Black Bodies: Of Ghosts, Memories and Nostalgia
“If you’re lucky, your story will check out, soon enough” – Laurence Ralph
Laurence Ralph’s talk on ‘Jon Burge’s Ghost’ and texts on ‘Memory of Gold’ and ‘The Injury of Nostalgia’ are of particular methodological interest to me. As someone who is wary of Anthropology due to its historic role in orientalizing and colonizing Africans, Ralph’s multilayered approach to ethnography offers me hope as I attempt to write a social history of postnational and postsocialist class formation(s) in Tanzania.
In ‘Memory of Gold’ Ralph, writing about an incident in 2007, combines historical evidence – as in the case of the formation of the Office of Homeland Security in 2002 in post-911 US – and ethnographical analysis of cultural artifacts to unmask how the discourses of race and violence in the age of ‘global terror’ and ‘transnational drug trafficking’ articulate to reproduce and justify the surveillance and control of ‘black bodies’. What happened to Ralph resonates with what I encountered in 2004 at the same airport in Miami when, as a student, I was flying back to Boston. I was among a handful of ‘black men’ who were singled out of a multiracial group of passengers for interrogation. Since it was an internal flight I simply analyzed it in terms of the fear of ‘terror’ and wondered why I would be associated with it. Of course I was not viewing it with an ethnographical let alone historical eye. It is only now that it is thus make sense:
Given that security has shifted since the mercantilist period—given that it is more about locating possible threats rather than carving up the globe—it is even more remarkable that whether we are referring to the effects of colonial slavery in eighteenth century Brazil or drug smuggling in the contemporary United States, the discipline and surveillance that defines authority still relies on racialized fantasies that are embedded in everyday practice. And when a young, black, twenty-something man travels to Brazil by himself, the fantasies of which I speak produce simple, stereotype reaffirming questions, like: Are you thinking what I’m thinking? And just like that, a man is turned into a [drug] mule (Ralph 2011: 100).
This singling out, or rather collectivization, of the ‘black body’, though varying across geographical spaces and historical cycles, remains fairly stable. As it was in the case of “white southerners who, in longing, for slaves, used figurines of “happy slaves” to enable them “support a fantasy of blackness that was fixed, visually familiar, and easily controlled” (Ralph 2013: 7), various tropes are still invoked to do so, albeit, in varying ways and with diverse outcomes. With staggering statistics of ‘black men’ in jails the ‘black body’ becomes a synonym to a ‘violent body’. Thus, as the discussion on Ralph’s talk indicates, it dialectically becomes a feared body yet one that fear is instilled in it even through violence on the pretext of protecting it among other bodies.
Such a dialectical fear is so audible and visible in this response from a “short, stocky, tattoo-blanketed leader” of a gang when an ethnographical eye and ear decodes it: “That’s why in my new shop,” he continues, glaring again at the recorder, “WE. DO. NOT. SELL. MUFFINS. ANY. MORE” (Quoted in Ralph 2013: 2). It is also vividly evident in a woman’s testimony, as documented by Ralph (2013), about a presumably innocent young black man who ran from the police because he was scared they would kill him since they tend to threaten them. In other words, they are just presumed guilty until proven otherwise. But with one gunshot the proof could end being posthumous.
Ralph’s research and reflexivity on the ‘black body’ in the context of gangs, drug and violence is thus very informative in theorizing and intervening on a practice that has proved to be stable over time in its virulent forms and ramifications – the fear of and violence on ‘black bodies’. It would be interesting to see how the Social Dominance Theory (SDT) could be pulled in to explain this stability and ways in which it can be destabilized or demobilized. To slightly appropriate Ralph and SDT’s phraseology one may go on to ask: Why is the body of the dominated group being injured in a hierarchical society is itself viewed as a source of danger to the dominant group? And how can we reverse this stable trend and protect the bodies from fear and violence?