RECAP: “Thoughts on the World, the Political, and the Black,” Colloquium with Brown University Prof. Ainsley LeSure

Are politics inimical to Black life? That was the question that concluded the abstract for Brown University political theorist Ainsley LeSure’s March 18 talk at the Kinder Institute, which she began by placing her work in conversation with those in the field of Black Studies who would answer this question, ‘yes.’

At its core, the ongoing debate in the field—one that Prof. LeSure recently found her work in the middle of—centers on a constitutive exclusion of Blackness within the world of politics that can be traced back to the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s transformation of Black subjects into objects of property, an ontological assault whose ramifications continue in the present. For Afropessimists—those thinkers who do find politics anti-Black—that the ontological status of Black people thus exists in a perpetual state of question leaves no option but to categorically refuse political ideals like equality or political designations like citizen as adequate remedies for the terror that Black people experience at the hands of the state apparatus, as well as on a more micro-level via daily interactions with the nonblack subject. Within this construct, politics aren’t simply incapable of addressing the aforementioned ontological assault but are actively complicit in producing and compounding it. For many, as a result of this, one must turn away from the political toward the social to conceive of a means by which the promise of Black freedom or Black liberation can be brought about.

Saidiya Hartman’s argument in Scenes of Subjection, Prof. LeSure demonstrated, exemplifies this critique. For Hartman, while emancipation did challenge the conceptualization of whiteness as a property essential to the integrity of citizenship, the transformative potential of this gesture was almost immediately undermined when anti-discrimination clauses were stricken from the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Under these terms, Hartman contends, the promise of equal protection did nothing to challenge racial sentiment but instead introduced racial distinction as a social placeholder that re-created structural forms of legal subjugation exercised via the state’s police powers. In other words, because law had (and has) no choice but to affirm sentiment, the public good came to be defined by white comfort, which normalized indifference to Black suffering and horror at interracial proximity; in turn, this opened up gaps between the formal articulationn and actual exercise of rights, and between the abstract notion of equality and extant social relations. Returning to the debate where the talk started, since the universal principles of politics—most specifically, humanistic equality—are thus underwritten by racially exclusive norms, remedy cannot come through conventionally political channels, such as legislation or civil society, which ultimately perpetuate “the stigmatic injuries” that stem from slavery.

Or, perhaps more accurately, in looking at the subjection of enslaved people and how it was intensified by misrepresentations of consent and will, Hartman found some capacity for redress in re-imagining politics through the prism of a social order in which—through exercises of agency like stealing away—the ontological crisis of Black people and the Black body was addressed, and can again be addressed, through the genuine performance of empathy. It is, Hartman acknowledges, a contained, impermanent vision of autonomy but likewise one that has some transformative and healing potential precisely because it doesn’t trade in illusions of wholeness but accepts the inherent incompleteness of the restitutive project.

As Prof. LeSure showed, in his intervention in Danielle Allen and Hannah Arendt’s debate about the significance of Elizabeth Eckford’s place in the history of post-Brown school desegregation, Fred Moten addresses the dilemma of impermanence in Hartman by outright refusing ontology, subjectivity, and politics alike. In Eckford, who fled a white segregationist mob in terror after being denied entry to Little Rock Central, Allen sees an embodiment of the Black politics of sacrifice necessary to bring about an equal society. In her reading of Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” Prof. LeSure described how she sees, on the one hand, the degree to which Arendt’s antiblackness prevents her from understanding “the treasure black study and black students offer toward antiracist world-making.” At the same time, though, she noted how she sees Arendt’s use of the social—specifically, how Arendt believed the ruling in Brown could not achieve equality because of how it was at fatal odds with entrenched white customs and white racial common sense—as demonstrating an acute understanding of antiblack racism in the U.S. As for Moten, while Eckford’s appearance and the subsequent wordlessness that encapsulated her psychological suffering reveal the degree to which politics is inimical to Black life, it likewise shows how the radically dislocated self, in consenting not to be a single being, becomes part of a great, metaphysically distinct Black social ensemble in which the world making possibilities of Blackness reside.

For Prof. LeSure’s discussion of her work on an inter-relational politics that might undo the mythology of Blackness and in which the significance of the Black body can take root in the struggle to transform reality, visit the Kinder Institute YouTube page, where a full recording of the talk can be found.