Jason Craige Harris
Taking oneself – as opposed to the classic anthropological other – as one’s primary text for inquiries into the violence of modernity can be endlessly daunting. One can be haunted by past encounters with violence, which might breed anticipatory resistance, causing one to vigilantly guard against boundlessness. After all, one’s engagement in projects of self-unveiling requires immense vulnerability, inevitable invitations to the scrutinizing gaze of others. We must not act as if self-preservation and boundary maintenance are unjustifiable and unnecessary, especially when considering those who experience modernity’s vicious scorn incessantly. Nevertheless, discourses of self-defense and communal safety, particularly when nationalized, can gesture toward, if not wholly embody, imperialistic agendas. Need I mention the so-called Global War on Terror? The occasional discursive disrobing of self, however painful, is likely more fruitful and world transforming than perpetual resistance to such disclosure. For some, living in this way perennially, abandoning all pretensions to self-protection, is rather appealing. For others, such exposure may only represent violences and violations to be shunned. I choose to oscillate between these, to dwell in the “in-between” space. I believe sites of vulnerability, whether initiated by or against the self’s will, hold positively creative potentiality. As Judith Butler argues in Precarious Life, loss and vulnerability seem to be fundamental to embodied social life and an embracing of this reality could mean a more inclusive politics of relationality, a new understanding of what it means to be human (2004, pp. 19-49).
A decisive step toward this relational posture, I have tasked myself with reflecting on the notion of formative experiences of racial awareness and the attendant evolution of critical race consciousness. Perhaps paradoxically, it would be intellectually dishonest of me to represent a particular genesis of my own racial imagination from which all subsequent racial experiences and consciousness have flown. For better or worse, I cannot recall a time when I was not aware of my own racial identity, those of others, and the varied and complex interactions betwixt and between. What I can say with some degree of certitude – in the face of fleeting and continually redacted memories – is that there have been particular moments throughout the course of my life at which race has come to the fore of my human social experience and identity. My own conception of and encounter with shifting racial identities, experiences, and analytics have been more pronounced at times than they have been at others. This, of course, has largely depended on the milieus in which I have found myself and the degrees to and manners in which those contexts have been politicized and racialized. Furthermore, some of it has turned on the extent to and the way in which I have allowed – and have been able to (dis)allow – external situations to affect my internal ruminations on my selfhood, my multiple selves.
These contextual and temporal variables notwithstanding, particular themes have persisted throughout my racial life. Summarily, my body has been the site of incredible contestation, the slate upon which various constituencies have sought to inscribe oft- contradictory racialized meanings, some agreeable to me and others not so. I have harbored various meaning-making projects in service of those whose self-understanding has emerged in contradistinction to my own. Representations of my body, if not my body itself, have been made to serve empire’s interests and have been circulated by its capitalist media enterprise. Indeed, materiality and ideology dubiously marry. I have been named by voices not from within and called by names not indigenous to me. I have been cast as the periphery of another’s center. I have been called “unfree” so that certain others might call themselves “free” and might comprehend on their own terms what that means. For some, freedom is meaningless in a world where there is no bondage, no one to serve as freedom’s antithesis. From what I can tell “White” is likewise implicitly and yet dominantly seen as void of meaning without its counterpart “Black.”
My inability to mark a time at which my racial experiences began, so to speak, is quite telling. That I have been unable to think of a time before the commencement of my racial life, when I was merely tabula rasa, says something about U.S. social ontology and my place in it as a darker-bodied individual. It seems to me that one historical peculiarity of the U.S. and surely Western modernity writ large has been an over-attention to – obsession with – observable differences in human physiology. More specifically, color differences and their concomitant notions of culture/behavior, vernacular/language, religion, biology, and psychology/intellect, morality, among others, have together come to constitute the Western modern notion of race, which has been a – if not the – central organizing principle of U.S. society. Apparently, interiorities are always already accessible by surface readings of bodies, which are frequently thought to map the whole of a person comprehensively. It is worth mentioning that this form of epistemology rests on a very specific visual economy that emerged within the relationship between European imperialism and “Enlightenment” natural history and pseudo-science. It is not and has never been the only way to categorize and order social reality or human beings, for that matter.
Hegemonic notions of race, particularly the white/black binary characteristic of U.S. race relations, have determined the lines along which have been allocated economic resources, educational opportunities, job/career positions, means for securing good physical and mental health, and social capital. Indeed race delineates the very contours of the category of the human, determining who gets to live, in what condition they live, and ultimately whose life is mourned and celebrated after its material conclusion. When viewed from this vantage point, it becomes rather plausible that I have not known an existence prior to race and have subsequently been unable to forget race—I am simply embodying a larger U.S. reality. As a Black man living in what I take to be a white supremacist, settler colonial, patriarchal/sexist, capitalist, homophobic/heterosexist, and Christian (of a certain kind) globalizing empire, it makes absolute sense why I narrate my life as one having been always already born into racial realities and racial reasoning, critical or otherwise. Indeed, regardless of the ascent of President Obama, America is not post-racial and may never be, though the meanings of race have changed and can continue to change. Such awareness of race’s instability can bring one both hope and fear, especially if one has abandoned an Enlightenment liberal narrative of inevitable progress or a self-absolving messianism. Things could get better or they could get worse. Nothing is set in stone. Those who benefit the most from empire can take solace in this fact as much as those who benefit the least, if at all. There is work to be done.
As a progressive Evangelical, working-class, Black man living on the margins of both dominant masculinity and American identity, I have had to defend my existence, my humanness, against incessant assaults by white supremacist ideas and the proponents thereof. (Please note my unwillingness to racialize those proponents oh so readily, as I have learned that they come in many “colors,” though they have historically and rather overwhelmingly been white.) I have often encountered individuals who have assumed that I have less of a right than they do to live and to do so safely, free from threat, to exist in certain spaces, to announce myself as a thinking and feeling human being, and to give voice to my unique experiences. I have had to battle harmful stereotypes most of my life simply and yet complexly because of the color of my skin.
This emphasis on raciality notwithstanding, I would like to acknowledge the other categories of identity/difference that I inhabit, which subsequently shape and are shaped by my experiences of racial identity. My story cannot be told with integrity without such a complication. I have recognized that the kind of racial harm to which I have been subjected has articulated itself through my gendered and classed particularity, a uniquely vexed nexus. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I regularly encountered the sharpness of discursive blades, as they cut into my personhood because I did not fit a certain paradigm of urban, Black masculinity. I was frequently “feminized” and “whitened” by my particular display of intellectual prowess on the one hand, and “blackened” and “vilified” on the other, all by disparate constituents making competing claims to my body. I was no stranger to words like “faggot” and “gay” violently hurled at me like bricks meant to introduce my soul to death’s cold and unforgiving grip. Please hear me, words can be bullet-shaped and assuredly can be fired from lips curled like guns. Likewise, I was no stranger to the perpetual sense of otherness and concomitant inferiority that the condescending and judgmental stares of economically privileged white folks have often engendered in the psyches of poor and working-class people of color.
After all, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment down the street from suburbia with a hard-working single mother who detested that we received governmental assistance. Similarly, I was no stranger to (Christian) white folks who ostensibly accepted me and yet always reminded me that I was not like them, that I existed as their near-charity case, their way of making themselves feel better about, well, themselves. And yet, in general, I felt like a stranger, an exile. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the many times that I was reminded that I was seemingly good enough to be the friend of a white girl/woman, but I better not get too close because the ever-present reality that I could morph into a Black bestial rapist was never far from her mind or that of her parents.
The discursive and behavioral strategies that I have employed to keep myself safe and sane are numerous and contextually contingent. Ironically, it is in the plurality of those strategies that I have found some measure of emancipation. I have recognized that the socially constructed terrains of identity that I occupy never contain all of me, though they may contain parts of me. My racial identity is part of me, but not all of me. At times, it frees and enables me to be in a certain way, while at other times it binds and restricts me. In reality, I always already dwell in excess of these identity categories, explode them, collapse them, and yes, shore them up. It is in these interstitial, liminal, and hybrid spaces that I have lived my life and will most likely continue to do so as I endeavor to resist power just by being and being vastly.
Helping me to live into my vastness, my Christian faith has been a source of healing and self-discovery in this journey, even as it has been my most intimate antagonist. For many people – at least in progressive circles – it is not news that Christianity has been implicated in (re)producing the structures on which empire rests and – yes – the very modern notion of empire itself. Historically, oppressive notions of race have often sanctified themselves through Christian logic. Need I mention the Eurocentric (so-called) biblical justifications for the Transatlantic slave trade and the dispossession of autochthonous peoples in the Americas? This notwithstanding – news? – it is just as true that resistance to the structures of empire has been inspired by Christian ideas and framed with Christian language. Here we might consider as proof the life testimonies of Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Cone. Christianity has perhaps ironically given rise to its greatest critics, to counter-narratives that challenge the Constantinian right of empire to exist and to do so with Christianity’s imprimatur. This dual potentiality gives us all hope, Christians and non-Christians alike, because it may mean the progressive transformation of the world-ordering, all-affecting force that Christianity has been and continues to be.
From its imperial inception, Christianity has embodied liberating and subjugating strands, a fact that presents us with the responsibility to labor collectively to orient it toward its more just tenor. We, the inhabitants of the margins, cannot afford to be silent now. As Audre Lorde simultaneously upbraids and encourages us in Sister Outsider, “Your silence will not protect you” (1984, p. 41). We might even take a lesson from the earth, which has not ceased to groan aloud under empire’s tireless non-reciprocal and exploitative extractions. Planetary life depends on us using our voices and our strategic appropriations of our marginal statuses. Indeed, the margins can be the womb of great subversive power, courageous vision, and the willingness to dream—for it is by stealing our dreams that empire co-opts our vision and power. They can facilitate the birthing of necessary oppositional consciousnesses that strategically move between transcendence and immanence, always holding in view Isaiah’s ashes from which beauty arises and the ultimate restoration of human and non-human beings. We are located within and beyond, above and beneath. As Catherine Keller writes in God and Power, “Always between-times, Christian theology here works to come to terms with its own chronic imperial condition. It does not pretend to transcend its global space. It practices an alternative creativity within the interstices of empire” (2005, p. xii). This sort of post-colonial, liberationist meditation reminds us that the Creator wondrously creates possibilities beyond possibilities in the trenches, in the interstices, in us, as She did in Jesus, who is and who facilitates the ultimate “in-between” space—the great Mediator.