Racial Symbols and Black Death
** This is the fourth post in our Black Dignity and Death forum, focusing on Vincent Lloyd’s Black Dignity: The Struggle against Domination and Norman Ajari’s Dignity Or Death: Ethics and Politics of Race. Each day this week one article from a different scholar will be published
Previous posts include:
Black Dignity vs. Liberal Anti-Racism by Vincent Lloyd
Dignity, police killing, and France’s racial uprising by Norman Ajari
Cross-reflection on Black Dignity – Reading Vincent Lloyd and Norman Ajari by Nathalie Etoke **
With their respective texts Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination and Death or Dignity: Ethics and Politics of Race, Vincent Lloyd and Norman Ajari challenge us to understand the urgent demands of contemporary global Black social movements. In this brief space I want to take up what Ajari in his work calls Afro-decolonial ethics as a new philosophical approach towards doing ethics. Ajari’s conceptualization of Afro-decolonial ethics notes that while ethical theory in western philosophy claims to be universal, its very edifice is built on theories that have advanced that Black people are subhuman. As such, contrary to the efforts of contemporary philosophers who try to redeem racist philosophers and their racist ethical theories for our times. Ajari advances a genealogy of Afro-decolonial ethics in which “the experiences of racial dehumanization plays a decisive role,” in ethical theory. As he notes: “It is only by bringing this dehumanization into focus, by attending to its affective register, and by seeking to understand the necessity of the revolts, provoked in response to it, that we may hear what slaves, colonized peoples, and their descendants mean when, staring down their oppressors, they demand dignity.” (38)
What I find appealing in Ajari’s conception of Afro-decolonial ethics is that it provides an important entry point to consider that our contemporary moment is mired by the fact that Black suffering is used to rejuvenate American politics and democracy. Black philosophical articulations of Black death and dignity have gone through considerable philosophical shifts. In Early periods of Black history, concepts of black dignity and black death were tied to claims of racial destiny— the belief that African descended people had unique civilizing gifts that contributed to civilization, black ontology and national sovereignty. In these times black dignity and black death were tied to the necessity to defend the honor of the dead through revolts, anti-colonial liberation, and community police patrols.
In our contemporary moment, Black dignity has been tied more to celebrations of “first black people” to break into segments of American society. Here we can think of Thurgood Marshall as the first Black supreme court judge, Colin Powell as the first Black man to be Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as the first Black woman Secretary of State, Barack Obama as the first Black president, Kamala Harris as the first Black woman to be vice president, and Kentanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to become a supreme court judge. We are in a moment which requires us to formulate a critical appraisal of how we have been conditioned to think about black suffering, death and dignity as normal features of modern western societies.
In joining Llyod and Ajari’s examination of our contemporary discourse of black dignity and black death, I would like to add that we need more philosophical and political theorization that contends with Black death during Hurricane Katrina, the election of Barack Obama and the viral videos of police killings of unarmed Black people that have been the focus of Black Lives Matter. Arguably it’s in these three cultural moments that we begin to wrestle with contemporary questions of black dignity and black death. These three moments also signal new models of American politics in which black suffering has been used to rejuvenate American democracy.
What I’m suggesting is that there is a through line between the government failure towards black people during Katrina and the state sanctioned and white vigilante violence brought about from Katrina to our present moment. As I’m often reminded by my friend K.B, contemporary white American racial utopia is built on contemporary Black death. Said differently, with the election of Obama, the idea that America was finally post-racial wasn’t just tied to history, but the events of Katrina. As a senator, Obama aided in this narrative by downplaying the impact of racial animus against Black people in the aftermath of Katrina. As he noted in 2006 about the hurricane relief efforts: “There’s been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American. I’ve said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially based. The ineptitude was colorblind.”
Critical scholarship has paid attention to Obama’s deployment of colorblind and post-racial rhetoric during his presidency and its impact on Black critiques of America. Elsewhere I have argued that contemporary repression of Black critiques (Banning of CRT and BLM) of America can be traced to republican campaigns that stoked fear about then senator Obama being a black male with a Muslim sounding name whom republicans argued was out to destroy America with leftist ideologies. Nevertheless, here I want to echo the sentiment of philosopher Cornel West who during Obama’s presidency had noted “you end up with a Black Lives Matter movement under a Black president. What does it say?” Which is to say, under Obama’s presidency there was a development of new Black political idioms such as “Black excellence,” “Black Boy Joy,” “Black Girl Magic,” “Ratchet,” and “New Black” that sought to express the political life of Blackness, upward mobility, resistance to degrading conditions. Simultaneously, we organized around black death with new terms, slogans, and names such as #Oscar Grant, #TrayonMartin“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” #IfTheyGunMeDown #HumanizeMyHoodie, #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName. While these efforts to contend with black death were amplified under Obama’s presidency, in many ways the events in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were the predecessor to the questions Black Lives Matter imposes on us today about black dignity and black death.
Most of us are old enough to recall the televised moment Kanye West went off script and stunned the nation during a benefit relief drive when he uttered “George Bush doesn’t love Black people.” Underneath Kanye’s indignation was the reality of the slow response by FEMA to evacuate Black people, debates about whether it was right to call displaced Black people refugees, evacuees, or American citizens. More alarmingly, Black people abandoned from federal rescue efforts who sought shelter in the superdome were portrayed as murders, rapists, and looters. These characterizations were enough for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to deploy the national guard and go on tv to announce: “These troops are fresh back from Iraq. They are well-trained, experienced, battle-tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets… They have M-16′s, and they’re locked and loaded. When hoodlums victimize and inflict suffering on people at their wit’s end, they’re taking away our limited resources, or whatever resources we have, to save babies, or save children and to save good people. I have one message for these hoodlums. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”
In Blanco’s announcement one can read the sentiment that since the ecological threat posed by Hurricane Katrina hadn’t proven capable of killing off Black people, the force of the American military would. This license to kill Black people created conditions in which white vigilantes took it upon themselves to arm themselves to maim and kill Black people. Five years after Katrina, police officers and white supremacists were finally charged for killing, shooting, and burning unarmed Black males. For instance, court documents show that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the suburban neighborhood of Algiers Point, white male residents collected guns and proceeded to created a barricade at the entrace of the neighborhood while they “talked about shooting niggers.” This avowal to shoot Black males had deadly consequences when one day three Black men crossed the barricade in search of supplies. Ronald Bourgeois Jr, who was stationed by the barricade opened fire with a shotgun wounding all three black men. As the three wounded black men fled, Bourgeois fired at them again yelling “Run, nigger, run!.” Chasing after the three black men, Bourgeois found one of the victim’s baseball caps which had blood on it on the ground. Returning to the barricade, Bourgeois displayed the bloody cap to the other white men. As they cheered, Bourgeois placed the bloody cap on his head.
Outside of white vigilante violence, Black people died from state sanctioned neglect. Government reports on Katrina would reflect this with neglect particularly surrounding FEMA’s delay on several refrigerators, or reefer trucks as temporary morgues, that never arrived on time. Bill Carwile, who was FEMA’s lead representative in Mississippi, and Robert Latham, who was the head of the state’s emergency-management agency recalled that in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi they encountered a funeral home director in tears. The director expressed “I have no more room for bodies. … My funeral home is full and I’m fixing to have to start putting people in the parking lot and on the sidewalk.” Latham in his testimony further noted: “Just then, a tractor-trailer pulled up. ‘I said, What are you hauling?’ ‘[The driver] said, Well, I’m hauling ice. … I said, Well, can I rent your truck? … We need to use it as a morgue.’ And he said, ‘No, this is the way I make my living. If I give you that, I won’t ever be able to use that trailer again for hauling ice or anything else refrigerated.’ I say, ‘can we buy your truck? I’ll buy it.’ I looked at Bill and I said, ‘Bill, can I do this?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do what we have do.'”
Carwile and Latham negotiated a price ($25,000) and started loading bodies. Out of black misery, death, and the disposability of Black life from Katrina, legal scholar and pioneer of Critical Race Theory Derrick Bell in his essay “On Celebrating an Election as Racial Progress,” would note Obama’s election as the nation’s first Black president was a racial symbol in the backdrop of Katrina. This is to say, despite the racial violence and failure of the federal government to respond to the needs of black people in the aftermath of Katrina, Obama was propped up as a racial symbol to restore faith in American democracy and institutions.Analyzing the dynamics of racial symbols on race-relations, Derrick Bell noted black people are the magical faces at the bottom of the American well. Which is to say, in lieu of social transformation, Black people are given civil rights statutes, racial figures and holidays as racial symbols to mark their inclusion into American society. Furthermore Bell sought to explain that black suffering is so immense that the only way we understand it is to reduce it to discourse about civil rights and racial symbols. As he noted in his essay “Racial Remediation,” “The racial injustices visited upon blacks are so immense that the civil rights condition is often measured by simply assessing the status of blacks in education, employment, voting, public accommodations, and housing. Change is seldom made in any of these areas without great effort. And so, when a racial barrier is breached, the gain is eagerly accepted as proof of progress in the struggle to eliminate racial discrimination.” (8)
How black suffering from Katrina to our present moment has shaped concepts of black dignity and black death needs interrogation. In our present moment, the death of unarmed black people we have witnessed countless corporation pledge donations to Black communities, the creation and dismantling of Diversity Equity and Inclusion Officers. These conditions are not without their forewarning, particularly from 20th century Black political philosophers like Malcolm X who argued American democracy was a nightmare for Black people.
Malcolm X’s analysis about Black suffering and race relations in the late 20th century has proven to be prescient. In the later part of his life, Malcolm X had noted that the denial by the American state to express that slavery as a crime against humanity, meant that civil rights law passed from Reconstruction through the 1960s were given as pyrrhic victories that forced Black people to identify not only with their oppressors but the very system that oppresses them. Malcolm X expressed: “..the presence of twenty million black people in America against their will is a living witness, a living testimony of the crime that Uncle Sam committed, your forefathers committed, when our people were brought here in chains. And the reason the problem can’t be solved today is you try and dress it up and doctor it up and make it look like a favor was done to the black man by having brought the black man here. But when you realize that it was a crime that was committed, then you approach the solution to that problem in a different light, and then you can probably solve it.”
It was the fact Black people’s relationship to America was founded on crimes that shaped American democracy that led Malcolm X to express “ I don’t speak as a Democrat or a Republican, nor an American. I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy.’’
It is this sentiment “I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy,” expressed by Malcolm X that Ajari’s conceptualization of Afro-decolonial ethics in which “the experience of racial dehumanization plays a decisive role” serves as an important philosophical intervention for our time.
Centering racial dehumanization means accounting for how black suffering is reduced to racial symbols while keeping track of the victims of America’s so- called democracy. Today, racial symbols are everywhere. From statutes of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor built in public spaces. To the statute of Harriet Tubman erected at the front of the CIA building. To bills and laws named after innocent Black people; Emmett Till Antilynching Act, George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, Justice for Breonna Taylor Act, and a petition for a Trayvon Martin Law. The American state mocks Black life by making the deaths of innocent black people a catalyst for more laws which serve as symbolic commitment to social change. In other words, Emmett Till, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin are dead and will never live in a world in which the violence that brought about their deaths doesn’t exist. Racial symbolism assumes laws in the names of victims of state violence will improve race-relations, yet the names of innocent black people are entered into the law books precisely because America is invested in violence against black people. This is to say, racial symbolism codifies what type of violence is acceptable against Black people given the political climate of the nation at the given time without doing away with the violence that brings about black death.
Racial symbolism was used earlier this year by President Joe Biden who on July 25th, 2023, signed a proclamation on the establishment of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till- Mobley national Monument. The proclamation is meant to conserve the Robert Temple Church of God in Christ, where Mamie Till-Mobley mourned her son, Graball Landing where Emmett Till’s body was recovered and memorialized and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse where his assailants were acquitted. The proclamation reads in part: “Conserving these places and the resources they contain will also honor the bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley and other Americans like her who, in the face of unimaginable injustice, have helped lead us toward a more equal and perfect union.”
There is something insidious about using the phrase “more perfect union,” from the constitution to speak about the lynched body of a 13-year-old black boy and the pain of his mother as the basis for America’s body politic to move closer “towards a more equal perfect union.” Should we really believe that Emmett Till chose to be a racial sacrifice to move America “towards a more equal perfect union,” especially when it was the very constitution that legitimized violence against Africans by constructing them as 3/5th of a human. Philosopher Calvin Warren in his essay “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope” decries this modern use of the constitution to assume black people can finally be included into American society. Warren notes:
On the one hand, our Declaration of Independence proclaims, all men are created equal, and yet black captives were fractioned in this political arithmetic as three-fifths of this man. The remainder, the two-fifths, gets lost within the arithmetic shuffle of commerce and mercenary prerogatives…the American dream, then, is realized through black suffering… it is the humiliated, incarcerated, mutilated, and terrorized black body that serves as the vestibule for the Democracy that is to come (215-217).
Like Warren, Derrick Bell leveled a similar critique about the use of black death to celebrate American democracy. In particular, he was confounded at the establishment of Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday. Bell noted: “What you have is a holiday for one black man, great as he was, while the country does nothing about the fact that there are more black people out of work now than at any time since slavery. Tell me what’s to celebrate about the condition of black people who die too soon, go to prison too long, and come to know life’s blues far too early? Tell me how a holiday for Dr. King helps the poor, the out-of-work, and hungry blacks all over this racist land?”
The critiques of western societies and democracy formulated by figures like Malcolm X and Derrick Bell are central to Ajari’s work. Rooted in a Black radical philosophical tradition, Afro-decolonial ethics builds on a tradition that requires an active commitment to take seriously the need to interrogate the role dehumanization plays in the lives of Black people in contemporary western societies. In closing, I want to turn to two quotes that I believe exemplify Ajari’s conception of Afro-decolonial ethics.
The first comes from William J. Anderson’s memoir Life and Narrative of William Anderson that chronicles amongst other things the twenty-four years he was enslaved. In the narrative, Anderson gives an account of an enslaved African named Joe he was acquainted with. In this passage Joe is approached by the slave master’s preacher to implore Joe to carry on his duties in the death of his master. Anderson writes: “One day the master was taken sick and nigh unto death. His preacher or spiritual adviser was sent for, and while attending there the old master died. The preacher took it upon himself to give Joe some good advice on the occasion. ‘Come here, my good boy,’ said the pious man. Joe obeyed, when his reverence began: ‘Your master is dead and gone to heaven. Your mistress is left a widow. Now, Joe, you must stay at home and take care of your mistress. Don’t rob the smoke house, nor pig pen, nor hen roost, nor potato patch; and when you die you will go to heaven, where your master is gone.’ ‘Whar?’ asked Joe. ‘To heaven,’ replied the minister. ‘Aint God dar?’ ‘Yes, Joe.’ ‘Don’t He know ebery ting’ ‘Yes, Joe.’ ‘And He gwine to let massa come dar after he been beatin and whippin’ me for fifty years? If I go dar, and massa is dar, I’ll put on my old hat and come straight out of dar.’ I won’t stay in no such a heaven, where they let such a man as massa stay dar.’” (47)
The second quote comes from civil rights activist Robert F Williams who organized Black communities against state and vigilante violence in the South. In a short essay titled “The Disease of Bigots,” Williams reflecting on black dignity noted: “the racists of the USA suffer from mass psychoneurosis. Their minds have become so twisted out of normal proportions that they have become mental cases. They possess warped personalities that have forced them out of the realm of natural readjustment. The racist bigots of the USA are monomaniacs when race is involved. Many are perfectly normal in every subject but the one encompassing human rights for colored people…Afro-Americans must stop playing the accommodating lunatic’s game. We must shock him back to reality. Afro-Americans must stop pretending to go along with insane racism. No sane person is willing to wear a badge of inferiority. No sane person is satisfied to live under a caste system of brutal Jim crow. Human life is too short and precious to spend under terrifying conditions as a subhuman. We must let the entire world know that we are not satisfied with racism in the USA. We must let the racist brute himself know that we are no longer going to play his idiots’ game. We must also serve notice on the world that we are willing to help place him in a straitjacket until he is completely cured of his insensate, sadistic and homicidal tendencies.”
In Joe and Williams insights, we hear exactly what Ajari’s means what he asserts that “rather than settling for mere recognition…an afro-decolonial approach interrogates the consequence of this foundation: namely, that dignity can only be fully grasped from the perspective of the oppressed, which is to say the most vulnerable humans of any society (39).”
Dalitso Ruwe holds a joint appointment as an Assistant Professor of Black political thought in the Philosophy and Black Studies Departments at Queen’s University. His research interests are Intellectual History of Africana philosophy, Anti-Colonial Theory, Africana Legal History, Black Male Studies, and Black Philosophies of Education. He is currently a 2023-2025 Azrieli Global Scholar with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.