“For several years certain laboratories have been trying to produce a serum for “denegrification;” with the earnestness in the world, laboratories have sterilized their tubes checked their scales, and embarked on researchers that might make it possible for the miserable Negro to whiten himself and thus to throw off the burden of that corporeal malediction.” – Frantz Fanon. The Fact Of Blackness
I am afraid, I am not a library to be colonized. As we are organs, cells, atoms, and bone – we are our stories, experiences, traditions, and isn’t this a form of lived literature? Historically we discover whiteness has performed scientific dissection on black and brown bodies. We can look at cases such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study within our close historical memory which gives voice to the pinnacle of racist research.
“The Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in the Negro male is the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history…with its failure to educate the participants and treat them adequately, helped to lay the foundation for Blacks’ pervasive sense of distrust of public health authorities today.”
Tuskegee Syphilis Study can be attributed to extensive collaboration among government agencies, along with an unprecedented community-based approach that demonstrated a degree of cultural sensitivity toward the poor Black target population in Macon County. The strategies used to recruit and retain participants in the study were quite similar to those being advocated for HIV education and AIDS risk reduction programs today.
We can examine how scientific racism played a role in establishing apartheid in South Africa when we look at the work of Dudley Kidd, who published The Essential Kafir in 1904 – a book which sought to “understand the African mind,” and positioned blackness and African peoples as docile, children-like creatures whose humanity lingered on the service of the European saving them.
We see how whiteness continues here in the twenty first century, to perform intellectual and literary dissection of black and brown bodies. Whiteness wants to learn, and we as black and brown bodies are the assumed vessels of such education. Education through dissection. Extracting our experiences to teach. How white is the phrase “Let me pick your brain?” And why do I get triggered when I’m asked this question by a white colleague or fellow community organizer wanting to do social justice work? Furthermore, why is learning through new ideas positioned as something to be done through metaphoric dissection as “Let me pick your brain?” I submit this is because the imaginary scenario we have created around the white scientist in a lab coat is a somewhat Frankenstein-like violent positioning we have about learning within the world. Black and brown bodies and our brains are not for the picking of white curiosity no matter how well intended that curiosity may be.
The classroom for the white imagination are often our bodies. These classrooms are everywhere. They manifest in questions such as “Tell me, how do I interrogate my whiteness? And “Tell me, what exactly is white privilege?” And “Tell me, what can I do to check my privilege?” And” “Tell me, if colorblindness isn’t the answer what is? This “Tell me” positioning has undercurrents of racism. This “Tell me” positioning is how whiteness goes shopping. Is this to not a form of capitalist practice? Shopping for the best traumatic story among black and brown bodies that explains how a comment or joke or conversation was racist. This assumption of the black and brown body as the classroom is both exhausting and objectifies us down to our trauma or incidents where we experience social injustice. Anytime you objectify you dehumanize. And why is there an assumption that we as black and brown peoples provide a singular answer to liberation? Are our lives singular issue lives? Or are we multi-experienced beings in process with other multi experienced beings including those whom America made white.
Furthermore, how do we position learning about our privileges? As a process by which we are catered answers? This distorts the labor of study and working through the hard interrogation of our placement in the world, was that comment you made last week racist? Does your voice undercut or undermine a co-worker or colleague at your workplace? Do you have unpacked fears about blackness, queerness, or trans persons? Are you intimidated by certain organizers in your community by them being hyper vocal about their blackness, queerness? Transness? These are the questions that carry the luggage of our politics and values, which are the questions that are in the utmost need of unpacking.
Social justice and global transformational work is a constant engagement, therefore so is study. Traveling through literature to research and identify our own politics is a part of the work. Traveling through texts such as, “The Uses Of Anger,” and asking ourselves if we agree with Andre Lorde when she writes:
“Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change. To those women here who fear the anger of women of Color more than their own unscrutinized racist attitudes, I ask: Is the anger of women of Color more threatening than the woman-hatred that tinges all aspects of our lives?
Traveling through text such as The Fact Of Blackness by Frantz Fanon and seeing if we agree when Fanon writes on blackness and triple consciousness after being called a Negro by a white child…
In the train it was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. In the train I was given not one but two, three places. I had already stopped being
amused. It was not that I was finding febrile coordinates in the world. I existed triply: I
occupied space. I moved toward the other…I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors.”
Traveling through “I Am Seeking An Attitude” and asking ourselves if we agree with June Jordan as she writes on the universal body:
“Even in the realm of medicine and medical research, we, women, in general, do not exist; Most tests are conducted on men for diseases affecting primarily men. Men are regarded as the universal body, the universal voice. From cholesterol to literature, you just have to hope that your female organs and/or your female perspectives do not differ importantly from the organs and viewpoints of the universal male”
I am not a library to be colonized. Nor am I a library to be dissected. I do not position my knowledge as a reservoir for the white imagination, its curiosity or its shortcomings. I do not have a black savior complex for your whiteness. I am not here to save you from your racism, you must save your self. Ignorance is a slow death. Because I am not here to save you, this then provides a point of tension around a moment we often locate between our bodies and the white imagination. This moment arises in various arenas. It is the moment when the president of the University Of Minnesota, finds himself at the epicenter of the self fulling prophecy which is his whiteness when he suggests that if no one can step forward and testify to an incident of racism occurring, then accusations of racism at the University of Minnesota are illegitimate.
The necessity of black and brown bodies to publicly revisit their trauma (whether they’re prepared or not) to prove that it happened to white people is not unique to the University Of Minnesota. Though in a larger conversation, where is the bar for institutions to tend to those they serve? And why is silence the evidence of racial equity? Shouldn’t silence be the catalyst to make sound? Start a conversation about racism and racial tension?
If we are agents of change who care to eradicate the pathology of racism, capitalism, and various social ills, we have to sincerely recognize this requires intellectual and physical labor. Study is a process of shoveling, digging through, unearthing, not a process of catering. We have to dig within ourselves.
Engage with multiple discourses that pertain to our values. Do we regularly consume new ideas, new theories, new investigations that challenged us, unearth us? Dig us up?
Let’s for a moment interrogate this notion of research. When you are young, this image of the white scientist in a lab coat is one that is carved into the imagination of most people. Without saying anything, we already decided he is a man and relatively old. He is a performer. The degree in which he performs his research is measured by his sweat his frustration and the inevitable eureka moment. A vast amount of the ways in which whiteness sees research is predicated on this image of the objective white scientist in the lab coat. Who is driven by for example wanting to learn about the ocean, goes fishing. Once he has captured his subject he then proceeds to clean it, kill it if it is still alive, and dissect it. He needs to learn how his subject breathes under water so he guts the lugs. He needs to learn how his subject reproduces so he guts the stomach. How Frankenstein is this approach? How terroristic is this approach?
Those native to the land. Those with an indigenous pedagogy – which is to say an indigenous method – have a different approach in learning about the ocean and the subjects that live there. They swim. They allow themselves to be submerged alongside their subjects. They recognize within learning they are subjects among other subjects. They immerse themselves in the water. There are no knives. There is no death.
The effort to eradicate social injustice is also an effort to eradicate a piece of ourselves. Learning liberation is learning death. We have to kill white supremacy externally and also internally. This is not limited to white supremacy, but all forms of life limiting systems and social constructs.
This brings us to think on what did the roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus mean when he said “He or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery?” This is to say he or she who learns how to kill their own problematic behavior in turn participates in their own liberation.
Then this raises the question on why we don’t take the time to digest our own politics? The white imagination is paralyzing. It is stagnant. It is not an active participant in education but a passive one. It needs you to tell it what to do and how to do it. If it is not this then it is an aggressive curiosity that is insensitive to personal space both intellectual and physical.
The white imagination locates itself at the intersections of fictitious innocents, privilege, egotism and as lecturer Nathan Rutstein describes prejudice as “an emotional connection to ignorance”. What is this emotional connection? What ties does this have to white fragility? More importantly, why do we take critiques of our social locations i.e white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, personally? Because as Nathan suggests, we are emotionally connected with them.
White people transfigure themselves into the white scientist in the lab coat, knowingly or unknowingly, on a daily basis. This transfiguration happens when they continuously go shopping through our trauma and our memories to service them in their effort to become less white through a process which is inherently white, and violent and invasive because of its whiteness.
I submit all of our names as black people is Ethel Easter. Ethel is a black woman from Houston, TX whom we all might’ve passed say, grocery shopping or waiting for the bus. Ethel brilliantly concealed a voice recorder in her hair while doctors and trusted medical officials performed surgery on her. This was prompted by some troublesome comments made by her doctor. When she began to cry after hearing that her surgery would have to wait two months, and her doctor replying by saying “Who do you think you are? You have to wait just like everybody else.”
An article written by The Root.com reveals the comments made by doctors in the operating room
Shortly after Easter is sedated, the surgeon can be heard on the recording telling others in the operating room what he thinks of Easter: “She’s a handful; she had some choice words for us in the clinic when we didn’t book her case in two weeks.” Other male voice on tape: “Really?” Surgeon: “I’m going to call a lawyer and file a complaint.” (Laughter.) “Did you see her belly button?” says a female voice on the tape, a remark that is followed by laughter. A male staff member can be heard referring to Easter as “Precious.” “Precious, as though I was this big, fat black woman,” Easter said. Easter said that she was also referred to as “always the queen,” and that the surgeon reportedly said he feels sorry for her husband.
What happened to Ethel is a metaphor for the entire history of black and brown bodies who continue to survive under American supremacy. Where did her intuition to bring a voice recorder into the operating room come from? Are we as black and brown people still haunted by the ghosts of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study? Where is the bar set for trust between doctor and patients? Where is safety when racism can enter into the hands to whom you trust your life? Are we not the descendants of test subjects?
Are we not the bodies who are designated for the operating table of America’s capitalist empirical project? Is the dumping ground for pollution caused by the H.E.R.C. Incinerator located in Minnesota, not North Minneapolis? Where there is a high concentration of black and brown bodies? Are the black and brown students who go through level four institutions across the state of Minnesota where I teach not tracked by behavior medication and IEP’s that aren’t intended to serve the young people they represent? Supremacy is a funded project. It is a particular kind of surgery where politicians, police and lawmakers are whispering over black and brown bodies.
It is true, no matter how songful it may sound, we are made up of many books. Comprised of lived literature. We are born and then called to stock a library over the course of a lifetime. Within the process of stocking this library we learn to read, write, and speak in a certain language to survive the world constantly speaking to you and in the case of the oppressed speaking for you. I am afraid we cannot afford for you to be illiterate to your reality. By which I mean we cannot afford for you to not know how to spell your name, or not know how to articulate your experience carrying that name. We need to know for example how your father felt saying your name after an exhausting week of work. How it made you feel when your teachers mispronounced it all those years. We need to know the nickname you got when you were a child and how you felt being called that name by loved ones. This is your lived literature.
You must know which way the current of the world is pulling and pushing you. You must learn how to swim within your lived literature at a very early age, especially if you are black. Especially if you are silenced. Our ink as black people has been rendered invisible. Perhaps acquiring knowledge at its best isn’t about cutting open and “picking the brain” of pieces of knowledge, but allowing ourselves to consensually swim within knowledge.
We are indeed libraries, stocked with lived literature that must be recorded and shared. Though the relationship of sharing knowledges – particularly around trauma – must have a protocol of consideration, and cannot be over reaching or invasive. Archiving experience leaves future generations mirrors instead of mountains. It gives them an experience in which they see a reflection of themselves, from which they can un-isolate their struggles instead of climbing new hurdles. The white objective European scientist dissected the fish to learn about the ocean, and the subjects who lived there. If we are to research the world, and participate in a global transformational project, we must learn we are sharing the water. That no knives are needed to learn how to swim.