Am I indebted to blackness?
What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything I know as a drummer to the roots of drum set playing in African rhythmic wisdom, mediated by the survival of African rhythm in gospel, blues, jazz, soul, rock and roll, reggae, untold numbers of Caribbean hybrids, and the endless rhizome of dance music since techno started in Detroit?
What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything that inspired me as a young basketball and baseball player to black athletes?
What does it mean to say that I “owe” my own short-lived basketball career at a state-championship winning high school to the tolerance and graciousness with which black men in my neighborhood—worn out from disappointed love and shitty dead end jobs—allowed my junior high schooled pimply white ass to run at sunset games where I was far too small, slow, and not enough of a 3-point shooter to ever really belong?
What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost all of any palpable human feeling or genuine human resonance in the name “Jesus” to the black spirituals and gospel traditions that inflected the singing and preaching of the black Baptist church that shared the junior high rec room with my dad’s largely-white community church in Sacramento, California?
What does it mean that I “owe” almost all of my feeling for magic and spirit to the survival of West African traditions and lore that managed to mutate and heal and console under the constraints of colonialist Christianity?
What does it mean to think that we “owe” so much in contemporary American food, music, style, culture, laughter, rhetoric, and the will to survive to blackness, to black culture, to black survival under unthinkable conditions of degradation, horror, anxiety, and fear?
To put the screw in even tighter, what does it mean to think that “we” or some group—whites, dominants, whatevers—owes so much of what we are or want to be to “them”?
Well, for one thing, if “we” owe all of this to “them,” then it means we might have good reason for being very, very afraid, even as afraid as the police officers who keep murdering black men, in cold blood, with impunity, even as I write these words. Why would they claim to be so afraid, afraid of what Darren Wilson said he saw, afraid of a demon in Mike Brown’s eyes?
What are we afraid of? Could it be that what we are afraid of asking the kinds of questions I started with here? The question of what it might mean to “owe” so much to others, to others that have suffered so much and yet also offered us so much? Are we afraid of the obviousness of the debt Ta-Nehisi Coates argued so elegantly was ours to repay in “The Case for Reparations”?
While I agree with Coates that the case for reparations could not be more obvious, I also do not want to miss the opportunity, politically and philosophically, to realize the profound incoherence of framing moral obligations in particular, and social relations generally, in terms of debt. As David Graeber has powerfully argued in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the confusion of moral obligations with contractual debt obligations in particular is just that—confusion. Saying we owe a debt to our parents and families and friends is insulting—as if we would not want or at least prefer to keep our interactions spontaneous and even asymmetrical, and as if it were even possible let alone desirable to keep accounts of how much you owe to your mother’s care or your sister’s playfulness. Saying we owe a debt to society, the one that “Primordial Debt Theorists” say stands behind the validity of money itself, is at best nebulous: who or what is our society? Unless it is identified with “the State”—which is a very recent and unstable reference point for “society,” given that our sense of belonging is more likely to be ethnic or religious or geographical than national—obligations to society are again hard to characterize as debts. But of course when the coercion and terror associated with being a state subject who can be taxed or conscripted into an army is brought into the picture, then the transmutation of loose or at least revisable social “obligations” into “debts” that must be repaid on pain of penalties starts to make more sense. And as Graeber brilliantly points out, the world’s religious traditions, from the Vedic texts to Christian scriptures, all seem to incorporate the language of debt so paradoxically that it often seems as if they are deliberately undermining its coinage. What could it possibly mean to “owe” one’s life to the Absolute, or to be able to “pay” the Divine, the source of all Being, anything back through sacrifice? How would one possibly imagine paying off one’s debts to God? The absurdity of the situation was of course not lost on Nietzsche, who like Walter Benjamin and Norman O. Brown later did concluded that the Christian idea of a God that offered to pay back himself, in the end, for debts we supposedly owe him, was simply the hysterical logical conclusion of a neurotic subject that craves its own domination and is incapable of living its life without servitude and subjection, and so projects a divine being who lives and dies in the same pathetic way (hence both the absurdity and the genius of this sacrificial myth).
In any case, debts, as Graeber points out, are highly specific constructs. They are contracts between presumed equals that specify in advance both the creation and destruction of a social relation mediated by money. These contracts can be revised, but only when there is either agreement by the stronger party (the creditor) to do so or when a sovereign power intervenes on behalf of the weaker party (the debtor). The widespread myth that all debts must be repaid (when the very survival of our economy depends on continuous renegotiations) is simply a register of the difficulty that the weaker face in negotiating with the stronger, as in the case of Greece in the face of Germany and the other stronger economies in the EU. It is a myth backed by the threat of violence, and a way of both glamorizing and avoiding that history of violence.
But to come back to Coates’ argument, while I agree in a conventional sense that it is blindingly obvious that reparations are owed to black Americans for what white Europeans took, robbed, raped, and plundered, there’s also another sense in which what should be done really isn’t the “repayment of a debt,” at all. There was never a contract between enslaved Africans and emergent American capitalists. There was no agreement. There were no terms. And there has never even been the possibility of re-negotiation. Slaves aren’t people who “work for you,” for a wage or for benefits. Slaves are by definition not human, they are mere property, which is why it was so important for slave owners to deny Africans their culture, religion, literacy, numerancy, and other modes of self-expression that are identifiably human.
So if and when we say, “what do we owe black America?” or when I ask myself “am I indebted to blackness?” on one level the obvious answer is “yes, we are all indebted to blackness,” and “we owe black America everything.” But on another level, the question has the power to bring the entire edifice of capitalist social relations into question. Because what are we really talking about here? Black America neither contracted with white America nor was ever involved in, say, something like an archaic gift economy as analyzed by Marcel Mauss, where foreign peoples would offer one another their gifts in order to honor one another, maintain peace, enjoy exotic pleasures, etc. (these economies were also potentially violent, as in potlatch rituals where rivals demonstrated their superiority by refusing or even destroying gifts.)
But black Americans did not “give” their gifts to white America in this sense, either.
So if it’s not a debt and not a gift then what is it?
Maybe it’s just life. It’s just the unpredictable, unwarranted effects of the lives of people who have chosen, over and over again to live, who have believed in the inherent goodness and promise of life, of bodily life on this planet against all odds, under any circumstances. Knowing that no revenge fantasy would ever measure up to the goodness of a meal, of a night with a lover or three, of a jam at the club, of singing and stomping praises instead of raising a hand in violence.
Some things I’ve been through lately have made me appreciate this, things that have been very painful and destabilizing, but that bear no comparison to the torture, humiliation, and vexation the black community lives with day after day. And yet as I live through my own pain, I find that one of the main sources of pain has always been the sense that I owed something to someone else, and that only certain kinds of heroic sacrifices could ever repay those debts. Perhaps this is the demon that Darren Wilson saw, the demon of his imaginary debt to a person who represents the thing capitalism fears most, a life that is unconstrained by debt, a life without why—painful, lavish, exuberant, pointless, free.