Blackness, the Body, and Ontology: Perspectives on the “Fact” of Racial Embodiment
Edited by Nicholas Bloom and Gaila Sims
The fifth chapter of Martinican theorist Frantz Fanon’s canonical 1952 Black Skin, White Masks is entitled, in the original French, “L’éxperience vécue du noir.” While the most recent English edition of the text, translated by Richard Philcox, translates this title as “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” earlier English editions used a much more provocative–and more famous–translation: “The Fact of Blackness.” The difference between these two translations has been the source of much critical analysis and debate over the past two decades, likely because it gets at the heart of what Achille Mbembe has called the recent “ontological turn” in the study of race: i.e., the growing conviction among many scholars, intellectuals, and artists that structures of racial domination— particularly anti-blackness and white supremacy— operate as fixed categories of hierarchical difference that exceed the logics of political economy or articulable reason, and are thus not addressable by any clear social or political program.
This “turn” has spawned harsh critics, vehement adherents, and ambivalent interlocutors, all operating around a set of essential questions: to what extent does race operate (at least in the context of the Atlantic world) as a static “fact” of being in relationship to the category of “human” or “civil society?” Who establishes, reproduces, enforces, and consents to such facts–i.e. who is responsible for and to them? To what extent are “lived experience” and “facts” different, and how does the inherently contingent, changing, malleable nature of the body factor into these questions, given that race is said to be fixed to the body? How are race, nation, land, and indigeneity linked to one another, specifically in the context of societies that are historically structured by both indigenous genocide and black slavery? And perhaps most importantly: is it possible to imagine a world unencumbered by the structures of racial domination from within a society that is structured that way? If so, who is capable and who is responsible for such imagining?
This special section reviews seven works of scholarly and literary writing that in some way address these questions. While each book reviewed here contains a multitude of overlapping themes and questions, we have loosely divided the reviews into four units, based on the works’ primary locus of analysis and inquiry. The first unit includes two works that take up the fraught relationship between blackness and normative cultural understandings of “acceptable” weight, body type, and body size in the United States and the west more generally. In the first work reviewed here, Kiese Laymon’s 2018 Heavy: An American Memoir, the “excess” weight with which Laymon grows up functions as both an actual subject of analysis and a metaphor through which Laymon explores the paradoxes, burdens, and gifts of his experiences as a black boy and man in Mississippi, and above all his deeply complex relationship with his mother. In her review of Heavy, Samantha Allen writes that even as the memoir probes fundamental questions about the relationship between grand American myths, race, love, and forgiveness, the body continually takes center stage: “[Heavy] asks us to dredge up memories from our bodies…[and] to listen to those for whom this process of somatic remembrance is arduous, and who will continue to carry the load.” The second work reviewed in this section, Sabrina Strings’ 2019 Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, offers a critical, scholarly inquiry into the historical relationship between race, blackness, and dominant conceptions of body-type propriety in Western Europe and North America over the past four-hundred years. Specifically, as Alida Louisa Perrine writes in her review, Strings’ book is an examination of the historical linkages between fat-phobia and anti-blackness, and the ways that these two phenomena, which were not always co- constitutive, became linked in conjunction with colonial western Europe’s increasing social and economic reliance on the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. Strings’ work then tracks the reproduction of this linkage over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in the United States.
The second unit is comprised of two scholarly works that take intellectual history and ideology as their primary subjects of analysis. The first work reviewed here is Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason, published originally in 2013, and translated into English by Laurent Dubois in 2017. Mbembe’s text offers a critical genealogy of the invention and subsequent development of “blackness” as a concept, the work that the term has done in the hands of European and colonial powers, and the various, complicated ways that black folks and intellectuals have thought their way through the concept. Though Mbembe sympathetically traces out the apparently “essentialist” thought of early- and mid-twentieth century black political theorists like Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, he ultimately understands blackness as an invention made for the purpose of confusion, terror, and violence, a concept which privileges resentment and vengeance above all else. Ultimately, as Nicholas Bloom’s review highlights, Mbembe suggests that we may be presently undergoing a “becoming black of the world,” which holds a dual meaning. While more people are falling under the conditions of pure structural instrumentality that had formerly only defined the position of black people, Mbembe also leaves open the possibility for the growth of the kind of “black universalism” he sees in the work of Cesaire and Fanon in the present moment—a recognition of vulnerability and alterity as a paradoxically universal, shared condition. The second book reviewed here, David Roediger’s collection of critical essays Class, Race, and Marxism (Verso 2019), considers various dimensions of the relationship between class and race as structures of domination, and as subjects for critical inquiry. Tiana Wilson’s review pays particular attention to the ways that Roediger uses the essays in this book to create an intellectual lineage for the field that Roediger himself is most associated with, critical whiteness studies. This field, Roediger suggests, had its genesis in the works of C.L.R. James, W .E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, and George Rawick, who were in turn deeply engaged with Marxist thought and analysis. And if the main purpose of the book is to advocate for a mode of inquiry that understands race and class as co- constitutive phenomena, the remainder of the historical and theoretical essays in the book offer various examples of this mode of inquiry in practice.
The two works reviewed in the third section explore the relationship between blackness and cultural place-making, from two different disciplinary vantage points. Sarah Broom’s 2019 National Book Award-winning memoir The Yellow House (Grove Press), reviewed by Katie Field, offers an account of the predominantly black New Orleans East neighborhood that is part-journalism, part-family drama, with Hurricane Katrina at the center of the story. Field’s review emphasizes the book’s ambitious scope, as well as its contractions and dilations between archival investigations of New Orleans’ history and social structure and piercing, moving reflections on Broom’s own relationship to her former neighborhood and city. The second book reviewed in this section is Tiya Miles’ 2015 Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (UNC Press). Miles’ critical investigation of the contemporary explosion of “dark tourism” takes readers through first-hand accounts of various slavery-themed “ghost tours” in the United States, which purport to draw their source material from the real dastardly stories of Civil War-era horrors. Whitney S. May’s review summarizes Miles’ deft historical and theoretical analysis of these tours, and the ways that they so often traffic in and reproduce the very logics of sensationalized black pain-as-commodity that animated these horrific incidents in the first place. But, May suggests, Miles leaves room for the possibility that we have access to another kind of haunting in these stories—the legacies of African Americans who have commemorated, contextualized, or otherwise made sense of these horrific stories.
The final unit is comprised of just one work, the only text that was not published in the past few years: Audre Lorde’s classic work of memoir and critical inquiry, The Cancer Journals, originally published in 1980 and republished as a special edition in 1997. Lorde’s memoir deals with all of the questions pursued in the books above— blackness and its relationship to the experience of the body, intellectual lineage(s), and place- making—by centering topics that are both the most universally relatable and the most universally avoided: corporeal vulnerability, the experience of sickness, and death. Gaila Sims’s review highlights the self-consciously wondering, confused, confessional approach that Lorde takes in this text, highlighting Lorde’s repeated reference to her lack of textual models for thinking through the experience of sickness and cancer. The last twenty pages of the 1997 edition, as Sims points out, are dedicated to tributes from various prominent friends, students, and readers of Lorde, and the profound impact that she and her work had upon their own intellectual and spiritual development.
And it is with this explicitly genealogical passage that this Special Section, appropriately, concludes. For indeed, if the works reviewed here do not necessarily provide clear and digestible answers to the questions that framed this Special Section, they certainly gesture towards the rich, multidisciplinary body of work that has been—and continues to be—produced wrestling with these questions in their full, immeasurable complexity.