Indebted to Blackness?

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.

3 thoughts on “Indebted to Blackness?

  1. I wrote something dealing with blackness and debt too that maybe resonates:

    I really like Fred Moten’s thinking of blackness and indebtedness as sociality. You seem to be getting at this more from the position of whiteness though, so how are white people indebted to blackness. I must admit, I haven’t thought much about it from this standpoint, but it raises interesting lines of thought.

  2. “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.”

    This is interesting, because it comes back to a conversation I was having with Tim Snediker the other day on twitter; one of the weird things about Graeber’s account of debt is the way it’s treated as largely synonymous with contract (which is why all the religious and moral uses of debt look like *confusions*; none of those uses look anything like a contract).

    The thing about debt, though, is that it’s connected less to the notion of contract than to the notion of a promise (I think Goodchild brings this out really well), or the obligative *power* of a promise. And that brings out something strange about debt vis a vis its modern framing in terms of contract or agreement: one can be indebted by a promise/one can *be* promised without being the one to *make* the promise. That’s part of why debt is so effective at creating asymmetrical power relations. And in that case, it might not be quite right to say that religious ‘debt’ is a weird and alien confusion of moral obligation with contractual debt. Rather, it might be that the language of contract is the distorting feature here.

    Nevertheless, I still think you’re right to ask: “So if it’s not a debt and not a gift then what is it?”

    It’s pretty clear that something weird happens when you frame white debt to blackness as a ‘debt’ because it brings up the fact that the origin of what you’d be calling ‘debt’ was predicated precisely on refusing the ability to obligate/be obligated to black slaves. Amaryah’s produced some really good thoughts on this already, as she points out above. I guess I just wonder if maybe this production of damnation is *internal* to what makes capitalist debt tick–the way it is *already* something more than simply contractual–rather than something that points to an exteriority.

  3. Is it a type of the levinisian other- the face in which we see ourselves as fellow humans- and where the truth of relationship and identity is to be found. what if, in this face, is where what could be/ is called/was called- the divine- is now to be encountered.
    In this case it is a relationship, but a relationship of on-going inequality.
    here in new zealand we face this challenge in regard to the continual challenge to white priviledge of the indigenous maori- more likely to be imprisoned, ill, unemployed, poor, dead, educationally failed, than the white settler majority.
    This poem below is by the premier nz poet James k Baxter (note: mt crawford is a prison, Porirua a notorious mental asylym noted for electric shock treatment in the 1960s & 1970s-when this poem was written). It is what sprung to mind when i read your piece josh- and so maybe what it is in the end is neither gift nor debt but constant challenge for us (whites – wherever we are in the world) to change.
    Here in NZ we have started a process of multi-million dollar cash settlements with various tribes as a sign of restitution- and yet to be maori still means you will most probably remain at the bottom of all socio-economic indices. so this is a debt that cannot be repaid with money- and yet i only live here, i only have the life, opportunities, education and position i do because this is a land of structural inequality, land- and life- taken from others.
    so what do i do- do i ask the other to define me, to tell me who i am and what i should be? The answer here is no- because of what a Maori theologian told me: we can’t tell you whites who you are- and neither can you- at this stage. you whites need to go and work out who you are in a way that does not take from us- and does not rely on us for your identity- for that is still to take from us. then come and talk with us as equals. only then are you perhaps in a postion to accept what we have to offer, and we will be in postion to engage in way in what we offer is not taken from us…

    at the moment- as baxter alludes- this is a relationship of nihilism

    The Maori Jesus – James K. Baxter

    I saw the Maori Jesus
    Walking on Wellington Harbour.
    He wore blue dungarees,
    His beard and hair were long.
    His breath smelled of mussels and paraoa.
    When he smiled it looked like the dawn.
    When he broke wind the little fishes trembled.
    When he frowned the ground shook.
    When he laughed everybody got drunk.

    The Maori Jesus came on shore
    And picked out his twelve disciples.
    One cleaned toilets in the railway station;
    His hands were scrubbed red to get the shit out of the pores.
    One was a call-girl who turned it up for nothing.
    One was a housewife who had forgotten the Pill
    And stuck her TV set in the rubbish can.
    One was a little office clerk
    Who’d tried to set fire to the Government Buldings.
    Yes, and there were several others;
    One was a sad old quean;
    One was an alcoholic priest
    Going slowly mad in a respectable parish.

    The Maori Jesus said, ‘Man,
    From now on the sun will shine.’

    He did no miracles;
    He played the guitar sitting on the ground.

    The first day he was arrested
    For having no lawful means of support.
    The second day he was beaten up by the cops
    For telling a dee his house was not in order.
    The third day he was charged with being a Maori
    And given a month in Mt Crawford.
    The fourth day he was sent to Porirua
    For telling a screw the sun would stop rising.
    The fifth day lasted seven years
    While he worked in the Asylum laundry
    Never out of the steam.
    The sixth day he told the head doctor,
    ‘I am the Light in the Void;
    I am who I am.’
    The seventh day he was lobotomised;
    The brain of God was cut in half.

    On the eighth day the sun did not rise.
    It did not rise the day after.
    God was neither alive nor dead.
    The darkness of the Void,
    Mountainous, mile-deep, civilised darkness
    Sat on the earth from then till now.

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