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The Dialectics of Standing One’s Ground

In this paper, I read Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of George Zimmerman and the ensuing debates surrounding Stand Your Ground law through Frantz Fanon’s critical reformulation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. For Fanon, the unacknowledged reciprocity of Hegel’s dialectic obscures the sub-ontological realm—to which Fanon and Martin alike were condemned—and Fanon’s concept of comparaison sheds further light on Zimmerman’s motivations as a liminally racialized subject. I argue that it is precisely by questioning the circularity of Hegel’s formulation—in which to stand one’s ground is to claim what one already has access to—and by diagnosing what lies beneath that ground that we can avoid mistaking the legal symptom for the underlying ailment and craft strategies for resisting white supremacy in the present.

It is dark and raining in Sanford, Florida. Two individuals confront one another, one armed with a black Kel-Tec 9mm semi-automatic pistol, the other with a bag of skittles. One moves against the other, but the second takes flight, explaining anxiously to his girlfriend that “this man was watching him.”1 A pursuit ensues, and then a confrontation and mutual interrogation.

“Why are you following me?”
“What are you doing around here?”

Both sides, it seems, stand their ground, and shoving is heard followed by gunshots.

Were it not for the drizzling rain and strange choice of weaponry, this confrontation might evoke the abstract world of G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage in which one “self-consciousness” is confronted by another, with each holding the key to the other’s full recognition. But as powerful as the Hegelian framework might seem for grasping Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of George Zimmerman and the ensuing debate surrounding “Stand Your Ground” law, as it turns out, these historical particularities are precisely what is at stake.

The Circularity of Standing One’s Ground

… it is through a life and death struggle
that each proves his worth to himself,
and that both prove their worth to each other.


Both “standing” and “ground” play crucial roles in Hegel’s philosophy, particularly in what is colloquially known as his ‘master-slave’ dialectic, and this importance is clear even from the heading Hegel gives this oft-cited section of the Phenomenology of Spirit. His subject is the “Selbstständigkeit” of self-consciousness, often translated as autonomy or self-sufficiency. Taken at its most clumsily literal, however, Hegel’s chosen German refers to “self-standing-ness.” The pursuit of such self-standing passes inevitably through the other, who appears immediately as both a threat to be overcome and as embodying the path to full self-standing: self-consciousness “sees itself in the other” and, as a result, “must set out to sublate [aufzuheben] the other self-sufficient essence in order to become certain of itself.”3

This attempted sublation (also translated as cancelling) takes the form of an ensuing “life and death struggle” through which “each proves his worth to himself, and… both prove their worth to each other.”4 This circuit that passes through the other is not a one-way street, however, but is instead strictly two-sided, “the doubled movement of both self-consciousnesses,” in which “one-sided activity would be useless.”5 Self-consciousness begins to acquire self-standing by responding to this challenge confronting it, and in so doing, full humanity supersedes its merely biological existence: “The individual who has not risked his life may admittedly be recognized as a person, but he has not achieved the truth of being recognized as a self-sufficient self-consciousness.”6

More than merely two-sided, however, this process of acquiring full humanity is symmetrical, albeit counterintuitively so. In the process of struggle, one is subjected and becomes a slave, the other emerges a master. Despite this apparently unequal outcome, however, Hegel’s dialectic presumes equality from the outset, as both sides enter into conflict from the same universal Grund, or Ground, and either could theoretically emerge as victor or vanquished.7 This fundamental symmetry is only underscored, moreover, by Hegel’s famous dialectical inversion: by virtue of their unmediated contact with the world “as a consciousness forced back into itself,” it is the slave who ultimately emerges—by virtue of labor in the world—as independent and self-standing.8

True self-standing-ness thus requires this struggle, but for Hegel, standing one’s ground is a characteristically circular affair, and this circularity is but a different way of grasping the symmetry of Hegel’s point of departure. Quite simply, one must have ground upon which to stand, and absent the ontological Ground of Being, no standing can occur. To lack standing (which finds its etymological origins in ‘status’ or the position from which one fights) is to lack the ground, the foundation, on which to make a circular move that defends that very same ground. Standing and ground are thereby revealing in their synonymy, in their upholding of what one can already rightfully claim. In Hegel’s strangely redundant dialectic, all enjoy the ground on which to stand, but was this truly the case for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman alike?

What Lies Beneath

… we feel the ground give way beneath our feet.


In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon would take Hegel to task for this uncritical circularity.10 Fanon found in the Hegelian dialectic a powerful tool, but one that prior to use required significant modification, beginning with the idea of ground itself. When he, a Black man, sought self-standing shortly after arriving in France, he discovered something peculiar: that the Black subject suffers what Fanon deems an ontological “flaw.”11 Lacking “ontological resistance” in the eyes of whites, they lack the ground on which to stand, and finding access to the dialectic of recognition blocked, are forced to enter into a conflict that differs fundamentally from that which Hegel had envisioned.12

Rather than two abstract and ahistorical subjects confronting one another on the smooth plane of guaranteed Being, Hegel’s Grund, Fanon instead finds himself shouldering the entire weight of history: “overdetermined from the outside,” he is forced to bear the weight of an entire “historical-racial schema… woven… out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories.”13 While Fanon approaches the other in search of reciprocity, this other responds by objectifying and thereby shattering his (non-)Being:

Locked in this suffocating reification, I appealed to the Other so that his liberating gaze, gliding over my body suddenly smoothed of rough edges, would give me back the lightness of being I thought I had lost. But just as I get to the other slope I stumble, and the Other fixes me with his gaze, his gestures and attitude… I lose my temper, demand an explanation…. Nothing doing, I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me.14

Thus “locked into thinghood,” he does not appear as a subject for recognition.15 Hegel’s dialectic is inaccessible by virtue of a short-circuit, its circularity of standing ground rendered a brutal farce for those lacking the ground on which to stand. According to Fanon, Hegel’s dialectic relies upon an “absolute reciprocity” that is lacking under white supremacy: the master does not recognize the humanity of the slave even on the most basic level, and the slave in such a system often looks toward the master rather than busying him or herself with that liberatory activity of laboring in the world.16

In his critique of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Fanon thereby draws back the curtain to reveal what lies beneath the ostensible universality of Ground, diagnosing a sub-ontological realm, a “zone of nonbeing” to which certain subjects are condemned (as in the damnés of Fanon’s last book).17 This is the realm of sub-terranean beings (with a lower-case b), who are struggling to even gain steady footing for the climb ahead. The pre-dialectical struggle to gain that footing would not be an easy one, and certainly not the difficult but clear “mountain path to Canaan” of which Du Bois wrote, but instead one of reversals and backsliding on an as-yet unstable ground.18

As decolonial thinkers have argued in different contexts, the abstract (and thereby universal) subject is more than merely a European construct, but stands more importantly as a barrier dividing and segregating Being from that which lay beneath.19 Whereas Fanon’s work is often pigeonholed within recognition studies, Fanon can be seen here as pioneering a profoundly different approach that we could call ‘non-recognition studies,’ arguably more powerful both in its descriptive capacities and as a guide to action, as we will see in the case of Trayvon Martin.

Making Oneself Known

… there was only one answer:
to make myself known.


Lacking access to Ground, these disqualified non-Beings have no choice but to initiate a one-sided struggle to gain it. “Since the Other was reluctant to recognize me,” Fanon argued, “there was only one answer: to make myself known.”21 Rather than the ruptured circle of standing one’s ground, the objective here is to create the basis for symmetry through combat, through a modified dialectic (or pre-dialectical struggle) which takes for granted not reciprocity, but the need to push from one side, to enforce recognition as both cause and effect. Only through such initial struggle can disqualified non-Beings crack the surface of Ground from beneath and emerge into the full light of day.

As Lewis Gordon has argued, however, breaking Ground in such a way constitutes an “illicit appearance” that leaves the Black subject trapped in a catch-22: for those condemned to invisibility even appearing is a violent act from the perspective of the existing totality, and those so condemned must therefore either accept inferiority or be run the risk of demonization.22 “In order to break the vicious circle”—the perverse opposite of the denied circle of recognition—“he explodes,” but we should be careful not to read into this subjective explosion the concrete violence that was at least partially the subject of Wretched of the Earth.23 Fanon’s own explosion in Black Skin is a case in point: he does little more than insult a white woman, and yet we (especially those of us in the United States) are perfectly aware of the fatal results that such an outburst could bring. But when refraining from violence does not protect, engaging in it does not endanger, and thus the objective structures of white supremacy also destroy any incentive to keep the peace and indeed demand that it be broken.

Fanon’s reformulated dialectic thus offers hope only in the form of a seemingly Sisyphean task: responding to condemnation with action that will inevitably produce more condemnation, all in the hopes that the subjective and objective achievements of the action might outweigh the consequences. But this transformed dialectic also offers a powerful optic through which to view the death of Trayvon Martin and the ensuing debate over standing one’s ground, providing as it does immediate skepticism of the symmetry built into most discussions of the subject, which usually presume that Martin and Zimmerman confronted one another as the sort of abstract equals Hegel had envisioned.

To Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman appeared as a suspicious and threatening figure (this far, Hegel’s formulation holds). But to Zimmerman, regardless of the words he may have uttered, Martin arguably appeared as a “fucking coon,” of the sort that “always get away.”24 In Fanon’s terms, he was “overdetermined from without” and saddled with the full weight of the historical-racial schema. Zimmerman’s line of questioning is revealing in this sense: “What are you doing around here?”25 Here was a powerful assertion in the form of a question: you don’t belong here, and the very fact that I see you is evidence of a crime.

Even without his knowing, the ground had begun to give way beneath Martin’s feet. By contrast, Zimmerman, standing confidently in the knowledge that his judgment would prevail, confronted Martin, and the latter—like Fanon—took up the struggle imposed upon him, unaware perhaps that this “illicit appearance” would later be used—as it is being used today—in an effort to retroactively justify his death. But the violence of appearance already committed, the transition to struggle meant little, and Fanon would no doubt agree with a recent editorial entitled: “Did Trayvon Martin fight for his life? If so, good!”26

Murderous Wages, Murderous Work

Treason to whiteness
is loyalty to humanity.

Race Traitor27

Even this unequal confrontation between two individuals is not the whole story, however, and the question remains as to why this half-Latino, “Spanish-speaking minority” was voluntarily policing the streets of Sanford, Florida to begin with.28 Again, Fanon can be seen as offering a crucial corrective to the Hegelian framework that helps us to decipher, however speculatively, the implications of Martin’s death for Zimmerman.

In an effort to speak to the particularities of racialization in the Caribbean, Fanon described a complex he called comparaison, in which two ostensibly Black subjects confront one another. But as with Black-white non-recognition, this interaction is not pure or abstract in any way, and nor is it limited to the individuals involved. For Fanon, Black Caribbean subjects are disproportionately “preoccupied with self-assertion and the ego ideal,” and this self-assertion takes the form of a zero-sum game in which success is premised upon the failure of the other: whereas the path to self-consciousness for Hegel passes through the other but toward their mutual development, the Antillean’s “desire to dominate” is such that “he steers his course through the other” as a pure negation.29 His “every act… is dependent on ‘the Other’—not because ‘the Other’ remains his final goal for the purpose of communing with him… but simply because it is ‘the Other’ who asserts him in his need to enhance his status.”30

The fundamental reference point for comparaison, however, and the measuring stick for its ‘enhancement’ is not this proximate other—the Black subject he confronts—but rather the distant other of onlooking whiteness, toward which the passage through the proximate other is but a stepping stone. Put simply, the Black subject asserts him or herself in an effort to become whiter, that is, more fully human, at the expense of other Black subjects. In his two-sided critique of the dialectic of recognition, Fanon therefore demonstrates the distortions introduced by white supremacy into the intersubjective relationships both between Black and white (his critique of Hegelian ontology), and among Black subjects (comparaison), with blocked recognition the outcome of both. While he did not explicitly consider the particular circumstances of those falling between blackness and whiteness, however, the very binary nature of the system he diagnoses makes such explanations readily derivable.

Comparaison thus enters into conversation with some elements of what has been called ‘whiteness studies,’ which tracks the historical paths by which certain liminal groups “became” white and gained access to the “wages of whiteness” at the expense of others, and the relevance for George Zimmerman ought to be clear.31 Zimmerman’s own liminal whiteness has become something of a showpiece, disorienting to some more accustomed to cases of white-on-Black violence, proof to others that his motives could only be pure. But not only does Zimmerman’s ethnicity not prove his non-racism (and much less the impossibility of racism), it instead provides a powerful clue for approaching what might have motivated that racism, however subconsciously. After all, those individuals already accepted into the whiteness club need not go to such lengths to prove themselves.32

Whereas for Hegel, these abstract beings “recognize themselves as mutually recognizing each other,” Zimmerman recognized Martin not as an individual but as a “fucking coon.” Martin was an anti-imago, the mere existence of which threatened everything that Zimmerman hoped to become by providing a reminder of his own threatened humanity. Zimmerman thus sought not humanity through recognition by the other (Martin), but rather sought whiteness through his spectacular negation.33 As in Fanon’s phenomenon of comparaison, Zimmerman’s consciousness sought to pass through Martin as a battering ram passes through a wall: destroying the other to reach what lies on the other side. To reverse the Race Traitor slogan, here loyalty to whiteness is premised upon treason to humanity, and what better way to prove one’s loyalty than to shoot a Black man dead in the street?34

Whiteness is not to be earned immediately or through such individual acts of anti-Black heroism, however, but rather coalesces over time through the collective significance of many individual acts, which instead serve as both moments in its genesis and signposts of its progress (from lynching and race riots to individual behaviors and utterances like “coon”).35 Individual utterances thus always exist in a dialectical relationship with the totality of such utterances.36 On the one hand, it is these individual actions, which in their conjunction and their interrelationship constitute that totality, and inversely, it is in identifying and resisting these individual moments—for example, punishing individual perpetrators—that one can, without stopping at that individual moment, build a chain of dialectical linkages that can transform or overturn the totality as it exists.37

This relationship between the individual and the one-sided collectivity of the lynch mob or race riot speaks both to the question of death in Hegel’s dialectic, as well as, in an inverted form, to the problem of conceiving that dialectic in a collective form. For Hegel, the death of the other is the essential subjective orientation driving the struggle for mutual freedom and self-consciousness, but such death also objectively threatens that process. If death is the result, this consciousness is lost as well and the dialectical process short-circuited: the master is deprived of work, the slave of a life dedicated to self-standing. But as we have seen, Zimmerman was playing out a very different script: risking his life (at least potentially) in an attempt to acquire not self-consciousness, but access to whiteness, by mercilessly killing Martin. Such is the script of the lynch mob and the race riot: utter absence of reciprocity and therefore of true struggle, coupled with the certainty of death for the condemned.

Fanon would later rework the phenomenon of one-sided death in its two forms: the death of the colonized and the death of the colonizer. Following Sartre, he argues that the first generates the paradox of colonization: it must kill the colonized, but cannot do so without threatening its own raison d’être.38 In the process of decolonization, the possibility of such a one-sided resolution appears in inverted form, the empowering aspect of the turning of tables, killing the settler as a necessary first step toward generating self-standing (national) consciousness. Whereas Fanon had previously concluded that the absence of “ontological resistance” prevents the Black subject from finding self-consciousness in the world of work, in the collective struggle for decolonization such work finds its object: “the rotting cadaver of the colonist… constitutes their only work.”39

This effort to collectivize the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave is thus more convincing and useful—especially for deciphering the murder of Trayvon Martin—than, for example, Susan Buck-Morss’ insertion of the Haitian Revolution as the unwritten conclusion that Hegel left out of his account.40 In her generosity to Hegel, Buck-Morss effectively leaves the parameters of his dialectic intact, whereas as we have seen, Fanon reformulated this dialectic from the ground-up, or rather, from what lies beneath that Ground. As a result, Buck-Morss reaches an unsatisfying conclusion: by failing to interrogate Hegel’s Grund, her universal remains both Eurocentric and immediately available. It is Eurocentric because the Haitian Revolution appears merely as the confirmation of the universal nature of the French Revolution (and not vice-versa), and immediately available and indeed demanded due to her foreclosure, in the second half of her book, on any intermediary identities (like nation or race).41

Blinded by reciprocity, Hegel could not broach the subject of one-sided death (or execution), and yet this phenomenon is by far more common than genuine life-or-death struggle, and when shrouded by illusory universalism, the threat posed to consciousness is doubly acute. But while the impact of such death is irreversibly lost on the deceased—“those who passed the test in this struggle” in the case of Trayvon Martin and so many others—even this is not simply that cold and empty death that Hegel famously described as “chopping off a head of cabbage.”42 Rather, Hegel’s seemingly trivial suggestion that through death, the meaning of the struggle remains only for onlookers, has clear dialectical implications that have already begun to play out.43 It remains for us to fight, it is our “only work.”

A Failure of Law?

What’s the life expectancy for Black guys?
The system’s working effectively, that’s why.

Kanye West44

Much of the debate surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder has centered on the question of the nature of “Stand Your Ground” law. In general, liberals have tended to blame the individual law, whereas conservatives—if willing to blame anyone but Martin himself—sacrifice the individual assailant to preserve the law, arguing that if Zimmerman was acting on the basis of racism, then that is certainly despicable, but that the law is not to blame (here repeating the uncritical individualism discussed above). What both sides share is the presumption that something must have gone terribly wrong, and that even if this failure occurred on the level of legislation—as for liberals—the broader system remains fundamentally sound in its neutrality.45 But the idea of the neutrality of law is premised upon the very same sort of universal reciprocity as Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave.

Fanon was acutely attentive to the dangers of false universals, not only for their falseness, but for the barrier they present to dialectical motion. While his particular concerns were formal emancipation (in Black Skin, White Masks) and formal liberation (in Wretched of the Earth), what these share points toward their generalization: Fanon’s worry that such false universals, by circumventing struggle, represented a shift “from one way of life to another, but not from one life to another.”46 Those “set free” without struggle—and here Fanon is faithful to Hegel’s dialectic—may be considered people, but have not engaged in the necessary two-sided process that leads toward full self-consciousness: they are simply slaves who have been “acted upon,” and allowed to eat at the master’s table.47 While Fanon’s concerns might provide the basis for a general critique of law, he did not tend to dally in such generalities, and nor do we need to in order to approach our subject.

While Du Bois has shown clearly enough in Black Reconstruction in America that U.S. slaves won their own freedom, and were thus not simply “acted upon,” the reversal of Reconstruction through white supremacist terror and the long dark night of Jim Crow and lynch law introduced sufficient complexity into the situation so that the eventual establishment of formal equality nearly a century later was at best a dual action: Black Americans both “acted” (forcing action on civil rights through their self-activity) and were “acted upon” (in state efforts to sap and circumvent the radicalism of that self-activity through formal reform). Law is always and inextricably bound up with its opposite, relying on the presence of the unlawful as foundation for its own existence, but here too context matters profoundly, and Fanon’s critique of the Hegelian universal applies to the Ground upholding law as well. The opposite of law is not an abstraction, but in the United States is that inherently illicit people that Du Bois described as “a problem.”48

Just as Black subjects do not confront whites on the smooth plane of reciprocal recognition envisioned by Hegel, Black Americans have never truly faced their white counterparts on the universal Ground of the law as written. (Certainly, the idea of all men being created equal is perhaps the best evidence of the shortcoming of such universal pretensions, and its ability to coexist with white supremacy by simply disqualifying some from the status of men.) What was once called lynching was but the most spectacular form of the complicity between the law and its ostensible opposite. Just as the sub-ontological realm of those condemned to non-Being short-circuited attempts at recognition, the sub-legal realm of informally practiced white supremacy historically leads to a more concrete form of condemnation: the police, the courts, mass incarceration to contain Black bodies.

We are thus justified in wondering: is the Zimmerman case really best understood as a failure of law, or as a perfect and transparent embodiment of its function? Individualizing this “failure” in a person or a law cannot explain the broad alignment of effects surrounding Zimmerman’s fateful act, and if the system “failed” then it did so catastrophically and at every step, to such a degree that its very existence must be called into question. The picture darkens even further once we look beyond Trayvon Martin the individual, whose death was but one of so many as to constitute the norm rather than the exception. The only exception is the attention, the outrage, and the eventual arrest of Zimmerman, but these too are all tainted by a false nostalgia for the never-having-existed world of legal neutrality.

Furthermore, even if there is disagreement on details and interpretations, what contradiction ensues when we critique individual laws but presume the neutrality of the overarching apparatus that creates and enforces these laws. If one law is the expression of power, what’s to say that they all aren’t? The liberal lament that ‘something must have gone terribly wrong’ and that, in a word, Trayvon Martin’s death is a ‘tragedy,’ stands in sharp contrast to the recognition by Kanye West and many others that these sorts of incidents instead prove that “the system’s working effectively.”

If we insist that Trayvon Martin’s death resulted from systemic failure rather than its smooth functioning, then why so systemic a response? Let’s quickly run through a few basic elements of this response:

  • - The decision to send a narcotics investigator rather than a homicide investigator to the scene, and the benign characterization of police misconduct as “sloppy.”49

  • - The pressuring of witnesses at the scene to change their stories.50

  • - The initial refusal by local police and state attorney to arrest Zimmerman.51

  • - The decision to have Trayvon Martin’s corpse tested for drugs and the testing process and reporting of the results

  • - The press complicity in reporting every detail of Martin’s past that might serve to demonize him while humanizing and exonerating Zimmerman.52

  • - The particular zeal with which the press reported the presence of traces of THC, from marijuana, in Martin’s urine.53

  • - The hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to Zimmerman’s defense.

  • - And of course, the as-yet unwritten but predictable course that the trial and verdict will take.54

Of these, the results of the urine test are perhaps the most galling: why was Martin’s urine even tested to begin with?55 Here, the injunction to ‘report the whole truth’ or ‘all the facts’ of the case is but a microcosm of the broader false universal, which presumes that these facts exist prior to the decision to create them as facts, that they are untainted by white supremacy, and that their reporting would have uniformly distributed effects. Such systemic responses are far from uncommon, and instead constitute a sort of invisible script that plays out with astounding uniformity in cases such as these. Just as racialized subjects reveal the false universality of Being, so too does the way in which “facts” are routinely deployed against them reveal the falseness of the universal that makes them legible as facts to begin with.

This invisible script serves ultimately to prepare the ground and sow the seeds for Zimmerman’s acquittal or conviction on a lesser charge, either directly (in the case of the police) or indirectly (by preparing the public to accept the outcome). As Gordon has argued, this invisible script or “racial grammar” of Black exclusion preemptively legitimates the actions of the jury by confirming the legitimacy of any and all use of force against Black bodies. Just as the 1992 jury in Simi Valley was simply carrying out a preordained decision—that police violence against Rodney King was legitimate—so too has the permission to acquit George Zimmerman already been granted by virtue of the a priori violence of Trayvon Martin, who was guilty of the capital offense of walking while Black.56

The Ground of Being and the ground of law suffer the same sub-ontological “flaw”: something unspoken that lay beneath. Recognizing this does more than merely negate arguments for the reform of Stand Your Ground law and more stringent gun control, in this case it actually reverses them (here the question of gun control is the general category within which Stand Your Ground operates). Attentiveness to the sub-ontological script of white supremacy reveals the dirty little secret of gun control: that mythology aside, the prime determinant of gun control has not been progressive desire to civilize, but instead the imperative need to disarm and render defenseless Black bodies.57

It was in response to the self-liberation of the slaves that the Black Codes dictated their disarmament.58 It was in response to the armed patrols of the Black Panthers that California legislators quickly moved to limit the carrying of loaded weapons (with the support of California Governor Ronald Reagan of all people). It was as a more general response to the rebelliousness of the 1960s that the Gun Control Act of 1968 and its companion Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act were approved, which were, according to legal scholar Adam Winkler, “laws enacted to disarm black radicals.”59 And it was in response to the L.A. riots or rebellions of 1992 that “Three Strikes” legislation emerged, thereby contributing immensely to the effectiveness of imprisonment as a means of warehousing Black bodies.60 As a testament to the importance of the sub-legal realm inhabited by sub-ontological beings, here the law obediently trails behind white supremacist hysteria, which in turn responds to nothing so directly as to the whip of the Black revolution.61

Just as ostensibly universal gun control laws have particular motivations and distribute effects in particular ways, so too with Stand Your Ground. Yes, the law facilitated Trayvon Martin’s execution, by providing the basis for an unmediated outlet of Zimmerman’s racist self-assertion. According to the Florida law, fewer questions need be asked, and less effort put into constructing a façade of equality.62 But we must understand that this was an execution that had been waiting in the wings already, with the script written and the stage set.

Decolonizing Dialectics: Catharsis or Rebellion?

April 29th was power to the people,
and we might just see a sequel.

Ice Cube63

If we misunderstand the particularities of U.S. history and fall erroneously into an uncritical universalism a la Hegel, we run the risk of seeking not only misleading but even positively dangerous solutions. Writing in The New Republic, John McWhorter has recently argued in favor of televising Zimmerman’s trial. According to McWhorter, a televised trial—if properly conducted—could give the United States just what it needs: a process of national healing.

The Trayvon Martin case could be a kind of redo … a demonstration that—contrary to what has often been said in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, and has been said too often over the past few weeks in reference to Martin—black people can get justice in this country. Finally, there will be a conversation on race that can have a properly cathartic ending.64

To juxtapose the terms “properly” and “cathartic” in such a way is as astounding as it is insulting to those systematically denied justice every day, for whom such a sham conviction would do and mean little.

McWhorter’s objective is not limited to calming Black anger, however, as he is equally concerned to reassure an aggrieved white America in the aftermath of the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. “Simpson’s guilt was always so obvious to outside observers,” he argues, “that the celebration of his acquittal made black America look awful.” In short: Black America is unjustifiably angry about systematic injustice; white America is justifiably angry that O.J. got off, and therefore deserves an apology. All told, McWhorter’s call amounts to cynically sacrificing Zimmerman’s 17-year old victim a second time upon the altar of national unity.65

McWhorter is astonishingly transparent in his desire to sanitize reality rather than to grasp it, to conceal rather than to reveal, convicting Zimmerman to ‘prove’ something that is in reality an untruth: that this country has solved the race problem. Here the error is the same as with Stand Your Ground law—an appeal to a universal in words which has never existed in practice—but the consequences would be far more dire. Much like reforming or repealing Stand Your Ground laws, a televised trial resulting in Zimmerman’s conviction—while desirable—will serve as little more than a palliative, leaving underlying structures intact and indeed concealing those structures, if not accompanied by profound debates regarding and struggles against white supremacy.66

We choose our reference points in ways that reveal our concerns and objectives, and it is in this spirit that McWhorter binds Zimmerman to O.J. Simpson. But what if we choose instead to consider the trial in reference to the Rodney King verdict and the massive rebellion it unleashed 20 years ago? Or to the rebellions that greeted the murder of Oscar Grant only a few short years ago?67 If acquittals reveal the underlying Ground of white supremacy, rebellions both confirm this revelation and offer to transform it into active consciousness in a manner akin to Fanon’s modified dialectic. By contrast, McWhorter’s call for a televised trial is as cynical a ploy as was the eventual rebranding of South Central as “South L.A.”

Hegel was racked with anxiety at the dialectical divisions and ruptures that constituted the very basis of his work, and sought desperately to re-establish unity in thought, and thereby in the world. McWhorter seems to be tortured by a similar anxiety, a desire for unity that trumps all else. Fanon, by contrast, would never endorse unity at the expense of the condemned, and he sought instead to tear back the veil that concealed the basic functions of reality in its ontological and sub-ontological realms. And Fanon would most certainly view with suspicion any call for “catharsis,” which reeks of the active desire to halt dialectical motion.

Between the social death of stasis and the mortal risk of explosion, Fanon would always choose the latter, and with good reason. Refusing to counsel Black folks to accept the place assigned to them, he throws the weight of his indictment back on to social structures, fully aware of what was likely to result: “Once that has been said, the rest will follow of its own accord, and we know what that means. The end of the world, by Jove.”68 The abolition of existing structures, the white supremacy embedded in institutions formal and informal, the tearing down of the walls separating Being from its constitutive opposite: this is the end of the world, and for Fanon as for Césaire, it is “the only thing in the world worth starting.”69

The stakes here are not limited to Martin himself, or even to all victims of white supremacist violence, but extend as well to the broader question of how to think social change and dialectics in an ostensibly post-racial age. This would involve recognizing that there is no abstract universal Ground for dialectical struggle, that when two or more sides enter into conflict the terrain is always heavily laden with concrete historical meaning, that in the words of Aimé Césaire, the universal we seek is “rich with all that is particular.”70 It means recognizing that these particulars might require a pre-dialectical struggle of the sort Fanon envisions. It means abandoning all hope in determinisms, linearity, and inevitable forward progress, and recognizing the reality of blockage, of inertia, and the consequent need for a voluntarism of sorts to push history into motion.

When Ice Cube (of the aptly named group, Da Lench Mob) rapped about the forthcoming “sequel” to the L.A. riots while still standing amid the smoldering embers, his words fell short of prophecy in their sheer obviousness. If anything, the seamless continuity of white supremacist violence—as the norm rather than the exception—raises the perpetual specter of not one sequel but many: from Oscar Grant to Trayvon Martin, to Alan Blueford, the most recent victim of the Oakland Police Department, gunned-down on May 6th 2012, just weeks before graduating from high school. Or from CeCe McDonald to Marissa Alexander, to add those wrongly condemned under the ostensibly universal right of self-defense.71

The problem is not hoodies. The problem is not guns. The problem is not even Stand Your Ground law. The problem is white supremacy, which leaves some without any ground on which to stand.

George Ciccariello-Maher  

George Ciccariello-Maher is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University, where he teaches courses in comparative political theory and political theory from below. His work has previously appeared in Theory & Event, Historical Materialism, Monthly Review, Journal of Black Studies, Qui Parle, and Radical Philosophy Review, among others, as well as a number of edited volumes. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke, 2013), and is currently completing a book-length project entitled Decolonizing Dialectics. George can be reached at gjcm@drexel.edu


1.  Matt Gutman, “Trayvon Martin Killing: 911 Tape Reveals Possible Racial Slur by Neighborhood Watchman,” ABC News (March 20th 2012), available at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/neighborhood-watch-killing-911-tape-reveals-racial-slur/story?id=15966309#.T8Pk7HlYviQ.

2.  G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit/Phänomenologie des Geistes, trans. T. Pinkhard (2010), §187, available online until recently.

3.  Hegel, Phenomenology, §179–180.

4.  Hegel, Phenomenology, §187.

5.  Hegel, Phenomenology, §182.

6.  Hegel, Phenomenology, §187.

7.  Put briefly, ground is for Hegel the broadest and most basic category of the totality. Hegel discusses Grund extensively in his Science of Logic. See also the entry for “ground” in Michael Inwood, ed., A Hegel Dictionary (London: Blackwell Publishing), available from Blackwell Reference Online, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/book?id=g9780631175339_9780631175339. For an analysis of Hegelian ground relevant to the discussion that follows, albeit more rooted in Hegel’s Logic, see C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1980), 95–98.

8.  Hegel, Phenomenology, §193.

9.  Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 6.

10.  For a prior discussion of Fanon and Hegel’s respective dialectics, see Lou Turner, “On the Difference between the Hegelian and Fanonian Dialectic of Lordship and Bondage,” in L.R. Gordon, T.D. Sharpley-Whiting, and R.T. White, eds., Fanon: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 134–154.

11.  Fanon, Black Skin, 89.

12.  Fanon, Black Skin, 90.

13.  Fanon, Black Skin, 95, 91.

14.  Fanon, Black Skin, 89.

15.  Fanon, Black Skin, 193.

16.  Fanon, Black Skin, 191, 195n10.

17.  Fanon, Black Skin, xii. See also the discussion of “sub-ontological difference” in Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity (Durham: Duke, 2008), 106–115; Lewis Gordon, “Through the Hellish Zone of Nonbeing: Thinking through Fanon, Disaster, and the Damned of the Earth,” Human Architecture 5 (2007), 5–12.

18.  W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin, 1996), 8.

19.  See, e.g., Enrique Dussel, Anti-Cartesian Meditations, trans. G. Ciccariello-Maher (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming); Santiago Castro-Gómez, La Hybris del Punto Cero (Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana: Bogotá, 2005).

20.  Fanon, Black Skin, 95.

21.  Fanon, Black Skin, 95.

22.  Lewis Gordon, “Of Illicit Appearance: The L.A. Riots/Rebellion as a Portent of Things to Come,” Truthout.org (May 12th 2012), available at: http://truth-out.org/news/item/9008-of-illicit-appearance-the-la-riots-rebellion-as-a-portent-of-things-to-come.

23.  Fanon, Black Skin, 119. I have argued elsewhere that, even in Wretched, it is “symbolic violence” that is most important for Fanon, the two-sided transformation set into motion by this subjective explosion. George Ciccariello-Maher, “Jumpstarting the Decolonial Engine: Symbolic Violence from Fanon to Chávez,” Theory & Event 13, no. 1 (March 2010).

24.  As I will discuss below, whether or not Zimmerman made this individual utterance both matters (as a marker of the importance of race) and does not (since this importance is clear regardless). Concretely, there is good reason to believe that Zimmerman did indeed say the word, even aside from the audio. In the chronology of Zimmerman’s 911 call, he shifts from stating that Martin is suspicious and “looks Black” (0:29) to identifying him as a “Black male” (1:08), to insisting that “these assholes, they always get away” (1:40), and finally, upon giving pursuit, to the oft-mentioned “fucking coon” (2:21). Whereas some read this progression as suggesting that Zimmerman was not initially motivated by racism, the opposite is more plausible: that Zimmerman’s initial (if subconscious) suspicion was that Martin might be, in fact, a young Black male, that this suspicion was quickly confirmed, and that as a result, Martin became first an “asshole” and ultimately a “coon.”

Interesting here is the fact that Zimmerman family friend Joe Oliver went so far as to defend the use of the term on the basis of its affectionate use elsewhere in the South (some states away, and presumably among people of the same race). Zimmerman’s previous 911 calls and the content of his MySpace page led some to speculate that he was in fact motivated by race. See Isabelle Zehnder, “George Zimmerman’s MySpace page includes racial slurs,” Examiner.com (May 2nd 2012), available at: http://www.examiner.com/article/george-zimmerman-s-myspace-page-includes-racial-slurs. This has since been reinforced by the testimony of witness #9, who aside from charging Zimmerman with sexual abuse, has also argued that his family was systematically anti-Black.

On the historical derivation and transformations of the term “coon” (and specifically its shift from describing poor, rural whites to denigrating Blacks) see David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (London: Verso, 1991), 97–100.

25.  Gutman, “Trayvon Martin Killing.”

26.  Mike E., “Did Trayvon fight for his life? If so, good!” Kasama Project (May 15th 2012), available at: http://kasamaproject.org/2012/05/15/did-trayvon-fight-for-his-life-if-so-good/.

27. Race Traitor: Journal of the New Abolitionism, http://racetraitor.org/.

28.  This is the description of his son offered by George Zimmerman’s father, Robert. Rene Stutzman, “George Zimmerman’s father: My son is not racist, did not confront Trayvon Martin,” Orlando Sentinel (March 15th 2012), available at: http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-03-15/news/os-trayvon-martin-shooting-zimmerman-letter-20120315_1_robert-zimmerman-letter-unarmed-black-teenager.

29.  Fanon, Black Skin, 185–186. Built-into this argument is Fanon’s powerful insight that there is no single ego-ideal, and that by extension no psychological concepts exist universally.

30.  Fanon, Black Skin, 187.

31.  The concept of the wages of whiteness appears originally in W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 700–701, and has been further elaborated by for example, David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness and Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995).

32.  This is certainly not to say that whites do not physically attack Blacks, nothing could be further from the case. It is merely to note that the zeal with which some liminally white individuals and communities set themselves to the task (of lynching, for example) reflects a need to prove oneself, collectively and individually, to whiteness. In the 1920s and 30s, for example, Italians both lynched Blacks and were lynched by whites. See Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness, 117.

33.  Tamara Nopper raises provocative questions about the function of whiteness in the case of Zimmerman, arguing that his structural superiority over Trayvon Martin was not necessarily a question of proximity to whiteness, but I fail to see the difference between structural superiority and buying into whiteness. “20 Years in the Making: George Zimmerman’s ‘Minority Defense’ and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots,” Bandung 1955 (April 20th 2012), available at: http://tamaranopper.com/2012/04/20/george-zimmerman%E2%80%99s-minority-defense-and-the-1992-los-angeles-riots/.

34.  As Du Bois recognized early on, the wages of whiteness and the institution of police are inseparable from the Civil War on, and this relationship continues with mass incarceration. Zimmerman’s ostensible motivation—security—is inseparable from race.

35.  Here, much of the criticism of whiteness studies and especially Race Traitor is well-founded: individual acts matter—be they of treason to whiteness, or in this case loyalty to it—but only within collective struggles and processes. Just as individuals cannot opt out of whiteness, Zimmerman could not simply opt in.

36.  Roediger is uniquely attentive to this dynamic, analyzing the way that “countless quotidian activities”—from personal grooming to political organizing to housing strategies—when considered collectively, allowed immigrants to achieve whiteness over time (Working Toward Whiteness, 8). In this process, it was “unclear to the individual if her task was a personal or a group one” (53), precisely because the two were so thoroughly inseparable, dialectically interwoven like Fanon’s historical-racial schema, out of gazes, gestures, anecdotes.

37.  In the individual utterance that is “fucking coon” is contained all of the dialectical complexity of the individual in relation to the collective. It is immaterial whether Zimmerman actually uttered the words, not because such individual utterances are unimportant, but quite the opposite: because the totality of these utterances—combined with actions—already establishes that this is precisely what he thought of Trayvon Martin.

The danger of misrepresenting the relationship between Zimmerman the individual and the broader white supremacist structure should be clear, however. Many media outlets sought in the phrase “fucking coon” a sort of smoking gun that would prove that Zimmerman had acted on the basis of racism, but in so doing ploughed the soil for only two complementary outcomes: if the utterance was confirmed, Zimmerman would be an individual racist, and if disproven, he would be an unimpeachable defender of his community. Having pinned their conviction on the utterance, when they later retracted the claim what was retracted was Zimmerman’s guilt in toto. Similarly, three NBC employees have now been fired for stringing together Zimmerman’s words “this guy looks like he’s up to no good [.…] He’s Black,” thereby obscuring the fact that Zimmerman still said those words (and their relation to broader structures of white supremacy) and of giving an eager public another avenue to pardon his actions. We must be much more systematic and careful, in linking this individual utterance—as with the individual himself—to the collective. Because precisely had the press not withdrawn its early verdict against Zimmerman, the outcome would largely have been the same: an individual convicted of being a racist, and the white supremacist system plugs along as before, stacking corpses upon corpses.

38.  Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, tr. R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 43.

39.  Fanon, Wretched, 50.

40.  Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

41.  While I don’t have the space to fully flesh out this argument here, I discuss the dangers of immediately leaping to the universal in the last section below.

42.  Hegel, Phenomenology, §590.

43.  Hegel, Phenomenology, §188.

44.  Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Murder to Excellence,” Watch the Throne (New York: Roc-a-Fella, 2011).

45.  This view is shared even by those who seek explanations elsewhere. Rich Benjamin, for example, speaks of the rise of gated communities, and while we might see this approach as leading directly to white supremacy, Benjamin instead stops short, placing the blame on “gate-mindedness.” “The Gated Community Mentality,” The New York Times (March 29th 2012), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/30/opinion/the-gated-community-mentality.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1338226165-XRJK6uFLeoOexXqu67kzHQ&gwh=1E8DA45505C5FE95C6F3082E0C22960B.

46.  Fanon, Black Skin, 195.

47.  Fanon, Black Skin, 194.

48.  Du Bois, Souls, 3–4.

49.  On the narcotics investigator, see Matt Gutman, “Trayvon Martin Investigator Wanted Manslaughter Charge,” ABC News (March 27th 2012), available at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/trayvon-martin-dogged-disciplinary-problems-school/story?id=16011674#.T8PVM3lYviR. Such “missteps” included, notably, jumping to the conclusion that Martin was the aggressor and Zimmerman the victim. Serge F. Kovaleski, “Trayvon Martin Shadowed by Series of Police Missteps,” The New York Times (May 17th 2012), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/17/us/trayvon-martin-case-shadowed-by-police-missteps.html. Like workers passively resisting a speedup on the assembly line, the foot soldiers of white supremacy committed sufficient “missteps” to endanger any conviction of Zimmerman.

50.  Matt Gutman, “Orlando Watch Shooting Probe Reveals Questionable Police Conduct,” ABC News (March 13th 2012), available at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/neighborhood-watch-shooting-trayvon-martin-probe-reveals-questionable/story15907136#.T2QwBWJWrQI.

51.  It now appears, according to an affidavit filed by the head homicide investigator, that this decision was not local, but made by the state attorney’s office (Gutman, “Trayvon Martin Investigator).

52. ABC News reported both that Zimmerman “couldn’t stop crying” after shooting Martin, and that Martin was “dogged by disciplinary problems at school.” Chris Francescani, “Trayvon Martin Shooter ‘Couldn’t Stop Crying’ After Shooting,” ABC News (March 25th 2012), available at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/trayvon-martin-shooter-couldnt-stop-crying-shooting/story?id=15997075#.T8PWkHlYviQ; Matt Gutman, “Trayvon Martin Dogged by Disciplinary Problems at School” (this article has since been removed from the ABC News website and replaced with Gutman’s article cited above, without changing the revealing URL address). See John Eskow, “The Second Killing of Trayvon Martin,” Counterpunch (March 27th 2012), available at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/27/the-second-killing-of-trayvon-martin/.

53. NPR deemed this one of the “biggest revelations” of the autopsy, reporting in the same article on Martin’s previous suspension for marijuana possession. Eyder Peralta, “New Evidence Released: Trayvon Martin had Traces of Pot in System,” NPR News Blog (May 17th 2012), available at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwoway/2012/05/17/152948727/new-evidence-released-trayvon-martin-had-traces-of-pot-in-system.

54.  This is not even to mention such heartwarming phenomena as the production and sale of gun range targets in the image of Martin or the “Trayvoning” trend in which white teenagers dress like Martin while pretending to lie on the floor dead.

55.  The New York Times coded this decision as a “routine toxicology screening” (“Trayvon Martin Case”).

56.  Gordon, “Of Illicit Appearance.” This racial grammar is akin to what Patricia Williams, analyzing the Rodney King case, deemed “the rules of the game.” Referring to the notorious presentation of the video of King’s beating in freeze-frame, she writes: “You just take a big chunk of material reality, freeze it frame by frame, mix all the frames up, and then play them backward, forward, upside down at randomly varying speeds, for a nice kaleidoscopic effect. When you start to feel a little dizzy, you bring in a team of players, called experts, who interpret the designs as creatively as they can, and then the jury has to pick the meaning that they like the best.” Patricia Williams, “The Rules of the Game,” in Robert Gooding-Williams, ed., Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising (New York: Routledge, 1993), 51–52.

57.  Adam Winkler, “The Secret History of Guns,” The Atlantic (September 2011), available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/the-secret-history-of-guns/8608/. See also Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (New York: Norton, 2011).

58.  Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America.

59.  Winkler, “The Secret History of Guns.”

60.  Nigel Gibson, “20 Years After the L.A. Riots: Revisiting the Rationality of Revolt,” Truthout (May 12th 2012), available at: http://truth-out.org/news/item/9000-20-years-after-the-la-riots-revisiting-the-rationality-of-revolt.

61.  Few have spoken openly and honestly about the question of gun control in relation to the death of Trayvon Martin, but some of the most critical voices have emerged from the hip-hop community. See “Killer Mike is ‘Very Angry’ with Black Leadership,” MTV.com (March 29th 2012), available at: http://www.mtv.com/videos/news/753924/killer-mike-is-very-angry-with-black-leadership.jhtml; “David Banner on Trayvon Martin Shooting Death,” Blackenterprise.com (March 30th 2012), available at: http://www.blackenterprise.com/news/david-banner-on-trayvon-martin-shooting-death/.

62.  Much ink has been expended arguing for the inherent evil of such laws, and one course of argument seeks to reveal the corporate backers and lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that have supported Stand Your Ground. The connections drawn between such laws and discrimination are not convincing, however: these laws don’t “discriminate,” but simply tear back the veil brutally and violently to reveal what already exists beneath. Of course, this doesn’t mean such laws are “good,” but we must not misinterpret them lest we misunderstand the real problems to be diagnosed, treating the symptoms rather than the underlying ailment. Joanne Doroshow, “The Secretive Corporate Outfit Behind Stand Your Ground,” Reuters (April 13th 2012), available at: http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2012/04/13/the-secretive-corporate-outfit-behind-stand-your-ground/.

63.  Ice Cube, “Wicked,” The Predator (Priority/EMI, 1992).

64.  John McWhorter, “The Case for Televising the Trayvon Martin Trial: America Needs a Re-Do of the O.J. Case,” The New Republic (April 17th 2012), available at: http://www.tnr.com/article/put-differently/102718/george-zimmerman-trayvon-martin-arrest.

65.  Or a third or a fourth time, considering the campaign of character assassination currently underway in the media.

66.  While McWhorter seems to hope for a conviction, I presume this would be on reduced charges, since he argues that Zimmerman is not a racist, but that his actions are instead best captured by that powerful conceptual category of “butthead.”

67.  For powerful studies of the L.A. Riots-Rebellions that parallel my concerns here, see Robert Gooding-Williams, ed., Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, and especially the chapters by Judith Butler and Gooding-Williams himself. On Oscar Grant, see my articles collected in Raider Nation Collective, From the January Rebellions to Lovelle Mixon and Beyond (Oakland, 2010), available at: http://www4.uwm.edu/c21/pdfs/symposia/Preoccupy/Ciccariello-Maher_RaiderNationCollective.pdf.

68.  Fanon, Black Skin, 193.

69.  Cited in Fanon, Black Skin, 76. The first passage is direct reference to the second.

70.  Cited in Robin D.G. Kelley, “A Poetics of Anticolonialism,” in Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. J. Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 26.

71.  A Black trans woman, CeCe McDonald was charged with second-degree murder and ultimately plead to second-degree manslaughter and was sentence to 41 months for defending herself when attacked by a white supremacist man and two women. Marissa Alexander, also a Black woman, was sentenced in Florida to a 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot over the head of an abusive husband, leading many to wonder why Alexander was denied access to a stand-your-ground defense by State Attorney Angela Corey, who is also overseeing the Zimmerman prosecution.

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  • Fanon, Frantz, -- 1925-1961 -- Political and social views
  • White supremacy movements -- United States.
  • Fanon, Frantz, -- 1925-1961 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, -- 1770-1831.
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