“Know it, and go on…”
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Violence travels. Flattering labels to deceive the put upon, the invaded. It’s a gift! It’s for your benefit! Its carriers, in the meantime, know better. By the time the first whipping occurs, or the first rape, or outright lynching, before the first kidnapped child screams, it’s clear that the “civilizing mission,” already awash in ideas about freedom and liberalism for the invaders, is but a million knees on the necks of Black people. It’s conquest and enslavement, exploitation and repression. It’s Western history.
It’s that history some Americans no longer want to know. In this case, Britain arrives among dark-skinned people who possess languages and traditions far older than that of the Anglo culture and traditions. It builds an Empire of capitalism on the backs of these people. Even in this country, the US, where the Native Americans, here before the Anglo, were the Indigenous people invaded. Africans and their descendants, too, here already, albeit reluctantly, forced into chains, whipped into submission to labor in countless fields, building industries of cotton and tobacco for a rising American Empire.
How well did it go for the millions of Africans, Asians, and Irish? How was “legalized lawlessness,” the term used by historian Caroline Elkins in The Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, the rule rather than the exception, carried out by countless emissaries, merchants, officers and soldiers? Just how well was Britain’s ideas about “civilization” and “liberalism” received by those who were blindsided by the travelers baring the gift of a “civilizing mission”?
Well, we know. Of those Americans working to excise this brutal history of conquest and enslavement cloaked in the rhetoric of a nation bringing another people “civilization,” there’s the fear of an idea about “replacement.” Whites will be replaced by Black people. People of color. The exertion of energy to propagate a ridiculous notion when evolution shows the dark-skinned were on Earth first. Oh, but, in an evangelical narrative, evolution, is a conspiracy theory! The Indigenous lived for centuries on Turtle Island! Africans were here in the 1600s.
Violence not only travels but also circulates among the uninformed, among the cowardly standing behind their whips, chains, AR-15s. As a tool of the British Empire, “legalized” violence becomes a weapon to engage “in a bloodless battle” with its subjects. “Legalized lawlessness,” writes Elkins, empowers the little island nation to rule over older and larger nations with impunity. Violence is the “British Empire’s midwife,” as Elkins points out, “endemic to the structures and systems of British rule.” “Legalized lawlessness” was a justification for the employment of white violence, systemic violence, endemic to a host of repressive policies and tactics. And the colonized is forced by law to cooperated with his or her own subjugation.
Coercion was a necessity if the British Empire expected to “domesticate” its subjects. Constant vigilance of the subjects by the subjects themselves demoralized many, overwhelmed by the threat of violence. The threat of a severed limb or death was certainly a deterrent to resistance. The Empire depended on this response to “legalized lawlessness.” “Violence enacted on bodies, minds, souls, cultures, landscapes, communities, or histories was attributed to the beneficial values of “the civilizing mission’ developmentalists dogma.”
The message was inescapable. British law favored the lives of the colonizer. “Liberal imperialism’s ideology,” explains Elkins, shaped those “coercive systems and practices” that permitted the rise of the British Empire. But, so too, here, in the thick of this maelstrom of “legalized lawlessness,” is the rise of the colonial subject’s campaigns for freedom.
Wherever power, resistance. Liberal imperialism’s ideas traveled far and wide, but its power to repress in Black people the ideas of freedom and democracy failed to become a permanent condition.
Uprisings terrified white settlers and political leaders in England, just as it did in the US, and in Haiti, among the French, British, and Spanish colonizers. The usual go-to narrative created for such an occasion, denounces the colonized as savages or barbarians or criminals. “If subject populations demanded basic rights over their own bodies and freedoms, the colonial state often criminalized them,” casting their actions as acts of “vandalism” or “political threats.” This solution is very much in play today. These narratives insisted that the still “uncivilized” couldn’t possibly understand ideas such as freedom and democracy.
Despite the frightful efforts of the terrified whites in Britain as well as in the US and elsewhere, Black activists and intellectuals, the colonized and those under the yoke of Jim Crow, rose to critiqued the contradictions inherent in the ideology of the “civilizing mission” of the Western world. And that Western world didn’t take kindly to Blacks in the Diaspora pointing out how the “liberal imperialism” project was any different from that of Hitler’s project of extermination of the Jewish people.
Caroline Elkins’ honesty was refreshing. In her chapter, “A War of Ideas,” the historian has researched the violence of British-controlled colonialism without repressing the representation of Black humanity, limiting Black lives to bodies abused and tormented, bodies exploited. British subjects. On the contrary, Elkins shows Black humanity as more than subjects of tyranny, but also as human beings who said “enough!” Resisters, “free” thinkers, contemplating freedom and the democratic ideal. For many of these Black activists, their intellectual endeavors resulted in lifelong commitments to activism as history’s fighters in the modern era for the supremacy of human rights rather than it’s antithetical, the supremacy of violence.
Black humanity enters the modern era fighting of the side of freedom and democracy. However restricted by distance and oceans, a Diaspora of Black of resistance has always emerged to intervened in the Western legacy of violence. Elkins, too, recognizes a Black Diaspora of activists who, in turn, recognized, to use historian Robin D. G. Kelley’s words, fascism as the “‘logical development of Western Civilization itself.’” Fascism was “a blood relation of slavery and imperialism, global systems rooted not only in capitalist political economy but fascist ideologies that were already in place at the dawn of modernity.’”
What unites with the former enslaved and the former colonized if not the antiblackness sentiment in the world.
In “We Must Burn Them,” published in the London Review of Books, May 2022 issue, historian Hazel V. Carby argues that the word, antiblackness, references a certain population of Black people, that is, African Americans. What other group of people come to mind, she asks, when that word is used in speech or in writing? What does the word mean outside of academia? What does it means on social media or in the mainstream press?
It’s a word, Carby explains, that doesn’t refer “to oppressed people other than African Americans.” And that means, she adds, that we should relinquish “the possibility of forming alliances with other oppressed communities.”
Carby (herself British born, has taught African American Studies and American Studies at Yale University) explains academia today where Black or African or Caribbean studies are still fields “marginalized” in academia. That was my experience before I left academia a decade ago. Academia, Carby argues, has “made limited progress in establishing departments, programmes” and centers “for the study of ethnic, racialized and gendered histories.”
I remember a Nigerian philosophy professor arriving at Loyola University Chicago a year after I entered the doctorate program in English. He become my go-to professor for all things Black. George Lamming, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, C. L. R. James, Buchi Emercheta, Bessie Head, Du Bois, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison… All were outspoken about the antiblackness sentiment under their watch. Even those living in predominantly Black countries. They didn’t need an ignorant US president to come along and say the quiet out loud. It’s just being Haitian in the Western world. Or just a Black African from Northern Africa living in England or France.
Violence travels. It reached the shores of Turtle Island. African Americans have known the “civilizing mission,” too. We didn’t have to join Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén, African American and Cuban poets, respectively, to fight the fascist in Spain. Black Americans have witnessed fascism. While the US promoted its liberal imperialism as a symbol of “democracy” and “freedom” aboard, at home, it scattered Black lives in the firestorm leveling of Black cities. The legacy of this violence sat on the neck of George Floyd until he could no longer breathe. We can’t have democracy in the US because of its antiblackness sentiment. By the same token, Haitians recognize fascism when law enforcement on horses, for all the world to see, whip them back behind the border. Antiblackness allowed for all the world to see America still bows at the altar of violence.
The Western world thinks less of Black Lives wherever we live! We know this!
The legacy of violence against Black people, as Du Bois, Padmore, Fanon, and others made clear, created the continuation of “slavelike conditions complete with collective punishments, appropriation of land, the perpetuation of the color bar, and denial of free speech and assembly” in the post slavery era as well as in the colonial era. Resisters in the Black Diaspora knew in the 20th Century. And they knew that it was hard to discern a difference between liberal imperialism and fascism.
This is a story we can retell. I’m in agreement with Carby about remaining silent because silence isn’t an option for those, opposing tyranny. The historical fight of Black people on behalf of the democratic idea is what the victors’ narrative demands. And that deceitful narrative will be the history American children will be treated to in the future. The nation is well beyond banned books then.
At the core of liberal imperialism or fascism, is the ideology of white supremacy. To use Carby’s words, the US is an ordering of structural and system policies pertaining to a specific economics that benefits a few at the top. This ordering, facilitating racism, appears “in the language we use to speak.” Black is criminal and white is pure. In turn, there in the myth making is the omission of lived experiences and a future passed down to our children encouraged to take up AR-15s in order to kill the impurity.
The logical outcome of the West’s “civilizing mission” is everywhere. But we know resistance lives, too. We’ve witnessed resistance after the murder of George Floyd.
So “know it, and go on...”