The hill was a network of lights in which the twin stars of a car’s headlights traced a live circuit. There was an abstract, designed beauty in the setting of the clusters of bright rectangles that marked out houses along the well-lit roads, climbing at last to the long, low striations of light that signified the offices and labs at the summit. A satellite dish was a shield of gold, a communications tower a lance of silver. The captive power plant twinkled with ruby points of brilliance, cadmium sulphoselenide letting only red rays through. Good gatekeeper, cutting the seamless continuum of light into freed and absorbed, escaped and imprisoned. To the lens, there was only red and not-red. There were no other questions, no other categories. Gopal sat astride his bike and watched. Here, a hundred metres down the approach road from the town to the campus gate, he could appreciate the cold schematic beauty of it all. This complex in the middle of nowhere was the child and citadel of science, clean and limpid in its stark organization, its grid layout, its lit streets and planned bungalows. He could not think of those spaces as containing people. From here it was only infrastructure, a valued and valuable asset to the nation.
Entered in the account books of the republic: so many crores of rupees, so many man-hours of labour invested. Purpose: national security. Aims: laudable. Control: absolute. Glory: unlimited.
This is a machine for killing people. (113-114)
Chatterjee, Rimi B. (2005) Signal Red. London: Penguin.
Luís Vaz de Camões was born in 1524 or 25, son of a ship’s captain who drowned off of Goa. He lived in Lisbon on the fringes of court writing poetry and plays, legend has it he fell in love with Catarine de Ataide (who married Vasco da Gama, the subject of the Lusiad just as she was the subject of Camões’s sonnets).
Exiled from the court, he joined the garrison in Ceuta (Morrocco) as a common solider, and it was there he lost his eye. He is always shown thus.
Between 1553-56 he sailed to India, took part in expeditions along the Malabar coast of India, in the Red Sea, along the African and Arabian coasts, visits Malacca and the Moluccas. In 1559 he was recalled to Goa, wrecked in the Mekong river where he lost everything but, legend tells us, the cantos of the Lusiads. He spent time in jail related to his post in Macau. Jailed again for debt. He kicks around until friends offer him passage back to Lisbon in 1570, and it is in 1572 the Lusiads are published. It is only then that ‘Camões [was] granted tiny royal pension for “the adequacy of the book he wrote on Indian matters (xxvi).”‘ It is not, I don’t think, what you might call a happy life.
Who from Portugal’s far western shores
By oceans where none had ventured
Voyaged in Taprobana and beyond,
Enduring hazards and assaults
Such as drew on more than human prowess
Among far distant peoples, to proclaim
A New Age and win undying fame
Kings likewise of glorious memory
Who magnified Christ and Empire,
Bringing rain on the degenerate
Lands of Africa and Asia (1-2: 3);
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.
E também as memórias gloriosas
Daqueles Reis que foram dilatando
A Fé, o Império, e as terras viciosas
De África e de Ásia andaram devastando,
The whole of Os Lusiadas in Portuguese can be found here. It is written in a style heroic, celebrating the bravery and brutality of Vasco da Gama and his sailors. There is a strange invocation of Roman Gods and nymphs, an evocation of Empire that sits easier with the Portuguese project than Christianity — it seems obvious perhaps, yet I found it strange and fascinating both that the whole of it is couched in terms of Jupiter’s support of the Portuguese cause, Bacchus’s dissent and constant meddling.
In frail timbers on treacherous seas,
By routes never charted, and only
Emboldened by opposing winds;
Having explored so much of the earth
From the equator to the midnight sun.
They recharge their purpose and are drawn
To touch the very portals of the dawn
They were promised by eternal Fate
Whose high laws cannot be brokem
They should long hold sway in the seas…. (27-28:8)
O duvidoso mar num lenho leve,
Por vias nunca usadas, não temendo
de Áfrico e Noto a força, a mais s’atreve:
Que, havendo tanto já que as partes vendo
Onde o dia é comprido e onde breve,
Inclinam seu propósito e perfia
A ver os berços onde nasce o dia.
«Prometido lhe está do Fado eterno,
Cuja alta lei não pode ser quebrada,
Que tenham longos tempos o governo
Do mar que vê do Sol a roxa entrada.
Fate absolves them of everything and I love that they expect the hand of friendship wherever they go, despite their plan of conquest. This is at once a constant complaint of the lack of trust among strangers and a victorious poem of war against all unbelievers.
Unfathomable by human thought,
That those closest to God will never be
Lacking in some perfidious enemy! (71:17)
A quem juízo algum não alcançou:
Que nunca falte um pérfido inimigo
Àqueles de quem foste tanto amigo!
Hilarious. Reminded me of Hugh Makesela singing ‘Vasco da Gama, he was no friend of mine‘ in Colonial Man. The other side to this whole poem, and the side to be on. But we continue.
In which they send prisoners out to reconnoiter — I’m not entirely sure of the wisdom of this, but I suppose they weren’t just going to run away? There seems to have been a choice among prisoners as well. Ah, the jolly life of the sea.
On board, sentenced for gross crimes
So their lives could be hazarded
In predicaments such as these,
He sent two of the cleverest, trained
To spy on the city and defences
Of the resourceful Muslims, and to greet
The famous Christian he so longed to meet. (7:26)
Por culpas e por feitos vergonhosos,
Por que pudessem ser aventurados
Em casos desta sorte duvidosos,
Manda dous mais sagazes, ensaiados,
Por que notem dos Mouros enganosos
A cidade e poder, e por que vejam
Os Cristãos, que só tanto ver desejam.
Venus worries for them, she intercedes with Jove, he lists the many victories they will have (there are many such stomach-turning lists).
You will see consistently routed;
The independent kings of India
Will be subject to Portugal,
Bringing, when all falls under his command,
A better dispensation to that land (46:34)
‘You will see the famous Red Sea
Turning yellow from sheer fright; (49:34)
Deles sempre vereis desbaratados;
Os Reis da Índia, livres e seguros,
Vereis ao Rei potente sojugados,
E por eles, de tudo enfim senhores,
Serão dadas na terra leis milhores.
«E vereis o Mar Roxo, tão famoso,
Tornar-se-lhe amarelo, de enfiado;
They will take Ormuz, Diu
And come in the fullness of time to be
Queen of the Orient, raised up
By the triumphs of her conquerors.
From that proud, noble eminence,
They will rule with an iron fist
Idol-worshiping Hindus, and everyone
Throughout that land with thoughts of rebellion (51:35)
A qual virá despois a ser senhora
De todo o Oriente, e sublimada
Cos triunfos da gente vencedora.
Ali, soberba, altiva e exalçada,
Ao Gentio que os Ídolos adora
Duro freio porá, e a toda a terra
Que cuidar de fazer aos vossos guerra.
They will take the fortress of Cannanore, Calicut, Cochin
Ignited by your people, Battling
Taking both Hindu and Muslim captive,
Subduing the different nations
Until every sea-way is subservient (54:35)
Cos incêndios dos vossos, pelejando,
Levando o Idololatra e o Mouro preso,
De nações diferentes triunfando;
Ser-lhe-á todo o Oceano obediente.
In which da Gama gives a brief history of Portugal, ‘noble Iberia, The head, as it were, of all Europe’ (17: 51) to a Muslim Sultan. That doesn’t stop him from insulting the moors often and deeply of course, though he mentions that among them were Amazons (44:56). That’s cool.
In which Manuel the king of Portugal has a dream…
Have their source in the earthly paradise;
This other is the Indus, which springs
In this mountain which you behold.
We shall cost you unremitting war,
But perservering, you will become
Peerless in victory, knowing no defeat,
Conquering as many peoples as you meet.’ (74:91)
The king summoned the lords to council
To tell of the figures of his dream;
The words spoken by the venerable saint
Were a great wonder to them all.
They resolved at once to equip
A fleet and an intrepid crew,
Commissioned to plough the remotest seas
To explore new regions, make discoveries. (76:92)
Celeste tenho o berço verdadeiro;
Estoutro é o Indo, Rei que, nesta serra
Que vês, seu nascimento tem primeiro.
Custar-t’ -emos contudo dura guerra;
Mas, insistindo tu, por derradeiro,
Com não vistas vitórias, sem receio
A quantas gentes vês porás o freio.»
«Chama o Rei os senhores a conselho
E propõe-lhe as figuras da visão;
As palavras lhe diz do santo velho,
Que a todos foram grande admiração.
Determinam o náutico aparelho,
Pera que, com sublime coração,
Vá a gente que mandar cortando os mares
A buscar novos climas, novos ares.
They asked for it you see.
But then there is an odd counterpoint, an old man calling out to them as they depart from Belem
For that vanity known as fame!
That hollow conceit which puffs itself up
And which popular cant calls honour!
What punishment, what poetic justice,
You exact on sou;s that pursue you!
To what deaths, what miseries you condemn
Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them!
‘You wreck all peace of soul and body,
You promote separation and adultery;
Subtley, manifestly, you consume
The wealth of kingdoms and empires!
They call distinction, they call honour
What deserves ridicule and contempt;
They talk of glory and eternal fame,
And men are driven frantic by a name!
‘To what new catastrophes do you plan
To drag this kingdom and tehse people?
What perils, what deaths have you in store
Under what magniloquent title?
What visions of kingdoms and gold-mines
Will you guide them to infallibly?
What fame do you promise them? What stories?
What conquests and processions? What glories? (95-97:96)
‘Already in this vainglorious business
Delusions are possessing you,
Already ferocity and brute force
Are labelled strength and valour,
The heresy “Long live Death!” is already
Current among you, when life should always
be cherished, As Christ in times gone by
Who gave us life was yet afraid to die. (99:96)
‘The devil take the man who first put
Dry wood on the waves with a sail! (102: 97)
Desta vaidade a quem chamamos Fama!
Ó fraudulento gosto, que se atiça
Cũa aura popular, que honra se chama!
Que castigo tamanho e que justiça
Fazes no peito vão que muito te ama!
Que mortes, que perigos, que tormentas,
Que crueldades neles experimentas!
«Dura inquietação d’alma e da vida
Fonte de desemparos e adultérios,
Sagaz consumidora conhecida
De fazendas, de reinos e de impérios!
Chamam-te ilustre, chamam-te subida,
Sendo dina de infames vitupérios;
Chamam-te Fama e Glória soberana,
Nomes com quem se o povo néscio engana!
«A que novos desastres determinas
De levar estes Reinos e esta gente?
Que perigos, que mortes lhe destinas,
Debaixo dalgum nome preminente?
Que promessas de reinos e de minas
D’ ouro, que lhe farás tão facilmente?
Que famas lhe prometerás? Que histórias?
Que triunfos? Que palmas? Que vitórias?
«Já que nesta gostosa vaïdade
Tanto enlevas a leve fantasia,
Já que à bruta crueza e feridade
Puseste nome, esforço e valentia,
Já que prezas em tanta quantidade
O desprezo da vida, que devia
De ser sempre estimada, pois que já
Temeu tanto perdê-la Quem a dá:
«Oh, maldito o primeiro que, no mundo,
Nas ondas vela pôs em seco lenho!
And they just sail away as he speaks. But I wondered if that were not perhaps exactly what Camões himself thought, maybe that is the heart of this epic poem, this old man railing against violence and pride. Against the colonial project. There are echoes of this throughout.
He describes Madeira — known for its great forests. Soon to be cut down and forgotten. The Numidian desert of the Berber people, a land where ostriches digest iron in their stomachs! The Senegal river, Asinarus that they have rechristened Cape Verde. The Canary Islands, once called the Fortunate Isles. It is a map, this poem. They pass Jalof province, Mandingo…
Breakers pounding on beaches that are ours
There the mighty kingdom of the Congo
Has been brought by us to faith in Christ,
Where the Zaire flows, immense and brimming,
A river never seen by the ancients.
From this open sea I looked my last
At the constellations of the north.
For we had now crossed the burning line
Which marks division in the earth’s design (12-13:100)
O mar nas praias notas, que ali temos,
«Ali o mui grande reino está de Congo,
Por nós já convertido à fé de Cristo,
Por onde o Zaire passa, claro e longo,
Rio pelo antigos nunca visto.
Por este largo mar, enfim, me alongo
Do conhecido Pólo de Calisto,
Tendo o término ardente já passado
Onde o meio do Mundo é limitado.
This…oh man, there is so much in here isn’t there. The view of the other, the incomparable arrogance, the initimitable violence, the begginings of this trade in beads and baubles founded on a lack of respect for a culture that cares not for forks or gold.
They had captured, making his sweet harvest
Of honey from the wild bees in the forest.
He looked thunderstruck, like a man
Never placed in such an extreme;
He could not understand us, nor we him
Who seemed wilder than Polyphemus.
I began by showing him pure gold
The supreme metal of civilisation,
Then fine silverware and hot condiment:
Nothing stirred in the brute the least excitement.
I arranged to show him simpler things:
Tiny beads of transparent crystal,
Some little jingling bells and rattles,
A red bonnet of a pleasing colour;
I saw at once from nods and gestures
That these had made him very happy.
I freed him and let him take his pillage,
Small as it was, to his nearby village.
The next day his fellows, all of them
Naked, and blacker than seemed possible,
Trooped down the rugged hillside paths
Hoping for what their friend had obtained.
They were so gentle and well-disposed (27-30:103)
Que tomaram per força, enquanto apanha
De mel os doces favos na montanha.
«Torvado vem na vista, como aquele
Que não se vira nunca em tal extremo;
Nem ele entende a nós, nem nós a ele,
Selvagem mais que o bruto Polifemo.
Começo-lhe a mostrar da rica pele
De Colcos o gentil metal supremo,
A prata fina, a quente especiaria:
A nada disto o bruto se movia.
«Mando mostrar-lhe peças mais somenos:
Contas de cristalino transparente,
Alguns soantes cascavéis pequenos,
Um barrete vermelho, cor contente;
Vi logo, por sinais e por acenos,
Que com isto se alegra grandemente.
Mando-o soltar com tudo e assi caminha
Pera a povoação, que perto tinha.
«Mas, logo ao outro dia, seus parceiros,
Todos nus e da cor da escura treva,
Decendo pelos ásperos outeiros,
As peças vêm buscar que estoutro leva.
Domésticos já tanto e companheiros
They continue on, still on. And then the Cape of Storms rises up embodied before them, grotesque, and again all the contradictions in this colonial project come rising to the surface with him.
Secrets and the mysteries of the deep
Where no human, however noble
Or immortal his worth, should trespass
Hear from me now what retribution
Fate presrcibes for your insolence,
Whether ocean-borne, or along the shores
You will subjegaute with your dreadful wars
‘No matter how many vessels attempt
The audacious passage you are plotting
My cape will be implacably hostile
With gales beyond any you have encountered (42-3:106)
Da natureza e do húmido elemento,
A nenhum grande humano concedidos
De nobre ou de imortal merecimento,
Ouve os danos de mi que apercebidos
Estão a teu sobejo atrevimento,
Por todo o largo mar e pola terra
Que inda hás-de sojugar com dura guerra.
«Sabe que quantas naus esta viagem
Que tu fazes, fizerem, de atrevidas,
Inimiga terão esta paragem,
Com ventos e tormentas desmedidas;
The spirit describes the Portuguese need to atone for ‘his bloody crimes, the massacre | Of Kilwa, the leveling of Mombasa (45:107).
Unexpected. These are celebrated later on but only after this first mention, the cost of what they are doing, its criminal aspect. The more I look at the poem the more I am intrigued by this very slender thread of self-knowledge of crimes inflicted against man and earth.
Sail on and sail on. Past a succession of sultans who lie and cheat the Portuguese until they come to Mozambique, where finally the Sultan fulfills his promise to give them guides. There is a meeting of the gods under the sea, summoned by Triton. And I love this passage
Falling from his head to his shoulders
Were all one mass of mud, and visibly
Had never been touched by a comb;
Each dangling dreadlock was a cluster
Of gleaming, blue-black mussels.
On his head by way of coronet, he wore
The biggest lonbster-shell you ever saw.
His body was naked, even his genitals
So as not to impede his swimming,
But tiny creatures of the sea
Crawled over him by the hundreds;
Da cabeça nos ombros, todos eram
Uns limos prenhes d’ água, e bem parecem
Que nunca brando pêntem conheceram.
Nas pontas pendurados não falecem
Os negros mexilhões, que ali se geram.
Na cabeça, por gorra, tinha posta
Ũa mui grande casca de lagosta.
O corpo nu, e os membros genitais,
Por não ter ao nadar impedimento,
Mas porém de pequenos animais
Do mar todos cobertos, cento e cento:
They are becalmed, and the strangest tale told of Magrico, in which John of Gaunt who has been allied with King Joao summons twelve Portuguese knights to represent the ladies in a joust for their honour and the knights win of course…I suppose it is just to tie Portugal closer to their English allies, but so curious.
Canto 7 — A last listing of Portuguese possessions after an excoriation of the infighting between Christians — the Reformation I imagination, he is particularly upset at the Germans. Canto 8, the treachery of the Muslims. Chapter 9 finally they head home, with reflections on all they had won — lands mapped, men and spices pillaged and plundered.
He had laboured in vain for a treaty
Of friendship with the Hindu king,
To guarantee peace and commerce;
But at least those lands stretching
To the dawn were now known to the world,
And at long last his men were homeward bound
With proofs on board of the India he had found.
For he had some Malabaris siezed
From those dispatched by the Samorin
When he returned the imprisoned factors;
He had hot peppers he had purchased;
There was mace from the Banda Islands;
Then nutmeg and black cloves, pride
Of the new-found Moluccas, and cinammon,
the wealth, the fame, the beauty of Ceylon. (13-14:179)
Que em vão co Rei gentio trabalhava
Em querer dele paz, a qual pretende
Por firmar o comércio que tratava;
Mas como aquela terra, que se estende
Pela Aurora, sabida já deixava,
Com estas novas torna à pátria cara,
Certos sinais levando do que achara.
Leva alguns Malabares, que tomou
Per força, dos que o Samorim mandara
Quando os presos feitores lhe tornou;
Leva pimenta ardente, que comprara;
A seca flor de Banda não ficou;
A noz e o negro cravo, que faz clara
A nova ilha Maluco, co a canela
Com que Ceilão é rica, ilustre e bela.
And then Venus, who owns many of these islands, prepares one for these heroes. She fills it with nymphs who are theirs for the taking.
Should wait upon the mighty heroes
–All of them lovely beyond compare,
So with redoubled zeal, each would endeavour
To please her beloved mariner, whoever…(22: 181)
But make way, you steep, cerulean waves
For look, Venus brings the remedy,
In those white, billowing sails
Scudding swiftly over Neptune’s waters;
Now ardent loving can assuage
Female passion… (49: 186)
Esperem os fortíssimos barões
(Todas as que têm título de belas,
Pera com mais vontade trabalharem
De contentar a quem se afeiçoarem.
Dai lugar, altas e cerúleas ondas,
Que, vedes, Vénus traz a medicina,
Mostrando as brancas velas e redondas,
Que vêm por cima da água Neptunina.
Pera que tu recíproco respondas,
Ardente Amor, à flama feminina,
the sailors land and go chasing their nymphs through the forest — Tethys takes da Gama to the mountain to show him ‘the still-unmapped continents’ and ‘seas unsailed’ and ‘There they passed the long day | In sweet games and continuous pleasure.’ It seems to me all one elaborate metaphor of rape that he explains thus:
Tethys, and the magic painted island,
Are nothing more than those delghtful
Honours, which make our lives sublime.
Those glorious moments of pre-eminence (89:194)
Tétis e a Ilha angélica pintada,
Outra cousa não é que as deleitosas
Honras que a vida fazem sublimada.
Aquelas preminências gloriosas,
It makes me feel sick really, this treating as parable what these European sailors in reality took as divine right and with violence wherever they landed.
This canto contains the great summation of death and destruction the Portuguese will wreck upon the world from the lips of Venus. I’ve just pulled some of the highlights out, more feeling sick:
Over the seas da Gama had opened,
Would come fleets to conquer all the coast
Where the Indian Ocean sighs;
Those Hindu Kings who did not bow
Their necks to the yoke would incite
The wrath of an implacable enemy,
Their choice to yield or, on an instant, die (10:199)
Pacheco will not only hold the fords,
But burn towns, houses, and temples;
Inflamed with anger, watching his cities
One by one laid low, that dog
Will force his men, reckless of life,
To attack both passages at once, (16:200)
Together, by the power of arms,
They will castigate fertile Kilwa,
Driving out its perfidious princeling
To impose a loyal and humane King
‘Mombasa too, furnished with such
Palaces and sumptuous houses,
Will be laid waste with iron and fire,
In payment for its former treachery (26-27:202)
But it is Emir Hussein’s grappled fleet
Bears the brunt of the avenger’s anger,
As arms and legs swim in the bay
Without the bodies they belonged to;
Bolts of fire will make manifest
The passionate victors’ blind fury (36:204)
But what great light’“ do I see breaking,’
Sang the nymph and in a higher strain,
‘Where the seas of Malindi flow crimson
With the blood of Lamu, Oja, and Brava? (39:205)
‘That light, too, is from Persian Ormuz
From the fires and the gleaming arms
Of Albuquerque as he rebukes them
For scorning his light, honourable yoke. (40:205)
‘Not all that land’s mountains of salt
Can preserve from corruption the corpses
Littering the beaches, choking the seas
Of Gerum, Muscat, and Al Quraiyat,
Till, by the strength of his arm, they learn
To bow the neck as he compels
That grim realm to yield, without dispute,
Pearls from Bahrain as their annual tribute. (41:205)
Renowned, opulent Malacca!
For all your arrows tipped with poison,
The curved daggers you bear as arms,
Amorous Malays and valiant Javanese
All will be subject to the Portuguese (44:205)
Having cleared India of enemies
He will take up the viceroy’s sceptre
For all fear him and none complain,
Except Bhatkal, which brings on itself
The pains Beadala already suffered;
Corpses will strew the streets, and shells burst
As fire and thundering cannon do their worst.(66:210)
Do Tejo, pelo mar que o Gama abrira,
Armadas que as ribeiras venceriam
Por onde o Oceano Índico suspira;
E que os Gentios Reis que não dariam
A cerviz sua ao jugo, o ferro e ira
Provariam do braço duro e forte,
Até render-se a ele ou logo à morte.
Já não defenderá sòmente os passos,
Mas queimar-lhe-á lugares, templos, casas;
Aceso de ira, o Cão, não vendo lassos
Aqueles que as cidades fazem rasas,
Fará que os seus, de vida pouco escassos,
Cometam o Pacheco, que tem asas,
A Quíloa fértil, áspero castigo,
Fazendo nela Rei leal e humano,
Deitado fora o pérfido tirano.
«Também farão Mombaça, que se arreia
De casas sumptuosas e edifícios,
Co ferro e fogo seu queimada e feia,
Em pago dos passados malefícios.
«Mas a de Mir Hocém, que, abalroando,
A fúria esperará dos vingadores,
Verá braços e pernas ir nadando
Sem corpos, pelo mar, de seus senhores.
Raios de fogo irão representando,
No cego ardor, os bravos domadores.
«Mas oh, que luz tamanha que abrir sinto
(Dizia a Ninfa, e a voz alevantava)
Lá no mar de Melinde, em sangue tinto
Das cidades de Lamo, de Oja e Brava,
«Esta luz é do fogo e das luzentes
Armas com que Albuquerque irá amansando
De Ormuz os Párseos, por seu mal valentes,
Que refusam o jugo honroso e brando.
«Ali do sal os montes não defendem
De corrupção os corpos no combate,
Que mortos pela praia e mar se estendem
De Gerum, de Mazcate e Calaiate;
Até que à força só de braço aprendem
A abaxar a cerviz, onde se lhe ate
Obrigação de dar o reino inico
Das perlas de Barém tributo rico.
Opulenta Malaca nomeada.
As setas venenosas que fizeste,
Os crises com que já te vejo armada,
Malaios namorados, Jaus valentes,
Todos farás ao Luso obedientes.»
«Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos imigos,
Virá despois com ceptro a governá-la
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dele e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os ásperos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala.
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.
A reminder that in it all, it is the women who are always promised as plunder.
Nor the violent abuse of a virgin,
Still less of hidden adultery
For this was a slave, anyone’s woman. (47:206)
All these heroes, and others worthy
In different ways of fame and esteem,
Performing great feats in war
Will taste this island’s pleasures,
Their sharp keels cutting the waves
Under triumphant banners, to find
These lovely nymphs (73:211)
Nem violento estupro em virgem pura,
Nem menos adultério desonesto,
Mas cũa escrava vil, lasciva e escura,
«Estes e outros Barões, por várias partes,
Dinos todos de fama e maravilha,
Fazendo-se na terra bravos Martes,
Virão lograr os gostos desta Ilha,
Varrendo triunfantes estandartes
Pelas ondas que corta a aguda quilha;
E acharão estas Ninfas …
And then she bids Portugal look West, not just East. Don’t, you say. Don’t. But of course they did. This is the monument in Belem that marks where all of these conquerors set out with their swords. Hardly surprising it was built under the dictator Salazar, and rises above a great cartographic rose given them by the apartheid state of South Africa.
Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood (206)
Loved this book.
[Whitehead, Colson (2016) The Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.]
We visited the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa) — I was curious, was just about to finish Q by Luther Blisset, a splendid telling of the Protestant battle for faith and a revolution of the poor and oppressed which helped give rise to the inquisition in a wave of incredibly violent repression. As Q makes clear, for some this involved faith, but this was as much about maintaining the old order and the jockeying for power between the Pope, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V and the German princes and their small states. Henry VIII is also up in this mix. It had to do with money as well of course, much of which was confiscated from Jewish and Marrano money lenders along with others who refused to ‘repent’. None of this complex history is reflected here, but formed the background in my head. There is no acknowledgment of a pervasive atmosphere of fear created by the constant demand to denounce self and neighbour, the burning of books, the treatment of any curiosity as heresy, the absolute power over life and death held by all too human Inquisitors.
You cannot feel the darkness here.
The description on the website, which I confess made me choke just a little.
The Inquisitor’s Palace, situated in the heart of Vittoriosa, is one of the very few surviving palaces of its kind which, in the early modern period could be found all over Europe and South America. Many of these palaces simply succumbed to the ravages of time or were victims of the anti-reactionary power unleashed by the French Revolution. Fortunately, the Maltese Inquisitor’s Palace, throughout its five centuries of history, always hosted high-ranking officials representing the main powers on the island, who therefore ensured its survival.
Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived in Malta in 1574 as the first general inquisitor and apostolic delegate of the Maltese Islands. The Grand Master offered him the unused palace as an official residence. Almost all successive inquisitors sought to transform the palace into a decent mansion.
From the museum itself, the nicest description of the inquisition you will ever read:
The building itself is made up of huge rooms, incredible wooden ceilings and bands of frescoes beneath them.
The staircase was central, and your rank defined where the Inquisitor met you on it. The absurdities of hierarchy.
Like this marble entry that seem better suited to the outside of the building not the inside.
There are fascinating things here, exhibits from the archives kept as evidence in the trials, amazing things really. Like a magical hat with spell in Arab script used by Didacus Mifsud against heavy headaches, confiscated by inquisitor Fabrizio Verallo (1600-1605)
Magical spell … included as evidence by Inquisitor Lazzaro Pallavicina (1718-1719)
This devotional image, originally hanging in the prisons of the Order of St John, was the target of convict Grazio Laura who started throwing stones at it after loss in gambling. Reported by his inmates, the offender tried to defend himself stating that he erroneously hit the image while throwing stones at mice. He later admitted and was whipped in public.
There was a great book burning here in 1609, among them Rabelais’ Les Oeuvres.
The description of torture:
Rarely inflicted by Inquisitors, torture was not a sanction in itself, but a means to extract truth during trial. It was generally used when the accused persisted in declaring himself innocent when the Inquisitor was absolutely sure about his guilt. It was applied following strict rules and after considerate guidance.
They have a paper signed by Caravaggio here, witness in a case of bigamy 1607-1608
Abjuration (a public solemn confession of repentance, necessary prior to any verdict by French Theologian Michel Moren in from of Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino (1587-1590, 1591-1592)
On Corporal Punishment:
Corporal punishments were generally vindictive, containing an element of shame to make up for the harms committed. This included kneeling or whopping in public, rowing on galleys, nursing in hospital, work on fortifications and imprisonment. Such sanctions were inflicted in less than 10% of cases.
Not to be misinterpreted as working towards financial rather than spiritual gain, inflicting fines and confiscation of property and belongings were generally forbidden by the Supreme Congregation in Rome. Inquisitors however did confiscate devotional material on account of their improper use.
Devotional paper with Corona of Spirit confiscated by Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino for inappropriate use.
There are some brilliant, incredibly complex Arabic charts. In explanation:
In a complicated case of witchcraft Maltese architect and military engineer Vittorio Cassar appeared before the Tribunal…He produced a lot of evidence in Arabic text…Cassar was warned and absolved.
But I wonder what they really were. Especially as the Arabs were still more advanced in their knowledge, mathematics, architecture and engineering than the Knights of Malta at this time…
The incredible recounting of a case against 40 witches:
Prisons were probably stretched to the limit when Inquisitor Visconti had to arrest forty witches accused of love witchcraft in 1625. Their trial lasted three years and provides precious insights into Maltese spells. They abjured and were sanctioned with public flogging, perpetual exile and attend [sic] for confession and holy communion four times a year for four years.
‘had to arrest’. A mad sentence.
Two Quakers were held here, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, arrested in 1658 for spreading Protestantism, they were discharged without sentence — four years after arrest. I wonder how these women arrived here, what their goals were. Why this illustration should accompany their story.
The inquisition created a school of Arabic to teach missionaries, to allow them to preach the faith among slaves in Malta and other Muslim lands. Slavery is referred to so off-handedly here, as though it wasn’t really serious.
The Inquisition remained in operation in Malta until the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. Hurrah. But they were already on their way out. They have a brilliant letter in cypher to Inquisitor Antonio Felice Chigi Zondadari (1777-1785) about earlier attempts to get rid of the Inquisition in Naples.
We move to descend to the prison cells. Shh.
The roles of the prison warden are given here beside his spartan quarters, incredibly contradictory I find, written to be abused to the warden’s own benefit but very much of their time.
Just outside, through the bars, you can see a sun dial carved in 1730 by prison warder Leonardo Palombo. I wonder how he arrived here in this position, what he wanted for himself rather than this:
The ominous timeline of a trial:
The judgment chamber:
A description of the purpose of the many edicts:
Every now and then the Inquisitor would feel the need to issue an edict thereby reminding people of their obligations as good Catholics to report any kind of misdeeds against the Catholic faith and the punishment incurred by those who did not do so.
They had 12 days, if they failed to report they were automatically excommunicated, and only the inquisition could lift the excommunication.
Activities that had to be reported:
- Abuse of sacraments for superstitious remedies
- Owning or perusing of prohibited books
- Infringement of abstinence
- Apostasy to Islam
- Magical activities
- Solicitation during confession (!)
- Heretical opinion
- False witness
- Hear confession or say Mass without permission
- Lack of cooperation with the inquisition to eradicate heresy
On the Torture Chamber
This room was used alternatively as a prison cell, the prison warden’s room, and a torture chamber according to the needs of the palace at the time. These ‘secret’ stairs were used to elad prisoners, or those who wanted to denounce someone to the Inquisitor, straight into the Tribunal Room without using the main staircase, thus not exposing himself to others. … Utmost secrecy was of paramount importance for the legal procedure of the Inquisition.
On torture itself:
And on to the cells. Small squares like those of Gozo’s Citadel. A view from the prison yard to freedom up above.
The happiest thing about this place? A prisoner managed to dig himself free EIGHT TIMES. But there is nothing else happy about this place.
While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:
What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)
It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.
An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.
I appreciate a section with the title:
Minds Warped by Racism
Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:
We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)
I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:
Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)
Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.
This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:
This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)
I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):
The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)
The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.
An inspirational chapter title:
“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”
And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:
Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)
An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.
Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.
Negroes With Guns by Robert F Williams is really something — as if the name of it didn’t give that away. After Philando Castile, after the shootings that keep happening and happening with impunity this felt so good to read. We watched Fred Williamson stand up to white violence in the N**ger Charlie trio of films over the past few weekends too — such brilliant Westerns in their Blaxploitation way, I can’t believe they’re not available in better quality film. Even if us white folks can never ask for them by name. All of it has been cathartic in the face of despair, though much of that despair grows out of police impunity, and this is probably not the right strategy to end that. I wish I knew what was.
Negroes With Guns sounds badass, and it is, but not in that way that men get when they try and out-badass each other without actually managing true badassness. These are wise and well-considered, well-defended, and well-grounded words from a man who puts most of those others to shame. No wonder it inspired the Black Panthers so much (and I imagine Blaxploitation films just like the one above), if only they’d stuck to a committed revolutionary ethos just a little more…
The book was written in Cuba, which welcomed so many Black exiles of the revolution, and opens:
Why do I speak to you from exile?
Because a Negro community in the South took up guns in self-defense against racist violence-and used them. (3)
I quote his summation of his philosophy at length:
Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle. This means that I believe in non-violent tactics where feasible; the mere fact that I have a Sit-In case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court bears this out. Massive civil disobedience is a powerful weapon under civilized conditions where the law safeguards the citizens’ right of peaceful demonstrations. In civilized society the law serves as a deterrent against lawless forces that would destroy the democratic process. But where there is a breakdown of the law, the individual citizen has a right to protect his person, his family, his home and his property. To me this is so simple and proper that it is self-evident.
When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise. Psychologically, moreover, racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity. This we have shown in Monroe. Moreover, when because of our self-defense there is a danger that the blood of whites may be spilled, the local authorities in the South suddenly enforce law and order when previously they had been complacent toward lawless, racist violence. This too we have proven in Monroe. It is remarkable how easily and quickly state and local police control and disperse law-less mobs when the Negro is ready to defend himself with arms. (4-5)
Nothing could be more clear than that, nor, I think, much more reasonable. Especially after hearing his story. He was a WWII veteran and served in the Marines where he was trained to fight, trained to respect himself — Monroe, North Carolina demanded he do neither. He joined the NAACP on his return there at a time when it was under fierce attack from white supremacists (as all NAACP chapters were after Brown v Board). He writes:
When I joined the local chapter of the NAACP it was going down in membership, and when it was down to six, the leadership proposed dissolving it. When I objected, I was elected president and they withdrew, except for Dr. Albert E. Perry. … I tried to get former members back without success and finally I realized that I would have to work without the social leaders of the community.
So he drew on previous life experience — and that was of northern unions, even though he had not joined he had learned. A lesson in that I think, both in what the union missed, but also in the ripples it set in motion…
At this time I was inexperienced. Before going into the
Marines I had left Monroe for a time and worked in an aircraft
factory in New Jersey and an auto factory in Detroit. Without knowing it, I had picked up some ideas of organizing from the activities around me … So one day I walked into a Negro poolroom in our town, interrupted a game by putting NAACP literature on the table and made a pitch. I recruited half of those present…. We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of working class composition and a leadership that was not middle class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant (14)
In the summer of 1957 they made one big attempt to stop us. An armed motorcade attacked Dr. Perry’s house, which is situated on the outskirts of the colored community. We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack and the Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community. After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief. (19)
Self defense worked. To the extent that armed raids of the KKK wouldn’t be happening any more, which was no small thing. It didn’t do anything to integrate the community, make individuals going about their daily business much safer, or improve conditions, but it made a space possible for work to happen to try and do all of these.
I love that Robert Williams wanted to do all of it. Everything.
I was more convinced than ever that one of our greatest and most immediate needs was better communication within the race. The real Afro-American struggle was merely a disjointed network of pockets of resistance and the shameful thing about it was that Negroes were relying upon the white man’s inaccurate reports as their sources of information about these isolated struggles. I went home and concentrated all of my efforts into developing a newsletter … (29)
Robert Williams thought big, his branch of the NAACP would become so inspirational in the way it tried to moved beyond racial integration to the deeper causes:
In our branch of the NAACP there was a general feeling that we were in a deep and bitter struggle against racists and that we needed to involve as many Negroes as possible and to make the struggle as meaningful as possible. … what we needed was a broad program with special attention to jobs, welfare, and other economic needs.
I think this was an important step forward. The struggles of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-In Movements have concentrated on a single goal: the right to eat at a lunch counter, the right to sit anywhere on a bus. These are important rights because their denial is a direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity. … By debasing and demoralizing the black man in small personal matters, the system eats away the sense of dignity and pride which are necessary to challenge a racist system. But the fundamental core of racism is more than atmosphere-it can be measured in dollars and cents… (38)
They had their own 10-point platform — I think I knew that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had read this and done their own ten point platform accordingly, but I’m not sure I did. Such a platform is such a good way to inspire people to join in struggle and to know in broad terms what it is you struggle for:
On Aug. 15, 196 1 , on behalf of our Chapter I presented to the Monroe Board of Aldermen a ten point program that read as follows:
We, the undersigned citizens of Monroe, petition the City
Board of Aldermen to use its influence to endeavor to:
- Induce factories in this county to hire without discrimination.
- Induce the local employment agency to grant non-whites the same privileges given to whites.
- Instruct the Welfare Agency that non-whites are entitled to the same privileges, courtesies and consideration given to whites.
- Construct a swimming pool in the Winchester Avenue area of Monroe.
- Remove all signs in the city of Monroe designating one area for colored and another for whites.
- Instruct the Superintendent of Schools that he must prepare to desegregate the city school no later than 1962.
- Provide adequate trasportation for all school children.
- Formally request the State Medical Board to permit Dr. Albert E. Perry, Jr., to practice medicine in Monroe and Union County.
- Employ Negroes in skilled or supervisory capacities in the City Government.
- ACT IMMEDIATELY on all of these proposals and inform the committee and the public of your actions.
Robert F. Williams
Albert E. Perry, Jr. , M.D.
John W. McDow (39)
They emphasise always the economic dimensions of oppression as they connect to racial ones:
we believe that the basic ill is an economic ill, our being denied the right to have a decent standard of living. (40)
Such a difference from the national NAACP office is clearly due both to the character of Williams, Perry and McDow, but also the melting away of the professionals from the Monroe branch of the NAACP under threat of violence, and the recruitment of a working class base. This positionality gave a very different understanding of goals and strategy than those embraced by much of the Civil Rights Movement. Williams writes:
On these peripheral matters, leaders of the Sit-In Movements can meet with city and state officials and win concessions. I believe this is an important part of the overall Negro struggle. But when these concessions are used for propaganda by Negro “leaders” as examples of the marvelous progress the Afro-American is supposedly making, thereby shifting attention from the basic evils, such victories cease to be even peripheral and become self-defeating. When we tackle basic evils, however, the racists won’t give an inch.
He continues — this is not just ideological but practical:
This, I think, is why the Freedom Riders who came to Monroe met with such naked violence and brutality. That and the pledge of non-violence. (41)
He writes quite compellingly about white racism, that will be blog number two on this book. I’ll just end with a little more on how Williams saw Black struggle. First, the chapter title that gives a truth that has bedeviled every movement in the US for the past hundred years:
“Every Freedom Movement in the U.S.A. Is Labeled ‘Communist’ ” (79)
And his final words on self-defense — they echoed something Ella Baker said actually, and made me laugh.
We know that the average Afro-American is not a pacifist. He is not a pacifist and he has never been a pacifist and he is not made of the type of material that would make a good pacifist. Those who doubt that the great majority of Negroes are not pacifists, just let them slap one. Pick any Negro on any street corner in the U.S.A. and they will find out how much he believes in turning the other cheek. All those who dare to attack are going to learn the hard way that the Afro-American is not a pacifist, that he cannot forever be counted on not to defend himself. Those who attack him brutally and ruthlessly can no longer expect to attack him with impunity.
The Afro-American cannot forget that his enslavement in this country did not pass because of pacifist moral force or noble appeals to the Christian conscience of the slaveholders. (83)
Williams quotes Thoreau writing in praise of John Brown, and the need for violence at that point in time — almost makes me want to go read Thoreau again.
And finally, on global solidarity. I love how he broadens out of the civil rights movement, it feels so rare until you get to SNCC, and the drive of the youth to connect to anti-Colonial struggle. His travels meant Williams could flee to Cuba when he realised the nature of the trumped up charges against him from that fateful night (a full account is found in the book,I won’t repeat it here), and the threat his life was under. I am still so furious that he should have had to spend his days in exile though I know charges were later dropped…
In discussion of the global struggle in his newsletter, he writes:
It was clear from the first days that Afro-Cubans were part of the Cuban revolution on a basis of complete equality and my trips confirmed this fact. A Negro, for example, was head of the Cuban armed forces and no one could hide that fact from us here in America. To me this revolution was a real thing, not one of those phony South American palace revolutions. There was a real drive to bring social justice to all the Cubans, including the black ones. (31-32)
My cause is the same as the Asians against the imperialist. It is the same as the African against the white savage. It is the same as Cuba against the white supremacist imperialist. When I become a part of the mainstream of American life, based on universal justice, then and then only can I see a possible mutual cause for unity against outside interference.” (35)
To end…Robert Williams in Cuba:
And I can’t resist a last look at The Legend of N**ger Charlie. Blaxploitation film isn’t my area of expertise at all nor do I enjoy many of them, but these Westerns were fantastic, sexy, fierce. They embodied much of what Robert Williams wrote. A pride in self against a world of disrespect and violence, and recognition of the need to fight which was so taken for granted in those times when it seemed perhaps everything might change. Over and over again that fight ends in tragedy, but Charlie keeps fighting. As did Williams, as must we. If only we could all be that damn fine while doing it.
I hated summer today. Sunburns everywhere like bruises. So hot, but unlike lazy Tucson days it felt as though here someone had picked the town up and shaken it so everyone clinging by threads or riding along any kind of edge had fallen out twitching and needing a fix. Men wandered the streets whip thin, shirts off and ribs sticking through badly tattooed skin. Excited with an edge of anger, voices raised even when they were just talking about haircuts, bicycles. Nowhere lives and early deaths marking their gaunt stubbled faces. Visible addiction here belongs only to them. Mass unemployment here now for a good few generations, the closing of pits and factories. My heart hurt and I wanted a drink, still, I wouldn’t be going round the Wetherspoons today. It opened at 8 am. It snapped and snarled and soppily swore at full capacity and anything could have kicked off.
Instead I felt like spending the cool of the evening going to throw rocks at the original captain-of-industry’s ‘castle’, raging against the violence of this wealth extraction and abandonment — its chemical decimation of generations and its blight upon the earth.
Tomorrow I get to go home.
A final post on Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (here you can find posts one and two, though I warn you they are hell of long). Because a third strand of my work on race and space is also on violence and hegemony’s uneasy balance between coercion and consent, I was pretty enthusiastic about these sections. Mills doesn’t really use the language of Gramsci, but he explores this area with great insight that parallels one of my favourite thinkers:
In seeking first to establish and later to reproduce itself, the racial state employs the two traditional weapons of coercion: physical violence and ideological conditioning. (83)
You wield these weapons in the context of white supremacy, and of course you get a prominence of domination against nonwhites:
The coercive arms of the state, then–the police, the penal system, the army–need to be seen as in part the enforcers of the Racial Contract, working both to keep the peace and prevent crime among the white citizens, and to maintain the racial order and detect and destroy challenges to it, so that across the white settler states nonwhites are incarcerated at differential rates and for longer terms. (84)
Of course this is part of the consent-building process of whites. Thus (many, but not all) whites (because here is where class really becomes a bitch) see police as their protectors, but for others?
There is a well-known perception in the black community that the police–particularly in the jim crow days of segregation and largely white police forces–were basically an “army of occupation.” (85)
This may have been more prevalent back in the day, but you will hear it plenty now, and you can see it too. But violence never was restricted to the police, and it never occurred to me to trace white mob violence, vigilante violence all the way back this, but it makes sense…
But official state violence is not the only sanction of the Racial Contract. In the Lockean state of nature, in the absence of a constituted juridical and penal authority, natural law permits individuals themselves to punish wrongdoers. (86)
That feels so innately American somehow, this tangled question of justice the subject of 90 percent of the Westerns I’ve ever seen. Maybe deep down they weren’t about cattle rustling at all, but lynching. I loved this sentence:
Patterns of systematic massacres when there have been shakes to the system of white supremacy, causing an ontological shudder, calling forth white terror… (86)
Thinking of the massacres, especially that red summer of 1919 and those pictures of whites smiling over tortured bodies of black men still smoking. Unrecognizable. This terror combined with a sliver of carrot, in a system that
Attempts not just to shape the ‘white citizen’ but also, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘only the Negro they wished to see.” (88)
There is a world of tragedy in the ways that even for nonwhites, this system can be internalised, come to be seen as ‘consensual’.
It is a powerful system of collective consent, one that works to maintain privilege through a particular exercise of morality. Mills describes how
the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology. Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally. In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behaviour patterns as racist… the Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance. (93)
This explains so much, why it just keeps going on and on…This explains, but is miles away from excusing, the absence of rigour in interrogating the dominant social and political systems.
By their failure to denounce the great crimes inseparable from the European conquest, or by the halfheartedness of their condemnation, or by the actual endorsement of it in some cases, most of the leading European ethical theorists reveal their complicity in the Racial Contract. (94)
He also talks about the ways that this continues to deform theory, particularly any with pretence to liberation if they don’t root out these structures from the beginning:
The actual details of the basic values of the particular normative theory (property rights, personhood and respect, welfare) are not important, since all theories can be appropriately adjusted internally to bring about the desired outcome: what is crucial is the theorist’s adherence to the Racial Contract. (96)
Yep. I won’t go into Kant again, but damn. So ultimately this system has shaped the broad white experience in incredibly damaging ways. It has ensured that they:
a) take for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race… and later the appropriateness of concepts that derace the polity, denying its actual racial structuring.
b) Because of the reciprocally dependent definitions of superior whiteness and inferior nonwhiteness, whites may consciously or unconsciously assess how they’re doing by a scale that depends in part on how nonwhites are doing
c) because the Racial Contract requires the exploitation of nonwhites, it requires in whites the cultivation of patterns of affect and empathy that are only weakly, if at all, influenced by nonwhite suffering. (95)
It is this that I find hardest to understand, the white inability to see anything but thugs when the pictures of children shot by police or vigilantes are set in front of them. I can’t understand their inability to mourn these deaths, demand change. But, like Wendell Berry’s writing I think, this helps explain just how the mind and heart could become so twisted. Mills writes of ‘partitioned moral concern’, and ‘moralities of exclusion’. Segregation lies at the heart of empathy and rationality, not just between homes and lived realities. But to believe yourself moral, while at the same time living a life that is deeply unjust because of its structural foundations, well, that takes some work.
Evasion and self-deception thus become the epistemic norm. (97)
Just to deal with the horrors of conquest, slavery, ongoing massacres, the white life has to be placed higher and the nonwhite life devalued. So what is left as a way forward? First and foremost:
There is a choice for whites — to speak out and to struggle with its terms…
Second, understanding the importance of positionality:
The term “standpoint theory” is now routinely used to signify the notion that in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be be accurate than one from the top down. What is involved here, then, is a “racial” version … a perspectival cognitive advantage (109)
Third? Embracing this, furthering our understanding of this so that it can be dismantled. To speak in cliche, becoming part of the solution.
There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate. So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.
By its crucial silence on race and the corresponding capacities of its conventional conceptual array, the raceless social contracts and the raceless world of contemporary moral and political theory render mysterious the actual political issues and concerns that have historically preoccupied a large section of the world’s population. (124)
We have a choice.
I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle almost as much as Between the World and Me. Because the writing is so beautiful — you know, all those days he spent filling notebook pages full of words paid off. This is an incredible window into the struggle of a father, a mother, and all the woke people in a community to save their youth from catastrophe that rode through the neighbourhood like a whirlwind. That peak of violence and despair in our cities that emerged from structural violence and disinvestment and crack. It is the kind of voice I never hear in the pages of best-selling books, and I am so goddamn glad to hear it here.
I loved it for talking about the Knowledge. How much more important this book must be for those who were immersed body and soul in it, whether they liked it or not. It meant much to me, just having been on the weak wanna-be fringes of it. From somewhere that wanted so much to be hard like some big city, from among kids who saw themselves in movies and imagined themselves in rap lyrics and defended their territory and their honour. Kids who still had guns in their glovebox, and a hitch in their walk just looking for a reason to show how bad they were.
‘You looking at me?’ The phrase that haunted my nightmares. The phrase I never understood.
Later I’d understand that the subaudible beat was the Knowledge, that it kept you ready, prepared for anyone to start swinging, to start shooting. Back then, I had no context, no great wall against the fear. I felt it but couldn’t say it. (37)
‘School girl’ was the other phrase. A prelude to shame and fear and freezing in place like a goddamn rabbit. I never did hit back. I did my best to sound like everyone else if I absolutely had to speak, and to blend into every wall.
My style was to talk and duck. It was an animal tactic, playing dead in hopes that the predators would move on to an actual fight. It was the mark of unKnowledge, a basic misreading of nature and humanity. (47)
Yep. I read that so wrong too. it wasn’t life and death with me though. I am lucky, especially in the way I had it easy, getting on my school bus, living out in the desert. Most of my abuse was verbal. Still hurts. But it’s easier being younger, dorkier, non-threatening, no one anyone’s boyfriend would look twice at. Only at risk as the nerdy weird kid. Only had those corridors to fear, and home room when the teacher left. When I went to work in LA I was old enough (21, so old) that my white skin in a place no one knew me put me forever outside all of that.
But now I knew that this was not chaos, that the streets were a country and like all others, the streets had anthems, culture, and law. (115)
Wish I’d figured that out a little earlier, before skin privilege kicked me out. And this:
That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book — it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of who had your back. (111)
Everyone was afraid. I had a different kind of spell book, but a spell book all the same.
Baltimore though. Baltimore comes through clear here, and maybe a few more unlikely hearts will break at the knowledge of what we have done to our cities, how many kids we have lost.
We went to watch Moonlight on Saturday, with the same kind of unlikely audience I am sure were there on their Oscar rounds. It is another meditation on this subject, in this context, where being gay piles on even more risk, puts you even more in flight from yourself and others. I loved that it showed this enclosed world (and didn’t bother to reach out to audiences by having a saviour or a sidekick). Showed the way the violence of it twists and shapes and beats into shape and uses a knife or a bullet to cut short potential. Yet it showed too that the potential remains and there is something never fully beaten. But god does the world try, surely we must do better than this. I cried like a fucking baby.
I did laugh at least once, however, when Juan tells Little he should never sit with his back to the door. I laughed because I still can’t sit with my back to the door. I remember when I first realised that my general watchfulness came from an assumption that any stranger around me could attack me at any time, either physically or verbally. I am still aware of my surroundings in terms of who might be a danger. Still see people who walk while reading or wander around looking lost as stupid in the way they mark themselves as targets. I am still likely to be hit with Adrenalin if someone comes up behind me and tries to do something stupid like cover my eyes. I don’t even quite know where all these things came from, nor why they still linger now I have removed myself from anywhere such vigilance might still be required. I am also well aware that this is an experience I share with many of my class, but probably not so many of my skin colour.
I still remember the amazement of bumping into someone and having them apologise. I was ready to run, you know?
Anyway. How did it come to this? How did a community, how did a beautiful collective struggle for civil rights and a fullness of life end in this?
The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out one another’s eyes. We were all — even me — so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. (105)
I am still not sure. I hope we have emerged, to never go so far back. But the courage of those who fought to save young men and women at the receiving end of all this — inspiring.
But in the midst of Reconstruction’s second collapse, Lemmel fought back. The headmasters arranged their students into teams, and named each one after the Saints — Douglass, Tubman, Woodson, King. (23)
And I loved reading about Howard, the Mecca.
but somehow they were changed there, and left possessed by the spirit of Howard’s legendary professoriat, of Eric Williams and E. Franklin Frazier, and they fled South to be flogged by sheriffs and Klansmen. (26)
The struggle remains a beautiful one, a shifting one, but full justice and equality fought for in mutual respect and love for one another is the only key to living well in this world I think. So no more kids have to grow up with promise and potential cut short, snuffed out.