to extract their land; antiblackness—particularly in the form of chattel slavery—leaves a land intact while extracting black people and consigning them to a living death. The difference between the two logics raises questions about black-indigenous solidarity; the political aims of indigenous communities is to reclaim their land, while black people are left without a land to reclaim. The article is far more complicated than this annotation suggests, but this is the skeleton of the argument.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham; Duke University Press, 2016).
Deftly navigating black studies, In the Wake poetically and passionately re-envisions black life under the threat of constant death. Meditating on the various meanings of the phrase “in the wake,” and theorizing antiblackness in the ship, in the hold, and as the weather, Sharpe advances a radical ethic of care that does not stave off the violence of antiblackness but instead calls us to pay attention, to critically assess the conditions of black death in order to “defend the dead and dying” and “ease their way.” In the Wake does not stray from the violence, but seeks to chart a path through and within it.
Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: an American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer 1987), 64-81.
“Mama’s Baby” is essential reading for black studies. This groundbreaking essay criticizes and exposes the assumption of the infamous Moynihan report to advance the thesis that black life—particularly black female life—is “ungendered.” Drawing from psychoanalysis and theories of embodiment, “Mama’s Baby” announces black female flesh as a site of monstrous possibility, where discourses and concepts of femininity and the maternal are unmade in the name of different modes of relation.
Wilderson, Frank, III. Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
Turning to a series of films to disclose the political dimensions of antiblackness, Red, White, and Black is Wilderson’s first theoretical pronouncement of afropessimism. The text expounds and elaborates on the tripartite structure of social death in service of a comparative analysis of how Black people and Indigenous people are treated. Calling analogous treatments of suffering—“this kind of suffering is similar to other kinds”— a “ruse,” Wilderson makes the case that, despite the violence enacted against Indigenous communities, they nevertheless have an ontological standing that Black people do not.
____, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright Press, 2020)
Perhaps the most personal of Wilderson’s texts, Afropessmism is part memoir, part treatise. Whereas Red, White, and Black offered a reading of antiblackness through film criticism, Afropessimism has a wider scope—filtered through his personal experiences, to be sure—that underscores the unique nature of Black suffering. Here, Wilderson treats subjects ranging from gender to global solidarity to apartheid in South Africa. What results is a passionate and compelling memoir of a man grappling with what it means to be Black in this world.