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  • Racial Mythologies, Neoliberal Seductions, and the Fictioning of Blackness: An SOS from “Old Lem”
  • Dana A. Williams (bio)

They don’t come by onesThey don’t come by twosButtheycomebytens.

Sterling Brown, “Old Lem”

It may seem counterintuitive to decry the “Age of Ferguson” in a forum so-named. That Ferguson happened and stands as a watershed moment in the contemporary imaginary is undeniable. But Ferguson, as Tony Bolden argues in “The Racial Contract: Ferguson as Metonymy—Why Now?”, is metonymic, the most recent iteration of an unbroken assault against black bodies in the US, assaults that serve an unstated but irrefutable racial contract. That we can now add to the list of unjustified acts by police officers two killings in two days—Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota—makes the point all too well. Invoking Charles Mills, Bolden maintains that while the cumulative accomplishments of progressive politics during the 1960s made significant advances in undermining this racial contract, ultimately it was not dismantled entirely. Rather, it was rewritten and, correspondingly, reproduced. Bolden’s line of reasoning, along with ongoing public conversations about race by some of our best thinkers, encourage me to continue grappling with the expectation that those of us who claim to “stay woke” must figure out how we [End Page 835] might best forge ahead.1 It seems to me that a critical, perhaps first, step is deliberate consideration of the ways current black writing and writing b(l)ack in the “Age of Ferguson” may be contributing (unknowingly or otherwise) to a new racial mythology formed more by conditioning than historicity and more as a reimagined racial contract than a new world order.2

The assumption that people contribute to mythologies about themselves to their own detriment is not applicable only to the black American. Wole Soyinka makes a similar argument in his most recent book, Of Africa (2012), in a chapter titled “Fictioning of the Fourth Dimension.” There, he articulates four schools of “fictioning”—“one is the purely driven adventurer’s; the second the commercial ... ; the third the internal, power-driven fictioning by their successors” (53); the fourth, he argues, is done most often by the African himself. And “the extreme and dogmatic of this school often ... drop into the same ancient pit of self-gratification, ultimately self-undermining” (54). Sadly, the formerly and arguably still oppressed participate in the fictioning, thereby sustaining the cycle of repetition that fuels acts of oppression. In the latter case, too, the sacred space of memory, in the rare instances it is invoked, is discordant. The continent’s complicated but no less complicit relation to the slave trade goes largely unacknowledged. Of most relevance here is Soyinka’s point that fictioning is a political act that enables “the curse of repetition, albeit in disguised, even refined forms” to continue unbroken (66). Structural change remains elusive; and the well of attenuation and the tree of forgetfulness win the day.

Like the fictioning of Africa, the fictioning of blackness in America unfolds in stages. The first occurs with the articulation and subsequent promotion of scientific racism, even when it is endorsed and perpetuated by those considered our most influential thinkers (for example, Thomas Jefferson and Notes on the State of Virginia). Unable to sustain that argument for long, the fictioning enlists stereotyping to make the case of black inferiority. When black writers began to draw upon American laments for freedom from tyranny at the onset of the Revolutionary War to justify demands for equality—through refutations of black inferiority, through identification with black accomplishments, and through assertions of ancient African achievement—the response was swift. To undermine presentations of a nonfictionalized blackness, proslavery magazines, newspapers, and other publications printed highly stereotypical images of black people which often placed emphasis on their speaking dialect, presumably to suggest a connection between a lack of command of standardized English and an inability to reason and thus to debate one’s own fate. Africa was further fictionalized as [End Page 836] barbaric. Absent the slave trade, this media suggested, enslaved Africans would have been killed in their homelands.

When the use of stereotyping began to wane...


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