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Letters from Luna: A Discourse on Toni Morrison’s “The Slavebody and the Blackbody”

by Rohini Walker

Click here for an audio version of this installment of Letters from Luna.

Times of momentous uprising and archetypal shifts in the fabric of reality, as the year 2020 is turning out to be, necessitate looking to the wisdom of certain minds; ones who bring the lightning bolt of timeless, illuminating insight to the unseen nuances of the zeitgeist. For me, Toni Morrison is one of those – especially and fundamentally now.

The essay-transcript of her speech, ‘The Slavebody and the Blackbody’ in her magnificent The Source of Self- Regard her final published work before her passing, has never been more ripe for (re)visitation.

Addressing the repressive attitude of discomfort, irritation even, at the dredging up of the painful past that any true telling of Black American history is, she writes:

“In 1988, the same year James Cameron opened America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, I responded to an interviewer’s questions. Having published a novel investigating the lives of a family born into bondage, I was being asked about the need for, the purpose in  articulating that unspeakable part of American history. The need for remembering the men, the women, the children who survived or did not survive the three-hundred-odd years of international commerce in which their bodies, their minds, their talents, their children, their labor were exchanged for money- money they could lay no claim to. Since the argument for shunning bad memories or sublimating was so strong, and in some quarters, understood not only to be progressive but healthy, why would I want to disturb the scars, the keloids, that civil war, civic battle, and time itself had covered? The slavebody was dead, wasn’t it? The blackbody was alive wasn’t it? Not just walking and talking, and working, and reproducing itself, but flourishing, enjoying the benefits of full citizenship and the fruits of its own labor. The question seemed to suggest that, whatever the level of accomplishment, little good could come from writing a book that peeled away the layers of scar tissue that the blackbody had grown in order to obscure, if not annihilate, the slavebody underneath.”

Which is to say: just get on with it. Stop your lazy complaining. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Work hard like everyone else and you’ll succeed.

Also known as: implicit bias, or the insidious way in which racism and prejudice slip into the non-Black psyche, complacent in its alleged anti-racist stance.

Morrison’s words here are a wake-up call. To be clear: if you subscribe to the bootstrap approach when it comes to Black people and the generational trauma of their slavery and its aftermath, you still have a way to go towards being anti-racist.

Here, let’s not make the convenient mistake of tarnishing the inherent  power and dignity of Black identity – the very things that are so threatening to its oppressors – by infusing it with that of the perpetual, helpless, weak victim with a stubborn chip on its shoulder. It is anything but that. Any cursory look into the rich – and heavily appropriated – roots of Black American culture should dispel that racially disempowering notion. If it wasn’t for the massive influence and contribution of Black and Indigenous people, American culture would lack depth and authenticity.

 Image Source: American Holocaust Museum

In her essay, Morrison offers a valuable distinction between racism and slavery- one that needs to be examined at this crucial moment in time.

She writes:
“When I use the term ‘slavebody’ to distinguish it from ‘blackbody’, I mean to underscore the fact that slavery and racism are two separate phenomena. The origins of slavery are not necessarily (or even ordinarily) racist. Selling, owning people is an old commerce. There are probably no people in this auditorium among whose ancestors or within whose tribe there were no slaves. If you are Christian, among your people were slaves; if you are Jewish, among your people were slaves; if you are Muslim, among your people were the enslaved. If your ancestors are European they lived under the serfdom of eastern Europe, the tenancy of feudalism in England […] The majority population of ancient Rome and ancient Greece  – all were deliberately constructed slave societies […] Slavery was critical to the world of Islam and systematic in the Orient, including a thousand years in Korea alone. We are all implicated in the institution. The colonists of the New World, patterning their economies on those earlier and contemporary societies that were dependent on free or forced labor, tried to enslave indigenous populations and would have imported any foreign group available, capable and surviving. Available because highly organized African kingdoms could provide laborers to Europeans; capable because they were clever, strong and adaptable; survivable because they were creative, spiritual, and intensely interested in their children- foreigners from Africa fit the bill.”

What Morrison is masterfully excavating here is how, in the New World, the abominable yet globally ubiquitous commercial practice of slavery mutated into “the tenacity of racism.” 

The descendants of Black slaves, because of their darkness, became the beneficiaries of the stubborn virus of racism, and remain so, even after slavery’s demise.

Pointedly, this:
“The dishonor associated with having been enslaved does not inevitably doom one’s heirs to vilification, demonization, or crucifixion. What sustains these latter is racism. Much of what made New World slavery exceptional was the highly identifiable racial signs of its population in which skin color, primarily but not exclusively, interfered with the ability of subsequent generations to merge into the nonslave population For them there was virtually no chance to hide, disguise or elude former slave status, for a marked visibility enforced the division between former slave and nonslave [….] and supports racial hierarchy. The ease, therefore, of moving from the dishonor associated with the slavebody to the contempt in which the freed blackbody was held became almost seamless because the intervening years of the Enlightenment saw a marriage of aesthetics and science and a move towards transcendent whiteness. In this racism the slavebody disappears but the blackbody remains and is morphed into a synonym for poor people, a synonym for criminalism and a flash point for public policy.”

I am reminded here of a racist “joke” I overheard once in a pub in London. An inebriated, red-faced, swamp-thing asked his companions:
“What do you call a black man in suit?”
Without waiting for a reply, he snorted in delight, “Guilty!”
And proceeded to laugh uncontrollably at his own moribund sense of humor, while the people in his group cough-chuckled uncomfortably, looking around to make sure no one had heard.

What this “joke” is a glaring example of is the incontrovertible fact of underlying institutional, socio-economic and cultural systems that perpetuate a mindset which have led to the beatings and murders of countless, countless Black men at the hands of police; it highlights the network of a heinous racial bias that runs through the non-Black psyche, and causes people like Amy Cooper to threaten to call the police on a Black man, who asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, saying she was going to “tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

Yes. This is still happening. Just as trauma is unconsciously handed down from generation to generation until it can no longer be ignored, so too are the labyrinthine, unconscious networks of White supremacy, even if you consider yourself consciously anti-racist. If you are of European descent, investigate your lineage, the stories of your ancestors who participated in and benefitted from Black humans being used as chattel. There you will find the origin points of the threads of well-camouflaged contempt for the Black race still subtly suckling on you. And however imperfectly you embark on this, do it without guilt, without performance, and shades of White savior complex which hijacks the mission into making it all about you. Your guilt is redundant; it’s a weapon of the very supremacy you say you want to dismantle.

The landmines hidden in your path are strategic and well-hidden; your forebears were cunning.

And if it is to be navigated successfully, it must come from a genuine desire to surrender your supremacy and control to the descendants of the Black slaves whose bodies built the very foundations of this country, upon the backs of whom the dominance of your privilege rests, and who cannot not quietly, obediently pull themselves up by the bootstraps like everyone else, and not make a fuss. To do so would be capitulation to structures that, even to this day, benefit from Black enslavement – also known as the prison systems. Until true reparations are made, the wounds will not heal. Not for the blackbodies, and not for you. Equality cannot be achieved without the supremacy of this status quo ceding control.

And what does that feel like? To contemplate the possibility of relinquishing authority to the darkies, in particular to the darkie  women, the very bottom of humanity’s heap? Is there a hint – or more – of indignance? A sense of ownership and supremacy? A horror of devolving into primitive, lawless savagery? There you go: there’s your thread. Follow it, and remain vigilant of those landmines.  

As Morrison describes in her essay, the enslavement of blackbodies continues to this day in the “ever flexible, always adaptable, persistently slippery forms of racism in which the slavebody is reconstructed and reenters the blackbody as an American form of ethnic cleansing in which a monstrously large number of black men and women are carefully swept into prisons, where they become once again free labor; once again corralled for profit.”

Toni Morrison, image source: thenobelprize.org

We are at the threshold of a potent paradigm shift. I can sense much rolling of eyes at this statement from those who are so deeply entrenched in the traumatic, disempowering ways of this dying time, that they cannot even bring themselves to imagine, let alone participate in, creating the patterns of what is emerging. It’s happening, whether you like it or not. To those cynical bystanders, I offer these words by another wise and discerning mind as a life-raft to hang onto, so as not to be left to drown in the rising tides of change:

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely that you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.”
 – Noam Chomsky

Now more than ever, we need the courage of radical, resilient optimism to be the fuel that propels us onward.

For further reading, please explore America’s Black Holocaust Museum’s website. In particular, check out this article.

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