Sat, Sep 10, 2016
Critiquing Black People Magic as alternative activism.
Let me start by clarifying what this article is not about. It is not about a contritely black critique of the black struggle whose significance is rather obvious; it is also not a call for an oppressed people to hide into cocoons of appropriateness. What it is however, stems from what I just said it is not. It is a call to come out of sheaths of fear that allows acquiescence to a status quo. This article is an invitation to celebrate the advancement of black empowerment, while critiquing processes and movements that do little for the black cause. The contrast is neither contradictory nor deficient. Let me explain.
First off, it is important that we acknowledge the obvious reasoning behind the new fascination with the so-called Black People Magic, Black Excellence and the like. Faced with the onus to prove an alternative of life and archetype to the racialized stereotype of their bodies, the vocal black person digs into the sludge of a history of subjugation for some truths that complete the fixities of the race project and the apparent powerlessness it implies and entrenches. If we stretch the argument further, it is reasonable to conclude that this project of magic is not simply revising a history; it attempts to recreate a future and transform a present. Immaterial of the basis of the magic project however, there are questions about its process that need to be answered.
Secondly, before critiquing the incongruities of the magic project, it is important to dispel the notion that a critique of a resistance is counterproductive. It is possible to demand an equal and just setting for black people while disagreeing on how best to achieve such justice. In fact, if my recollection serves me right, this was the case for both anti-colonial movements the world over as well as the Civil Rights movement at its peak. It sounds counterintuitive, but it is not necessarily counterproductive. Instead, the real worry is in groupthink and the marching to whatever object shines and glistens. There is rarely a production of better methods when failing strategies are retried and praised with more vehemence. Let’s dive in.
The first problem with the Black People Magic project is the manner in which it seeks to reinterpret black lives into consumable snapshots for the race project. If the imperial and colonial projects treated black people as property, and if the race project was employed to justify the identities needed to sustain this economy, it is not difficult to see how the new project by black people is not more than an interpolated identity into these preceding narratives. A Stockholm syndrome if you will. Here’s what I mean; the race project looked at black bodies and ascribed identities, histories (or lack thereof) and employed institutions to ensure these would come true; the magic project seeks to relocate and own these identities of the black body, hopefully rewriting the race project’s record. In essence, the magic project responds to the race project by adding a hyphen, ellipses and brackets, and following these with the idealised black body. So, when the race project claims the black person is unintellectual, the magic project responds with images of black university graduates, when the race project defines beauty as skinny blond, the magic project responds with curvy Afro. In this way, the magic project is an addendum to the race project; it verifies the narratives of the race project, and then seeks to vilify and invalidate them. The magic project is reactive in nature, and not a proactive redefinition of black lives. It shows an image, seldom creating the set. My argument here is that this verification of the fixities in the race project lends the magic project to the service to racism itself.
I do no deny the function of the magic project as a tool for visibility; I’m here concerned about its utility as a substitute for rigorous activism. Re-interpretation and re-presentation are not in themselves forms from the matter that is racial stereotyping. They might be a means they cannot be an end in themselves.
In the final analysis, both the race and the magic project are performed, the question is; on whose platform do we perform? Currently, the magic project represents the black body as an “also”: also educated, also beautiful, also musical. Also. An “also” is problematic in two ways: first, it argues the black aspiration is incomplete unless it reaches successes as defined by the imperial race project, secondly, also implies an absence of the black narrative without precedent of the white. If one is an antecedent, the other is repetitively irrelevant it would seem. Both of these are untrue for reasons beyond the scope of this article. Let us therefore conclude.
The artless truth is that transforming a black body from non-existence or marginal existence to a mainstream normal is a question of systemic response. If a racial system intentionally and disproportionately puts bodies in prison, increases crime and stops people from getting an education, I fail to see how showing that some black people succeed regardless, is in itself a remedy. If the racist digs deep to prove we're nobody without their handouts, a shallow proof that we attend the same university is immaterial in challenging their prejudice. We have to admit that while it feels nice to be seen, to be acknowledged, it cannot be enough. Running a Facebook page, attending a black event, these are easy. Political organizing, putting a candidate in office, attending a town meeting, campaign against a toxic candidate, seeking accountability, finding facts that prove culpability of the system most close to you...these are not easy. But these are more important than shares and likes.
On a level, the magic project simply redecorates of the stereotypes about black people. It's awesome to see black men go to schools to inspire children, it's questionable why they do not inspire parents to attend school meetings, look over their children's homework. It's hard enough being black; it's an insult to celebrate sporadic mediocrity in the name of excellence and telling complete stories. It is possible to tell a complete story of the black experience without implying that a successful black person is a maverick. It is possible to highlight the inequalities within whole systems without painting a few successes in a broken system as proof of perfect inputs into the system. Evidence is not self-adjudicating. See, it’s the same platforms that celebrate black people succeeding that also show them dying at the hands of a deaf system, proving if nothing more their pointlessness beyond reservation. The message is clear, the machine hears and knows, the problem is that it neither listens nor acknowledges; changing is also a question of learning.
Student of Political Science and African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. African living in Kenya.