Every possible story but the true one

This essay is greatly informed by analytical and ethical frameworks developed by Christina Sharpe, Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Che Gossett and others along with Marcus Rediker’s historical research even where not directly cited though they cannot be blamed for my failings. Should you find this essay engaging please uplift their works, the directly influential ones being listed at the bottom. Special thanks to Megan Spencer for their valuable feedback on the draft and to both Megan again and Zoé Samudzi for being thought partners on the ideas while writing. I try to avoid detailing anti-Black violence yet found no way to escape implying or vaguely describing some easily imaginable and horrible scenarios so a HUGE CONTENT WARNING FOR ANTI-BLACK VIOLENCE AND AFRICAN SLAVERY is in order. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other always welcomed.

 

The 2018 box office hit The Meg proved that the shark attack film remains a staple of the nature horror genre. The Meg has already a sequel in development and spawned a knockoff in the same year, Megalodon. These focus on groups of people under threat from one or many charcharocles megalodon sharks, a species extinct for over two million years that grew to over fifty feet long. Others in the genre look at contemporary species like great white and bull sharks, lab-created super genius sharks, sharks in unexpected places like the under sand or in Australian supermarkets, shark-cephalopod hybrids, sharks using storms to migrate and hunt, sharks from beyond the grave and more. It seems just about every possible and a great many more impossible stories of sharks eating people has been told in nature horror, except for the one time that people were regularly, dependably, for a long period eaten by sharks: the Middle Passage.

Most shark species cannot kill people and almost all those that can never think to try as we great apes largely do not register as prey items, not to mention that sharks struggle a bit to hunt where all people are very nearly all the time, outside of the water. The small number that do sometimes bite people largely do so while being harassed or out of curiosity (a light biting is a ‘what’s this?’ investigatory technique – though this can still be fatal). The even smaller number that on rare occasions attack intending to prey largely mistake people for more familiar mammals like seals or bite while attempting to procure something attached to a diver as with the catch on a spearfisher’s string. A couple of species are both capable of killing people and also generalist predators that likely register people as potential prey. Only three shark species are confirmed to account for more than ten total human fatalities, the great white, tiger and bull. A fourth, the oceanic whitetip, likely accounts for many fatal attacks in remote, open waters unlikely to be recorded.

Despite the rarity of attacks, sharks occupy a primary location in colonial productions of nature horror – a genre positing a perpetual threat to “man” from an Othered animal or vegetal being, think: animal attack movies or a less comedic Little Shop of Horrors. Sharks are imposing beings and larger species are capable of tremendous power and rending of flesh in the course of their feeding. And given that people do travel over or swim in waters where sharks live or frequent, let’s call these human-infested waters, the very rare human-as-calories tragedy is bound to happen. The potential for horror here is visceral and obvious. Val Plumwood’s essay “On Being Prey” reflects upon her experience surviving a predatory attack by a saltwater crocodile in the north of the Australian settler colony. She describes it as “an experience beyond words of total terror”. The idea of being killed and eaten, or being killed by being eaten, is necessarily horror. This would be the case even if colonialism did not create “a masculinist monster myth” of order being synonymous with human dominance, a “master narrative” of control over and distance from ecological systems, a counterposition of humanity-animality.

Yet for all the horror of the idea of being prey, there is a total lack of malignance in that fate even as many nature horror stories project ideas of diabolical intent upon attacking animals. They were hungry and there you were or, they were wary of your intrusion and you intruded. It’s not a malignant calculus any more than some chameleon has some grudge against some grasshopper. The violence is strictly mis/opportunistic and the individual creatures involved are incidental, just the right combination of lucky/unlucky that defines predator/prey encounters. This is not the case in the Middle Passage. Humans as shark prey in the Middle Passage has purposeful intent from the terroristic to the punitive to the arbitrary. The horror is malignant not by the sharks’ actions, but in how slavers made captive Africans into shark food. Think Jaws combined with Saw combined with Hannibal and you’re in the ballpark, albeit far less horrifying than the actual details which I recommend against investigating for traumatic reasons but also ethical ones around the drive to consume and reproduce anti-Black violence.

During the Middle Passage, slavers fed murdered and living Africans to sharks as a convenient disposal of murdered remains and troublesome persons, to terrify living captives against escape or suicide overboard, to punish captives involved in insurrections and more. Slavers describe all of that in their contemporary narratives as well as Africans escaping ships to unknown fates including repatriation and liberation as well as death by shark. Slavers murdered at least two million Africans during the Middle Passage and discarded nearly all into the Atlantic. Sharks did not consume all these souls, but they consumed many. If sharks consumed just 1,000 of those dead or living – I found no estimates, reliable or otherwise, but 1,000 is at least a factor of ten below a wildly conservative guess if their frequency in slaver narratives is representative – that would still be nearly 20% higher than all combined fatal and non-fatal shark bites/attacks in the Florida Museum global database hosted by the University of Florida that tracks shark attacks since 1582, and 85% higher than the total verified fatal shark attacks. By any measure, the Middle Passage accounts for the overwhelming preponderance of cases of people being consumed by sharks. The percentage, though unknown in detail, is sufficient to say that it is the the “normal” way sharks eat people with all other examples being statistically peripheral. (This if my readings of shark ecology are correct in concluding that most historical ocean-going ships travel too fast for sharks to pursue longer than briefly or are otherwise not attractive to sharks leaving lesser probabilities for shark predation in the event of shipwreck, even incorrectly assuming a historically and geographically flat population density of sharks per square kilometer and oceanic shipwreck distribution).

The Meg, it’s knock-off Megalodon and its pending sequel, 2002’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon and an earlier Megalodon from the same year, 2012’s Jurassic Shark, 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or any of the Mega Shark franchise, 2011’s Super Shark and the 2001 Antonio Sabato Jr. vehicle Shark Hunter account for ten of the feature length films about an extinct shark hunting people, a species that never once encountered any great ape in its millions of years of existence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Sci-fi doesn’t have to have much sci in it to be a fun or good story. Over ten impossible megalodon films but not one involving the predominant political geography of material world consumption of people by sharks. Why are our imaginary universes so rarely grounded in material violences like the Middle Passage? This isn’t just the sci-fi shark attack stories like The Meg, Sharknado and 2-Headed Shark Attack.

I earlier argued that nearly all shark attack films are sci-fi in that sharks are not, as a rule, capable of consuming as much food as they do in shark attack movies. An adult great white is not plausibly likely to eat hundreds of pounds of people in two days like in The Shallows, much less in minutes as with Jaws 2. But even in those films portrayed as real-world like Jaws, I’m aware of none that take place in or reference the only historical geography where shark attacks on people were common and predictable. There are films like Frenzy and Open Water with divers and boaters marooned in remote areas in the face of hungry sharks but none of actual marronage from both slavers and their accompanying sharks. This has always been the case in film and tv but not always in other mediums.

 

Petition of the Sharks of Africa

Petition picture from the University of Virginia website

Scottish abolitionist and radical James Tytler produced in 1792 an early modern fantastic fiction work in his “The PETITION of the SHARKS of Africa” addressed “To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament Assembled”. In the petition, sharks collectively beg Parliament to not heed the demands of abolitionists as it will deprive a “numerous body” in “a very flourishing situation” of “many a delicious meal” of “large quantities of their most favourite food” over “the specious plea of humanity” that is abolitionism. Abolitionists made much out of the horror of slavers feeding captive Africans to sharks.

Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on

JWM Turner 1840 painting: Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on. Picture from Wikipedia

J.W.M. Turner’s 1840 oil on canvas Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (also called The Slave Ship) horrifically foregrounds a slave ship rollicking in heavy seas with sharks setting upon “the dead and dying” Africans-made-into-commodities thrown overboard. There are other pamphlets, poems, paintings, media accounts and more.

Yet fantastic fiction canon bibliographies do not mention Tytler’s text. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that displays Turner’s painting describes it as “a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence both human and elemental” but does not mention the sharks in the painting, no matter that the foreground dominates the canvas. It goes beyond this. The Florida Museum worldwide historical shark attack database linked above does not, as best I can determine, account for a single Middle Passage attack. The Wikipedia pages for “Shark Attack” and the various geographical “List of fatal unprovoked shark attacks” pages do not mention the Middle Passage nor any of the documented African murders and deaths by shark during it. I could not access the entirety of every Discovery Channel Shark Week production but from what I could access or review through secondary sources, the Middle Passage is absent from its documentary coverage as well as that of Blue Planet and other NatGeo, Nature, Nova, BBC and other wildlife documentaries about or featuring sharks. Much like shark attack cinema, every possible and impossible shark attack story can be told except for the ones that comprise the vast preponderance. Why should this be?

Marcus Rediker writes about tall ships in perfect analogy to shark attack cinema in his 2008 article in Atlantic Studies, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”.

Recently I have been studying one kind of tall ship: the slave ship. During this time I discovered the limit of the romance [with tall ships]. It extends to all tall ships except the most important one. The slave ship is so far from romantic that we cannot bear to look at it, even though it was one of the two main institutions of modern slavery. The other, the plantation, has been studied intensively, but slave ships hardly at all. The rich historical literature has much to say about the origins, time, scale, flows, and profits, but little to say about the vessel that made it possible, even though the slave ship was the mechanism for history’s greatest forced migration, for an entire phase of globalization, an instrument of “commercial revolution” and the making of plantations, empires, capitalism, industrialization. If Europe, Africa, and Americas are haunted by the legacies of race, class, and slavery, the slaver is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness.

Rediker was writing prior to Christina Sharpe’s monumental 2016 volume In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and the research and work it inspires along with some preceding work but his point remains largely true. In Fred Moten’s phrasing, the Middle Passage is “the interpellative event of modernity in general.” It establishes ways of meanings through which we understand the world. The answer to the above questions about investigating every possible and impossible scenario in shark attack movies except for the main one is in Moten’s phrasing. The Middle Passage and African Slavery are frames of reference through which we experience the contemporary world. Settler colonialism destroys the Native world to build the anti-Black one and in this building creates ways of meaning, frames of reference, interpellations, discourses, normativity. As the “interpellative event” the Middle Passage is what creates the world in which shark attack movies are imagined. The narrative gap between the world that creates shark attack movies and the world they purport to portray lies in the difficulty of finding, or thinking to look for, a frame of reference with which to observe our frame of reference.

The 2007 sensationalist documentary Sharks on Trial opens asserting that “sharks terrify us” and “trigger our deepest primeval fears”. “Primeval” in this context is weirdly appropriate in how it suggests the Middle Passage as the “interpellative event of modernity in general,” how it is world building. Some colonizing empires, geographies or proto-states had earlier descriptions or cultural and linguistic representations of sharks but lost them during the Medieval period. José Castro writes that “Large sharks were known to the Greeks and Romans, and references to large sharks of the Mediterranean are found in the writings of classical writers from Aristotle to Aelian,” but that “Large sharks are conspicuously absent from the medieval bestiaries that described the then known fauna as well as some imaginary animals.” The word shark enters the English and Spanish languages through the Middle Passage. Rediker writes that “the English shark thus seems to have entered the English language through the talk of slave-trade sailors, who may have picked up and adapted the word ‘xoc,’ […] from the Maya in the Caribbean.” Castro notes the “Spanish borrowed the word tiburón from the Carib[s].” Understanding the Middle Passage as modernity’s “interpellative event” means sharks are part of creating the modern world, a synonym for the anti-Black one, making consciousness of them “primeval” indeed.

Works like Thomas Peschak’s 2013 text from University of Chicago Press, Sharks and People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea studiously ignore the medieval pre/proto-European break in shark knowledge instead asserting that “Historians have traced fear of sharks back to ancient times, as far back as the the civilizations of Greece and Rome.” Leaving aside the glaring absence of Kru, Polynesian and other non-European coastal and seafaring populations’ shark narratives — including those from the populations from which colonizers took words for sharks — filling in an appropriately blank spot to draw an ahistorical lineage obscures the Middle Passage’s founding role in colonial understandings of the shark as horror fodder. Peschak’s book is geared toward the noble goal of shark conservation while dedicating just one-half of one paragraph amongst 286 pages to the Middle Passage, the only modern period were there was anything close to parity in the numbers of people eaten by sharks and sharks eaten by people. As opposed to today when sharks comprise roughly 99.9999958% of the annual deaths in fatal human-shark encounters and humans around .0000042%, primarily through capitalist enclosure of seascapes and commodification of sealife for rents and profits. Anti-Blackness, this formation of a humanity-animality binary with Black people positioned as, in Frank Wilderson’s terms, commodifiable sites of accumulation and locations for gratuitous violence, provides the grammar for the mass shark slaughters, for making monsters of sharks, that Peschak and others so justly campaign against. Leaving the Middle Passage out of this narrative reduces the legibility of what creates both anti-Blackness and mass shark slaughters through capitalist fishing.

Just as shark attack cinema is colonial cultural production, the Middle Passage sharks are a part of a colonial ecology. Their desires were for a mix of shade from the hot tropical sun and the convenient food that often accompanies large, slow moving, floating objects, but slavers deployed those impulses as part of a terror regime. Rediker quotes one source saying

the master of a Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had, that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and, though it was drawn up again with great swiftness, yet in that short space, sharks had bit off all but the feet.

Other sources narrate kidnapped Africans being fed alive to sharks for the same purpose of terrorizing others. Sharks then, formed the exterior perimeter of The Hold and were purposefully recruited for that function. Redicker quoting again, “Our way to entice [sharks] was by Towing overboard a dead Negro which they would follow till they had eaten him up.” For colonizers the origins of shark chumming was not to catch sharks but to attract them as predators for the purpose of horror, for the purpose of a living fence.

Christina Sharpe writes, “The belly of the ship births blackness.” The slave ship’s Hold is the indigenous geography of Blackness including it’s construct of Black Captivity. The Hold’s geography of Black Captivity intended totalization. If The Hold is where Blackness is born, sharks are its birth attendants. One slave ship passenger wrote, per Rediker, “we caught plenty of fish almost every day, especially Sharks, which wee salted, & preserv’d for ye Negroes.” He continued, “They are good victuals, if well dress’d, tho’ some won’t eat them, because they feed upon men; ye Negroes fed very heartily upon them.” Thinking again of Plumwood’s “experience beyond words of total terror” at being crocodile prey, escape overboard from The Hold is exactly this yet compounded with Black Captivity. Death and/or consumption by shark may not offer any freedom from The Hold but could mean being very literally fed back into it or nourishing one’s former captors, mediated by sharks. One’s physical being put to work after biological death is a level of totalitarian control difficult to approach. While the sharks themselves offer no malevolence, they are mediators for slavers’ cruelties, desires and hungers. Almost all shark attack movies aspire towards horror but none approach this, not in topic nor terror. Not even those that make out sharks as illegible monsters, as ‘here be dragons’.

Despite everything written above, I’m neither interested in nor calling for movies or stories about sharks eating captive Black people in horror cinema and television. Social media, cinema, TV and carceral systems are already chock full of Black death and pain intended for consumption, often under the ruse of “wokeness”. It’s part of the continual construction and production of anti-Blackness. Inside of anti-Blackness there is no revolutionary potential in this kind of production of cinematic Black death. But grounding our imaginary universes inside material violences does not necessitate reproducing them. Part of cinematic horror, including nature horror, is the relief that comes with the end of the horror affect, as when someone is finally rescued from or kills an attacking shark. In shark attack movies this can mean sharks as secondary terror elements in Middle Passage revolt, survival or escape stories. Or even sharks as intentional allies in vanquishing slavers – an inversion of The Hold as a location of Black captivity, instead its wanton destruction becoming what Wilderson describes as “gratuitous freedom” – and so many more possibilities. This second example where the cruel sharks of nature horror can similarly plot in hypothetical Middle Passage stories applies equally to antecedents of other fictional aquatic beings like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Madison from Splash, Aquaman and Namor in comics and others. Where, in their universes, were their ancestors during the Middle Passage? Like the imaginary villainous sharks of nature horror with their bottomless stomachs, their peoples necessarily encountered the Black Atlantic during the Middle Passage. What happened next?

jaws

A shark prop supposed to be a great white reduces the settler population by one. Screencap from Jaws (1975)

Instead of shark attack cinema reproducing anti-Black normativity through examining every possible story but the true one, it can offer different reference points for meaning. Instead of anti-Blackness being the frame through which the story is told, a different positionality can be the frame that breaks The Hold. A Black liberation shark attack story does not the revolution make, to be egregiously obvious. But each contribution towards ways of meaning not premised upon anti-Blackness creates a new potential hegemony, a new lens through which we engage the world and, in that, a partial end to the present world. It also turns upside down existing shark attack cinema, reframing colonizers being “victimized” by sharks as not horror. Sharks, following “the ghost ship of our modern consciousness” are the heroes haunting the settlers. I don’t want to overstate the potential individual enterprises like what a single shark attack movie against The Hold could do. But it’s hard to imagine action for real change without talking about things. And cinema is one form of conversation. And the nature horror genre can be part of that conversation when it stops giving us every possible story but the true one. Thanks for reading.

 

Works providing the basis for this essay

Saidiya Hartman Scenes of Subjection

Saidiya Hartman & Frank Wilderson “The Position of the Unthought”

Frank Wilderson Red, White and Black

Fred Moten Stolen Life

Jared Sexton “Unbearable Blackness”

Christina Sharpe In the Wake

Marcus Rediker “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”

Val Plumwood “On Being Prey”

Field notes on white supremacy and Detroit gentrification

Over recent years I tended bar at a few Detroit spots where a substantial portion of the clientele were neither suburbanites nor people from Detroit but new arrivals to the city, predominantly white or otherwise non-Black. They are colloquially known as New Detroiters. Like most bartenders I try not listen to customer conversations but it’s hard to tune out everything or you won’t hear drink orders. For me the goal was to get by in a Detroit job market with only slight opportunities for those with a high school or less education, not do unrigorous field work. Yet sometimes through engaging with customers or simply overhearing conversations I noticed patterns in how the new arrivals introduced and positioned themselves vis-à-vis the ongoing gentrification process. Further, I also observed patterns in their interactions with White Flighters (white Detroiters who left the city in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s) including how they bridge the New Detroit narrative with the past of Detroit as a white majority city and erase Detroit the Black metropolis.

What follows looks at these conversations among New Detroiters and contextualizes them in the ongoing and specifically anti-Black gentrification process. I’m confident in how I contextualize my observations but, as noted above with “unrigorous”, am not at all sure to what extent that which I observed is representative. The sample size is small and limited to just a few bars. The bars in question significantly overlap in clientele. Yet there is at least one, and probably two, other kinds of gentrification discussions taking place in other social spheres. The capitalist class – those financially driving large scale gentrification like Dan Gilbert, the Ilitches, John Hantz and ilk – did not frequent these establishments with regularity (and when they did, did not hang out at the bar). The crustpunk, artist and “progressive gentrifiers” too did not frequent these establishments with regularity, except as employees, and they are normally the first gentrifiers in a neighborhood. Both of these groups probably articulate the process a little differently and that is not represented here. And last, I’m a participant/observer in the conversations with exactly zero anthropological and sociological training. I frequently pushed back against gentrification cheerleading which makes it likely I rarely heard certain kinds of conversations, specifically those with cruder racist articulations. Alternately put, here my studied tribe is the gentrifiers and I am an antagonistic observer who frequently participated in and thus helped shape the observed discourse. That shaping must be considered into what follows.

Creating a new White Map for Detroit

This essay focuses on new arrivals that primarily relocated for social and economic opportunities provided by a Black city’s poverty and perceived malleability though they very rarely conceive of it in these terms. Other people move to Detroit primarily for family reasons and work. These categories are not mutually exclusive and some measure of blurring is common enough. The two bars I mostly draw from are located in West Village and Downtown. One, a bar/restaurant is on the site of a famous, Black-owned French restaurant and the other is the site of an old white-owned pharmacy. Neither the old restaurant nor pharmacy had been in operation for several years prior to the examined bars opening and the new bars are entirely unrelated to the old spots closing as in, the old was not pushed out for the new directly or indirectly though both are still part of gentrification. One opened in late 2013 and the other in mid 2016.

The bar located in West Village is frequented by a mix of locals, suburbanites and new arrivals with the latter two being a strong majority most nights. The bar Downtown had an even higher percentage of New Detroiters and suburbanites and is normally much whiter in clientele than Detroit is Black (well over 80% of Detroiters are Black). Many New Detroiters come from the sprawling suburbs across 8 Mile or to the city’s south and west. Others come from other parts of the state, country and globe. When they encounter each other they normally lack shared reference points from their past histories. Their only shared context is as gentrifiers.

New restaurants and bars are frequent topics of conversation. They have to be as schools, neighborhoods (apart from the small core of gentrifying geography they mostly don’t know Dexter-Davison from Conant Gardens) and local politics (they don’t know by appearance nor politics the difference between Saunteel Jenkins and JoAnn Watson though they do know Detroit’s current white mayor Mike Duggan) are mostly unknown or not held in common. “Have you been to Katoi?” “Have you been to Selden Standard?” “What do you like at Republic?” “Oh my friend is bartending there.” “We just came from Sloe’s.” “You’ve gotta go to Parks & Rec for brunch!” “I can’t wait for the light rail to go in!” “Have you tried the Two James bourbon?” “Oh my god Eastern Market was so crowded today.” These experiences form a shared basis for further interactions and grease the wheels of camaraderie. They also set up a shared set of cultural reference points, familiar objects and sites, destinations and how to get to them, all totaling a New Detroit geography. Once started the conversation can go anywhere but the gentrification process is the premise for the very sociality of New Detroiters. They do not have a way to be together with other people without it due to a refusal to meaningfully interact with the Black city they encountered when they arrived.

This is not the same as settler colonialism with a separate, invading sovereignty (although because it happens inside the United States settler colony it is part of settler colonialism). That some gentrifiers use the language of pioneering and homesteading should not be conflated with the actual histories of pioneering and homesteading even though there are superficial similarities. Nor should the appeals to Detroit’s early history as a French fur and slave colony like the “Marche Du Nain Rouge” or new food companies named after French slave-owning families like the Beaubiens. It is not a new sovereignty but it is a new map that under construction. The New Detroit map largely lacks reference points to the Black city. It is so stark that even Nolan Finley, an apologist for everything awful for the right-wing Detroit News asks, quite incoherently, “Where are the Black people?”

The new map that includes solely gentrifying areas builds a new white geography for the city. The New Detroiters do not appreciate this map alone. An older generation of white Detroiters visiting the city to go to the new restaurants and bars shares this narration. In one example a roughly 60-year-old man narrated the following to one of the bar owners (a recent arrival):

20 years ago I’d be making a delivery downtown and it was a ghost town! There was nobody here. Then a few years back I saw a white girl on a bicycle in the Cass Corridor and thought, “There is definitely something wrong here!” That’s how I knew something was going on.

Discussions that include stories about how “it’s so nice to see downtown bustling again” and cursing the former “ghost town” – a phrase I heard time and again – form a narrative bridge between the old white Detroit and the new one that is examined further below. New Detroit businesses play up this bridge as with Detroit City Distillery and Grey Ghost invoking lineages to Prohibition era smuggling. The Detroit City Distillery menu reads, “In the roaring twenties, Detroit fueled prohibition and an entrepreneurial spirit that didn’t follow the rules. A century later, eight childhood friends started a small distillery to make alcohol the old fashioned way. […] The result is a drink of distinction made for the revolutionaries rewriting the history of a great American city.” These “revolutionaries” imagine connections to older Detroit narratives of criminalized river crossings to and from Canada but none connect with the actual revolutionaries operating the Underground Railroad’s criminalized river crossings despite large monuments honoring it on the riverfront itself. Huh.

A variant among White Flighters is a visceral white supremacist affirmation that comes when they say a version of, “They had their chance” in reference to Black people governing. Where I worked it was somewhat uncommon but it is a popular theme in the suburbs. I frequently heard implied versions with things like “We’ve finally got a good mayor again,” in reference to Mike Duggan, Detroit’s first white mayor in forty years.

Detroit’s anti-Black “revitalization”

Revitalizing Detroit as told by the media and gentrifiers at the bar is the increasing occupancy levels in housing Downtown, along Woodward Ave. from Downtown north to New Center, along Michigan Ave. west through Corktown and a little deeper into Southwest, in West Village, Eastern Market and the traditionally wealthier neighborhoods like Boston Edison, North Rosedale Park and Indian Village, in total amounting to around 5% of the city’s geography. The higher occupancy rates are paired with the opening of new restaurants and stores, Quicken Loans and other firms moving offices to the city and modest levels of new construction.

Detroit real estate prices are high for those living in poverty yet they are incredibly low compared to virtually every other US town and city. It is a city where someone can buy a perfectly inhabitable house for as little as one-tenth the price of a comparable house in most cities or even Detroit’s suburbs and less than one one-hundredth of comparable buildings in places like Manhattan or San Francisco. The low prices and lack of protections for residents make Detroit casually exploitable and underlay the “Detroit is a blank canvas” narrative that, if not as popular as it was from around 2008-2013, still has currency.

For decades Detroit has been a city with a very large Black majority. The former white majority started to flee to the suburbs in the 1950s, fled faster after the 1967 Rebellion and by the early 1970s Detroit was a Black majority city eventually peaking at over 85% Black. Normative narratives do mention white flight as part of the economic decline but rarely name Detroit as a Black city nor connections between increasing Blackness and increasing poverty even though capital and industry joined white in flight. These are simply understood and need not be spoken aloud.

The unspoken part is because capital, prosperity and industry are naturalized with white in the US’s white settler discourse while poverty, crime and death are similarly naturalized with Black. This stems from what Orlando Patterson described as the “social death” of African Slavery. In this narrative, as expounded upon by Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson and others, Black, in anti-Blackness’ narrative, is not a human identity but instead a site of capital accumulation, property and location for gratuitous violence. Hence when the Guardian described the “death of a great American city” it described Detroit’s transformation into a Black metropolis. This is the “devitalization” of Detroit but that word is never uttered because, as noted previously, the racist connotations of “revitalization” would be too obvious.

Fred Moten says, “social death is a house party for smart people.” Indeed, why would Detroit, a city with a larger than usual number of residents undertaking transformative actions, with its own dances, music forms and vernacular, need an injection of life, vitality, revitalization? The fact of Black life doesn’t interfere with white imaginings and processes of Black social death. And why does revitalization refer only to young white people and major capital moving to the city? Because you can only revitalize something seen as lifeless. This is what I read in phrasings about Detroit formerly being a “ghost town”. The man quoted above saw a city of over 1.2 million people (at the time) to be, to paraphrase Moten, a zone devoid of human habitation with Blackness as the haunting spectre, the ghost.

What the “blank canvas” narrative exemplified was the nonexistence of Detroit’s Black population. Black Detroit could be overwritten with whatever fantasy one had. And since harm to Black people is unrecognizable as harm in U.S. discourse — in Saidiya Hartman’s concise phrasing, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize so such crime.” — one need not imagine that one’s actions have consequences.

At the more immediate, visceral level this plays out with property speculators buying houses at the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction then offering them for sale on Craigslist or elsewhere noting that “property may be occupied” and that evicting the former homeowners or renters — a common event is a landlord being foreclosed upon without the tenants ever knowing — was the responsibility of the new owner. Or with suburbanites downtown visiting the new stadiums after a Lions, Tigers or Red Wings game walking around drunk and pissing in people’s yards and knocking over their trash barrels. I read this as basically a casually, completely unthought white supremacist negative of one of the most incredible direct action efforts I know of, Detroit’s 1943 “bumping campaign”. Black activists deliberately bumped into white people on sidewalks and in elevators as a means of protest and claiming public space in a city where Black life was restricted in a highly segregated geography. The everyday aggression of whiteness described is at least as laborious as the Bumping Campaign but it is completely unthought of as effort.

At the broader level you see it with bars and restaurants opening that serve and employ mostly white (or non-Black at any rate) people in both front and back of the house. Historic buildings in areas close to new jobs are rehabbed and then rented to mostly white tenants. Firms employing disproportionately, most often predominantly, white people move their offices to the city from the suburbs. In this latter example the functionings of racism are unusually clear. By the employers it is imagined as effortless, but the amount of labor it takes to employ a majority or exclusively white workforce in a in a city over 80% Black with high unemployment is tremendous. An entire infrastructure separate from the Black city must be built. But, as ever, anti-Black efforts aren’t seen as laborious at all, simply the way things are done.

Detroit’s gentrification appears a little different in Southwest – a Latinx majority neighborhood – which paints in relief the broader anti-Black processes. In the case of Southwest gentrification is no less harmful but gentrifiers described it differently at the bars. They would pass along recommendations about which restaurant has the best tacos or tamales and attempt to position themselves as arbiters of a fetishized, ‘authentic’ Southwest experience. The Latinx neighborhood is not a blank canvas. The population adds flavor – in the case of food quite literally through actual seasoning – to the gentrifying experience. This is different, not to say better or worse, than what is done in the rest of Detroit.

It isn’t just that the redevelopment schemes are largely leaving out Detroit’s Black population, it’s that in 95% of Detroit’s geography conditions are worsening. Unemployment is higher in 2017 than in 2010. Poverty is higher in 2017 than in 2010. And 2010 is considered the bottom of the Great Recession for the rest of the country. Detroit’s “revitalization” plays significantly into the national economic recovery narrative but there has been no recovery for Detroiters, not even a stabilization. This is happening mostly for the New Detroiters. And they are celebrating the process. Indeed it is the process itself that gives them meaning as a community. Or, at least, that’s how they tell it.

 

 

 

A side note on revolting service

Beyond the specific critique, this essay also aspires to connect together my laboring hours with my ethical and political ideals. As workers we fight for pay, benefits, hours and more. This essay aspires to go beyond that towards an older labor goal: shop control. Shop control is the idea that workers should not only receive fair pay and work in safety, but should also be able to define exactly what our work is. A rivethead shouldn’t be compelled to assemble any old thing. Those who work in aerospace assembly or design should, for example, have the power to not make missiles or combat aircraft when they really want to build a craft to Mars. Both antagonizing gentrifiers while they socialize in ‘their’ spaces and critiquing and reporting on their conduct can play a small role towards shop control in a service economy. To the degree it changes customer behavior or, better, keeps certain customers out altogether it improves the work environment for laborers and gets out of the servile “the customer is always right” paradigm (that is, if the laborers ourselves are not gentrifiers which, in these types of bars and restaurants in Detroit is depressingly rare). Further, if service industry venues are not places safe to discuss and celebrate the dispossession of a Black metropolis for fear of public disclosure or confrontation then the work itself has become more friendly to the citizenry and is a small corner of the requested Hoodlum Intelligence Agency. As service industry professionals we hear and see so much. Why do we not report on it more?

“So Let It Be Done!” Of John Brown and White Anti-Racism

White anti-racists love to celebrate John Brown, normally at the expense of celebrating Black abolitionists. But does this appreciation value Brown’s actual deeds and words, especially with regarding to abolishing his subject position? For the most part, no. For all the talk about positionality there is relatively little discussion of subject position. John Brown’s life and actions are well narrated by many already. Instead here I want to focus on Brown’s statements at his trial and what they can tell us about white anti-racism and ally politics. I’m not a John Brown scholar and do not assert he would share my entire analysis. What follows is a selective reading, not a contextualization. Further this is not a critique of Brown. Both thoughtful and trash critiques are widely available including by Brown’s contemporaries.

Brown made a few statements to the court during his trial. His November 2nd 1859 address is only six hundred thirty-eight words long but offers some tremendous lessons.

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted – the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)–had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends – either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class – and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated that from the first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.

Let me say also a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I her it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown starts confessing to earlier crimes by directly intervening through participation in the Underground Railroad as he had done for nearly a decade after founding the League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts. Slavery was/is a social and legal institution, and as such freedom for the enslaved population was inherently criminalized. Actions against African Slavery were criminal acts and Brown embraces this criminality with both arms. Brown then critiques the master/capitalist class by noting if he had intervened through direct, armed action on any of their behalves he would be celebrated. Here Brown describes the misunderstanding that African Slavery imposes on the world. Systemic racism creates a discursive world where Black life can barely be conceived of, much less valued. The discursive break Brown offers is between one where only the freedom of the powerful matters and one where – how to put it – Black lives matter. That phrase is of course not Brown’s and Black revolutionaries have created diverse vocabularies, praxes and philosophies of resistance that long pre-date Brown and, in fact, inspired him to action towards Black liberation.

The most vital part of Brown’s insight comes when he utters, “I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!”

This statement is powerful poetry and inspiringly militant. He reframes what is – in the U.S. – wrong as right and right as wrong thereby inverting the relationship he describes in the prior section where the rich and powerful are the valued population. While I hold reservations about “on behalf of,” Brown’s “His despised poor” reorients the power of God through a Christian liberation theology that asserts, as in Matthew, that it is “easier for a camel to pass through a needle eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Brown’s focus is on the enslaved African and Black populations which is different than the working class vs. capitalist class but remains analogous to the Matthew verse. Brown’s key insight, however, offers a more fundamental break.

Assuming the Position

Inside of organizations of power like capitalism, settler colonialism, patriarchy and others, both individuals and status groups (“men”, “Blacks”, “natives”, “the rich”, etc.) are positioned on various axes. This is the subject position inside of power. One may hold a privileged subject position on one axis and a subordinate one on another which is a key insight of Black feminism’s intersectionality framework. For example, one may be working class vis-a-vis capitalism and thus in an oppressed position, while simultaneously being positioned as superior under white supremacy and patriarchy. This is the position of white, working class, cisgendered men for example. The class-oppressed and race- and gender-free positions are all equally true and not contradictory. The question of subject position is what separates Brown’s statements at his trial from white anti-racism.

White anti-racism is, with few exceptions, more “white” than anything else. The “white” subject position is formed by and predicated on an assumed superiority over “non-white”. The entire history of whiteness is produced towards this end. More specifically “white” was/is produced, originally, in counterposition to “Black” and “Native” providing the ethical basis for African Slavery and Indian Removal. Alternately put, white supremacy is inhered in whiteness and there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. This is to say that whiteness is defined by its subject position, not cultural production; it is the product of the colonization of Turtle Island and enslavement of Africans rather than an accumulation of traditions and influences. Whiteness’ only real tradition is white supremacy.

This presents a problem with the concepts of “white anti-racist” and “white ally”. “Ally”, specifically although not exclusively in the context of white people, is predicated on maintaining a subject position apart from the subordinated status group. To be a White Ally is to position oneself inside white supremacy vis-a-vis Blackness/anti-Blackness (as do, if differently, other settler but non-white identities). Self-identified white anti-racists have in common with neo-nazis and ilk a practice of organizing sociality around whiteness, which is again indistinguishible from white supremacy. “Ally”, “white anti-racist” and neo-nazi embrace whiteness while helping define the boundaries of the subject position. They are all attempts to be the Best Kind of White Person.

John Brown is frequently positioned as an ally par excellence. This, in my read, is a dramatic mischaracterization. Brown says, “if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!” Four years before the term “miscegenation” was coined by the nascent worldview of biological racism and Social Darwinism, Brown discussed ‘mingling his blood’ from a fundamentally different point of view. Brown asserts that the mixing of the blood is done through struggle against African Slavery.

His declaration, “So let it be done!” defines abolitionism in a way rarely discussed. For most abolitionism refers to the movement to end African Slavery’s regime of forced labor and bondage. If, in the name of the “furtherance of the ends of justice” it is necessary to forfeit all the protections that whiteness usually provides that is not calling simply for the abolition of the coerced labor and captivity, but also whiteness. It is his very subject position that is deemed both expendable and necessarily forfeited to achieve Black freedom. I read Brown’s statements as calls to abolish the fundamental construct of African Slavery, not simply the forced labor aspect thereof. This means abolishing the subject position of whiteness rather than affirming it.

Brown had “white anti-racist” contemporaries who, though abhorred by slavery and very often militantly opposed to it, never conceived of struggling against their subject position. Their ideological descendants dominate what passes for anti-racism among white people today. At best “white allies” seem committed to navigating positionality without abolishing it. It is not just the neoliberal, individualist framework it so often produces. Actions like, progressive stack during discussions, focusing on whose voices are missing and including them, representation, etc., are vital but insufficient by themselves. Some common White Ally slogans reflect the gap in understanding. “White silence is violence.” True. So is ‘white noise’. They are both true because, again, there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. “White folk work.” Some Black, native and NBPOC both are good at and enjoy doing anti-racist work in white communities. Asserting something is “white folk work” is a way to preserve a white subject position. Were maintaining whiteness not central it would just be called “work”. Why not show up and do the work without centering our white settler identities?

If, as white people committed to ending white supremacy in all its manifestations, we are serious, then we must consider our subject position forfeit. This is not the same as pretending positionality doesn’t exist and must not be carefully navigated. We must continue to undertake anti-oppression practices that somewhat mitigate our subject position’s power while doing the work to abolish it. Are we doing this while celebrating John Brown as an “ally”? Impactful opposition to white supremacy by white people has consequences for those doing the opposing. This is just as true in the cases of armed resistance like John Brown and Marilyn Buck as it is for the unarmed resistance of Charles T. Torrey. In these and other cases the cost included their freedom and health and lives as it so often does for Black and native people whether or not they are fighting the system. But being willing to pay white supremacy and anti-Blackness’ heavy costs daily born by Black people whether or not any specific person is rebelling is an important part of abolishing our subject position. The alternative is the maintenance of white supremacy.

The Anti-Blackness of Interracial Porn

Thanks to Adrenalynn and Zoé Samudzi for feedback on the draft in clarifying ideas, correcting misconceptions, identifying missing elements and improving writing. Their contributions in no way make the following their fault. After finishing this draft a friend put me on to Mirielle Miller-Young’s book A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography. After quickly rifling through it seems to cover parts of what follows if from a different angle. It came recommended and I pass along the recommendation here for people looking for an in depth treatment of some of what follows, specifically the parts dealing with Black women.

 

The term “interracial porn” seems a little sketchy on the face of it. But what exactly is going on with the marketing and labor practices of interracial porn? An examination finds fundamental problems, specifically a baseline anti-Blackness. Here I lean heavily on Jared Sexton’s analysis in Amalgamation Schemes and, guided by numerous performers who have made public criticisms of interracial porn as a concept, read interracial porn marketing through Sexton’s analysis of miscegenation/antimiscegenation discourse. As per the industry, performers and consumers, I identify interracial porn as scenes between Black men and white women. Interracial porn represents both an aspect of miscegenation/antimiscegenation as well as its deployment for purposes of capital accumulation. Tracing the history of this discourse illuminates interracial porn’s ethical problems.

 

“Race” and “Interracial”

“Interracial” necessitates a pre-existing “race” so we’ll start there. The late Patrick Wolfe writes of anti-Black racism, “Though born of slavery, […] race came into its own with slavery’s abolition. So long as slavery persisted, race – for all its usefulness as a justification – was relatively redundant as mode of domination.” This rise of race, which is the same as saying the rise of racism, “means that the boundary that had previously separated a Free Black from a slave disappears, which is to say that, in place of the slaves, a new and more inclusive oppressed category emerges. […] In other words, emancipation cancelled out the exemption: you can be an ex-slave, but you can’t be ex-Black.”

Affirming the boundary of the newly unified Black racialization was achieved in large part through sexual politics. Democratic Party supporters from the New York World newspaper coined the term “miscegenation” (from Latin, ‘group mixing’) in 1863 in an anonymous pamphlet intended to sway the 1864 elections in favor of the Democrats. The pamphlet, titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro, claimed a Republican Party goal of intermarriage between white and Black populations. While there was a debate amongst white people on whether or not to continue African Slavery, there was consensus against intermarriage and the newly popularized term miscegenation. This is to say that the concept of “miscegenation” is a product of a preexisting antimiscegenation (this also is an example of white supremacy being a manipulative power tool between groups of powerful white people more than between groups of white people with and without power as per the popular “split working class” theory of racism.). As examined further below, this applied/s to white women with Black men. White men with Black women, primarily via rape – consensual sex between enslaver and enslaved is impossible – was an accepted if unmentioned practice. Miscegenation/antimiscegenation is fundamental to biological racism and is inherently gendered, focusing as it does on reproduction and sexual encounters. Post-slavery (“post”…), miscegenation eventually becomes the sexual political concept today discussed as ‘interracial,’ the change stemming from the shift from explicit white nationalism to white nationalism under the guise of multiculturalism.

Jared Sexton writes on antimiscegenation and gets to the crux of interracial porn’s racist politics.

“If white racial identity has a public reputation as a form of purity, then antimiscegenation is the mode of production for the value of whiteness. […] However, antimiscegenation is not the essence of white supremacy or antiblackness. Rather, white supremacy and antiblackness are fundamentally relational processes unfolding between antimiscegenation and its necessary failure. White supremacy and antiblackness, in other words, emerge in the interplay between miscegenation and the forms of resistance to it. An important claim follows from this reasoning: rather than establishing themselves in vulgar opposition to miscegenation, white supremacy and antiblackness produce miscegenation as a precious renewable resource, a necessary threat against which they are constructed, a loyal opposition, a double exposure. They rely upon miscegenation to reproduce their social relations; their relations are, in fact, this very reproduction.

Miscegenation is thus taken to indicate processes of mixing, meddling, or mingling between the general and the particular, between the ephemeral body of white universality and the strangely dense corporeality of its dark-skinned others, imagined as a sprawling and overpresent, anonymous in their racialized particularity. […] Antimiscegenation is not a convenient rationalization for some other instrumentality; it is a vital component of the creation of race ex nihilo, a social contraction articulated as the form of white identity.

Sexton sums up noting that “miscegenation is a name for the imperceptible productivity of white supremacy and antiblackness.”

Miscegenation/antimiscegenation’s “mixing, meddling or mingling” describes Black as a contaminant, the contaminating element being slavery. One version of this is, in Wolfe’s phrasing, “the fact that the paternity of Black women’s children continued to have no effect on their status which remained rigorously matrilineal.” Enslaved mothers gave birth to slave babies no matter the father’s status. Per Barbara Fields, U.S. society and law “considers a white woman capable of giving birth to a black child but denies that a black woman can give birth to a white child.” This is African Slavery’s racialization where enslaved women were (re)producers of property and commodities through childbirth. Wolfe continues, “Thus Black women are not only barred from having white children. Along with Black men, they are barred from having any children other than Black ones.” Here white women are inherently violable and in need of constant guarding of their fragile purity, and Black women inviolable and ever receiving. By “inviolable” I do not mean “protected,” but that there is nothing that can be done that will be considered a violation. Nothing done to Black women will be termed harm. In Saidiya Hartman’s words, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.”

 

Anti-Black Pornography

Skin Diamond notes that, “Interracial is only ‘interracial’ if it involves a Black man and a white girl.” Sexton concurs writing, “to be considered interracial, especially in the U.S. context, [a relationship] must involve a Black person. This is not always the case, of course, and there are myriad historical examples of hysteria prompted by the prospect of sexual encounter between whites and nonblack people of color. What I sense, however, is that within the racist imagination, relationships with blacks, whether the other is white or a nonblack person of color, constitute interracial relationships par excellence.”

Diamond continues, “Technically, most of my porn is interracial but because I’m a Black chick, it doesn’t count. People only wanna see the taboo of a Black man with a white girl.” Diamond’s analysis of her scenes with white or other non-Black men ‘not counting’ speaks again to the inviolability of Black women and has two meanings. “It doesn’t count” in both marketing and accounting. This plays out in different earning potential for white and Black women performers.

The higher earning potential happens in two ways. White women performers, especially successful ones, often follow a progression of roles. Lexington Steele describes it, “There are situations where it could be the industry, whether it’s her boyfriend, her husband or management that suggests she either doesn’t do [interracial] at all, or waits until a certain time when her rates can appreciate over time. Where it’s: girl-girl to boy-girl to anal to DP [double penetration] to, and then the ultimate she can charge her most is when she finally does interracial.” This is career path is unavailable to Black women performers whose scenes are always already “racial” but never “inter” from an earning perspective, even when explicitly pointed out as such. For example Nyomi Banxxx recalled about a scene with a white male performer, “I had this conversation with my agent. I had this conversation with a director, because we were arguing about rate. I said, ‘I need to get paid for an interracial rate, IR.’ ‘No that’s not IR.’” This is one reason why Misty Stone says, Black performers “do the same amount of work but [white performers] get different opportunities.”

Another aspect of higher earning potential for white women is some performers (or their managers or agencies) simply charge more to do scenes with Black men, which is the same as saying they are racist. This is not universal and some producers, not to mention many white women performers, actively protest this specifically because it is so viscerally racist Unfortunately much of this resistance is articulated with demands to do interracial porn, to enact “the imperceptible productivity of white supremacy and antiblackness.” It is not asking white people to place their bodies in the way of racism, but to use them to (re)produce it. Further, it polices white women’s bodies to perform an ‘I’m not racist I fuck Black men’ action which proves exactly nothing.

Both the higher rate via career progression and higher interracial rate effectively place a ‘hazard pay’ rate or ‘burden tax’ on doing scenes with Black men. In other words, interracial porn labor schemes say ‘Black dick comes at a price’ and that price will be paid to white performers. It goes without saying, though needs saying, that Black women performers get no such ‘hazard pay’ for doing scenes with Black men because the perceived contaminant, the reason for miscegenation/antimiscegenation discourse and higher rates for white women performers, cannot affect Black women who are inviolable and already ‘Blacked’ as per the next section.

 

Black the Verb

This idea of the “one-drop rule” whereby any Black ancestry produces a Black racialization is the basis of miscegenation discourse and the fetish of interracial porn. The interracial porn website Blacked.com illuminates this. The name, Blacked, invokes Blackness as a corruption, as an action. ‘Blacked’ is not sex between equals, it is something that is done to someone, specifically to white women. It is white purity that is being ‘Blacked’. ‘You, white woman, have been Blacked’. There are numerous other examples like the 2012 Vivid title, Allie Haze’s Been Blackmaled. Sex with Black men is “Blackmaling”.

The public, especially though not exclusively the white public, approaches interracial porn with miscegenation/antimiscegenation enacting “the imperceptible productivity of white supremacy and antiblackness.” The Twitter mentions of popular white porn actresses are filled with demands for and condemnations of interracial scenes (search at your own risk and with plenty of sage to burn). Those condemning treat interracial porn as violations of white purity and clarify what ‘Blacked’ actually means in practice. The number of scenes and films with ‘cuckhold/cuck’ storylines is part of Black as a contamination, as a corrupting element. This weaponizes both Black penises and masculinity while giving logic to the laser focus on Black penises, colloquialized in interracial porn lingo as “BBC” (Big Black Cock). The motivations of those demanding interracial scenes are less clear. It appears to be a mix of demands to see Black male representation with popular performers and fetishization of the interracial encounter, often both.

The ‘Blacking’ racialization follows Black men performers. Whereas Black women performers are inviolable, Black men performers are always violating, except in scenes with Black women. Black men’s scenes are always already racialized. As Sexton notes, “The presence of Asian or Latino actors (nearly all of whom would be paired with white actors) would either leave the racial designation unchanged or move it into an ethno-specific label, such as Asian, Oriental, Hispanic, Spanish, Latin. Black films, in contrast, were those that starred only blacks.” Thus Black men can generally not do ‘normal’ porn except when combined with white men in scenes or films; they can only do Black or interracial. ‘Normal’ here means ‘white normative’. Yet, as ever under white supremacy, the ‘white’ is silent or, better put, unenunciated but clearly demonstrated. Thus scenes and films with exclusively Black performers are labeled “ebony/chocolate/Black” and scenes and films with exclusively white performers are not labeled “white/Aryan/snowblind.” This turns into disparate earning potential between Black and white men performers. Steele notes that “There is a differential between what I can accumulate versus someone else who is able to work with 100% of the talent pool.” Here he refers to the industry denying him normative white scenes and films as well as scenes with those performers who refuse work with Black men. With Black women and men performers the divergent earning potential compared to white colleagues is not simply the discriminatory pay rates common to racial capitalism, but a separate, racialized job profile. They are very nearly doing a different job altogether.

 

End “Interracial”

The problem of anti-Blackness is fundamental to interracial porn. Interracial porn is a present day articulation of miscegenation/antimiscegenation. Anti-Blackness is evident in the discursive fetishization of Blackness, the exploitation of (anti)Blackness for capital accumulation by porn companies and the divergent earning potential of white and Black performers. It cannot be fixed as its very premise is the problem. Ending interracial porn is not the same thing as ending scenes with Black men and white women. The encounter between Black men performers and white women performers is not the anti-Blackness; the use of the encounter is the anti-Blackness. To repeat Sexton, “white supremacy and antiblackness produce miscegenation.” White supremacy and anti-Blackness produce this “precious renewable resource” by turning specific porn performances into miscegenation/antimiscegenation, something “Blacked,” interracial. Interracial porn is the use of the racialized encounter as a means to accumulate profits. It continues from earlier regimes the idea of Blackness not as an identity but as a “position of accumulation and fungibility.” There is no way to reform it. Ending interracial porn is not the same as hiding or avoiding racism. Performers and companies could still make audience-specific films but it is indefensible that profits are today being made selling anti-Blackness.

Anti-Blackness and Israeli Police Training

Rania Khalek on 4 December 2015 published an article on Electronic Intifada – a site I too write for – titled “US cops trained to use lethal Israeli tactics.” The Facebook lede for the piece was “The Chicago police officer who killed Black teen Laquan McDonald belonged to an Israeli-trained department.” The following critiques Khalek’s article which is bad on its own merits but also stands in for a lot of reporting on the linkages between Israeli training and local oppression, including a piece of my own earlier reporting (Here, an article offering some of the same bad analysis as Khalek published on the same website six years ago. The concluding paragraphs especially share a flaw I will get to below.).

khalek article

Screen capture from the EI facebook article posting

Khalek links together the numerous U.S. police training sessions from Israeli police and trips to Israel with the methods U.S. cops use to kill Black people (presumably shooting but it isn’t made clear). Khalek then mentions viral videos of police killings and terms them snuff films. She goes on to note how these training trips serve to recruit ideological supporters for Zionism.

Khalek then points to regressive ideological formations that tie together varieties of population criminalization. She then ties together Palestinians in Palestine and Black people in the U.S. as “disposable” people in need of “warehousing” according to the Israeli and U.S. regimes. Towards the U.S.’s goals Khalek notes about Israeli training, “Who better to learn from than a state with decades of experience occupying and warehousing a population that has been deemed disposable?”

Khalek’s article contains a lot of facts yet is fundamentally flawed and the aforementioned Facebook lede is misleading at best.

There are indeed linkages between agencies of sovereign violence (police, military, intelligence, etc.) in the United States and Israel. For example, how a large segment of Washington D.C. patrol cops keep their lights flashing at all times is the direct result of travel to Israel by former and current D.C. police chiefs Charles Ramsey and Cathy Lanier. It is the adoption of an Israeli policing tactic of high visibility policing.

Yet contrary to Khalek’s thesis there is no clear linkage between Israeli training of Chicago cops and the murder of Laquan McDonald nor other Black people.

U.S. sovereign violence has two basic premises, indigenous removal and African slavery. Alternately put, harming Black people is a raison d’être of U.S. policing. What could Israel – especially as a subordinate partner of empire – teach that would lead to increased anti-Black violence in a country premised on anti-Blackness? At most there can be slight variations in practice through adopting techniques of Israeli anti-Palestinian violence as with D.C. cops deploying the perpetually flashing lights of some Israeli police patrols.

The examples Khalek offers are “American police behaving as fully militarized occupying forces in poor Black neighborhoods,” resistance against which “are met with suppression tactics nearly indistinguishable from Israel’s occupation regime.” But that has always been the case, including prior to any Israeli training. It has been so widespread for so long that already in the 1970s the U.S. had a popular tv show called S.W.A.T. dramatizing the increased militarization of police. Before Israel was teargassing Palestinian demonstrators, the U.S. was teargassing and fire-hosing Black demonstrators, the technological transfer in this instance going from the U.S. to Israel.

The article also imagines the training as unidirectional. The Khalek makes use of the war on drugs to make the case yet neglects that the U.S. is the largest – by a vast margin – trainer of police forces in the world. The U.S. has a special focus on training foreign polices and militaries in drug interdiction and suppression. One anti-drug force that has received a lot of U.S. training is Israel’s. Yet U.S. training is not something that motivates even slightly Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine. It is the material relations and ideological formations of Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine that premise anti-Palestinian violence. That the United States provides the technological backbone (arms provisions, etc.) of Israeli sovereign violence and that Israel is wholly dependent on U.S. political and material support does not change this even a little bit. To argue otherwise is to argue apart from the material history and to decenter U.S. anti-Blackness as an antagonism fundamental to U.S. history and mislocate it in part in Palestine.

This is the damning error in my earlier article as well, to imagine the was a time when U.S. police violence was ever not an occupying army in encounters with Black people. This reflects a failure to grasp the insights of both critical race theory and Afro-pessimism, the latter even more than the former elucidating the fundamental antagonism between U.S. sovereign violence (the monopoly of legitimate violence, to paraphrase Max Weber) and Black people.

Where the author talks about “viral snuff films” of police executions of Palestinians and Black people there is a real opportunity to discuss the false solidarity and pseudo-empathy in the mass consumption of imagery portraying violence against Black people and Palestinians. The mass consumption of images of anti-Blackness is a real thing and causes real harm, not to mention it plays to the worst aspects of “witnessing” as solidarity. Khalek’s use of the term “snuff film” would set the stage to discuss the libidinal economy of anti-Blackness. Jared Sexton describes the libidinal economy as, “the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification (their condensation and displacement), and the complex relationship between sexuality and the unconscious” comprising “a dispensation of energies, concerns, points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, and phobias capable of both great mobility and tenacious fixation.” Thus looking at viral images of harming Black or Palestinian people as “snuff films” is a horrifying yet accurate path to engage the libidinal economy of anti-Blackness, the ways that progressives consume Black death as a means of purported anti-racism.

Instead Khalek reads this as learning from Israel again, or seems to, it really isn’t clear what she’s pointing to in this segment if at anything at all. Like much of the article (and my previous engagement of the topic) Khalek lists things along side each other as if certainly connected without demonstrating any linkage. That Avi Dichter has a quote that seems prophetic does not matter if the fulfilled prophecy pre-dates his vision as with the militarization of U.S. police beginning in the 1960s with the various “wars on…”, a process entirely independent of Israeli training.

The author professes concern with anti-Black violence yet the unidirectional focus means it does not even briefly tough on how, to quote a recent article by Zoé Samudzi, “Afro-Palestinians [sit] at the intersection of Zionism’s anti-Palestinian sentiment and global anti-Blackness?”

The one useful piece of the article is the “Churning out Zionists” subsection (though I also appreciate Khalek characterizing militant street actions in Ferguson and Baltimore as “resistance”). The author looks at how visits between agents of sovereign violence help to build ideological relationships. In other words, police trainings are small parts of normalizing settler colonialism as foreign policy. Yet even here the author’s myopic focus makes it appear that this too is unidirectional and some kind of foreign manipulation, rather than a space of mutual affirmation. As if the billions in military sponsorships, trainings on advanced U.S. technologies and trainings of various Israeli police and military do not perform the same task so much so that Israel as a whole is a client state, even if at times a petulant one.

The technological transit throughout empire and between settler colonies is not incidental and is important. Investigations can identify spaces for joint struggle and nodes for disruption. But shallow readings like the one in the linked articles by Khalek and myself-six-years-ago lead to only superficial solidarity. The interactions themselves are outrageous enough without arguing a false causality and there are places of causality, they’re just not to be found in Khalek’s article.

The Apocalypse’s Apocalypse and Post-Apocalyptic Visions of Sunshine and Blessings

This posts stems from a conversation with Kyle Johnson after we watched Mad Max: Fury Road together. Thanks to Linda Quiquivix , Zoé Samudzi and William Copeland for feedback on the idea and draft to help make it vaguely coherent. In thinking about worlds I leaned heavily on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Frank Wilderson’s Red, White and Black even where not cited directly. None of the above can be blamed for what follows. After completing the draft a couple of friends put me onto this great recent CBC conversation which also covers parts of what is below. Special thanks to Cass Chen who was a wonderful friend, host and conversationalist while I scribbled.

George Miller’s 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Like most apocalypse/post-apocalyptic stories Fury Road comments on the present through envisioning a dystopic future. The film opens with news clips framing the violence to follow as descended from resource wars and global warming. Resource extraction and climate change are ready topics for exploring the end of the world and it is no surprise to find them as common topics for apocalyptic storytelling in cinema, novels, television and comic books. In settler colonies these stories comment upon today’s problems while neglecting that another apocalypse, one suffered by the indigenous population, pre-dates the story. Exploring post-apocalyptic storytelling with this in mind challenges settler colonial normativity and further opens up the world’s end to decolonizing visions.

Ending Othered Worlds

Fury Road, Brian K. Vaughn & Pia Guerra’s comic book Y: The Last Man and Robert Rodat’s tv series Falling Skies all offer different causes to the apocalypse. Fury Road is unspecific but points towards ecological destruction through climate change and resource wars. Y: The Last Man‘s apocalypse is an unspecified illness or curse that simultaneously kills all the mammals with a Y chromosome (in an unproduced script, Vaughn lays the blame with a U.S. biological weapons attack on China). Falling Skies‘s end of the world comes from extraterrestrial invasion.

Fury Road further comments on climate change and monopolization of resources as a means of centralizing authoritarian, patriarchal power. It follows a group of people through a mostly empty wasteland as they seek the “green place” while they are hunted by those who control the resources. Y: The Last Man narrates Agent 355 and Dr. Allison Mann as they seek to find a cause and cure for the plague that killed all terrestrial mammals with the Y chromosome but for Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand. The authors focus on patriarchy, Israeli militarism and market violence. While it is is a global story, it starts in the United States and most of its key plots points take place in three settler colonies, the United States, Israel and Australia, before departing to Japan and France later on. Falling Skies looks at the Second Massachusetts, an irregular militia comprised of survivors of the extraterrestrial Espheni conquest that killed 90% of Earth’s human population as they seek to overthrow Espheni rule and restore the United States. Falling Skies affirms American exceptionalism, laments how the U.S. strayed from the perceived ideals of early republic and takes a geocentric view of the universe in its firmly conservative critique of the present.

These stories offer three different critiques of the present from three different political views and are produced in three different mediums in two different settler colonies. Yet all are representative of a genre of post-apocalyptic storytelling that does not contemplate that the lost U.S. and Australian societies are premised upon settler genocides against the native populations. The closest any of the three comes and the closest the overwhelming preponderance of the genre come is when Y: The Last Man briefly discusses Israeli civil disobedience against Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian houses as part of developing the Israeli character Alter. One notable exception is Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto which engages a pending colonial apocalypse only to justify it. Another is District 9 where some references are made yet are mediated by the white South African hero.

Settler colonialism, the establishment of the stories’ lost worlds, is an anti-native apocalypse and, in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Brazil and Rhodesia, also an anti-Black apocalypse. The racializations of Black and native are mostly different but were simultaneously constructed through the same colonizing events. Both are products of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism builds the settler’s world – the anti-Black world – by destroying the native world and does so in a 1:1 ratio. Every acre created of coastal British/American Virginia is one acre less of Powhatan Tsenacommacah. Every dunam of Israel is one less dunam of Palestine. Settler colonialism through eliminating sovereignties and populations and creating regimes of gratuitous violence brings about the end of a world. It is sometimes even named as such as when Palestinians refer to the accelerated 1947-1949 period of Zionist ethnic cleansing and the establishment of the Israeli settler state as the Nakba (‘catastrophe’).

That we settlers comprise an anti-native apocalypse means that all our cultural production is apocalyptic, is the product of an ongoing apocalypse, including post-apocalyptic visions. John Grisham’s The Firm is an apocalyptic novel of legal corruption. Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” is an unrequited love anthem of the apocalypse. Strictly Ballroom is a film about apocalyptic cross-cultural and cross-class ballroom dancing and romance. Almost all of Danielle Steel’s opus are apocalyptic love story books. Only Miley Cyrus’ career of those four actually feels like a sign of the apocalypse but all are inherently apocalyptic as products of settler colonialism. What the intended post-apocalyptic stories Fury Road, Y: The Last Man and Falling Skies unknowingly narrate is a prior apocalypse experiencing an apocalypse itself, the apocalypse’s apocalypse. The destruction of the settler colony provides the post-apocalyptic wasteland the protagonists navigate.

Elizabeth Povinelli describes settler normativity as the “organization of sociality on the basis of the naturalness of a civilizational displacement.” Alternately put, anti-native genocide, quashing of native sovereignties and, in some settler colonies, African slavery are the fabrics that weave together and underline all settler colonial discourse and relations. Settler everyday life is the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypse but for we settlers, it is just life. In this read Furiosa and Max are settler revolutionaries fighting Immortan Joe and the settler capitalists over control of stolen Aborigine land and resources. This is why it is unsurprising that Falling Skies and Y: The Last Man both fail to engage the anti-native apocalypse despite making numerous references to the early U.S. republic, a time when even normative settler discourse knows (but always remembers to forget) that Indian Removal programs were aggressively underway in some way, shape or form.

It is hard to imagine dystopic settler stories being otherwise for settler colonialism, like all organizations of power, builds the world it inhabits. In settler colonialism’s world settler colonialism – the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypses – is near impossible to see as it is our very frame of reference. A challenging thing about normativity is it’s paradigm paradox: From what frame of reference can we observe our frame of reference? When settlers imagine the end of the world then, we imagine it as synonymous with the end of the planet or species and not the end of settler colonialism’s world. But stories consciously narrating the apocalypse’s apocalypse could describe the end of that world. They can offer a new frame of reference and play a role in subverting and disrupting settler colonial power and discourse.

The World is Ending! Hooray!

Settler storytellers explore all kinds of fascinating, entertaining and illuminating scenarios to describe the end of the world. The Terminator and The Matrix stories look to the artificial intelligence singularity. Deep Impact ends part of the world with a comet collision. The Walking Dead comic book, tv series and a long-running series of George Romero’s of the Dead films narrate a zombie apocalypse. The Wayward Pines book trilogy and tv series look at apocalypse through divergent evolution and On the Beach‘s apocalypse happens through nuclear war. None of the above reflect on the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypses.

Potentially even non-anthropocentric ones can be told. For example there is Vitamin Z – a yet to be made film documenting the multiyear boon in slow-moving, uncoordinated, easily obtainable, though quite bitey, prey for carnivores and scavengers that follows the zombie apocalypse and restores their populations to pre-capitalist/pre-colonial population levels. I hope Keith David or David Attenborough is available to narrate!

But what about when the end of the world is the apocalypse’s apocalypse? Frank Wilderson notes that, “The Slave needs freedom from the Human race, freedom from the world. The Slave requires gratuitous freedom.” Indeed, settler colonialism’s world of dispossession and gratuitous violence not only can end, but should. Stories of the end of this particular world need not be burnt skies and genocide. In narrating the end of an apocalypse they may well tell the opposite: clean air, vitality and an end to gratuitous violence and suffering. The end of settler colonialism’s world can be sunshine and blessings, little children laughing and singing silly songs, lovers dancing or any other beautiful thing. These are legit post-apocalyptic visions when describing an apocalypse happening to a prior apocalypse when combined with Black and native liberation. So are ones less polarly optimistic or romantic.

The material world stories of the whole or partial end of settler rule in Zimbabwe, Liberia and South Africa are decidedly complicated and frequently tragic. Settler colonialism is not the only wronging world in play as Black feminism’s intersectional resistance teaches. Yet stories consciously telling the apocalypse’s apocalypse can offer a discursive break, a frame of reference separate from settler colonialism’s dispossession and gratuitous violence. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “To break up the colonial world does not mean that after the frontiers have been abolished lines of communication will be set up between the two [colonial and decolonized] zones. The destruction of the colonial world is no more and no less than the abolition of one zone, its burial in the depths of the earth.” Stories telling the end of this world can be part of the shovel.

None of this is to argue that post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic stories cannot be robot apocalypses, nuclear holocausts or extraterrestrial invasions. They are frequently insightful, critical, imaginative and even beautiful. But such visions can still adopt a frame of reference not dependent upon settler colonialism’s dispossession and gratuitous violence and recognize that the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypses have long been happening. In doing so stories of the apocalypse’s apocalypse can obliterate a world that has it coming.

The Anti-Black Geography of Revitalizing Detroit

The following essay leans heavily on—though cannot be blamed on—the works of Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson despite me citing only one directly. Thanks to Kristian Davis Bailey and Lester Spence for critical feedback towards making this screed coherent.

It seems that every day brings a new story about Detroit’s “revitalization”. The Huffington Post, New York Times, Washington Post, NGOs and others point to new construction, new restaurants opening, the rehabbing or demolishing of old buildings, foundation and capitalist investment in the city and gentrification as starting a new chapter in Detroit’s history. Mayor Mike Duggan even has a “Housing and Revitalization Department” and Wayne State University hosts “Detroit Revitalization Fellows”. The narrative goes something like: “Until recently Detroit was an urban wasteland left destitute by deindustrialization, corrupt and incompetent governance, neglect and white flight but all that is changing. A new Detroit is being built and you can be a part of it!” Both this narrative and the processes it describes contain a fundamental anti-Blackness. They are premised on interrelated white capitalist accumulation, the commodification and erasure of Detroit’s Black geography, and Black social death.

The Revitalization of Detroit

A major part of ‘revitalizing Detroit’ is creating spaces for white fantasy. This is commonly done through describing the existing, living Black geography as a “blank canvas” for white gentrifiers, capitalists, politicians and academics to make of what they may. Leading gentrification figure and author Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times in 2009 that “Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished.” Dan Gilbert, Lebron James’s boss and owner of predatory lending firm Quicken Loans, is lauded as a champion of revitalization for moving Quicken’s headquarters to downtown Detroit and bringing so many newcomers to the city to work for him. Gilbert both markets subprime mortgages then chairs the “Blight Task Force” that demolishes empty houses, many of which are foreclosures caused by his firm. He can both blight and fight blight. Gilbert maintains a detailed model of downtown Detroit which only lights up buildings after he purchases them which more or less embodies this entire essay. His actions with the Blight Task Force mostly take place in Detroit’s low-income neighborhoods but he also played a role in the 2013 mass eviction of working class Black seniors and disabled people from the Griswold building downtown. With the removal of Black tenants perhaps Gilbert can now light up the Griswold building on his model. It has been ‘revitalized’.

Gilbert, the Ilitch family, and other billionaires are leading the charge but white petty capitalists and merchants are also joining in. Numerous on Crain’s Detroit’s annual “20 in their 20s” lists view Detroit as a “blank canvas”. Some new arrivals found small capitalist enterprises like the Parker Street Market that replicate what Black Detroit social movements have been doing, except reimagined for accumulation purposes rather than community prosperity. Typical to how white supremacy inverts relations, community prosperity is often imagined as white accumulation through ‘socially conscious’ capitalist enterprise. The Parker Street Market is emblematic of the small scale ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring fantasies in Detroit they could not realize at such relatively low expense in wealthier, whiter geographies. Enterprises like the much ballyhooed Whole Foods Detroit do like Parker Street but on a vastly larger scale. The Black social movements are scarcely noted, often erased entirely, while white capitalists are toasted. To the degree that Black Detroiters are acknowledged it is as Jon Moy wrote about Shinola. Shinola is an extraordinarily expensive retail and assembly shop located in the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood now marketed as ‘Midtown’, and is itself part of turning the Cass Corridor into Midtown. Moy writes, “Shinola and other entrepreneurs market themselves as white knights, swooping in to save the noble savages.” Here one’s politics might be positioned by whether one can tell the difference between shit and Shinola.

When former Governor Jennifer Granholm convened a panel to restructure Detroit schools she asked them to treat schooling children in a district around 90% Black like a “blank canvas”. Detroit’s schools were at the time, as they continue to be, under Emergency Manager (EM) rule, run by a technocrat with extraordinary powers appointed by the governor. EMs replace the decision making power normally allocated to elected officials (leaving the actual power of U.S. elections for another time). Democrat and Republican governors appoint Emergency Managers (EMs) to run the schools and city no matter decisions made by Detroit’s Black electorate (as they’ve done with most majority-Black cities and towns in Michigan). Black people make up around fourteen percent of Michigan’s populace and nearly half have been subjected to Emergency Manager rule, compared to less than one percent of white Michiganders. Detroit’s schools or city government have been under EM rule for over fifteen years now. The decisions of Black Detroiters simply do not matter and are erased. Emergency Management is a more politically palatable action than the phrasing used in 2004 by a white suburban politician describing a need to “suppress the Detroit vote.” Detroit politics are a “blank canvas” for the state’s white political leadership to inscribe their Emergency Management experiment upon. The ‘blank canvas’ term is now less in use than in past years due to push back from Detroiters continually emphasizing that they actually exist but the concept persists largely unperturbed.

Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to outside real estate speculators, a new petty landlord class (a place where there is a significant measure of Black capitalist participation), the fantasists and the property hoarders like John Hantz, Gilbert and others. They buy up houses, buildings and plots in any low-cost neighborhood. They know nothing of the neighborhoods because Black neighborhoods do not matter to them apart from a vision of capital accumulation. The speculators seek a quick turnaround anywhere and future profits around the current periphery of gentrification. The landlords seek higher rents (more easily accomplished with white renters who receive higher wages). The hipster fantasists do their entrepreneuring (gag!) while bringing a higher police presencethey want Detroit grime but not Detroit crime. The hoarders seek to create an artificial scarcity so as to drive up all prices. Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to white capitalist accumulation and it is explicitly the city’s Blackness that makes it so.

By an overwhelming margin Black Detroiters bear the brunt of these and related oppressive actions. The population embodies the Detroit purportedly in need of vitalizing, of adding life to, for anti-Blackness dictates that Black people are socially dead. It is mostly Black people who are being foreclosed upon and evicted, who are having their votes invalidated by EMs, who are having their water shut-off and then their kids removed due to no water service, whose neighborhoods become playgrounds for real estate speculators. But Black suffering as a negative is a rare topic of discussion in such matters and condemnation of these actions outside of Detroit too is rare. For how can the socially dead suffer? Indeed in most conversations it is the Black working class and the, in Frantz Fanon and Huey Newton’s positive understanding, Black lumpenproletariat who are said to be responsible for the consequences of white supremacist capitalist policies rather than racial capitalism being the cause. Inside racial capitalism it can hardly be otherwise. It is official policy so it is as Saidiya Hartman said, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.” There is no more telling example of Hartman’s phrasing than the 2010 collaborative reality television and police murder of Aiyana Stanley Jones on Detroit’s East Side. She was a young girl sleeping in her bed when police and a reality tv crew burst through her door and killed her while exercising a warrant. There has been no accountability and the cop that murdered her is back at work disciplining Black bodies for the state.

The Devitalization of Detroit

Large scale disinvestment and the underdeveloping of Detroit began in the 1960s after highway construction helped facilitate white flight to the suburbs. Highways constructed for the imperial war effort in the 1940s paved the way for white relocation to suburbs ever further north across 8 Mile road and to the city’s west. The population shift was triggered by accumulation from industrial production during the war, the automobile industry and the arrival of vast numbers of Black migrants from the South. In the case of the construction of the Chrysler Freeway (I-75 and I-375), this was accomplished by paving over the remains of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, neighborhoods comprising the cultural, political and economic core of Black Detroit demolished by Mayor Cobo. Alternately put, white flight was in part realized in driving over an intentionally dislocated and disoriented Black civil society and geography. The erasure described above is not new. It was tried through physical demolition as with Black Bottom and with real estate redlining from the moment Detroit’s Black population began rapidly expanding.

Industrialists, CEOs and boards of directors closed and relocated manufacturing plants away from the increasingly Black city. Others used automated production not to enhance the workforce but instead to deskill (so as to pay lower wages and reduce bargaining power) and replace (so as to pay no wages and face no bargaining power) workers. Many did both. With the removal of jobs came the removal of the sector serving those employees and employing others. The managerial and most of the white working class followed those jobs and fled the rapidly arriving Black population that, for a few decades, continued to grow. Whites increased their flight in response to the 1967 Rebellion, commonly called ‘the riots’. In the late 1980s the Black population started to leave too, this not counting the disappeared tens of thousands continually sent off to prisons all over the state. Meanwhile successive neoliberal local and state administrations have sold off and given away control of city assets, most recently Belle Isle.

The ‘revitalization’ narratives note some of the above but do so with minimal critique of the racist, capitalist policies that made it this way. Detroit’s problems didn’t simply happen, they were and are being engineered and are the predictable results of both corporate and government policies (to the degree that it is useful to separate them). Further, they note these problems but ignore positive action by Black residents and every solution not offered by the elite. This is due to another aspect of anti-Blackness, the social death of slavery.

Rather than being a blank canvas the actually existing Detroit is a canvas painted over and again, beginning with French and later British settlers killing and expelling the local Ojibwe population and establishing a slaveholding settler colony. How is today’s Detroit, a near inverse of the original settler colony, with its block parties, vibrant social movements, mosques, churches, restaurants, clubs, numerous annual festivals, its own dances, musics and other cultural production in need of revitalization? Of needing an injection of life? Because it is Black metropolis. As Hartman, Orlando Patterson, Frank Wilderson and others have illustrated, Blackness to White America is social death, is a marker of a fungible commodity rather than humanity. For White America adding ‘matter’ to ‘Black lives’ is almost redundant as it disavows Black life in the first place.

Black life in Detroit is unrecognizable to the planners of the New Detroit. Detroit the existing, living city simply isn’t to the elite, so long as it is a Black city. Revitalization is the influx of young white people and investments by white capitalists. Devitalization—a geography of social death and an unuttered word—is the process by which Detroit became a Black metropolis. Detroit is said to be in need of revitalization and that revitalization imagines a geography devoid of humans, a “blank canvas”, because the social death of Blackness imagines Black residents not as individual people but as fungible markers of white accumulation. These narratives show a total and aggressive contempt for the Black metropolis, its people and social movements. But “revitalization” is not treated as problematic no matter the massive harm it’s causing because, to repeat Hartman’s phrasing, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.”