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Black Life is More

Opinion | December 9, 2014

Our students, who have participated in and led protests at Tufts and in Boston over the past two weeks, are an inspiration. By marching, chanting, and staging ‘die-ins,’ they refuse to accept the grand jury decisions to exonerate the policemen who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We cannot accept these grand jury decisions in the way we would helplessly accept a natural disaster or the loss of a loved one to a terminal illness.

After all, if it is an illness that continues to kill black men and youth, it is an unnatural one. It is a long-standing social illness that combines anti-black racism, cultural pro-whiteness, militarized masculinist US nationalism, settler colonial logics of extermination, ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and gentrification. This unnatural illness seeks to kill off the physical, emotional, and intellectual embodiments; the life potentials; and the family bonds of black people, symbolized by the innocent corpses of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

The protesters from Tufts, who are playing a leading role in public actions in the wider Boston area, are teaching others as they walk and chant together, and as they resist unnatural disasters with righteous anger and with articulate and thoughtful language and concepts. Education does not only take place in the classroom. If education is about developing a deeper understanding of the world by learning the difference between what is illusory and what is factual—thereby moving from ignorance to greater clarity—then Tufts protesters are playing an important clarifying role in our local and Boston-wide community.

There is nothing natural about the way race works out in the gross expressions of violence by a militarized police, or in the more subtle psychic, cultural, and intellectual forms of de-prioritization, silencing, and coercion that people of color know from everyday experience. In the United States, the largest jailer in the world, though blacks make up 15 percent of the national population, they account for 40 percent of the prison population. In Canada, where I am from, native peoples make up 25 percent of the prison population, while they account for 5 percent of the current-day general population. This suggests the ways that black, Afro-Latino, and indigenous bodies are systemically devalued, de-prioritized, and brutalized through a discourse about ‘law enforcement’ and the preservation of the peace. But one can hardly also miss the ways that the talk of ‘preserving homeland security’ is employed to mark, monitor, imprison, displace and exterminate other colored bodies abroad, through the use of drones and boots on the ground.

To those students overcome by a sense of anger and helplessness given the current events: seek out leaders among the Tufts protesters and benefit from their teaching. Seek out faculty members at the university who teach about the unnatural disasters of race, gendered and sexual violence, militarized nationalism, and colonialism. Education can open up space for thinking of race beyond its commonplace presentation as a social relationship between white individuals and black individuals, or as part of a national narrative about ‘racial progress.’

Race relates to a set of reproducing compulsions and historical logics that seek to normalize and perpetuate the domination of cultural whiteness through the ritualized ‘demonization,’ punishment, and killing off of blackness. It is not only that ‘black life matters,’ but that black bodies exist, live, and love beyond the projections, phantasms, and constructs imposed by dominant pro-white discourse and institutions.

Black lives matter because they are grounded in histories, communities, cultures, families, fields of intimacy, and friendships that structural racism and settler colonialism are vested to erase. Black life is more, in that it cannot be exhausted by the normative, pro-white, nationalist, gendered, militarized, colonial terms of the state. There is great power available in imagining and articulating all that is encompassed but hidden in that ‘more.’

Civic breakdowns, as have occurred over the past weeks, are given to us in order to transform our understanding of our world, and to decipher the distinction between the illusory and the factual, and between what dominant discourses present as normal and natural and what our lived experience and our histories tell us is actually true about the condition of society today.

Kris Manjapra is an associate professor of history and the program director of Colonialism Studies at Tufts University.

Header image: alexklavens/Flickr via Creative Commons.