Freedom, Coloniality and the Fact of Blackness

Black workers

I couldn’t attend Keti Koti this year. Truth be told, though, I don’t think I would’ve attended if the circumstances had been different. I’ve been judiciously avoiding all happenings remotely connected to the glib mea culpa “Gouden Eeuw, Zwarte Bladzijde” – and after last year’s disappointing Keti Koti it seemed only wise to sit this one out. I argued on Twitter and Facebook recently: we need to re-think (and contextualize) the meaning of Emancipation, and subsequently “freedom,” when the “freedom” of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean was paid for with the fruits of the coerced labour of Indonesian peoples. As Seymour Drescher writes in The Long Goodbye: Dutch Capitalism and Antislavery in Comparative Perspective

“[Even then,] the dynamic and profitable sector of the Dutch imperial economy, which, in effect, covered the compensation costs of Caribbean emancipation, was the coerced labor system of the Dutch East Indies. Other than in helping to fund slave emancipation, the Dutch East Indies provided little stimulus for moving toward an imperial free labor policy. The dismantling of colonial slavery in the West began during the heyday of the coercive “Cultivation System” in Java.”

Moreover, decades later after Indonesia had fought successfully for independence, which the Dutch were forced to recognize mainly due to international pressure, the Dutch government forced Indonesia to pay for the Netherlands East Indies debtsthe colonial debts. Many White Autochtoon Dutch folks argue that the Netherlands has paid enough, that we should let bygones be bygones. However, bearing these facts in mind the question becomes: did the Netherlands ever truly “pay” for anything? Mind you, I’m not arguing for reparations. I agree with Saidiya V. Hartman when she says in Position of the Unthought that,

“The reparations movement puts itself in this contradictory or impossible position, because reparations are not going to solve the systemic ongoing production of racial inequality, in material or any other terms. And like inequality, racial domination and racial abjection are produced across generations. In that sense, reparations seem like a very limited reform: a liberal scheme based upon certain notions of commensurability that reinscribe the power of the law and of the state to make right a certain situation, when, clearly, it cannot. I think too that such thinking reveals an idealist trap; it’s as if once [Americans] know how the wealth of the country was acquired, they’ll decide that black people are owed something. My God! Why would you assume that? Like housing segregation is an accident! I think that logic of “if they only knew otherwise” is about the disavowal of political will. Why is the welfare state dismantled, even though it’s actually going to affect more white women and children than black people? Because it has to do with that political will and an antipathy to blackness that structures…”

If “inequality, racial domination and racial abjection are produced across generations” as Hartman argues, what does it mean, then, to celebrate the “breaking of chains”? What does it mean to celebrate the “breaking of chains” when the freedom of my enslaved ancestors was contingent on the coerced labour of Indonesian peoples? The histories of enslaved Africans and their descendants are yoked together with the histories of Indonesian peoples.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” ― Audre Lorde

What is “freedom” when even after abolition the formerly enslaved couldn’t move about freely, or do what they pleased? “The abolition of slavery in 1863 renewed,” as Nanette de Jong asserts, “concerns among the Dutch about retaining their dominant voice in governing the island [Curaçao].” In 1872 the Dutch sanctioned an ordinance on Curaçao which “empowered white authorities to use physical force against any Afro Curaçaoan perceived [of] endangering the public order, tranquillity, and safety.” According to Nanette de Jong, “this ordinance basically empowered vigilante whites to judge and punish blacks as they saw fit without fear of personal legal consequence.”

Coloniality and The Fact of Blackness

Recently, in a workshop on Black masculinities I read “Blackness” through the theoretical lens of “coloniality of power.” Coloniality of power, as Steve Martinot writes, “constitutes a matrix that operates through control or hegemony over authority, labor, sexuality, and subjectivity — that is, the practical domains of political administration, production and exploitation, personal life and reproduction, and world-view and interpretive perspective.” Coloniality of power traces the living/decaying legacy of colonialism in contemporary societies. Coloniality is the other side of modernity.

As I am writing this, I’m reminded of a quote by Frances Negrón-Muntaner that I read a while back in “Boricua Gazing.” Negrón-Muntaner says that “[N]ot only is colonialism not in the past, temporally “post,” there are people that have repeatedly chosen to remain a colony over other formal decolonizing options, complicating the matter politically.” The Netherlands with its commonwealth construction and “special municipalities” is far from being post-colonial. What does it mean, then, to conduct “post-colonial” studies in the Netherlands? What does “the breaking of chains” mean for Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Martin, and Statia? What issues of power and representation are at play? The voices from the English-speaking territories are curiously absent.

In the workshop, I coupled the critical frame of “coloniality of power” to Frank B. Wilderson III’s concept of “afro-pessimism.” Afro-pessimism, also, takes seriously long-term historical structures as regards social death. Sharon Holland describes social death “as the imagined territory of the margins, at once socially and discursively conceived, where the silence and abjection of the literal dead are “mapped onto the literal and figurative silence of the excluded and marginalized.” An approach, which challenges us to re-think what we mean by “slavery” and its afterlife.

For Afro-pessimists, like Wilderson, there is a marked distinction between blackness, that is the fact of blackness, which Fanon talks about in Black Skin, White Masks, and the lived experience of people coded/read as “Black,” that is how people coded as Black have resisted racist notions by creating self-affirming notions through and with “race.” Afro-pessimists investigate, then, the meaning of blackness “not – in the first instance – as a variously and unconsciously interpellated identity or as a conscious social actor [animated by legible political interests], but as a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions.” What Afro-pessimists mean by “a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions” is that “there is no grammar of suffering to describe [their] loss because the loss cannot be named.”

Black popular culture, for instance, is the result of people, who are coded as Black, dealing with “the fact of Blackness” and with a loss that cannot be named. However, in (most) popular discussions an act of conflation takes place which fuses “the fact of Blackness” with the “lived experience of people who are coded as Black.” It is the conception of blackness (“the various imaginary associations of blackness and dirt, darkness, or pollution”) which underlies and animates the figure of Zwarte Piet, which a revamp of Zwarte Piet won’t remedy (as Redmond argues).

Black people exist – due to “a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions” – outside civil society. The argument suggesting that if only we could get more people coded as White to see the error of their ways we would all be “equal” presupposes that people who are coded as Black have the same relationality to civil society as people who are coded as White, which is – when we read the premises of coloniality of power alongside those of Afro-pessimism – simply not the case. Seymour Drescher writes,

“The States-General decreed that Dutch slave holders could encapsulate their colonial property in the free metropolis. Black slaves brought from the colonies were thereby treated like overseas commodities. They could be legally “warehoused” for reexportation within a limited period.”

Even though, slavery was illegal in the Netherlands proper. It is this state of exception that signifies and defines the Black experience in the Netherlands. Again, what does “freedom” mean?

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7 thoughts on “Freedom, Coloniality and the Fact of Blackness

  1. I would like to focus on the thought ‘let bygones be bygones’ and what Hartman says about it; ” .. reparations are not going to solve the systemic ongoing production of racial inequality, in material or any other terms.” It’s the political will that lacks. We hear it all the time: why should the government make excuses for the colonial past, why sign a petition! And when terms as ‘race’, ‘blackness’ and ‘inequality’ are involved, they evoke an uneasy feeling. Mind you, there’s a difference in how Moluccan people and ‘Indische-Nederlanders’ look at it. For me, there is no sense of ‘freedom’, when I let bygones be bygones …. the shackles would still be chained.

    1. I think that an apology from the government will only mean something if it’s accompanied by an acknowledgement that the past still informs the present; that means acknowledging that capitalism & institutional oppression (analyzed intersectionally) went hand in hand. And, to be honest, that’s not going to happen. Perhaps, it’s better not to close off the past (an apology – without the added dimensions – might facilitate a “closing off” of the past; as in, we apologized for what we did, so it’s done and dusted.) until we are past the global oppression.

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