- The Flesh of Amalgamation:Reconsidering the Position (and the Labors) of Blackness
The story that cannot be told must not-tell itself in a language already contaminated, possibly irrevocably and fatally. . . . And only in not-telling can the story be told; only in the space where it's not told—literally in the margins of the text, a sort of negative space, a space not so much of non-meaning as anti-meaning.—M. NourbeSe Philip
In the postscript to her indomitable poetic treatise on black life and death in the making of the modern world, M. NourbeSe Philip writes of the ongoing mutilation of black humanity through the language of the legal text. She finds, for example, no word for recovering the millions of Africans buried in the "liquid grave" of the Middle Passage: "I find words like resurrect and subaquatic but not 'exaqua.' Does this mean that unlike being interred, once you're underwater there is no retrieval—that you can never be 'exhumed' from water?" In the face of this historical cataclysm, Philip uses her poetry to foment a disorder of her own, in search of yet another site of maroonage from what Saidiya Hartman terms slavery's afterlife. To "release the story that cannot be told," Philip mutilates the text herself, seeking to "literally cut it into pieces, castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns, throwing articles, prepositions, conjunctions overboard, jettisoning verbs."1
I find it compelling to consider how Philip's meditations might extend to the contemporary study of race. Is there an imposition of meaning perpetuating a similar kind of violence on the black subject of critical race studies? [End Page 437] Within the American studies community, for instance, there seem to be parallel discussions on race. The primary distinction between these two tracks hinges on what to make of racial blackness, a splitting reminiscent of "the presence of excised Africans" explored by Philip (199). Is blackness but one among a diversity of subjectivities and, historical particulars notwithstanding, essentially no different from these other positions, identities, and experiences in terms of authorizing analyses of suffering and struggle? Or is the rupture that blackness represents so essential to the formation of the social itself that any analysis of violence or injustice that is not centered in, derived from, or accountable to the suffering of African-descended peoples risks missing the crux (as opposed to the totality) of the social formation?
Tavia Nyong'o's Amalgamation Waltz and Jared Sexton's Amalgamation Schemes offer answers to these questions that might discomfit many American studies scholars. Indeed, perhaps their interventions into the matter of racial blackness and its place within the various analytic frameworks of American studies scholars has something to do with their heretofore quiet reception. While both books have been duly reviewed in a handful of journals, thus far they have enjoyed only scant critical engagement from American studies scholars. American studies has become a scholarly community that takes pride in its activist bona fides, that foregrounds its commitment to progressive politics, and that positions social justice as central to its avowed raison d'être. With this in mind, I am wondering if this reluctance to engage indexes Philip's description of "slavery—the story that simultaneously cannot be told, must be told, and will never be told" (206).
In the June 2012 issue of American Quarterly, this two-track discourse on race was on full display. Dylan Rodríguez wrote a gentle indictment of the response to the public spectacle of state violence on November 18, 2011, at the University of California, Davis, when campus police pepper sprayed students engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience as part of the Occupy movement. Rodríguez rightfully contrasts the outrage and moral indignation from left-liberal quarters, which was both national and international because of the viral spread of video footage from...