It has been a while, and a lot has happened since the last time I wrote, 3 to 4 months shy of a year ago.
I am now insisting on expressing myself within my own literacy. The interested will read, the uninterested will not. So be it. I am no longer presenting myself an entertainment, a spectacle, for The Gaze.
In October of 2021, I suffered my first mental breakdown: an episode that started without warning one late Monday afternoon. Initially, at its onset, I had thought it was largely physiological and so proceeded to the clinic. My exchanges with the nurse at the front desk surprised me: I heard my own voice trembling with emotion — distinct words accompanied by sharp, yet fleeting emotion which seemed to disappear or dissipate just as instantly as the words themselves once they left my mouth. I realized I was in distress.
I was also wearing a mask which perhaps concealed my condition to the nurse at the clinic’s front desk. He asked me to return the next day when the clinic was open.
Unlife hurts, unlife grieves, unlife dies and unlife loves: unlife knows these things to be true about itself. Unlife resides inside bodies with anatomical and physiological structures and processes just like bodies inhabited by life. Except that unlife is neither valued, nor worth preserving because unlife moves in the world as a ventriloquism of life.
This is what I mean: African black bodies ventriloquize white bodies in that they possess hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers, bones and blood as if only to mimic white bodies; they possess brains and contrive minds to mimic reflection, memory and thought just as life in white bodies; they breath, tire and age to mimic the white lifespan and its inevitable mortality; they grieve, bruise and ache to mimic white pain. When they die, Black bodies demonstrate how white life itself expires. Black bodies are therefore not living bodies — they are lifeless proxies in the sense that they only either mimic life or mimic death; they function as ongoing social autopsies rendering in vivid detail, from their mimicked birth, their mimicked growth to their mimicked deaths, all of which are merely convincing performances of pretending to be alive, the ways in which life contained in white bodies might itself live, find joy, encounter suffering and confront death. Black bodies are the white imaginary of “life” without sanitization; life cursed by melanin.
Violence against the black body therefore makes possible the ways in which white life might anchor its own sense of place and sharpen its own sense of morality. Violence functions to keep in focus what whiteness stands to lose. Through Black suffering whiteness is able to imagine, or even teleport itself towards, forms of suffering.
Questions about what might happen to a white body if it was denied air by means of a knee pressed against its neck into the ground are given answers when actual knees are pressed into the necks of Black bodies, and then through broadcast technologies, spread for other white eyes to see. White moralism then affirms itself through the rapturous outburst of outrage: this is not who we are, this cannot be us! We are not butchers of the great racial Other.
Mysteries of how bullets rip through flesh, puncture lungs and penetrate hearts, are resolved in forced entries into homes followed by shootings into Black bodies “mimicking” sleep. Inquiries into how structural poverty, disease and famine ravish bodies, shredding them from the inside until all their flesh is eaten away to reveal protruding, brittle bones through sagging, inelastic Black and Brown skin find their answers on the Black continent: a uniquely backward place resulting from, rather than colonial-racist violence, the direct consequence of lumping unlife by the hundreds of millions onto one land mass. This is also the justification for border controls and ports of entry, places which remain porous to white bodies but impervious to Black and Brown ones; this explains moral panics in the west of the hordes marching from the dark continents northwards into the west, and has up to this point proved the biggest bulwark against even more vicious militarism in the global south more so than any anti-war movement in solidarity with the global south— “let’s not bomb them too heavily over there because the survivors, indestructible to our powerful weapons, will only come here and turn our societies into the failures that are theirs”
Africa is thus neither the dead nor the undeveloped continent: rather, it is the black continent, a spaceless, timeless and lifeless place were life can witness directly all the possibilities of backwardness from a vantage point of superiority. Africa is the amoral place where whiteness looks to affirm its various means of self-preoccupation: it is the place where backwardness is the norm ordained and sustained by unlife mimicking life; a place where white fantasies as well as apprehensions are projected such as “blackness’s contentment with lack and so-called simplicity”, “large, voluptuous, gyrating bodies with large breasts and wide hips”; “large unflagging penises, dark skin, coarse voices and thick, crinkled hair”; “unusual, unhuman-like physicality”; “hyper-reproductivity of Black women, churning out babies at rates incontestable by white bodies, obstinate to medication and birth-controlling technologies, and despite malnourishment”; “inescapable ritualism and spirituality so thick and dense as to permanently blacken, impair and intoxicate”; “rampaging masculinity attended by palpable libido”; “constant miracles among scrawny famine ravaged bodies which somehow do not give out entirely” because, as it is already known, it takes extreme conditions, and only extreme conditions including systematic violence, to kill that which is already neither alive nor dead. Everything beautiful and enchanting about Africa is natural; everything that is ugly or dangerous is Black. Thus Africans are not only neither alive nor dead, but they are also unnatural — after all, all things which are alive and are natural, live and die.
Slavery and colonialism tried and failed; as did ethnocides and genocides; as is mass incarceration within the west itself as the internal complement of the hard lines and boundaries enforced by armed battalions outside and beyond the west at borderlands and within its colonies and neo-colonies; as have the wars and occupations which have extinguished millions. Africa is every sticky and static mundaneness of Black existence as the fixed norm; it is all the occasional departures into the extremes in sexuality, spirituality and physicality. It is the imaginary which animates and inspires the relentless pursuit of systems and technologies intended to trap, control, contain and extinguish unlife, directly and indirectly disciplining life itself, lest this condition spreads and infects life.
It is the white anthropologists repressed wet dream: a fictional place with fictitious life underwritten by the projected realism of anatomical and physiological mimicry of the life and its white body. Africa is the white anthropologist conducting autopsies. How the African thinks, feels or imagines themself is irrelevant because mimicry thinks no thoughts.
Why then preserve my life?
After my psychological episode which was followed by a diagnosis of severe depression, I found myself in the ironic, contradictory position of being on the receiving end of institutional concern and mercy. Reams of paper by way of forms filled out; support systems by why of smartphone apps downloaded and activated on my phone; counselling sessions organized; medication dispensed; future visits scheduled.
The medical-psychiatric institution was in motion diagnosing, classifying, tracking, mapping and inquiring; drawing from its internal as well as networked institutional memory of “how to deal with conditions such as this one”.
The efficiency of the entire process alerted me to the reality that my condition was therefore not an isolated one; that these processes had been learned and polished over time and across places. There were others like me before from which these processes were learned, and there will be others like me for which my presence there would be drawn for them as well. There were boxes being checked on diagrams which pointed towards aggregated outcomes. This meant also that all bodies in distress, as I was, tended towards certain common characteristics which fed into certain common treatments, which in turn led to certain common outcomes. The practices in the psychiatric-medical space professed a universalism about humanity seemingly cutting across the life-unlife divide.
The ways by which life is preserved were not distinct from the ways in which unlife is preserved. But of course, these methods themselves have been established with a certain type of life in mind which requires a certain reification of what constitutes psychiatric and medical knowledge — or just knowledge in general — and shapes the relationships between life and unlife vis-à-vis said psychiatric and medical institutions. Experiments conducted on Black bodies due to their “similarities” with white ones are well documented, including in the field of gynecology where the enslaved Black body cut, torn and tortured repeatedly without anesthesia, provides insights for the more ethical treatment and preservation of white bodies: the subhuman or unhuman strangely providing crucial data for the [gendered] white human. In sum, rooted in these sociohistorical realities are many of the reasons why Black and Brown bodies, that is unlife, remains suspicious, indeed highly skeptical, of the clinic. But again, can mimicking minds genuinely remember — or are we just Black and irrational?
Therefore, the ways by which life might be extinguished are the ways in which unlife is also extinguished, such that the important distinction is not in the processes that spring into motion once preservation is activated, but the relationship that life and unlife has to those processes and the institutions which activate them.
The preservation itself occurs once this distinction between life and unlife has already been made: a compelling current instance of which has been our Covid-19 pandemic moment in which fatalities among Black and Brown bodies have far outstripped those among white bodies within the western enclave: these bodies have had to be vaccinated owing to their proximity to white life while those in the Global South, just as Black and Brown as the ones in the Northern hemisphere, were left at the full disposal of the virus. And in returning to the “extreme physicality” trope, the absence of death on a massive, fit-for-Africa scale, long predicted from the onset of the pandemic by different western commentators, did not lead to an inquiry into what the backward Black continent may have done correctly in its Covid response, but rather furthered and compounded myths drawn and extrapolated from white imaginaries of Black unlife on the continent. In sum, the pandemic did not happen in Africa as anticipated simply because Africans are not really human “like us”. In one commentary, the following proclamation was made: “Africans are simply too poor to suffer and die from Coronavirus.” They have been hardened by a brutal, harsh unlife.
Africans only mimic humanity, they are not a part of it.
So here I was in the west receiving salvation by proximity even as the rest of my family had been largely condemned to mimicking death back home. If any of them had died, which thankfully none of them did despite infections within our extended family, then my grieving here would have been mimicry while their deaths there would have also been mimicry; both of them, my crying and their dying, mere data points for anthropological inquiry into African modes and patterns of wailing and African rituals of dying and death, respectively.
Black bodies are ungrievable largely because they do not actually die, but rather only mimic death. That which is not alive cannot die; it cannot receive sympathy, and thus all charity extended to it is not for its sake but for the sake and sensibilities of the living body that actually extends it; for the body that can actually feel grief and extend charity. The moral crisis which would envelope the west, say, at the sudden disappearance of Africa and Africans, at the sudden disappearance of Blackness, would be felt by the removal of the ultimate irredeemable object of white pity.
And so my body while being saved by proximity to white life, still bore on its body and mind the indelible mark of dispensability through my real connections to the Black continent; still borne on its psyche — that part that mimics thought and memory — its dispensability at the equally efficient processes of institutions such as the police, immigration [read: Black and Brown body] control, and the criminal justice system [read: criminalized bodies system] through my real connections to the thousands of Black bodies incarcerated their on a day by day basis.
On this occasion, that is the occasion of my mental breakdown, the social autopsy rendered on me was one in the direction of preservation in service of an institutional morality which I doubt exists for the intrinsic value of my own life; while on another occasion, the social autopsy rendered might direct me towards a bullet-punctured heart, a collapsed lung, a crushed windpipe or some other disruption of an internal organ which only mimics the physiological functions of the real organs housed in actual living bodies.
Since November of 2021, I started running frequently. I have found psychological comfort in witnessing my body do things which are fulfilling to me. I am thankful — grateful — for its health. I enjoy feeling it working — running. In social terms however, it is a sand castle; a tolerated fiction inside of which I live whose outside is marked with fantasies, objectifications and dangers. Healthy, loved and celebrated as it is by me, connected as it is to those before me out of whose intimacy and love I came to be — it can be terminated in an instance for, shall we say, data collection — for autopsy. There might be a fantasy, a question, an objectification, a curiosity and an intellectual interest as yet unresolved as to how jogging or running African unlife mimics dying. One day I might be found on hand, running in just the right moment, for these unresolved matters to be answered.
My life is not preserved for me: I am the great unliving other. It is preserved for the moral fortification of whiteness, at least for now.