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Tracing Historical Specificity:
Race and the Colonial Politics of (In)Capacity

In October 2016 I attended a lecture by Frank B. Wilderson III sponsored by Wesleyan's Center for the Humanities. I had read his book Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms, along with select articles and interviews—but had yet to hear him present his work. The talk was titled "Afro-Pessimism and the Ruse of Analogy." I went in already critical given my familiarity with Afro-Pessimist thought—not only through his work, but that of Jared Sexton and other scholars.1 As Wilderson himself explains, Afro-Pessimism is an "unflinching paradigmatic analysis on the structures of modernity produced by slavery and genocide." Drawing on the works of Orlando Patterson, Saidiya Hartman, and Hortense Spillers (among others), Afro-Pessimists theorize blackness as a position of accumulation and fungibility, that is, as a condition—or relation—of ontological death.2 In Red, White & Black, Wilderson theorizes the structural relation between Blacks and Humanity as an antagonism (an irreconcilable encounter) as opposed to a (reconcilable) conflict. He, along with other Afro-Pessimists, theorizes the workings of civil society as contiguous with slavery and claims the "inability of the slave to translate space into place and time into event."3 Wilderson's insistence of absolute negativity destroys the possibility for coalitional politics because it frames the Black Body as something that will always stand in an antagonistic position to the world.4

At Wilderson's talk I took careful notes, and by the end of the lecture I was so perturbed, I figured I had better attend the faculty seminar the next morning to further engage. There, I mustered up the wherewithal to ask Wilderson about his argument the night before—and in his work at large—that there is no institutional capacity in which Blacks can assert leverage over anyone; that they are only instruments, not agents. I cited the case of Bacon's Rebellion—an armed revolt in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon against the rule of the Virginia colonial governor William Berkeley—and asked Wilderson how he could reconcile his position in light of a tough example of black agency in uniting with indentured and other poor Europeans in committing genocidal violence [End Page 257] against Indian tribes. He responded by asking me why I would "privilege Blacks participating in genocide over the role of whites." I did not (and do not)—so I simply reiterated that I wanted to understand how he reconciled his argument with that particular history. He replied by asking me why I didn't instead look to the horses they rode and the bullets they used, provided by the whites that made the Blacks mere "instruments" of their project. I noted that this was during the period prior to the hardening categories that created racially based chattel slavery in the region and that there was variation among African individuals there at that time in terms of their social and legal status. I also added that the question seemed especially pertinent given his assertions in Red, Black & White, in which much of the argument depends on his reading of Indian genocide, since he critiques "the Red Ontologist" for privileging indigenous sovereignty when genocide is essential to the ontology of the Indian.5 But this didn't get us any farther. He pointedly told me, "We are not going to agree on this."

Given this AQ forum on Patrick Wolfe's Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (2016), I want to take up his work to examine Afro-Pessimism in relation to issues raised by the exchange recounted above. I take up the question of Afro-Pessimism in this context, since Wolfe repeatedly states (and deftly demonstrates), "race is not a static ontology."6 He notes, "As its name suggests, [race] is an ongoing, ever-shifting contest."7 Among many other interventions, Traces of History challenges the understanding that blackness was or is transcendent. To assert blackness as ontological is to recapitulate colonizing thought, to take colonial ideology as truth. However, Wolfe went beyond merely stating that race is a social construct. As Ben Silverstein put it in his memorial essay, "Patrick insisted instead on thinking about race as one element of the Althusserian totality, an overdetermining level of the social formation."8 Wolfe therefore brings "poststructuralist rigor to bear on materialist approaches to ideology."9 Through his careful historical work, Wolfe theorized race as a process, examining racialization as practice alongside race as doctrine. He argued, "race is colonialism speaking."10 In other words, European colonizers racialized the colonized in specific ways that mark and reproduce (in ways that can change across time) the unequal relationships into which colonial actors initially co-opted these populations.

Wolfe's theory enables a critique of racialization as an effect of colonialism, the working out in practice of colonial ideology. This is why he called for a shift "from the register of race to that of colonialism," identifying dimensions of the colonial dispensation that "cannot be expressed in the language of phenotypes." [End Page 258] The difference here, then, between Wolfe and Wilderson (as well as other Afro-Pessimists), is that they register not from race to colonialism, or even from race to slavery, but slavery to race. Wilderson universalizes a particular rendition of black experience to claim that the Black Body is in a perpetual state of ontological death because of the violence of the Middle Passage. He traces to when Arabs inaugurated this thirteen hundred years ago with the opening of the African slave trade.11 His main argument for the ontological death (cast in singular terms) of the Black Body is because of Blacks' incapacity to develop their own subjectivity. As he puts it, "Blackness is incapacity in its pure and unadulterated form."12

To get at this problematic, I offer a brief account of Bacon's Rebellion as an example of a case in which the Black Body is not socially dead—not incapacitated. Thus I challenge the ontological absolutism that is endemic to Afro-Pessimist thought at large. Several black radical scholars have challenged this "ontological absolutism." For example, David Marriott notes, "Wilder-son is prepared to say that black suffering is not only beyond analogy, it also refigures the whole of being. It is not hard when reading such sentences to suspect a kind of absolutism at work here, and one that manages to be peculiarly and dispiritingly dogmatic."13 Moreover, Marriott argues that the claim that "Blackness is incapacity in its most pure and unadulterated form means merely that the black has to embody this abjection without reserve. … This logic—and the denial of any kind of 'ontological integrity' to the Black/Slave due to its endless traversal by force does seem to reduce ontology to logic, namely, a logic of non-recuperability."14

My critique here is rooted in historicizing race—that active element of racialization—races as "traces" of history. Hence, looking at the case study of Bacon's Rebellion, I challenge Wilderson's advancement of a purity argument that also happens to be ahistorical. I come at this debate as a scholar of sovereignty, race, and indigeneity trying to reckon with these troubling formulations.15 Bacon's Rebellion shows that racialized chattel slavery was a deliberate choice the English elites came to over time. And here I draw on Wolfe's Traces of History, along with the work of the historian Edmund Morgan, to offer a rudimentary overview.16

In 1619 Virginia, West Africans arrived after the Dutch sold them as slaves to the English settlers. However, the English did not immediately devise this status for them; they were not slaves in the sense of persons reduced as property and required to work for life without wages.17 In 1619 Virginia had no law legalizing slavery, and many Africans were sold as bonded laborers or [End Page 259] indentured servants who lived and labored alongside poor Europeans—bound by contract to serve a master in order to repay the expense of their passage and other debts.18 Some worked in the fields side by side, lived together, ate together, shared housing, and more. Yet, as early as 1630, the English started singling out Africans for differential treatment, such as meting out worse punishments for running away and refusing to allow them to carry arms. Still, during this period, there were property-owning free Africans in the Chesapeake (e.g., Anthony Johnson, who arrived in 1621).19

This history shows that the course of race in seventeenth-century Virginia was not predetermined, a point more than a few historians have made.20 The plantation system and the expansion of settler capitalism that furthered English settler control over and conquest of native lands demanded additional pliant, captive labor. However, a racially based system of chattel slavery was not a foregone conclusion. As Wolfe put it: "It was not until the juridical opposition of slave versus free became mapped onto the hereditary opposition of Black versus White that being born a Black person meant being born a slave."21 Thus, as Wolfe insists, "in addition to its circumstantial trajectory, the developing equation of Blackness with slavery needs to be understood in relation to its historicity: to the particular conditions whereby this formula rather than any other—convict labour, fixed-term slavery, a contract system—came to be selected as the optimal arrangement."22 In 1661 the Virginia Assembly began to legally institutionalize slavery, and by 1662 came codes that determined the status of a child by the status of the mother. In 1669 the law defined enslaved Africans as property. However, planters still preferred white indentured labor. But 1670 saw a decrease in the number of European indentured servants migrating to Virginia, since Governor Berkeley had restricted suffrage to landowners. These are the conditions that contributed to Bacon's Rebellion, as six out of seven men were "poor, discontented, and armed."23

The insurrection emerged from the outgrowth of the push for profit from the production of tobacco, and its attendant demand for both land and labor. The complaint of freed indentured servants was they faced barriers to getting Indian land because of the emergent elite planter class. Hence it should be no surprise that Bacon's Rebellion began with conflict over how to deal with Indian tribes viewed as violent obstructionists to settler colonial expansion. Bacon saw the colony's policy on tribes as dismissive, especially after two Indian raids (the 1622 massacre by the Powhatans and a 1675 attack by the Doeg). His demands to preemptively massacre all Indians were not accepted by the governor, and so in response Bacon rallied his own troops against Berkeley for his refusal to retaliate for Native attacks on frontier settlements. Bacon organized [End Page 260] thousands of indentured servants, bond laborers, and slaves—English, Irish, Scottish, and African—who joined the frontier mutiny.

In 1675, when Berkeley denied Bacon a commission (the authority to lead soldiers), Bacon took it upon himself to lead his followers in a crusade against the "enemy." In a classic divide and conquer move, they marched to a fort held by a "friendly" tribe, the Occaneechees, and convinced them to capture warriors from an "unfriendly" tribe, the Susquehannock. The Occaneechees returned with captives, but Bacon's men turned to the allied tribe and opened fire, killing them. After months of conflict, Bacon's forces burned Jamestown to the ground on September 19, 1676. They drove Berkeley back to England and effectively shut down all tobacco production for over a year.

Scholars and activists alike have perpetuated some romanticized accounts of the rebellion as a historical moment when poor Africans and Europeans united to fight their common exploiters (the English elite). Other accounts narrate it as a missed opportunity, given that poor Europeans eventually went the "white way," joining elites against those increasingly racialized as "black." Thus the Rebellion is also told as a genealogy of "whiteness" as a racial category and the "hidden origins" of race-based chattel slavery. As the story usually goes, the English elites, fearing class unity across racial lines, began to impose different standards when punishing the rebels—with harsher sentences against Africans. And since they were more easily identifiable than Europeans, a preference toward the importation of enslaved African slaves grew. Today, Bacon's Rebellion is often evoked among the white Left as a reminder that elites will divide and conquer, keeping whites and Blacks from unifying. But what drops out in this lamenting account is that they were allied in challenging the English elites through their united efforts to commit genocide against indigenous peoples. This settler colonial context—imbricated with the North American institution of slavery—is often erased.24

Also, to return to Wolfe, although he links racial slavery to Indian dispossession, he does not discuss what poor Europeans and Africans were unified for besides challenging the English elite. In other words, he does not mention Bacon's fixation on eliminating Indians through genocide and contesting Berkeley's policy regarding the tribes. Still, Wolfe and other historians have noted that the rebellion hastened the hardening of racial lines associated with slavery, as a way for planters and the colony to control some of the poor, which led to the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705.25 After Bacon's Rebellion, planters turned to Africa as their primary source of labor and to slavery as their main system of labor, rather than European indentured labor. The landed gentry systematically developed a workforce based on racial caste, [End Page 261] and the 1680 Virginia legislature enacted laws that denied slaves freedom of mobility and assembly. New legislation sharpened the color line, and by 1710 a racially based system of chattel slavery was fixed in Virginia (and Maryland).26

Wolfe's treatment of racial formation on black slavery and racial caste in Traces of History is key to understanding the aftermath of the revolt. He shows how race is constructed to challenge the ahistorical and universal claim that Afro-Pessimists hold. Returning to Wilderson, then, Bacon's Rebellion offers just one example in which Blacks (in Wilderson's terms)—or, rather, Africans not yet "Black"—exercised some capacity over another group. But, while they asserted leverage over tribes, as agents in unity with poor Europeans, the terms of agency were set by and defined within the settler racial capitalist system that was also oppressing them.27 And unlike European workers, who were exploited, the Dutch enslaved the Africans before selling them as "cargo" in North America. This is a crucial difference demarcating the vast structural differences impinging on them.

Still, this historical episode challenges the timeline Wilderson claims regarding the ontological imprint and its inauguration. The specificity of racially based chattel slavery in the context of English settlement in North America—and the institutional incapacity it wrought for enslaved Africans—differs from the Middle Ages in the Arab world. It is as if Wilderson were drawing on the particularity of the experiences of African peoples in North America to make a universal argument. Furthermore, he reads "Black" outside the history of the making of race that this historical period shows was a process. This totalizing interpretation of black experience in claiming that "the Black Body" is in a perpetual state of ontological death, then, seems bound to this historically specific context, all the while disavowing that specificity.

Tamar Blickstein, a mutual friend of Wolfe's and mine, recently reminded me that Patrick said that he hoped Traces of History would be something people "could run with." I hope that taking his work and running with it—to critically examine the argument that "Blackness is incapacity in its pure and unadulterated form"—elucidates the colonial and racial politics of what constitutes capacity in terms of agency. Attention to the rebellion, then, also illustrates the problems with ahistorical projections of blackness across space and time, showing that we must attend to how this category gets constructed in place and time—and in relation to colonial and capitalist systems. Instead of seeing Bacon's rebellion as a missed opportunity for poor European and poor Africans, the historical event reveals a lost chance for alliance politics between African and indigenous peoples.28 [End Page 262]

Wolfe insisted that addressing questions of solidarity must include a consideration of the legacies (the functions and outcomes) of racialization. He made it clear in Traces of History that it is necessary to interrogate racial categories and complementarities, refusing simple solidarities and examining the material structures—and consequences—of colonial rule. Seeing how colonial elites pitted one against the other, in the aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion, in a cross-cutting system of oppression, offers a counterpoint and alternative framework to the nihilism of Afro-Pessimism, one that challenges ontological absolutism. Resisting the insistence of absolute negativity that destroys the possibility for coalitional politics, we can and must open up space for interconnected radical intellectual and political projects.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui is professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University, where she teaches comparative colonialisms, indigenous studies, critical race studies, and anarchist studies. Her first book is titled Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (Duke University Press, 2008). Kauanui's second book, forthcoming from Duke, is titled The Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty. It is a critical study on land, gender, and sexual politics in the competing nationalist claims between those advocating for federal recognition and those who seek to have Hawai'i restored as an independent nation. Kauanui serves as a radio producer for an anarchist politics show called "Anarchy on Air." Kauanui was one of the six cofounders of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.


I would like to extend warm gratitude to Jean M. O'Brien, Rana Barakat, Cynthia Franklin, and Linda Tabar for their helpful input on this essay in its earlier stages. I also want to thank Cynthia Franklin, Suzanna Reiss, and Njoroge Njoroge for their work as editors for my piece and the entire forum. Mahalo nui loa.

1. See Jared Sexton, "People of Color-Blindness," Social Text 28.2 (2010): 31–56; Sexton, "The Social Life of Social Death," In Tensions Journal, no. 5 (Fall–Winter 2011): 1–47; and Sexton, "The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign," Critical Sociology, December 2014, 1–15.

2. See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death; Hortense Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," Diacritics 17.2; Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Hartman, Lose Your Mother (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

3. See Frank Wilderson III, "Afro-Pessimism," incognegro.org/afro_pessimism.html.

4. Afro-Pessimists are not merely saying that slaves were denied legal personhood; they are pointing out that Blacks are denied humanity, human status altogether. As Wilderson put it in an interview with interview by Jared Ball, Todd Steven Burroughs, and Dr. Hate: "Here's the deal: in a nutshell, every other group lives in a context of violence which has what I would call a sort of psychological grounding wire, which means that they can write a sentence about why they are experiencing that violence. Native Americans can write a sentence that says 'I'm experiencing violence because this is an ongoing tactic within a strategy of colonization.' White feminists can say the same, that 'this is an ongoing tactic within a strategy of patriarchy.' For a Black person to try and emulate that kind of interpretive lens, the problem becomes a lot bigger. For us this is the ongoing tactic of a strategy for human renewal. The violence against us becomes a tactic within a strategy to secure Humanity's place. It's not a tactic in an ongoing strategy to take our land away, or to take our rights away. We never had any rights." See "'We're Trying to Destroy the World': Anti-Blackness and Police Violence after Ferguson, An Interview with Frank B. Wilderson, III," sfbay-anarchists.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/frank-b-wilderson-iii-were-trying-to-destroy-the-world-antiblackness-police-violence-after-ferguson.pdf.

5. The "Red Ontologists" he cites include Vine Deloria Jr. and Taiaiake Alfred, along with the fiction writer Leslie Marmon Silko. Curiously, he also includes Haunani-Kay Trask (Native Hawaiian) and Ward Churchill (whose claims to Native ancestry have been publicly challenged) as "Red Ontologists."

6. Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London: Verso, 2016), 27.

7. Ibid.

8. See Ben Silverstein, "Patrick Wolfe (1949–2016)," History Workshop Journal. [End Page 263]

9. Ibid.

10. Wolfe, Traces of History, 5.

11. He offered this timeline during his Wesleyan lecture and explained during the faculty seminar the next day that it was a corrective to the date he offered in Red, White & Black, which was the year 1300 (rather than thirteen hundred years ago).

12. Wilderson, Red, White & Black, 38.

13. See Marriott, "Black Cultural Studies," The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory 22.1 (2014): 38.

14. Ibid.

15. For important works that tackle related issues, see Iyko Day, "Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and Settler Colonial," Critical Ethnic Studies 1.2 (2015): 102–21; and Justin Leroy, "Black History in Occupied Territory: On the Entanglements of Slavery and Settler Colonialism," Theory and Event 19.4 (2016). Day explores the connection between settler colonial studies and black studies in relation to binary formulations of colonial and racial formations. She identifies the Indigenous–settler binary exemplified in Wolfe's work as a corollary to the black–nonblack binary characterized by Wilderson's work (as well as Sexton's) and offers a critical examination of both Indigenous and anti-Black exceptionalism. Leroy addresses antiblackness in relation to Indigenous struggles, suggesting that as both Indigenous and black critical theory have emerged in isolation from one another, both are premised on exclusive claim to accounting for the violence of modernity. In turn, he urges an examination of how US colonial projects have relied on a simultaneous logic of settlement and antiblackness.

16. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, New York (Norton, 1975).

17. There may have already been thirty-two Africans in the colony (according to a census taken just prior). See Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom.

18. See Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom; Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: History of Multicultural America, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 2008), 52.

19. Takaki, Different Mirror.

20. This point is a given among early Americanists at this point. Kathleen Brown built on Morgan to incorporate gender in her book, which theorized colonial masculinity on the frontier in relation to Bacon. See Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

21. Wolfe, Traces of History, 63.

22. Ibid., 66.

23. Takaki, Different Mirror.

24. Here I want to acknowledge David Roediger's work. His 2015 American Studies Association presidential address focused on the problems and possibilities of solidarity. On the one hand, Roediger asserts, making a case for embracing solidarity is critical for political transformation; on the other, doing so entails "simultaneously being uneasy about the assumptions it sometimes evokes." Thus he questions whether solidarity is always a good thing, urging us to be mindful of what and whom solidarity leaves out and how it is premised on those exclusions. One example he offers to get at this is a brief, but critical, look at Bacon's Rebellion that grapples with the impetus of the rebellion but also how it has been taken up historiographically.
As Roediger notes, Bacon's Rebellion is perhaps the leading case in which "historians have rewritten the history of solidarity in the last fifty years." Acknowledging that it is challenging example, he identifies two connecting interpretations that prevailed before the late 1960s in terms of informing thoughts on how the armed revolt "presaged later anticolonial and democratic initiatives." As he notes, "In the first, Bacon was the 'torchbearer' for a revolution a century away. The second interpretation, reading the historical record with perhaps less license, emphasized the rebellion's anti-Native American character." Roediger then identifies how the respective works of Edmund S. Morgan and Theodore Allen reinterpreted Bacon (in distinct ways) by placing his revolt in the context of many other insurgencies in Maryland and Virginia between 1660 and 1680. In relation to land and labor, these class conflicts united the "giddy multitude," made up of indentured and formerly indentured workers of both African and European ancestry. Roediger explains that only more recently, historians including James D. Rice and the late Ethan Schmidt have complicated this story as part of an anti-Native one, since the class solidarity based on a shared desire for land entailed violently expropriating it from indigenous peoples. [End Page 264] See Roediger, "Making Solidarity Uneasy: Cautions on a Keyword from Black Lives Matter to the Past," American Quarterly 68.2 (2016): 223–48; Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols. (1: Racial Oppression and Social Control; 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America) (New York: Verso, 1994, 1997); Ethan Schmidt, The Divided Dominion: Social Conflict and Indian Hatred in Early Virginia (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2015); and James D. Rice, "Bacon's Rebellion in Indian Country," Journal of American History 101 (December 2014): 726–50.

25. For a close look at the formation of race as a social category in British America with a focus on Virginia, from 1619 to 1705 (which arguably is the timeline of transition of the use of class and religion as social stratification to the use of race formed through the slave codes), see Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren, and George Ducas, eds., The Negro in American History: 1567–1854; J. H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Alden Vaughan, Roots of American Racism; Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks; Carl Degler, "Slavery and the Genesis of American Racial Prejudice"; Robert Forbes, "'The Cause of This Blackness': The Early American Republic and the Construction of Race"; Nicholas Guyutt, "The Outskirts of Our Happiness: Race and the Lure of Colonization in the Early Republic," Journal of American History; Theodore Allen, "'They Would Have Destroyed Me': Slavery and the Origins of Racism"; "Virginia's Slave Codes," PBS.

26. Wolfe, Traces of History.

27. This point was developed in conversation with Linda Tabar.

28. Thanks to Linda Tabar for offering this insight. [End Page 265]