A Requiem for Mr. Wilson: Comments on David Goldberg’s Conversation with Achille Mbembe
There is footage, in black and white, of a tall African American gentleman in smart suit and tie, and a hat too, walking past a baying mob of white men. The year was 1957, in Arkansas and the gentleman was Mr L. Alex Wilson, an African American journalist who had gone there to cover a local school’s refusal to admit nine African American students. As he passed by, the mob set upon him, and began to kick him until his hat falls off. He gently picks it up, and he does so, one man jumps on his neck and begins to choke him, but his tall frame holds still and he does not buckle. Another swings a lump of brick against his body, and now he his hurt and bleeding. Still they push, shove and kick him with such force that this time he falls over. But he gets up; he does not fight back, he does not run, he does not resist; he merely walks away. Throughout the ordeal he maintains some dignity, calmness, composure and even poise. Wounded and bloodied Mr. Wilson still filed his news report that evening.
One can fill volumes of books with such stories of the African American experience: of unspeakable horrors and indignities of racism. But this is not a story that is peculiar to the African American; it is a story of blackness, almost anywhere. They fill the archives; they live in memories and are embodied in contemporary black lives across the world. But what are we to make of the history contained in these archives; how do we put them together without descending into the endless recycling of stories of debt (Harney and Morten, 2013), and debit, of loss and victimhood, of dehumanisation, demoralisation, trauma and of helplessness? If that is the only stories that they hold or the only story to be hold, then the historian will be less than faithful to the content of those archives, ending up in a skewed, unbalanced and one-sided account of the black experience. Yes, history does not consist in a single story and yes history can also be viewed as a kind of a balance sheet, with debit and loss, with credit and merits and profit, too.
In this fascinating conversation with David Goldberg, Mbembe explains what he is trying to achieve in his latest book The Critique of Black Reason (2017). The aim, he explains, is to trace the ‘genealogy’ of blackness not merely from a single place – because that will not do, the archives will not allow it – but from the different perspectives for which archives are available. This means not just the experience of blackness in the US but also from the perspectives of the different continents that have shaped blackness as well as how blackness has shaped itself.
The African American experience mirrors the European experience, as well as the African experience of blackness. But the African American version remains dominant in all its peculiarities, particularly of the consciousness of being black in a white society. But in some ways the African version of this experience is not too dissimilar, as indeed it all began on the African continent. What holds everything together, according to Mbembe is capitalism. Capitalism is the pernicious instrument of power and control that turns everything into commodity, including human beings, and lays them to waste after use. For no where in human history have so large a number of human beings from a particular part of the world being converted into a mere thing, as black enslavement. Or he puts it, ‘black as a thing, the burning fossil that fueled capitalism during its primitive era.’ It is the instrument of subjugation and dehumanization that determines where blacks live, (ghetto or prison), how they live (without education, or job and left with only menial jobs) and also how much they earn.
This is a conversation rich in the themes that it touches; from the idea of power and control to the impotence of that power in the face of solid resistance; from enslavement to empowerment, from dehumanisation to the recognition of humanity, from death to resurrection. (Although Mbembe is dubious about identity politics, particularly as expressed in the politics of recognition, only because he wonders what recognition is meant to achieve, as it places no obligation beyond mere recognition. In this sense, perhaps recognition must be seen as the beginning and not the end of what is required; which is to say that recognition can only work if it leads to action and to change.)
But this engagement between white and black is a dialectical process of building and tearing down, of constructing and destroying, of action and reaction, of pushing and resisting, of damage and repair, as both sides – white and black – are conscious as well as are alert to the action of the Other, both recognising the symbiosis of their relationship.
Black reason is also consciousness of blackness, of itself, within a landscape that whiteness has constructed. It recognises blackness in fellow black people, which is more than mere sympathy or fellow feeling. It is recognition that is born out of the similarity of experience that causes a black man to call a fellow black man, brother or a black woman to call a fellow black woman, sister, as though they are literally children of the same parents. Blackness therefore creates solidarity from within, as Tommie Shelby explains in We who are Dark (2005), solidarity born of intimacy (a feeling, a smell, a quality, or a sense) that is instantly recognisable in ‘we who are dark’. Thus, the kinship or kindred spirit or fellow-feeling that blackness produces becomes evident in a black spectator watching a sports contest between a white and a black athlete and where the black spectator would almost automatically be supporting the black athlete. This is not because the black spectator has anything against the white athlete, but because of what the archives and the memories tell him or her, of the history of black subjugation under white power and the collective psychology that that induces. The black spectator recognises that the black athlete is a brother or sister symbolically engaged in what is more than a sporting contest, but a re-enactment of centuries old battle in which whiteness has always prevailed. But here black victory is hoped for, prayed for and cheered on for blackness everywhere. For there was a time, shortly after emancipation of the slaves in the US when it was thought that the freed slaves would not be able to read or write or set businesses and will not be able to understand the rules governing sports, let alone be able to play them. Cheering for black victory is not for victory’s sake but as a way of correcting the narrative lie and myth that have been told about blackness. This is where efforts such as the ‘Black History Month’ come into play.
Still, what are we to make of the millions of black lives that have been wasted through slavery and the other modes of violence perpetrated against black people? How do we ensure that those lives are not in vain? Sadly we cannot undo what has been done; but we can repair that which has been broken. However, in order to do so there has to be a careful rearrangement and the retelling of the past, through a process re-enactment, as Collingwood (1946) believes all history must be written. This idea of writing as a way of ‘repairing’ is an important concept that Mbembe emphasises. For him, writing is a way of correcting past mistakes and setting the record straight. As the archive is always incomplete, even if full of the narrative of black debit and loss, the requirements of dictates that we should contribute also that credit, that merit, in order to write a balanced story. Or as he puts it, it is about ‘how we retrieve such lives from a broken existence and provide them with some kind of “home” or “place” where they might be at peace.’
So writing is remembering, not in a pitying, victim-depicting manner but in a reinstatement of their lives as human beings and not mere object of someone’s waste. Or, as Mbembe remarks, ‘It is about building a liberating memory, not dwelling in a traumatic memory.’ To this end, Mbembe, in one of the final chapters of the book, titled: ‘Requiem for a Slave’, he writes as a poet, not a lament but a memorial, a celebration of the life of a slave.
This is where Mr Wilson’s story becomes relevant and why the African American experience, which Mr Wilson’s life represents, remain enduringly significant to the black discourse, even though Mbembe thinks the American dimension is one chapter in the discourse. Like most African Americans, Mr Wilson was conceived, born and raised in the sin of racism, shaped by the contours of its iniquities, and made to carry the heavy burden of the perceived sins of blackness upon his shoulders. His entire world-view, his spacio-temporal mode of perception, as well as his categories of thought were framed through the prism of blackness and at every turn was he conscious of the ever-present heavy and bewitching gaze of white ‘paternalism’ and of its power to shape almost every aspect of his life. In work, in play, in sleep, even in dreams, he saw the inescapable machinery of whiteness endlessly churn out anti-black messages and images as definitive of blackness, as Pieterse tells us in White on Black (1992). Indeed, as a journalist Mr Wilson had covered many ritual ceremonies of the lynching of young black men, an experience that no doubt would have sipped deep into his mind. But Mr Wilson also shaped his own life, through his intelligence and education – which saw him become the editor of a Newspaper, – his elegant appearance, his response and resistance in the face of violent racism. So despite his incarceration in this prison of racism and suffering the perils of Segregation, he still managed to contribute to the archives of black experience by documenting the actions of his white oppressors.
So we see his reason(ableness) against the unreason of the white mob, his calmness against their aggression, his civilised response to their primitive violence, his smartness against their scruffiness, his quiet reserve against their loudness, his intelligence against their ignorance and so on and so on. Ironically, as a black man Mr Wilson was meant to preternaturally embody all the savage aggression displayed by his attackers, while he in fact was the embodiment of the calm reserve and quiet dignity that are considered to be the natural preserve of whiteness. Thus we see that dialectic played out in contradictory manner: the unreason of whiteness as against the reason of blackness, which is not the way that the story was meant to be told, but which the archives tells us to be so. This irony makes Goldberg to remark that: ‘madness and civilisation. And it is not quite clear who’s more mad and who is more civilised.’
Mr Wilson died in 1960, reportedly of Parkinson disease, also reportedly the result of that brutal attack he suffered several years back in Arkansas. This, in some way is a requiem to his life, but by way of Mbembe’s critique of blackness.
Collingwood, R. (1946 ) The Idea of History: Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press
Mbembe, A. (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Pieterse, J. (1995) White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Popular Culture. Yale University Press.
Moten, F., Harney, S. (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Studies. New York: Minor Compositions.
Shelby, T. (2005) We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Gabriel. O. Apata obtained his PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is currently conducting post-doctorial research in the area of Race, Ethnicity and African Studies. His interests also include philosophy of religion and Aesthetics. His work explores the way in which these various subjects intersect between Western and African worldviews.