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in Theoria
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Kevin Irakoze University of Chicago, USA

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Mandisi Majavu Rhodes University, South Africa

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Nathalie Etoke City University of New York, USA

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Nathalie Etoke, Black Existential Freedom. Roman & Littlefield, 2023, 156 pp. ISBN: 978-538173060 (pbk).

Tendayi Sithole, Refiguring in Black. Polity Press, 2023, VII +158 pp. ISBN: 978-1509557028 (pbk).

T Hasan Johnson, Solutions for Anti-Black Misandry, Flat Blackness, and Black Male Death: The Black Masculinist Turn. Routledge, 2023, 131pp. ISBN: 978-1032529592.

Nathalie Etoke, Black Existential Freedom. Roman & Littlefield, 2023, 156 pp. ISBN: 978-538173060 (pbk).

With a panoramic view of Blackness in a global historical context, Nathalie Etoke's book is an invitation to witness freedom born out of disaster. In conversation with Afropessimism which, in its overemphasis of enduring structures of anti-Black violence, creates an impasse for imagining change, Etoke calls attention to the underside of the violence: the subject who endures it. The author argues that such endurance manifests itself in an ever-present struggle as the reality of freedom. The result is a profound and timely contribution to the study of lived freedom for people of African descent.

Disaster occurs. It occurs to individuals. It occurs to communities. At sea, to a human being sold into slavery. In the air, to an adolescent stowaway fleeing the violence of postcolonial politics. On land, in the streets of Paris. On land, again, in the streets of Minneapolis. It occurs again, and again, and again. Those struck by the occurrences are not left intact. But they endure. As Etoke affirms, ‘We died a long time ago. We died several times. We continue to die. Yet, we are still here’ (51). The book theorises this still-here-ness. Are we still here as victims or as agents? Still here as corpses or as living, breathing humans? How come we are still here to begin with? Action. Struggle. Movement. Resistance. These are some of the answers the author provides.

Studying the African diaspora in the Americas, the author stresses the relation between inner and outer forms of existence. The memory of the transatlantic slave trade, when it spotlights individual consciousness, discovers an ‘inner strength of the externally weak’ (26), revealing an inherent coexistence of freedom and oppression. In African American music through Freedom Songs, the Blues, and Soul, Etoke underscores an inner space of freedom out of which the music rises to seek an outer freedom. And an analysis of Haitian songs concludes that inhabiting disaster opens rather than limits possibilities for freedom: ‘disaster is a call to limitless thinking’ (52) and ‘to be human in dreadful circumstances is to take the act of living as a fundamentally positive statement’ (53).

In France, the author explores identity, memory, and citizenship in relation to race. What becomes of Black people in a nation that proscribes racial identity? Against the Republic's policies, racial identification persists, spurred by incessant anti-Black injustices, reinforced through protests, and opening possibility for social change. In their struggle for full citizenship, Black persons in France represent ‘the failures and possibilities of the Republic’ (69). Even here, making community in Black still develops a liberatory consciousness. A consciousness for a subject divided from herself and from the larger community, but which enables the emergence of a freeing relation to the nation's violent history. Remembering this history founds the self-making of the Black subject. She can collapse the past onto the present and identify the suffering of her ancestors with her own, or she can use it to become anew. Etoke suggests the latter as a more promising path.

The author reflects on continental Africa through the realities of migration and homophobia. She illuminates our understanding of the condition of migrants by developing the concept of ‘negative utopia’. From the fact of movement that risks annihilating the self, Etoke argues that the migrants ‘risk death in order to avoid the death of hope’ (116). Negative utopia is, thus, hope in disaster that retains an acute awareness of the danger that hopeful action poses for human life, but which nonetheless insists on action. On the oppression of LGBTQI+ people, focusing on Uganda and South Africa, Etoke invokes a comparison between anti-Black racism and homophobia. In a mimetic turn, othering processes reduce LGBTQI+ persons to their sexual identities and deploy them as scapegoats for the malfunctions of postcolonial life.

Throughout the book, we encounter Black persons in action. Singing. Dancing. Protesting. Moving. Praying. Since action, even when constricted by catastrophic circumstances, requires a non-negligible measure of freedom, Etoke represents free Black subjects with joyful force. The throughline is a dialectic between disaster and hope, material conditions and the inner life, passive and active subjectivity, the individual and the collective, coerced and free choice. Black existential freedom occupies the space between the poles of that dialectic.

Readers of Etoke's previous work will notice the continuation of her multidisciplinary work theorising Blackness always in a global sense and towards overcoming the violence that creates and maintains anti-Black racism. The author is explicit about her personal connection to the work. She describes herself as a person who ‘grew up in Absurdia, a country where decades of dictatorship and the repression of freedoms and fundamental rights gave birth to a resigned state’ (117-118). And she concludes the book with a recognition of the pitfalls of academic writing that seeks Black freedom within white supremacist institutions. This is, thus, also a book about how to write Blackness.

The most compelling aspect of the book, on the one hand, lies in the concept of negative utopia. Although applied to the migrant situation, this analytic tool names the very form of Black existential freedom referenced in the book's title. For, if negative utopia responds to continuous violence by life-giving action, then it is this same utopia that we witness on the transatlantic slave ship, in songs of the US civil rights era, and in protests on the streets of Paris. On the other hand, Etoke's reflections on LGBTQI+ Africans are left at the level of description of their oppression. Given the author's insistence on action towards liberation, the material in this section appears to lack an analysis that suggests an overcoming of the situation. Even so, the remarks offer a powerful caution against Black freedom done wrong.

Overall, the book is an outstanding success. To the claims of Afropessimism, it offers a sophisticated response that takes us through time and space to notice Black persons in active struggle, rather than merely defeated. The author refrains from a systematic reply to Afropessimism's arguments but, instead, highlights Black agency as response to the theory. Rather than a refutation of the theory, therefore, the book is best read as a self-standing account of Black freedom amid disaster, and the success of this account requires to be read on its own terms. With a rivetingly poetic expression throughout and a seamless engagement of a breadth of artistic and academic sources, the text speaks to anyone interested in the possibility of freedom amid violence. Even as she focuses on Blackness, Etoke's call to us is to attend to the human being caught in disaster but nonetheless remains free.

Kevin Irakoze

University of Chicago

Tendayi Sithole, Refiguring in Black. Polity Press, 2023, VII +158 pp. ISBN: 978-1509557028 (pbk).

In Refiguring in Black, Tendayi Sithole broadens the range of acceptable conversations about Blackness by meditating on the ontological dimensions of Blackness through Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison and Hortense Spillers. Sithole purposefully disrupts the Western canon on these aforementioned Black figures by reconceptualising Douglass, Morrison and Spillers via an explicit and unapologetic Black point of view. In the hands of Sithole, Douglass, Morrison and Spillers become insurgent intellectuals who act out an ‘engaged insurgent praxis’ against anti-Black racism, using West and hooks’ (2017) phrasing.

Sithole's aim in this book is not to excavate the oeuvre of these Black intellectuals, rather, his goal is to delve into themes that help us think about these intellectuals in ways that yield deep insight and clarity, thereby launching ‘different ways of thinking blackness’ (143). For instance, Chapter One is a critical meditation on Frederick Douglass’ retelling of the ‘Aunt Hester scene’. Aunt Hester was a slave woman whom Douglass witnessed being mercilessly whipped by the slaveholder Captain Anthony. In his autobiography, Douglass recounts the ‘Aunt Hester scene’ to illustrate the brutality of slavery, the dehumanisation of Blackness, and the various ways in which the system of slavery ascribed to Blackness a eugenic burden. I use Adler-Bolton and Vierkant's (2022) insight to argue that as a eugenic burden, Blacks were cast as a threat to social order, a demographic threat, and more importantly, a reproductive and bloodline threat, a threat to public health and the White racial purity. It was claimed that this eugenic burden was for the White man to carry, in other words, it was the White man's responsibility to enslave Blacks, to oversee the exploitation of Blacks, and to discipline and police Blacks.

At the core of the racist social construction of Blackness is the assumption that Blackness is wrong – inherently criminal, chaotic, destructive, and mentally unstable, hence the ‘slave does not have to commit any wrong-doing. The slave is the wrong itself’ (22). To effectively police Blackness, slave masters advocated that White slave owners have ‘unchecked power, that license, that excess, that despotism’ (22). Put another way, White slave owners used a variety of anti-Black racist tropes to justify the cruelty and the horror of slavery. This is what Frederick Douglass ‘is bearing witness to and what he narrates by giving account of the’ ‘Aunt Hester scene’ (12).

Chapter Two critically thinks about and through Toni Morrison's episteme exposes different kinds of violence and racism that Blackness has historically had to struggle against. Sithole identifies epistemic racism and epistemic violence as anti-Black repressive apparatuses that have historically been used to silence, distort, erase, censor, and deny the humanity and subjectivity of Blacks. Toni Morrison enables Sithole to question dominant systems of knowledge production that erase the epistemological existence and contribution of Blackness from the field of knowledge.

From this epistemological vantage point, Sithole identifies an epistemological chaos which Toni Morrison described in her work as an ‘Africanistic presence’, a decolonial site where ‘the episteme as rewritten by the black must exorcise the colonial demons and confront dehumanization’ (67). ‘It is here where race is the central subject, which Toni Morrison brings to the fore, and thus foregrounds it in the sphere where its matters cannot be left untouched’ (65). For Blacks, this is a space to resist colonial epistemology and to repudiate White liberal discursive practices of epistemological erasure and the silencing of Black voices. In this space of Africanistic presence, ‘the black refuses to be an object of knowledge, a thing just to be studied and having nothing to do except be observed, experimented on, examined, extracted, and “understood”’ (67).

Unlike the Eurocentric epistemological project, the carving out of space for an Africanistic presence in the episteme is not meant to be a subjugating exercise nor a ‘totalizing affair with its ambition of becoming universal in application’ (67). Rather, rewriting the episteme from a decolonial site allows for Africanistic presence, a discursive space where a critique of racism is fully developed and deployed against epistemic racism and epistemic violence.

Sithole concludes the book by paying homage to Hortense Spillers, a Black feminist scholar who has written extensively about the intersection of race and gender and the ongoing legacy of slavery in the United States. According to Sithole, the phonographic authorship of Spillers, ‘shows how the vernacularity of blackness is the aesthetic deliverance not only of talent, but the radical commitment to existential freedoms’ (131). Sithole demonstrates that Spillers employs phonographic authorship to expose the social forces that distort the Black condition. Spillers achieves this by ‘mobilizing the vernacularity and inaugurates grammars of existential freedom’ from the anti-Black world (133). Sithole clarifies that ‘to say vernacularity qua Spillerian phonographic authorship is to say sophistication’ (134).

As a lover and connoisseur of jazz music, Sithole employs a jazz musical framing to prove that Spillers is ‘a sophisticated lady’.

The sophisticated lady is not that doll, a cosmetic thing, an object of desire, but a sophisticated thinker, a radical one at that. Spillers is that sophisticated thinker who can be revered or loathed. (112)

Sithole borrowed the label “Sophisticated Lady” from a jazz song composed by Duke Ellington. Writing about and theorising the Black condition is what Spillers delivers with sophistication, explains Sithole. Spillers’ sophistication lies in her skilful marshalling of the vernacularity that articulates the burden of Blackness in a racist world ‘where everything that has to do with sophistication is erased, denied, masked, interdicted, defaced, disfigured, corrupted, broken, and disposed of when it comes to the black’ (133). In this hostile world, Spillers’ sophistication offers Black people ‘“a praxis and a theory, a text for living”’ and for thinking freedom (Spillers 1987 cited in Sithole 2023: 133). In this sense, what Sithole offers in Refiguring in Black is a sophisticated reading of Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, and Hortense Spillers. ‘This work is as such in that it is the eruption and interruption’ (133).

Mandisi Majavu

Rhodes University

References

  • Adler-Bolton, B., and A. Vierkant. 2022. Health communism: A surplus manifesto. Verso Books.

  • West, C., and b. hooks. 2016. Breaking bread: Insurgent Black intellectual life. Taylor & Francis.

T Hasan Johnson, Solutions for Anti-Black Misandry, Flat Blackness, and Black Male Death: The Black Masculinist Turn. Routledge, 2023, 131pp. ISBN: 978-1032529592.

The cruelty of anti-Black racism has continued for more than four centuries: the annual abundance of scholarship on the subject proves that it is far from exhausted. The analytical frameworks to which we are accustomed, however, deserve critical examination. Solutions For Anti-Black Misandry, Flat Blackness, and Black Male Death by Dr. T Hasan Johnson is a transgressive and disruptive contribution. The hypervisibility of the corpses of Black American men murdered by the police and the wave of anti-racist indignation that follows do not lead to any improvement of the existence of those who remain alive. Although these premature deaths are a constant presence, Johnson's reflection is not a requiem but a defense of the life and humanity of dehumanised men.

Succinct but dense, his work is rich in new concepts and statistics that overturn received ideas and unmask lies. Black American men's experience is at the heart of the project. Some will say that centering their experience decenters that of Black women, yet Johnson observes that there are policies and resources addressed specially to women whereas Black men do not benefit from similar attention. It is necessary to move beyond the initial negative reactions that such comparisons might provoke and instead to grasp the significance of Johnson's remarks. His conceptual erudition – Black masculism, Anti-Black misandry, Flat Blackness, Flat Maleness, Black Andromortality, etc. – reveals the absence of gendered vocabulary needed to understand the condition and status of Black American men.

Johnson shows that, given their demographic proportion, Black men are overrepresented in negative statistics for rates of incarceration, unemployment, premature death, suicide, cancer, and more. His intention to explore the specificity of Black men's lives fits within a political economy of gender, race, and class. Johnson emphasises that what is described as a gender war (between cisgender men, cisgender women, and Black LGBTQI+ people) reveals a competition for resources distributed to marginalised populations by the State and private companies. It is a competition in which Black men lose. The scholar argues that in contrast with Black women who, starting in the 1970s and 1980s, developed a vocabulary and a political agenda corresponding with their interests, Black men always took account of the community's well-being without regard to gender, thereby becoming sacrificial lambs to women's and children's happiness. According to Johnson, Black men are now leaving behind this sacrificial mission in which efforts for collective prosperity occur at their expense. The concept of ‘flat Blackness’ indicates the immediate need to differentiate within racial identity: the use of gendered statistics points out the needs of the population in the most danger. Although Johnson addresses the objection on several occasions, the problem of competitive victimhood casts a shadow over his argument. In a competitive capitalist system, how could it be otherwise? How can anyone hope for a fundamentally inequitable system to promise social justice for all?

Johnson examines the advent of a new masculine awareness in rupture with the horizons of expectation that dehumanise Black men. It is articulated around three points: ‘Black Masculinism’, ‘The Black Masculinist Turn’, and ‘The 17-Point Black Male Political Agenda’. In his intention to study the complexity of Black men's experience seriously and compassionately, Johnson theorises Black masculinism’. This methodology combines an empirical approach to the social problems by which Black men are confronted with a determination to go beyond stereotypes and prejudices. Johnson stipulates that he does not view Black men as innocent and perfect people. He wants to restore the humanity of these dehumanised men who, for the first time, are expressing on social networks and in the ‘Black manosphere’ their many sufferings that occur due to systemic racism and intra-community conflicts. The reader discovers that the Black man is a victim of a double misandry: both racist/institutional and intra-community. ‘The Black Masculinist Turn’ consists of essential theoretical developments and practical approaches. Johnson names three: ‘Black Masculinist Pre-Turns’, ‘Black Masculinist Micro-Turns’, and ‘Black Masculinist Macro-Turns’. This terminology refers to a deep process of self-reflection to be undertaken at key moments.

These different turns lead to a radical new awareness followed by a change of behavior. Cultural, media, and social events that victimise Black men provoke a move to rupture with feminist, Black nationalist, and social expectations. Johnson illustrates these different turns by examining, for example, films like The Color Purple or the posthumous violence unleashed against Kevin Samuels, a heroic and controversial figure of the Black manosphere. The researcher analyses mistreatment of Black male celebrities both online and in the media, notably false accusations of sexual violence whose disastrous consequences for the wrongly accused are never mentioned after the fact. He also presents Black men's lack of interest in marriage and the phenomenon of ‘passport bros’ as forms of resistance to the pressure and disproportionate financial demands of Black American women.

Johnson criticises Black feminism for perceiving Black masculinity through the distorting prism of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. He affirms that the concept of the patriarchy is not applicable to the Black family structure. Johnson proposes instead that of a ‘Gynopostestal family structure’: a household in which women, relatives or not, make up the majority. Men may be present. Without real decision-making power, according to Johnson, they hold an essentially utilitarian role. Through the idea of ‘flat maleness’, the scholar questions the universality of masculine domination. He offers a definition of patriarchy that inscribes Black men in a relationship of racial and sexual domination with regard to white men. Consequently, how can they be accused of being oppressors? This question deserves to be examined and nuanced since it also brings up the reality of domestic violence and feminicide.

Anticipating such objections, Johnson points to the complexity of statistics concerning violence between Black partners, arguing that awareness of these numbers prevents the demonisation of one group over another. He also evokes statistics on child abuse, which is in the majority committed by women. His argumentation – a critique of intersectionality and the hyper-victimisation of Black women that underlines the ontological socio-economic degradation of Black men – will not appeal to everyone. Yet, the objective of academic work is not to charm but to convince. Will this work's abundance of statistics succeed in persuading Black feminists? They certainly function as a scientific method but also as a shield against potential attacks. The superabundance of statistics in this book is a call to base the distribution of resources and aid on the lived reality of each gendered group.

The fifth and final chapter, ‘The 17-point Black Male Political Agenda: A Solution’, is not a conclusion but a manifesto resulting from online submissions. This manifesto notably addresses: 1) Family court reform, 2) Education, 3) Affirmative Action for Black Men, 4) Targeted Homelessness Programs, 5) Targeted Unemployment Programs. Solutions For Anti-Black Misandry, Flat Blackness, and Black Male Death is a critical and disruptive contribution. This book will encourage some people and irritate others, obliging them to think against themselves. Johnson's argument is an ode to the humanity of Black men whose suffering and vulnerabilities remain at best misunderstood and at worst invisible, reduced to silence and exploited for purposes of personal enrichment.

Nathalie Etoke

City University of New York

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Theoria

A Journal of Social and Political Theory

  • Adler-Bolton, B., and A. Vierkant. 2022. Health communism: A surplus manifesto. Verso Books.

  • West, C., and b. hooks. 2016. Breaking bread: Insurgent Black intellectual life. Taylor & Francis.

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