Posted by on December 11, 2013

I
I believe in Black Study.[1] Black Study, for me, is a spiritual and performative practice of sociality, resisting normative theologies and philosophies. Black Study is about the ability for aesthetic behaviors typically deemed excessive, erratic, discardable, dismissible – behaviors in need, we might say, of a makeover – to be constitutive for other ways to exist in worlds. Black Study provides new models for collective intellectual movement and improvisational protocols for existing in otherwise worlds, it is a methodological mode of intense, spiritual, communal meditative critique and/as performance. Black Study is fundamentally about our capacity to be, and to exist, in the otherwise. Far out in space, right here against time; otherwise in the underside and underground of normative rule, function, form, law. From the murders of Sakia Gunn, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Michele Hilliard and Renisha McBride to the incarceration of CeCe McDonald and Marissa Alexander, what is apparent are the ways that ours is a milieu of misrecognizing Black Study. These premature deaths, these carceral practices – grounded as they are in anti-blackness – variously illustrate the violence and violation that attends such misrecognition.

Our times privilege the individual, the subject, over and – yes – against the social, the collective. Modernity’s creation of the subject begs attention because it is grounded in concepts of rationality, of the individual’s capacity for intellection. Edmund Burke’s worry over the shouts of large crowds, for example, was because he considered such collective, improvisational noisemaking as having within it the potential for disturbing his individuated thought process:

Excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror. The noise of vast cataracts, raging storms, thunder, or artillery, awakes a great and awful sensation in the mind, though we can observe no nicety or artifice in those sorts of music. The shouting of multitudes has a similar effect; and, by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that, in this staggering and hurry of the mind, the best-established tempers can scarcely forbear being borne down, and joining in the common cry, and common resolution of the crowd.[2]

It is the joining with the common cry, with the common resolution, which gave Burke pause. But from where is that pause borne, from where does such hesitance emerge? Was it from the noise itself, from the clamor and volume of storms and bombs bursting in air? Or was it the commons – the zone in which sociality happens – as the target of such critique? Turning to other thinkers of Modernity allows us to see that with the inauguration of this theological and philosophical mode of existence, “at its foundations, the modern notion of the individual and thus the modern age [itself was] intensely private and apolitical.”[3] Modernity, in other words, shored up against the commons, the porosity of flesh, moved to think one as a contained, continuous object. Susan Buck-Morss says the following about containment of the biological thing we call a “body”:

The nervous system is not contained within the body’s limits. The circuit from sense-perception to motor response begins and ends in the world. The brain is thus not an isolable anatomical body, but part of a system that passes through the person and her or his (culturally specific, historically transient) environment. As the source of stimuli and the arena for motor response, the external world must be included to complete the sensory circuit.[4]

What we have is evidence of the porosity of fleshly experience. We are, in effect, open to the world and that openness is the grounds out of which emerges sensate awareness of placement in inhabitation. We do a fundamental violence to flesh when we attempt to become the subject of modernity, when we aspire towards enclosure of our flesh, making of ourselves bodies that matter, divisible and individuated. In a word, fundamental violence is wrought when attempting to capture and incarcerate the flesh from its sense perception and motor response to the external world. The external world is not out there but in here, within each of – and passing through – us as we pass it along.

 

II
There is a pervasive belief that traumatic experience becomes the ground zero, the absolute zero moment, from which one’s identity, one’s self emerges. The normative conception of trauma is that whatever one was, or what one had, before such experience of violence and violation, quite literally, is nullified, is voided such that any trauma is totalizing. This conceptualization of trauma as the ground and absolute zero for identity, for selfhood, it seems, animates many of our modern liberal, leftist projects. The proliferation of identities – I’m a cisgender, black male-identified, gay-identified, middle-class, east coaster from a religious background but now am kindasorta agnostic and full of disbelief, a college graduate with three postgraduate degrees – is not only exhausting in its enumeration. It is also exhausting in that it presumes that the proliferatory remarks, as preface, gets one closer access to the subject we “really are.” The enumeration of identity is a purging of sorts, an expurgation of queerness as a way of life, a desire for the correct, coherent, stasis that is something like one’s identity.

Such that the way this proliferation is taken up, as a taxonomy of identities in many of our leftist projects, it seems, is grounded in bad faith in Black Study, it is grounded in the idea that identity, selfhood and the very possibility for community formation is founded at the points of victimization, at the moment of trauma. It misrecognizes institutional Black Studies as an area of concentration that is mostly concerned with traumatic experience of transatlantic enslavement, of Africa and its Diaspora; it wrongly assumes that the force of blackness finds its originary genesis in transit, in movement from Africa to the New World. It wrongly assumes, in other words, that blackness is tantamount to the experience of violence , the experience of pain, that black people feel ongoingly. Such that other liberal, leftist projects attempt to seek to find – with exacting precision – moments of violence and violation to both name their subject position and to claim space. This creation of subjectivity based on violence and violation not only seeks out traumatic experience in order to bespeak how it individuates and subjects us, it becomes the grounds upon which to analogize how one’s oppression and marginalization is like another’s: “gay is the new black,” for example. Simply, this desire for subjectivity is nothing other than a desire for a makeover, a redressing that leaves in tact structural and institutional inequity.

 

III
Ebony Magazine declared: It’s a “new year,” so she’s been gifted a “new look.” A new look, indeed, that has “refined” her. It is this refined “presentation” that “will help her transformation into adulthood.” Before the Huffington Post changed the name of a piece about her, the title stated flatly, “Rachel Jeantel Doesn’t Look Like This Anymore.”

racheljeantel1

Quickly changed to the softer, simpler, less sensational, “Rachel Jeantel Gets Makeover Compliments of Ebony Magazine, TheGrio,” the latter title rendering doesn’t fully capture the point of the Ebony spread: that Rachel does not have to embarrass Black folks anymore. Indeed, she’s been given a makeover and promised a scholarship to college by Tom Joyner. We could, of course, simply think about the makeover and scholarship offer as well-meaning gestures by well-meaning people, all that had Rachel’s best intentions at heart. But reading Amoy Pitters, makeup artist, state, “I know that this is going to change a lot for her,” one should wonder a bit more about just what the this in her declarative is supposed to be.

The makeover of Rachel Jeantel was supposed to make her look otherwise than she did during the court case of George Zimmerman. The makeover was not just a feel-good day of self-care but was bound up with aspirations others have for her: “We want to keep [her vivaciousness and personality], but translate it into ways that can work for her, for her new life as a student. We want to give her a look that’s going to translate from campus life, to any internships, or employment that she may be doing while she’s at school.” This all seems well and good until we recall that Rachel Jeantel was tried in the court of public opinion before she ever opened her mouth while testifying on behalf of her murdered friend. She was squarely lampooned for her body size, her complexion, her hair, her clothing … she was criticized for her speech patterns, her gestures, her frustrations with a very frustrating line of questioning. We cannot, it seems to me, think of the makeover aside from that context, the context that already declared her not enough, the context that rendered her fundamentally incapacitated, the context that said had she been something otherwise than what and who she was, perhaps the case would have concluded differently. She was the key witness, so the line of reasoning went. To desire to “translate” her appearance goes hand in hand with the unstated desire to translate her speech into coherence, into something standard – like collegial speechifying for the university.

The makeover is nothing other than bad faith in Black Study: it submits to the idea that whatever one is – particularly when the one is what we don’t want, don’t desire, before ever speaking – at the moment of trauma needs be nullified and voided, that a new way that dismisses as discardable one’s past is most urgent. It is to participate in the violent process of making flesh into bodies, of making the incoherence and otherwise rhetorical patterns and gestures of one Rachel Jeantel into a body, into a grammar, a grammar that coheres with wishes for upward mobility and respectable presentation. The makeover was about the individual as the primary target of trauma, the subject that needs to be redone, closed off, individuated … it was to form of her the bourgeois subject of enlightened thought, even and ever so on her way to college.

So though perhaps we might declare it a moment of self-care, because of the West’s theological and philosophical inheritance, we need interrogate, as my colleague would write (though I take it in another direction), who is the self of self-care? Who, or what, is the thing we attempt protecting when, for example, we explicate lists of trigger warnings for things that may perhaps cause the rexperiencing of trauma? Does not the declaration itself assume the very subject position that created difference-as-deficiency in the many guises that proliferate today such that we have racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia? Would not one have to assume – from the position that declares what experiences warrant such a declarative – that their experience is normative? Is not this normativizing of personal experience the very problem of, say, whiteness? Is this not, in other words, bad faith in Black Study, a desire to makeover flesh into coherent substance, cohesive subjectivity? What is the “self” – even when hinged to words like “care” – other than the declared desire for being the bourgeois subject of enlightenment?

Perhaps it seems impolite to critique a makeover when Rachel, it seems to me at least, enjoyed the experience. I don’t criticize enjoyment and I get a haircut about every three weeks. Still, I am reminded of what Yasmin Nair notes, that we exist in a moment where folks on the left enjoy confessing traumatic experience. This confessional posture also means that naming the personal – as Tamara Nopper writes – makes possible the occurrence when “someone who discloses they survived violence presumably cannot be questioned for their framing or political commentary even as they are presenting their work as feminist analysis and/or politics and trying to shape public conversation about violence.” The stories, these various modalities for confession, are all about enclosing and hindering the possibility for thought, for dialogue. “But it was a nice gesture!” is a modality of the personal-as-political with a foundational claim that operates through narrativizing sentiment as a means to shut down conversation.

It is from within this world of desired selfhood and subjectivity that such a makeover – which includes not only wardrobes and makeup and hair extensions, but college attendance; so perhaps we must think about the bourgeois conceptions of what it means to be a proper college student – emerges. Rachel Jeantel’s “new look” is specifically tied to class aspirations that others have for her. Folks were embarrassed by the sassiness with which she gestured, the speech pattern that resisted Standard American English, the eye rolling and general fatigue with the defense attorney’s continued attempts to caricature her. They were embarrassed, more precisely, by the excesses of her personhood, of her flesh, that was antithetical to the law. But instead of respond with overwhelming support, folks got on Twitter and Facebook, wrote blogs and opinion pieces, about how she was not properly prepared, about how her purported lack of education should have kept her away from the stand as a witness. I then wondered and continue to wonder: if her “updated look” is tied to her capacity for class mobility, how are we operating in the service of continued inequity rather than its dismantling?

No one can deny, when in the courtroom and making public appearances thereafter, that for Rachel Jeantel it was hair done, nails done, everything did … she, indeed, made sure to account for her appearance in ways that did not demean her nor others. Thus, to opine that what was given is critical care, a mode of self-care through accessorizing, does a disservice to who she was on the stand: resistant to the legal bullshit, to the legality of murder, to the illegibility of blackness in civil society. On the stand, all that she did served as a reminder that the anti-blackness that animates our American skies is not something she had to accept but was an anti-blackness that she could, and in fact did, refuse.

But now, it is thought at least, she is proper enough for a selfie.

 

IV
Perhaps it makes sense that the makeover of Rachel Jeantel cathects outward appearance with upward, college bound, class mobility. College campuses around the nation are guilty of beautifying neighborhoods in the service of importing folks to those neighborhoods who would be respectable. Homes get fresh coats of paint. Housing authorities and city planners get dollars to knock down and build up mixed use developments. Cities like Newark can claim new stadiums and restaurants and hotels and supermarkets (because, sure, Whole Foods is affordable, right?). What gentrification does is makes a claim on the flesh, on something like what Hortense Spillers describes as the “zero degree,” of a location considered uninhabitable, a zone of nothingness. This uninhabitability, this zone, is not of nothingness because no things are there but because the ones who are there, the things who abide there, are thought to have nothing, are imagined to be only excess, blobs waiting to be put together, to be made cohesive, to be reconfigured through fun makeovers. Gentrification wants to get us closer to the “really are” nature of the city, of what it could be if it’d simply get its act together, if the right accessories were included and others excluded, if certain modes of aesthetic practice were extended – like blond hair tips – and others – like low-performing public schools as so many undesirous tattered garments – were discarded.

But perhaps becoming respectable, too, is not enough. Vanessa VanDyke was told she’d have to cut her hair – because of its unruliness – or be expelled from school in Florida. Perhaps, too, Ebony and TheGriot have plans to team up to give her a makeover, make her hair acceptable such that she won’t be considered a threat, a problem, a “distraction.” The very thing that gave Rachel Jeantel’s testimony the force of radical dissent is that which, through the concept of the makeover itself, is most in danger of being engulfed, suppressed. Perhaps justice is an otherwise, a different mode of intellectual practice, which does not glory in the new as a replacement and eventual discarding of the old. The soul of blackness – the resistance of objects – stands to be gentrified, radically displaced, if we do not celebrate the radical edge of the already existent other world. Rachel’s eye rolls know the fact of radical edge; Vanessa’s hair practices this. Perhaps, like Rachel, every black girl needs a makeover. But, then, what would we say – and what would we do – when we submit to such crass ideology?



[1] This terminology, Black Study, is utilized rather than Black Studies to intimate a relation between what gets institutionalized in the university as Black Studies, African American Studies, Africana Studies, Ethnic Studies and Multicultural Studies beginning with the student protests on college campuses in 1968 with an intellectual practice that is always collective and resists institutionalization.

[2] Burke, “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. 24, Part 2. The Harvard Classics,” See section titled “Sound and Loudness.”

[3] Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, 47.

[4] Susan Buck-M orss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’, October, 62 (1992), 3–41 (pp. 12–3) <doi:10.2307/778700>.

Comments

  1. Ayanna Abi-Kyles
    December 11, 2013

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    Dear Dr. Ashon:) I communicate with my almost 21 year old daily. We often communicate by articles that we read for critique, soul deepening, a love sharing. I am sending this to my daughter Kai because she was profoundly disturbed by the whole makeover. Blessing on your work that has put into context that which awakens the deeper feelings and thought. Thank you for my education.

  2. sharon
    December 11, 2013

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    I honour the research and the point of view that you brought to light. I still cannot “still” my disappointment at the gentrification needed to be successful in this day and time…that we must identify wit our captors to be acceptable… I remember my close friend was forced to wear a “diana ross ” wig to cover her locks and that was back in the 80’s before my daughter who is now 22 was born… we have not moved very far

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