Post-Racial Blues (On Charlottesville, Resilience, and Suffering) - J. Kameron Carter
This talk locates the brutalities from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland, from Michael Brown to Philando Castile, from Ferguson and Charleston to Charlottesville, VA, from attention on the opioid crisis to the discontent of among a poor white working class, from the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president to the reactionary election to Donald J. Trump, as each and all expressions of a white racial melancholy that is at once political and religious. A theological sickness, I call it America’s and Christianity’s Post-Racial Blues. I give a general outline of this condition and also consider what an otherwise Christianity and an otherwise America, an alternative world of the otherwise, might mean.
J. Kameron Carter is Associate Professor of Theology, English, and African American Studies at Duke Divinity School. Working in black studies (African American and African Diaspora studies), using theological and religious studies concepts, critical theory, and increasingly poetry in doing so. Driving his work are questions pertaining to the theory and practice of blackness, indeed, of blackness as an alternate “pedagogy of the sacred” that the black church (at its best) expresses.
Good evening, everyone. Thank you for having me. Words of gratitude to Evan and to Laura, wherever she is, I think in the back, and to you all for being here. I’m very grateful for this. I don’t have a slide and all I have is some stuff that I wrote. And so, I’m just going to read it and hopefully it’ll be useful. I don’t know if there’s Q&A and maybe we can talk about it afterwards. Part of what I want to say in the beginning is kind of hand-written in my little notebook here, so I’m gonna read it. I’ll riff and say a couple things off of it, and then I’m gonna segue into something that I just finished writing.
It’s just, I’m doing editing on it now but it’s about to be published. And if you read the writeup in the little pamphlet there, I talk a lot about something called malpractice. That’s me talking about resilience, so I’ma have a lot to say about that. But let me just read the little notes I have here and then I’ll say a couple things and then I’ll shift to what I have here. Under the notion of post-racial blues, I’m really interested in two things. The first thing I’m interested in is, what even the formulation post-racial might mean? And then the other thing that I’m interested in is, what blues might mean?
And then I want to talk about blues under the notion of melancholia, I’ll say a bit more about that in a second. In taking up these two broad themes, and in the context of the concerns of this gathering here, this conference, I want to shift things around a little bit. I want to shift from the question of individualized suffering, ’cause typically when we talk about suffering, we talk about it on an individual level. And I’m not hating that, all of us had had some difficult things happen in our lives. But I, nevertheless, want to shift from the question of individualized suffering to what might be called, the social production of misery.
I want to move from individual suffering to social misery. And more still, I want to consider how Christianity has historically, certainly, in the age that we call modernity, and before that too, but we’re talking about our age and our moment. I’m interested to consider how Christianity in our age, in our moment, has functioned in and as, shall we say, the midwife of the production of social misery. A misery that is never not already, and this is very important, racialized. The social production of misery is never not already racialized. Never not structurally and constitutively, and this is another important formulation that I’ll get into a second, anti-black. I’m interested in the post-racial production of racialized misery. That post-racialism is, what I call, white racial melancholia. Here’s where I’m going to do some riffing. This stuff that we’ve been seeing happening, from Trayvon Martin to Charlottesville, what worries me about the way we’ve been talking about it publicly, is that we’re hand-wringing over why certain individuals keep doing these individual things.
And it seems to me, or at least what I’m trying to do, is I want to mobilize another way of coming at this. Drawing on some of the discourses in psychoanalysis, I’m interested in the psychic structures of social activity, that whiteness, which is related to white people, but must be distinguished from white people. Whiteness, as an ideal that we’re called to live into, is a structure of melancholy. And here I have a person like Freud in mind, Sigmund Freud, especially his 1914 essay, Mourning in Melancholia, where Freud distinguishes between two approaches to something that is lost. And Freud is thinking on the one hand about an individual, but he leaves space that you can actually think about this socially. So I’m going to take what he does, and though he talks about it mainly at the individual level, I’m going to follow his opening and I’m going to socialize it.
He says, when you lose a loved one, or a loved object, say that’s a loved person, your spouse, your partner, your mother, your father, whomever, they die, your pet, a close, loved object. When you lose that object, Freud says that you have two ways to approach that loss. One is a healthy way, the other one for him is a less than healthy way. The less than healthy way is what he calls melancholia. Melancholia basically means you lose the lost object, you get stuck in the grief.
You don’t know how to work through that loss in such a way that you can find a way to let that lost object go so that can be replaced in a healthy way that you can move onto the next phases of living. The fact that you can’t do that, he calls that melancholy. And instead of knowing how to lose the object in such a way that over time, and within requisite time, you then can let that lost, loved one to go, or that lost, loved object go so to have it replaced with something else, to move forward in life, instead of doing that, he says you ingest the lost, loved object. And it’s not even about the thing that’s lost anymore, it becomes the ego that gets stuck on itself, precisely around the thing that was lost. And Freud says this is not just an individual thing, it happens at the social, structural level too. And it’s important to remember ’cause he’s writing this essay in 1914, the beginning of World War I.
And particularly in the German context where he seems to be intimating that the war that we’re entering into, what we call now World War I, what was then being called the Great War, we were entering into a phase in which something was being lost. And the inability to reckon with that lost thing was now tearing at the social and constitutive fabric of Western civilization itself. Now historically, we can go back and start to fill in the pieces of what Freud doesn’t quite lay out but he implies in the article. Part of what’s being lost is that the Western powers are fighting over colonies, and more specifically, they rip colonies away from Germany. The lost, loved object is the capacity to be an imperial power.
And the inability to properly grieve that lost, loved object, come to terms with it and figure out what a future moving forward in a positive way would mean. So instead of positively moving forward, the Western powers, Germany included, what they started to do was Germany was reckoning with this situation of being forced into a postcolonial situation, while the rest of the Western powers were still colonial powers. And it literally was ripping the social ego of the Western world apart. See, in that context that he gives you the theory of melancholia. I want to import that theory into the US context and say that America itself was always founded on a kind of melancholic trope. Right? Related to, in the founding of the nation, related to black life. But related to it in a way that it didn’t want to live with it, but couldn’t live without it, needed its labor but also didn’t want to be contaminated by it as well.
And you can just look at the figure of Thomas Jefferson and you see a perfect embodiment of what I’m talking about. Right? Didn’t quite want to live with it, needs it! Got that labor, building the master plantation on the mountaintop but can’t live without it either. Sleeping with the help. Don’t look at me like you all don’t know what I’m talking about. [audience laughing] Don’t even do that. That’s in the background of Charlottesville. And as I was telling a friend, Erin, Charlottesville is not just Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s Charlottesville, USA. Just like Charleston was not Charleston, South Carolina. It was Charleston, USA. So this is the problem of melancholia, and as I’m going to argue further, that there’s a theological structure to the melancholic condition.
Actually let me just go ahead and give it to you now and then I can shift to what I got. [audience laughing] I can shift to what I actually formally wrote. The theological structure of the melancholic condition, if we stay with Freud, turns out to be on the one hand, a structure of atonement, and on the other hand, a structure of the Eucharist. Now, in order to follow this, you can’t think Christian doctrine, the Christian imagination, in the ways we’ve been schooled to think it on the individual level. I’ve made Jesus my choice, when I die, I’m going to heaven. You can’t think it like that.
You have to think how the doctrines have actually become a social imagination for us, a structural imagination through which we imagine what good is, what evil is, what life is, and who aggregates around the good life, and what is the evil, the bad, that must be slain and crucified. That general structure is what, according to a person like Freud, you can read him as invoking. Whiteness, as the ideal becomes the figure of life. At it’s nadir, racially understood. Blackness becomes a representation of death and darkness, that which must be staved off as the horizon of death to secure proper life. That basic atonement structure is what animates the modern world.
Freud says that we can’t live without that death but we don’t know how to live with it either. So what we do, he says we eat it. It becomes internal to us fueling a bad ego structure. That eating is like a Eucharistic eating. That cycle of the melancholic, eating was making you sick, purging it out, re-eating was making you sick. That psychic loop is what’s fueling racial practice. I call this melancholia. And what makes the post and post-racialism just a reproduction of racism is that now we’re doing it under the terms of disavowal, believing that, for example, we elected a black president, so now we must be over the racial trauma. Where in fact, what we now are inside of is a deeper disavowal that keeps surfacing through more practices of sacrificial, social violence, the stuff that James Cone was teaching us about in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Okay, that’s post-racial blues. I could give you a whole lot more on that. I want to really talk about resilience. I want to talk about, what does it mean to move forward under these terms? Because my gamble is this, if Christianity is going to have a future, and I mean that, if in your mind, capitalize the I and the F, and then double-underline it and then italicize it. Because I’m not sure, the truth be told, if there’s going to be a Christianity, it cannot be what it’s been. It will be illegible from what it has been. It will be unrecognizable from what it has been.
So much so, it might not even be able to travel under that name anymore. And here’s the thing, black Christian existence, black church existence at its best, has been a carrier of this alternative tradition. It has been the theological malpractice of Christian practice, in so far as Christian practice has been this brutalizing, racial practice. So I want to read just a little bit from what I wrote in this thing that’s going to be published soon. It’s called Black Malpractice, an Ante-American, A-N-T-E, American Poetics. I begin with a recent, before I start reading, what’s my time look like? ‘Cause I had to round how much to read.
About ten minutes, okay good. I begin with a recent provocatively titled, Washington Post article sent my way via social media bearing the title, US Political Climate Results From, and then it has it in quotes, Theological Malpractice, says a D.C. pastor. Theological malpractice immediately caught my attention. In the Post article, the news reporter interviews a Duke Divinity School Alumnus, and I should add a friend of mine, the Reverend Bill Lamar. He is the pastor of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church of Washington D.C. In the interview given in the aftermath of the tragic events of August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Reverend Lamar says that much of the blame for what has happened recently in this country, from, as he says, the election of a protofascist, to the US presidency, to the Charlottesville events themselves, to the President’s response to those events, in which he stated an equivalence of blame on both sides between white supremacists and the counter protestors. Lamar says, the problem for this lays at the feet of many a Christian including, he says, many Black Christians. Too many Christians, he goes on to say, have abdicated the work of being prophetic and instead, have opted for, to quote him, “vague notions of personal salvation, in which Jesus is little more than a heavenly,” he says, “door man who opens the portals of eternity.” This produces Christians who don’t, and I quote him again, “give a damn about the social, political, and economic hell which assails many around the world.”
Reverend Lamar then drops the boom, to quote him, “What has happened of late in this country and what will happen is as much the result of this theological malpractice as it is the result of political malpractice,” end quote. In my view, Reverend Lamar is absolutely right. Indeed, I want to extend and expand by weight of flipping the terms of what he’s saying by locating what he’s calling for within the unnamed tradition from which he’s indirectly drawing. This is the black radical tradition, a tradition of, and this is my own formulation here, sacred deviancy and deviations, as itself the practice of social malpractice.
Black, radical malpractice imagines and is the practice of another world. In thinking about black radicalism as the practice of another world, we would do well to consider the very notion of malpractice itself. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines malpractice. First, in law, “treatment given by a member of the medical profession that departs from a generally accepted, standard of practice and results in injury to the patient through negligence, ignorance, lack of skill, or malicious intent.” And then a more general definition the OED offers, “improper or a criminal act or practice around doing a misconduct.”
Following the Oxford English Dictionary, we might say that malpractice has to do with an ethical breach or with impropriety’s transgression. It concerns conduct unbecoming of a professional, particularly one whose task it is to oversee health and wellbeing. As unbecoming conduct, professional malpractice bespeaks actions that at a minimum, do not support life and health, or more perniciously, actively thwarts them. Jonathan Metzl sheds light further on what’s at stake in the idea of malpractice when he interrogates how health, healthcare, and the health industry, functions as a kind of regime to manage proper health. He calls for attention to how health functions as a colonizing rhetoric, to quote him, “that establishes and oversees a certain ideal of the body politic and so of life itself.”
Reverend Lamar’s comments to the Post extends the discourse of malpractice to the entangled realms of the religious and the political, to these supposedly separate realms as never not the singular realm of political theology, where political theology, too, is a sphere that intends to manage the body as the management of life. In this realm too, there’s the need to keep the body, or the body politic, healthy, to stave off pathogenic infections or contagions that exist at the, quote, unquote, “frontier”, or before the horizon of death. As a regime to secure life, health has a theological valance at this point. It is an eminent work of salvation, what I was just summarizing earlier, the saving of a body politic.
Across these very realms, from medicine, law, and politics, let’s call that secular, to religion and theology, let’s call that the sacred. The notion of malpractice bespeaks an anxiety around the possibility of ethical breach and administrative failure or with the perception of such breach and failure to manage and secure life. That is to say malpractice suggests a criminal breach of conduct and it is curious, I say this parenthetically, that though in trying to type the word breach in this last sentence, breach of conduct, I first typed the word preach.
There was this slippage between the letters B and P. Later I will return to the preach to breach, and then the breach back to preach slippage, when I talk under the inspiration of Hortence Spillers about black radicalisms, when I call preacherly as breacherly poetics. And I won’t get to that part, I won’t have time. [audience laughing] But I’ll already foreshadow, I’m going to make an argument by the time I get to the end of this piece for a Christian future that is a future of breaching. We must breach the order of things.
More on that anon. In thinking blackness as the practice of another world, I have in mind this idea of breach and the inhabitation of the breach. The interruptivity of the break. Indeed, I have in mind the inhabitation of blackness as failure of propriety, of improprieter’s breach. Let me just pause because in some sense what I’m talking here is, I mean, you all are getting inside of some of the discourses I’m in conversation with. But I want to just put it on the ground for this context. We need a Christianity and we need folk who are connected with the Christianity that’s not scared to be about breaching stuff. We want a Christianity, it’s too pious and it wants too much propriety. It wants to be proper and I’m arguing for a Christianity that’s improper. And I’m talking in a black studies idiom here but I’ve been known to be a preacher. And so, I could shift gears on you all and do that too. [audience laughing] Because Jesus was a breacher. And in that way, he was a preacher.
And some of this stuff we’re calling preaching now is melancholic. It’s reproducing the order of things. Our preaching is too invested in the politics of propriety, the politics of the order of things as they are. And really, what I’m arguing about melancholia as bound up with a kind of white condition, the condition of whiteness, the condition that is given to white people to believe in, and also, the condition that is given to minorities to aspire to, even though they could never meet up to it, if that’s in fact the case, we have to breach whiteness. And white folk got to lead that breach. Let me come back to what I wrote here. [audience laughing] That was free. [audience clapping] Okay, I may be anticipating myself. And now we start to approach the central concern of this meditation, is there a breach, a mode of malpractice, that’s worth inhabiting? I argue here, yes.
That is to say, I’m interested in what might be called failure’s internal generativity. See, that’s the other thing. We don’t want to fail. That’s part of our melancholy. We want a Christianity that succeeds. We want a Christian success that feeds the success of the nation. But this is what we got to get our heads around, Jesus failed! And it was a productive failure. His people didn’t want him, they turned on him. And they turned on him ’cause they said, you ain’t even a good Jew. What would it mean for people to come to you and say, you not even a good white person? And then you would respond, that’s because I’m trying to be a good Christian. But the problem is is that our good Christianity works in complete tandem with our good raciality. And that’s precisely the melancholy I’m talking about and this is the other thing, I’m not even going to read the rest of this. I’ma just make this point. [audience clapping]
This is the thing I’m trying to get at. The synergy, the complementarity between being a good white person and our belief in whiteness, and being a good Christian, and being a good American, the synergy in all of that produces misery. It kills people. Non-white, and get this too, it kills even white people. See, I was talking about this earlier with Evan. When you think about it, see, the way in which the social production of misery works as always already being racialized, is that certain people, when they suffer, they’re suffering so it gets rationalized as appropriate to them. But when other people suffer, their suffering sort of gets seen as out of wack.
So, put this on the ground. When people are hand-wringing over the opioid crisis in a way that they didn’t hand-wring over the crack crisis, that was because structurally, in the imagination, certain people are aligned with suffering. And when other people who shouldn’t suffer, because in the imagination, they’re not to be aligned with it, when they suffer, it incites a crisis, that then the nation wants to respond to. And so, what I’m trying to get after here, is we need another imagination altogether. It’s not about us trying to fix each other and just be nice to each other. It’s about the need for a social upheaval to imagine fundamentally another world.
And in that sense, break the psychosis of melancholy because that’s what we’re trapped in. Every time another person gets slammed to the ground, like Sandra Bland. Every time another person like Michael Brown is outlined in chalk. Every time another person goes into Charleston and shoots somebody. Every time we get another march on Charlottesville, that’s another example, a kind of avatar, of the misery that is structurally constitutive of this thing we called America.
And so I called this an ante-America poetics because black church, as participating in a radical tradition of runaway and fugitive slaves, have been always about moving according to another cosmological map, following the North Star into another world. And I want to just believe to the extent that Christianity is going to have a hope, it’s got to follow that star. But that means you got to heed this really wise philosopher, Wesley Snipes. [audience laughing] Always bet on black. I’ll stop there, thank you. [audience laughing and clapping]