‘Shades of Black’ by Nathalie Etoke: An Excerpt
Focusing on recent and ongoing topics around race and Black lives in the United States, including the murder of George Floyd, police brutality, and the complex symbolism of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, in Shades of Black, Nathalie Etoke explores the relations of violence, oppression, dispossession, and inequalities that have brought us face to face with existential questions: Are you breathing? Are we breathing?
Translated from the French by Gila Walker
Racial identity is a social, cultural, and political invention rooted in relationships of domination. The white-supremacist projects at the origin of contemporary geopolitical imbalances have upended the lives of human groups on several continents. Some were completely wiped out, others were kept alive for purposes of capitalist exploitation. The enslavement of people of sub-Saharan origin went hand in hand with a will to dehumanize them that has persisted across time and space. The transatlantic slave trade and colonization were not historical parentheses. They were foundational events that engendered the world in which I live. From a scientific standpoint, race’s fictive origin is now a proven fact. Yet, the concept continues to have very real consequences on human destiny. Some people assert that Black people cannot be racist. Others bring up anti-white racism and hatred of the other. This way of speaking about racism comes down to hurling anathemas back and forth. The clash between Blacks and whites remains mistakenly dependent on an approach informed by resentment and morality that mask the real political problem—namely, the way society organizes itself. Living in black and white means recognizing the relationship of powerlessness and power, disadvantage and privilege that influence the way individuals live.
Dylann Roof’s flight, after killing nine Black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, was short-lived. According to the police officers who caught him, the young white supremacist did not resist arrest. Roof was calm and silent; he simply complained that he was hungry. The men in uniform hastened to feed him. They drove him to a Burger King. No doubt, the criminal did not deserve to be subjected to a punitive diet. Tamir Rice, a Black twelve-year-old who was playing with a toy gun in a City of Cleveland public park, was not entitled to such lenient treatment. A police officer simply shot the boy down.
Roof and Rice are both Americans. One was treated with compassion, the other with cruelty. When a white man commits a mass killing, the media talk of mental illness. They try to understand what drove him to put innocent people to death. The individual is not reduced to the sum of his deeds. He possesses a measure of humanity that is ours too. This mutual recognition should be universal but it remains selective. When you describe the condition of Black people, many would rather shift the conversation to social class and common humanity. But if poverty sufficed to build bridges between human beings, the face of the world would have changed long ago. Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, and Marine Le Pen are merely personifications of the racial exasperation that characterizes economically disadvantaged white populations that see themselves as left behind and disdained by a globalized bourgeois elite. A non-negligible portion of the extremist electorate thinks of itself firstly as white and only thereafter as poor. Racial identification transcends social status. It confers a power that, when expressed in the ballot box, testifies to a specific concern: that of maintaining hierarchy and privilege. Consequently, when I speak of the Black person in a white world, I am referring to the degradation at once human, social, and political of populations of African descent.
The end of slavery and decolonization did not put an end to racism or socioeconomic inequality. To say that Blacks are heirs to a historical sub-humanity does not mean that they define themselves in these terms. I am evoking here a way of emerging in a world where the person’s humanity withstands the trial of dehumanization. It is the scandal of the human being treated as private property, a workhorse, a thing that can be sold, used, assaulted or killed just like that. In such a context, individuals live in an environment hostile to their development. The conquest of one’s freedom is a fight against a vacuum and the loss of meaning. The dehumanized human being is condemned to resilience and combativeness. The celebration of the vital force that refuses to die must not obliterate the fact that it remains impeded. In the United States, for example, Black people have confronted the tribulations of life entrenched in barbed wire with nobility and temerity. However, history abounds in unfortunate episodes where the success acquired through work, self-abnegation, discipline, and responsibility was simply annihilated.
[. . .]
Living in black and white also means recognizing the psychological and political imprint of a modern world founded on a system of domination whose binarity masks internal divisions. Racial homogeneity obliterates historical, social, cultural, and political differences between populations of African descent, from sub-Saharan Africa, from the Caribbean, from Latin America, from Europe and from the United States of America. Yet tensions divide these different groups. The common phenotype does not mean that these heterogeneous populations feel a sense of belonging to a people, and even less that they believe in the same historical destiny. They have divergent interests and degrees of success. Enmity now supplants the desire to forge a collectivity informed by shared hopes and common values. Only the upheavals caused by tragic news events spark occasional outbursts of solidarity.
The synonymy between Black race and victimization reduces the problem of freedom to a matter of human rights and access to citizenship. From a political standpoint, Blacks were stripped of their rights. The idea of the human being in the Western sense of the term goes hand in hand with the exploitation of Blacks and the deprivation of their civil rights. In the United States, for example, before the Constitution was amended in 1865, it stipulated that Blacks counted as three-fifths of a human being. The first Code Noir (Black Code), established by Jean-Baptiste Colbert and published in 1685, two years after his death, allowed French law to deny the humanity of sub-Saharans by codifying the modalities of their social domination on plantations in the French overseas colonies. The Code de l’indigénat continued this work of denegation and exclusion of oppressed populations. This legal framework established a hierarchy between white French citizens and Black French subjects—the colonizer versus the colonized—thereby institutionalizing racial inequality, forced labor, violence, and injustice. People of sub-Saharan origin, first reduced to slavery and then colonized, lived outside the social and legal structures that recognize and guarantee the sacredness of human life.
Since the abolition of slavery and decolonization, and against a backdrop of globalization, the political status of the Black individual is not self-evident: to assert that “Black Lives Matter” is to admit that they do not matter while maintaining that they should. I embrace the paradoxical contours of this observation. From this forced embrace emerges the difficult duty of creating a world where the power to act upon one’s destiny can overturn the forces of destruction.