“The idea that Africans could be grateful for slavery marks them as excluded from the values of liberty and independence which were already established as part of, but nonetheless increasingly central to, the definition of Englishness.” — George Boulukos, The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture
I would like to thank Patricia Schor for helping me think through the inchoate ideas on this topic. I’m still in the process of developing them—despite what the length of this text might suggest.
In my last post I argued that both the move to locate anti-black racism outside of the Netherlands (specifically in the US) and the negation of the significance of Whiteness are intended to undermine the epistemological claims of those of us coded as Black. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of these rhetorical manoeuvres is not new; its genealogy is long and its roots are deep. For instance, Helen Metzelaar puts a use of this manoeuvre on view in an article entitled A Hefty Confrontation. The Fisk Jubilee Singers Tour The Netherlands in 1877. Referring to the Dutch hosts of the Fisk Jubilee Singers Metzelaar writes that they “preferred to concentrate on slavery in the United States. In noble introductory speeches they emphasized that now slavery in the United States had been abolished, closer ties between the two countries could be developed.”
The gesture toward the US also surfaces in Nederlanders die het moeilijk hebben (Netherlanders who are having a hard time), a feature article published in the weekly magazine Het Leven, which was known for its sensational content. The article appeared in no. 22 (cover date Saturday 29 May 1937). I quote from it at length:
“The authorities say: this is not America, and the Negroes, in turn, say if only it were America, because the negroes there are doing as well as whites. They, at least, have rights there, and here they only have responsibilities, we must serve and vote! We asked them: What is it like in America? We believe that you were not well off there, either. However, they replied that the Negroes there have their own theatres, their own banks, that the Negroes are treated the same as whites. It is true that every now and then a Negro is lynched, however, one of them said: ‘There are four ways of lynching. Four? Yes, four, let’s count them all: a white man lynches a Negro, that’s one, a Negro lynches a white man, that’s two, a white man lynches a white man, that’s three, and a Negro lynches a Negro, that’s four. It all sounds awfully terrible, one hears of lynch laws, one hears of a Negro, who was hung by a stirred-up mob. That appears immediately in European magazines, but does this mean much when taking into account the thousands and thousands of Negroes, who live in America? On the other hand, isn’t it so that the Negroes there have their own banks, they have their own orchestras, they sit at the same table as whites and eat at the same table?’ That is how they reason. They speak highly of America. And the Dutch police? They do not want the same situation here as in an American city. They are—in the eyes of the police—niggers, and we can’t expect anything good from them.”
Before I turn to this troubling extract and its implications, I want to prepare the ground by providing some additional information that will aid in situating this excerpt. Nederlanders die het moeilijk hebben details the vicissitudes of a group of Afro-Surinamese men in Amsterdam in 1937. One of the haunting statements they make, found earlier in the text, is that the Dutch police methodically prevented them from making a living. What is worth noting is that just like in the Jim Crow South anti-black sentiments in the Netherlands were sexualized; the supposed sexual threat these Black men posed to putatively virginal White womanhood served as a justification for extensive and invasive policing.
“However, a Negro business gets shut down at the first sign of trouble! No, not at the first, it has come to our attention that there had been over forty complaints, from white women, or parents of girls.”
This fact makes the mention of lynching a matter of note. The ripples that lynchings caused did not stay confined to the US. Lynchings in the US were reported with a surprising (if not disturbing) frequency in the Netherlands. Through newspaper reporting, a detailed catalogue of anti-black violence was made available for mass media consumption, and most of these reports were very graphic.
Horrible lynch scenes in America
Houston, Mississippi, an angry mob lynched a Negro Saturday, whom they suspected to be the perpetrator of the murder of a white woman, whose rings were found in his possession. The previous day was a Negro lynched for the same reason. The unfortunate black was tied and fastened to an iron pole. Then the crowd drenched him with pitch, surrounded him completely with fagots and burned him alive. The sister of the murdered young woman put the first fire to the wood herself. In order to shorten the agony of the Negro, the father of the murdered woman made his way through the crowd and finally killed him with four gun shots.
INFANTRY COMPANY SAVES NEGRO FROM LYNCH-JUSTICE
An angry mob in Danielsville Georgia has attempted to lynch a Negro, who was suspected to have attacked a white girl. An infantry company had to be summoned to protect the Negro.
What’s more, Het Leven published a series of lynch photos.
Maurice Chevalier talks about his life, “Paris as tourists do not see it” is further described and there is a photo report on “Help for the Homeless.” American lynch pictures, illustrations of the R.A.I. and the regular columns close the edition.
The above-mentioned journalistic accounts show not only a preoccupation with Black sexuality, but they frame Black sexuality as inherently pathological. Moreover, these voyeuristic, sensational reports “produced and disseminated images of white power and black degradation, of white unity and black criminality, that served to instill and perpetuate a sense of racial supremacy in their white spectators.” These detailed descriptions of violated Black bodies reveal “the value of black pain as a metaphor of exclusion and a container of non-American identities.” What the readers who consume these bulletins in a context in which the violated Black bodies are bodily unavailable are left with is a “shocking and ghostly presence of pain [that] effaces and restricts black sentience.” The fragmented black-as-body serves as a silent and silenced site, “something merely there in its facticity,” on which violence is enacted. Anthony Paul Farley remarks that “the encounter with the black body in the jungles of the arts and sciences is no less real than encounters on other terrains, or, put another way, ‘[t]here is nothing outside the text.’” However, the Black body is not only read as a fragmented body, it is also scripted as such. Farley draws our attention to the textual pleasure derived from scripting and reading these accounts. He asserts that “the production of knowledge concerning the black body is […] a pleasure in itself.”
White Dutch readers could ignore the ethical problems inherent in reading detailed descriptions of torture. Moreover, they could disclaim, due to their geographical location , that they, too, were actively participating in “a political system, a particular power structure of formal and informal rule, socioeconomic privilege, and norms for the differential distribution of material wealth and opportunities, benefits and burdens, rights and duties,” that relies on racial terror: in short, global White supremacy. Following the same vein as Saidiya Hartman, I propose that we need to pay attention to “the diffusion of terror,” that is the camouflaged, mundane, repetitious acts of anti-black violence that permeate(d) Dutch society.
Returning to the quote from Nederlanders die het moeilijk hebben I want to put forward a provocative proposition: what if we took seriously its implication that a Black person in the Netherlands was, indeed, worse off than a Black person in the US? I am fully aware of the dangers of such an analogy and I am in no way trying to downplay the violence that lynch mobs enacted on Black bodies, nor the psychological effects of lynchings on US Black communities. However, “to insist on such a reading,” to borrow the words of Mikko Juhani Tuhkanen, “may be helpful in disrupting certain ‘commonsensical’ assumptions about what constitutes a ‘more humane’ way to exercise power.” Such a reading is pertinent especially since US Black Americans have often perceived Europe as a less racially problematic place to live. Tuhkanen reminds us that it’s important not to make “oversimplified statements about the ‘cruelty’ or ‘humanity’ of different uses of power which circumscribe and determine subjects to whom they are applied.” I am partial to Tuhkanen’s arguments. Comparing Fire and Cloud and Native Son, two works by Richard Wright that both deal with anti-black racism and violence, Tuhkanen writes,
“It is significant that, whereas the white mob uses a whip to teach Taylor to stay in “a nigger’s place,” Mr. Dalton’s “weapon” is a piece of paper. This substitution is emblematic of the differences between the two systems of subjugation which Wright’s two texts exemplify and which have been theorized by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975). In his exploration into the historical changes in the regimes of the penal systems in Western societies, Foucault writes that disciplinary power “that places individuals in a field of surveillance also situates them in a network of writing; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them…. A ‘power of writing’ was constituted as an essential part in the mechanisms of discipline” (189). Even more effective than the whip in suturing the “racialized” subject to “a nigger’s place,” writing—the piece of paper in the white man’s hand—arrests, fixes, and confines the black man and teaches him how to stay in “a [B]igger’s place.””
Both lynching and administrative violence enforce a regime of surveillance that inscribes visibility everywhere—both are ways to make the world White, “which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies.” Racial terror and administrative violence underlie this disciplinary system, and the disciplinary techniques aimed at “enforced corporeal visibility.”
In a world that is rendered White through racial terror, Bigger’s black skin is what surfaces. Just as administrative violence made Bigger “conscious of every square inch of skin on his black body.” The critical Fanonian concept of epidermalization is salient here: epidermalization involves the projection of inferiority onto the skin of the Black and black(ened) body, which is often assumed to be “a sign of the subject’s interiority (for example, what it means to be white or Black, ill or well),” However, “the skin is also assumed to reflect the truth of the other and to give us access to the other’s being.” Correspondingly, Sander Gilman tells us that the Victorians believed it was “specifically the physiology of the blacks which predisposed them to mental illness,” which led the Victorians to conclude that “[a]n uncommon potential for madness is inherent in the nature of the black.” Disability is, then, inextricably entangled with Blackness.
Schizophrenia, for instance, has taken the shape, due to institutional racism in Western societies, of a bodily mark. The A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia defines schizophrenia as “a mental disorder that makes it hard to tell the difference between what is real and not real; think clearly; have normal emotional responses; act normally in social situations.” The experience of being on the receiving end of racism causes psychological distress. Moreover, we live in a society in which racism is disavowed (there is no racism here, racism happens over there) and which professes to be colourblind in the same moment as it stresses the importance of colour (White neighbourhoods, Black neighbourhoods). For Lewis Gordon, anti-black racism is a form of bad faith; it is a way of seeing Black people “as material embodiments of inferiority—objective antivalues in the world.” Yet, the Dutch Journal for Psychiatry, a leading scientific journal for Dutch and Flemish psychiatrists, published an article on “Antilleans and criminality” which matter-of-factly states that, “Antilleans who emigrate to the Netherlands, like other non-Western immigrants, have an increased risk of psychotic disorders. The relative risk of schizophrenia among immigrants from regions where the majority of the population has a black skin, such as the Netherlands Antilles, is almost five times higher.” No mention whatsoever is made of institutional racism in Dutch psychiatry and prisons.
It is worth returning to Richard Wright for a moment. In Black Boy Richard Wright intimates the psychological consequences of living in an anti-black world,
“The thing that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behaviour than that which I knew. The actual experience would have let me see the realistic outlines of what was really happening, but as long it remained something terrible and yet remote, something whose horror and blood might descend upon me at any moment, I was compelled to give my entire imagination over to it, an act which blocked the springs of thought and feeling in me, creating a sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived.”
The fact that certain spectacular incarnations of anti-black racism (specifically US anti-black racism with the attendant history of lynchings and Jim Crow, that is the hard violent kind) are seen as “real” racism is very significant, since it allows for a marking of anti-black racism in the Netherlands (administrative violence, “the piece of paper in the white man’s hand,” that is the soft violent kind) as something less than. It is through these articulations that the Netherlands is able to emerge as a racism-lite country. However, as Tukhanen’s reading of Richard Wright’s works illustrates, racial power is not only articulated through racial terror, but also through administrative violence—which regulates the life chances of people categorized as Black, or non-Western Allochtoon. Both racial terror and administrative violence subjectify, objectify and fix the Black(ened) body. Spectacular displays of racial terror and violence buttress, as Saidiya Hartman explains, administrative violence—whose impact we must not underestimate. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgeois warn us in Introduction: Making Sense of Violence that, “the most violent acts consist of conduct that is socially permitted, encouraged, or enjoined as a moral right or duty.” As such, racial terror and anti-black violence are not aberrant, nor mutually exclusive, but part of a continuum of violence against Black people—moreover, both racial terror and anti-black violence are often authorized socially as well as legally through administrative violence.
The social, economic, political, and psychological oppression of Black people did not end with the abolition of slavery; it was kept alive through an anti-black political reality as this excerpt from Nederlanders die het moeilijk hebben attests;
“It’s a sorry state for Negroes, they say: we have always had to toil like slaves. Even when we were no longer slaves, and for very little pay. Is it such a surprise that we decided to try our luck in a white country? And is it a crime that we came to the motherland? Here folks talk about a crisis. But do the whites know, that we have experienced firsthand this so-called crisis for centuries upon centuries? They despise us here. But do people here know that before we had felt what Holland was, we have always held it in high esteem, that nowhere was a national holiday celebrated with so much fervour and love? They probably do not know. You marvel at the fact that we speak Dutch fluently. There is no need for you to be surprised, we learned it at school in the West. They beat it into us, if we could not learn, letter by letter. We had to learn to think Dutch, and learn to feel Dutch. Why did the whites do that to us? Out here you are proud that you abolished slavery in the West, but let me tell you, on the whole it’s even worse than when we had to live in bondage. We don’t have money to save. In the West our parents live to die from want, they have no support (welfare) and we… we cannot send them anything. Not even a little bit of money to make the autumn of their lives slightly better. That is our destiny. The lot of our parents. Now, tell us what we have done wrong, what did we do to deserve this.”
“Candidly, they declare that they do not want anything, at all, to do with whites, with the Dutch. They want nothing from us, except that we grant them the opportunity to earn a living, and leave them alone. And this is exactly what the police doesn’t want to do.”
“There isn’t an official work ban. However, Surinamese are not granted work permits for cabarets. Business owners are warned: do not hire Surinamese. And the owners of cabarets and night clubs are cautious people who do not like to go against the will or wishes of the police. And so, even without an official work ban these establishments remain closed for Negroes.”
In Resisting State Violence Joy James argues that even though Michel Foucault implies “that there is little life outside the carceral, the state disagrees, as evident in its distrust of blacks to regulate themselves and in police reliance on symbolic or real threats to discipline black communities.” The police, as representative of the Dutch state, essentially engineered “a political culture whose construction is the practice of whiteness.”For Whites, as Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot observe, “the security of belonging accompanies the re-racialisation of whiteness as the intensification of anti-blackness. The police elaborate the grounds for the extension of a renewed and reconfigured white supremacist political economic order.” [my italics]
Frank Wilderson makes a similar point when he writes that “white people are not simply “protected” by the police, they are—in their very corporeality—the police.” To illustrate this point, the ordinance that the Dutch colonial government sanctioned on Curaçao in 1872 “empowered white authorities to use physical force against any Afro Curaçaoan perceived [of] endangering the public order, tranquillity, and safety.” Nanette de Jong asserts that “this ordinance basically empowered vigilante whites to judge and punish blacks as they saw fit without fear of personal legal consequence.” Even though, these Black men were “free” and Dutch “citizens” their movements were heavily policed and controlled. Even though they were “free” and Dutch nationals, their rights as “citizens” were denied; the police “clothed in the ethic of impunity” prevented them, without an official work ban, from making a living. Neither enslaved, nor citizens, they felt as though they had been given the “horrible gift of freedom.” Whether enslaved, “free,” or “citizen,” the Black is subject to the whims of Whites. The Black subject is fixed in a zone of abjection—a space of social death where “‘living’ is something to be achieved and not experienced.”
The material realities of the violence of policing continue to shape the lives of Black and blackened people in the Netherlands. The Dutch model of policing, which “(re)produces, repetitively, the inside/outside, the civil society/black world,” is becoming (more) militarized. The euphemization of the Dutch colonial war in Indonesia as “police actions” exposes the slippage between operational policing and military operations. Last June soldiers ventured into the Amsterdam neighbourhoods West and New West—neighbourhoods where predominantly Muslims live—“to practice their conversational skills and techniques in a multicultural society.” The Ministry of Defence professes on its website that the Dutch Royal Netherlands Army “works for peace and security in the Netherlands and abroad.”
Civil society’s state-sanctioned, systemic, gratuitous racial violence perpetrated against the Black body breaks down Democracy. Until 1971 voting was compulsory in the Netherlands. “To vote,” as Stephen Coleman notes, “is to collude with an existing technology of reckoning.” Voting alone, as Dean Spade has argued, is incapable of liberating oppressed groups. The Afro-Surinamese men declared they had to vote; they did not perceive voting as a means of improving their lives. One could argue, provocatively, that in this context to vote was effectively to participate in one’s own subjugation since elections are one of the techniques used to legitimize the (racist) practices of the Dutch state.
Racial blackness is a special kind of subject position, formed primarily by the gratuitous, exploitative, alienating violence of modernity, and it throws the concept of precarity into a crisis; the temporality of the Black is “incommensurable with that of workers, even precarious workers, because it is a temporality marked by the event of a loss—of identity, community, culture, descent—that cannot be named.” The incommensurability of the positionality of the Black with that of the worker reverberates in the plain question, But do the whites know, that we have experienced firsthand this so-called crisis for centuries upon centuries? In The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal Frank Wilderson argues that those of us coded as black cannot depend on civil society as the site of struggle, if we do we certify racial terror, since the “State and civil society are predicated on the reproduction of black civil death.” In short, the structural position of the Black forecloses the effectiveness of a “Dutch civil rights movement.”
In contemporary discussions on anti-black racism, however, black positionality is rendered hazy through a smog of forgetfulness. Anti-black racism is completely dehistoricized; historic anti-black practices, which can be traced to the experiences of the Afro-Surinamese men interviewed and all the way back to Dutch colonialism, are made to disappear—this erasure allows for White Autochtoon Dutch people to “discover” or “expose” anti-black racism in the Netherlands again and again. These repetitive decontextualized “discoveries” and “exposures” of anti-black racism are invariably accompanied by an equally repetitive perfunctory moral outrage. It is through these series of repetitive performances that White subjectivity emerges as “both spectator and architect.” What is clear is that these oft-repeated conceptual moves stymie sustained analyses of anti-black racism in the Netherlands. As a result, Black folks in the Netherlands are, effectively, locked in what Joy James (The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism) has termed “a conceptual dead zone, one that is marked by the absence of analysis engaging antiblack racism and genocide in Western democracies and the resilience of elite thinkers to disavow such analyses.”
The disavowal of racism and the repetition of discovery might themselves be seen as pleasurable labour. After all, “the entire discourse of ‘race’ produce[s] race pleasure,” which simultaneously re-establishes and manufactures anew an affective relationship between the Black(ened) body and the White body. “If the black body is the site and cite of all ills,” as Anthony Paul Farley surmises, “then the white body is not.” The Black body is fixed in a context of care and fear by way of perpetual re-inscriptions of the Black body as an object of pity and terror. In The Man Who Cried I Am John Alfred Williams sardonically summarizes this affective state as, “Five hundred years of guilt transposed into something like vague concern for anyone with a black skin.”
As recent White discussions around the figure of “Zwarte Piet” have shown, anti-black violence registers as “Black suffering” only when it is expedient: that is, when it can serve as a backdrop on which White benevolence is projected—otherwise it registers as business as usual, or simply not at all. White benevolence renders structural anti-black violence invisible or, at least, ignorable. Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot observe that “[I]f ethics is possible for white civil society within its social discourses, it is rendered irrelevant to the systematic violence deployed against the outside precisely because it is ignorable. Indeed, that ignorability becomes the condition of possibility for the ethical coherence of the inside.”
I am left grappling with the question: what kind of humans are Black folks imagined to be? Again, I turn to Saidiya Hartman who informs us that we must attend to “the forms of subjectivity and circumscribed humanity imputed to the enslaved” in the Americas, as well as in Europe, in order to understand the structural position of the black. In short, if we are to engage meaningfully in a global fight against anti-black racism we must not focus solely on the violence enacted on the captive flesh, but we must examine how captive flesh came to be recognized as human flesh. How have Black folks been humanized in specific contexts?