- Mike Brown's Body:New Materialism and Black Form
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"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."—President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961
Is colorblindness a queer form?
There is something Black about spatial practices of incarceration and perishment that dehumanize living matter.1 The Brookes (fig. 1) is a figure for the flesh. The flesh is pressed into the Brookes and the Zong. The flesh becomes knowledge through art: Barbara Chase-Riboud's Echo of Lions (1989) and Djimon Honsou's performance in Amistad (1997); the illustration above and its reproductions; M. NourbeSe Philip's poetry and Amma Asante's film Belle. To the putative owners, speculators, and underwriters of these ships, the flesh was only so much precious metal temporarily suspended in a perishable state. Posterity, the potential for power to reproduce itself and its world through the flesh, spilled out of the hold of those ships.
Out of the hold of those ships, the lonely, uncovered flesh of Michael Brown spilled out into the street. Millions of eyes to swarm around him spilled out of the hold. The uninvited ghost of Renisha McBride spilled out onto Theodore Wafer's porch. Olaudah Equiano, as he was pressed into the service of making a new world for others, recalled his own flesh being "hurried away even amongst the uncircumcised" and swept up into the hold along with "a people who did not circumcise, and ate without washing their hands."2 He would meet distant peoples who cooked in iron pots and sharpened their teeth; he would worry over whether he would be killed and if his flesh was "to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair."3 Elsewhere I have written about how Black skin and Black hair form the substrate for a variety of commercial and scientific practices that assign them quantifiable value even as they engender intimacy. Our skin and hair belong to us without determining the limits of our belonging because we are more than flesh. Our captors insist we have always been flesh, so we can be left to perish like Michael Brown and Renisha McBride. Like Equiano, we try to remember when we were pressed into the hold. Adapting the new materialism to the task of reckoning with the flesh demands a critique of form, and the work of Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, and Alex Weheliye articulates this demand in inspiring fashion.4
This work is all the more urgent in the wake of what Ian Haney Lopez terms "reactionary colorblindness," which he traces to the backlash against affirmative action and the contemporary "renewed penchant for the racial formalism which in an earlier and ignominious version helped defend Jim Crow oppression."5This doctrine finds expression in legal reasoning that equates affirmative action with reverse discrimination, "positing whites as black to justify heightened review, but blacks as white to deny the persistence of racial hierarchy."6 In the name of colorblindness, a perverse (queer) [End Page 277] return to disenfranchisement proceeds by enabling the faceless majority to "reconfigure the existing political process in a manner that creates a two-tiered system of political change, subjecting laws designed to protect or benefit discrete and insular minorities to a more burdensome political process than all other laws."7 Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor scrutinizes the form in which a concern for Equal Protection gets articulated in this new moment by meeting it with a timely critique of her own: a rarely cited "political-process doctrine." While the ahistorical claims lodged in the name of a strange (queer) resurgent formalism seek to unmake the humanity of racial minority subjects, the political-process doctrine comprises a new, materialist mode of vigilance toward the ruses of form. Attention to the processes by which Blackness loses its human form, as well as to the processes that enable the human to take on a...