Danielle Bowler: Defined by your 'blackness'
Singer Lauryn Hill recently posted a new song dedicated to the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, on her website. Titled Black Rage, it is a virtual mini-thesis that succinctly details the experience of the black body throughout history, played out in three minutes and 46 seconds. The rage Hill sings about has been made visible in protests throughout America, which has seen opinion pieces try to explain or defend black rage in the face of liberal rights discourses that remain unable to see how there exists only tacit, paper-thin equality of races. An image taken at one of these protest has been circulating on social media. In it, a protestor holds up a sign that says "I can't believe we are still protesting this shit".
With the resurgence of race in our discussions about 'blackface' a few weeks ago, I felt similarly, and I can't believe that we are still explaining why the black experience is fundamentally different, and that we have to justify black rage. On Twitter, many attempted to reduce centuries of historical oppression to a succinct 140 characters, or resorted to, in the fashion of Nomboniso Gasa, schooling people through a series of numbered tweets. As race is again brought to the fore, many fail to see how the events at Ferguson and at the University of Pretoria are not separate incidents, but are structural manifestations of the violence enacted upon the black body across time and space.
Chapter five of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, titled "The Lived Experience of the Black" is a meditation on a sentence: "Look, a nigger." The utterance of these words, by a child who saw Fanon on a train, led to the Martiniquan's crushing realisation that he is trapped in his 'blackness'. Fanon realised that in the face of his blackness, no other aspects of his existence matter as historical oppression dictates that he had to first be, above all things, black, and live under a conditioned humanity. Learning that being black comes with historical preconditions that determine both who you are and can be, Fanon wrote: "I was responsible not only for my body, but for my race. My ancestors."
Poet Walt Whitman might have written "I am large, I contain multitudes", but for brown and black people the world over, the experience of being is always singular and constricting because blackness colours every interaction with the world and racism is a daily, inescapable experience.
The events that unfolded in Ferguson on 9 August 2014 are not an exception to this rule. The killing of Mike Brown, a teenager who was shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson, stands as yet another iteration of the lived experience of black life. It is not an isolated incident. It is a reiteration of the criminalisation of blackness that has to be considered in its historical context. The sheer historical cartography of the violence enacted on black bodies is both terrifying and overwhelming in its replication of the same narrative of systemic oppression.
Positioning Brown within the greater black experience reveals that oppression is connected, and that there is no exceptional black body that is able to transcend centuries of racist injustice. If we view the events at Ferguson in their historical context, we will find that Mike Brown is Oscar Grant, gunned down on New Year's Eve at Fruitvale Station. Mike Brown is Renisha McBride, shot in the face in Detroit. Mike Brown is Trayvon Martin, gunned down for looking ominous because he was wearing a hoodie in Florida, and, universally, Mike Brown is a metonym for every black man who has been defined by the colour of his skin.
We are rightfully incensed that the world, yet again, has the audacity to blatantly demonstrate how little weight and value is attributed to black life. The reasons given for the necessity of these deaths descend into tragicomic ridiculousness: he was wearing a hoodie, he was armed, he might have been armed, he stole cigars, he was jaywalking. They emanate from a racist vocabulary that supports and validates the predictable character assassination of black people for no other reason than that they are black. In Brown's case, there has been talk of the alleged crime of stealing a couple of cigars, as if there is some equivalence between this crime and that of taking a life.
The reasons attributed to Brown's death crumble in the face of the simple truth: Brown was a black man and black people are, as Fanon argued, locked in their blackness. Reduced to their blackness, these men are stripped of their uniqueness and complexity, reduced to stick men who serve as a symbol of white America's hyperbolic and pathological terror.
Closer to home, this logic is echoed in the comfortable narrative of invisible black intruders, which most recently resurfaced in the Oscar Pistorius trial, and in the treatment of the miners in Marikana who stood at that unfortunate intersection of being both black and trapped in poverty. Black bodies are, by this racist logic, terrifying in their trumped-up blackness. When white men like James Eagan Holmes, who allegedly walked into a cinema and shot and killed 12 people in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, commit multiple murders, they stand as exceptions to their race. They are not murderers because they are white, but because they are troubled men, and we are urged to understand their personal context as they are allowed to be complexly human. There are fundamental differences between the kind of humanity afforded to different races, and this is the root of black rage.
The incident in Ferguson is symptomatic of the racial logic that still plagues the world. As John Oliver stated in a scathing takedown of the events at Ferguson: '"Here's the thing the [Ferguson] mayor doesn't understand: As a general rule, no one should ever be allowed to say, 'There's no history of racial tension here', because that sentence has never been true anywhere on earth." We are not post-race, a truth that echoes from Ferguson to Pretoria. Racial politics was present on Fanon's train and it permeates our streets and pollutes our interactions. In the aftermath of Ferguson, protests have managed to transcend one news cycle as they have become the story itself. The protestors have been treated as rebels, they have found their posters and yells met with military equipment and riot gear, and the same narratives about unlawfulness, blackness and violence have resurfaced, polluted with the kind of "empty rhetoric" that artist and political economist Rob Urie points out is "designed to shut people up".
There will always be duelling narratives because there are duelling experiences of the world, which is what many tried to point out in Twitter discussions on 'blackface'. There are lessons that we can learn from Ferguson. Firstly, that our battlegrounds can't simply be the comfortable confines of social-media discourse. Secondly, that part of this will demand an understanding that we are all complicit and that some of us benefit from this system. Thirdly, the old ways of doing things will not suffice because we will need to find a way of not staying stuck in the same stagnant South African race debates that only seem to last for one news cycle, and keep us locked in a rhetorical endgame.
Fundamentally, we have to understand that we are not battling simple, unconnected incidents, but fighting to dismantle an entire system of structured and calculated oppression. Most importantly, we need to understand that black rage does not have to be legitimised and defended, and if people ask you to do so, and remain unconvinced, instead of letting your blood boil, just send them a link to Lauryn Hill's song. It will save you time, effort and valuable energy.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler