Issue: Art You Engaged

The Ataxic Body: Or How to Write about Ego Death, When Your Social Body Does Not Exist by C. Davida Ingram

Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety. 

Dedication: For 16-year old Shakara in South Carolina

The Ataxic Body: Or How to Write about Ego Death, When Your Social Body Does Not Exist

I have started this essay dozens of times. I am not quite sure how I will finish it.

My attempts to write it were often stymied by conditions that make my reality slippery and slipperier. How do I maneuver as an artist and writer when my conundrum is the subject matter of the moribund black body, when I have a black body of my own, and when I must confront the near perpetual circumstances of black bodies being under attack in my native country—frequently to the point of death?

I am faced, defaced, and undone.

I am faced with the hyper-visibility of dead black men’s bodies.

I am defaced by the frequent invisibility of black women’s dead bodies.

And I am undone because our children are being murdered by civilians and police alike.

This decomposition, to me, is an aesthetic problem.

As an artist, I care about the psychic weight of blackness. I care about the rigor of the mind that must attend to black bodies in order to imagine how they can begin working their ways out of that constriction. [1]

I am cradled by the tenacity of black radical imagination.

In my own way, I also want to advance the cause of something far less fantastic, but arguably necessary: white ego death.

The tricky thing about ego death, white or otherwise, is that the person who wants to give up their subjectivity for a fuller consciousness must seek it on their own.

Ego death can be suggested—never demanded. To see ego death as something that can be rightfully inflicted on another is to give the rapist a clean rap sheet, and every colonizer clean conscience.

When the colonial freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral began organizing one of the world’s only democratic guerilla revolutions in Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau in the early 1960s, he talked about class suicide:

“[In] order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.”

This is the advice that Cabral gave the office workers and educated black folks from colonial rule who wanted to stay revolutionary after the Portuguese colonizers were ousted in the 70s. Cabral’s premise is solvent. His revolution succeeded even after the Portuguese military assassinated him.

What would a real revolution in America look like, if white people had aspirations that deeply belonged to people of color?

As I imagine that possibility, I wonder if white folks considering the possibility of a black revenge fantasy, see themselves somehow rounded up in internment camps or sent to boarding schools, drowned at the bottom of the sea, lynched from a tree, chained with a bit placed in mouth in the hot sun, held with a black typewriter bag over their heads with clamps on their genitalia to facilitate the administering of an electrical current, or given a Mississippi appendectomy.

After all, these are ritual things that were done to oppressed bodies—past and present—to secure the comfortable standing of whiteness that we know.

I wonder if whiteness might ever begin to imagine black revenge as un-vengeful, and much more like a version of itself that can ‘suicide’ in order to be reborn as someone who is capable of identifying with, and having solidarity for, America’s Native communities, blacks, and undocumented immigrants. In short, I wonder what it would be like if white people decided to join the race and become human.

James Baldwin once wrote,

“There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

I find myself stumbling upon an awareness, when I read Baldwin’s essay. It is the inkling that perhaps unbeknownst to me that I have been serving as an imaginary prosthetic to whiteness. Within that awareness, whiteness feels like a strange psychic parasitism. Without such propping up, it would cease to exist to itself. Death appears when that prosthetic crutch is moved even slightly.

Take for example, the story of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who was capable of imagining her white body as being a black one. Dolezal was preceded by the revelation of Caitlin Jenner, the Olympic athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner, coming out as a (privileged) transgender woman. The facetious question (posed mostly by white people) was this: if a man could become a transgender woman, couldn’t Dolezal then also be transracial woman? A popular meme featured Dolezal’s head affixed to a body wearing the cream-colored Merry Widow outfit that Jenner wore on her Vanity Fair cover. But instead of Jenner’s: Call Me Caitlin (which you really should if you have any decency). In the reframed story, Dolezal’s slogan says: Call Me Black.

Then, in a devastating synecdoche, Dylan Storm Roof sat quietly in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina with his gun. And our chance at a mildly comedic moment around the body politic passed. Roof’s gun spray transformed it to tragedy. He took nine peaceful lives, including that of a United States senator, before police officers treated him to Burger King before taking him to jail.

There is a part of me that feels whiteness-un-remedied will always be either ruthlessly disavowing or deeply rapacious—always photo-bombing to keep new identities from properly emerging or perpetrating to infiltrate the scene and recalibrate the discourse back to status quo. When it shows up en flagrante, in its throw-back mode it is: a gun, an unlawful arrest, a vigilante—the omnibus depravity of knowing that white power always get away with it—whatever sadistic thing “it” might mean.

White power is a body without a soul. Black subjugation is soul that cannot possess its rightful body.

The sign system of Caitlin Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, and Dylan Roof shows us a new pattern. Here the sine qua non power of white manhood is upset by a white male power symbol who becomes female. It’s followed by an instance of sacrosanct white femininity that symbolically covets black womanhood so much that it becomes racially transvestite. These dynamic changes are followed by the murderous third rebuttal of Roof— white hyper-masculinity exploding into a death-dealing rage to re-assert itself, in the world order.

President Obama sang (and signified) the hymn “Amazing Grace” to the congregation of Emanuel Lutheran Church. The congregation is called affectionately Mother Emanuel. As Obama eulogized the late Senator Clementa Pinckney, it was the first time I have seen a standing U.S. President genuinely attempt to console black America for her losses.

Blackness feels womanly to me in the way that whiteness can never feel really feminist. By this I mean, the Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them” seems most true when framed in black and white. Or maybe it’s simply that the sadism of oppression always requires that the oppressed sacrifice body and mind to climax the oppressor’s ego.

The white female comedian Amy Schumer was taken to task in summer 2015 because of her racist jokes about Latino men. The joke went: “”I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.” During that same time, the vexing ignoramus and 2016 presidential hopeful Donald Trump found out he could not simply call Mexican men rapists, without consequence. So, how did sweet white Amy get away with her racist comedy routine?

In her initial response, Schumer tried to joke: “Put down your torches before reading this so you don’t catch on fire.”

She changed her tone, though, eventually acknowledging to a fan who asked, “What is your responsibility/value system as a storyteller”:

I used to do a lot of short dumb jokes like this. I played a dumb white girl onstage. [ . . ] I am evolving as an artist. I am taking responsibility and hope I haven’t hurt anyone. I apologize [if] I did.”

I’d argue, based on the change of heart between her first and second responses, Amy Schumer plays a dumb white girl in real life. However, she is also smart enough to protect her pocketbook. Those ‘torches’ that she imagined did not make her apologize, but I can definitely see her mindset changing after she saw Donald Trump get media critiques from Latino community members in the media including actress Selena Gomez and legendary Univision journalist Jorge Ramos. I wonder if Miss Schumer was smart enough to know when she played her clueless white woman bit that Latino men were historically subject to lynching, like black men, under the auspices of protecting white women’s purity.[2]

In the meantime, torches were lit for at least nine black churches. They were set afire, in retaliation for the challenges to Southern racism that came after Dylan Storm Roof’s murderous hate crime.

And, in seemingly perfect pattern, just weeks after Amy changed her tune about using her white privilege to crack racist jokes at Latino men’s expense, and her white feminist comedy “Trainwreck” opened in movie theaters, yet another murderous white man appeared with his gun—this time in Lafayette, Louisiana. I bring this up to say that the soft leash that white men have had on white women always paled in comparison to slave boats, colonies, ghettoes, prisons and other leashes that white men have designed for people of color. Yet, all of these leashes pattern physical death.

In the midst of this maelstrom, have you started wondering even more how black people have managed to continue imagining liberation in America?

Well, let me ask an almost tangential follow-up question: What do you know about the “Mississippi appendectomy”?

What if I told you that this “appendectomy” is what the forced sterilizations of black women were euphemistically called, when they were an everyday part of life in the American South.  A funny thing, though, after white supremacy stole Fannie Lou Hamer’s womb she helped birth the Black Civil Rights Movement. In her memory of becoming politicized about organizing black voters in the segregated American South, Hamer recalled, “What was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Why was white America, with all of its power, so concerned with the fecundity of black women that it required forced sterilizations? An answer is somewhat circular—perhaps tyrants think tyrannically. Planned Parenthood has jettisoned the eugenicist leanings of its white feminist founder Margaret Sanger, and is now a progressive reproductive health advocate. Though, apologists for Sanger often dismiss concern about her famous presentation at a women’s Ku Klux Klan meeting.[1] Later on in life, Sanger would go on to say, “[The] Negro’s plight here is linked with that of the oppressed around the globe. The big answer, as I see it, is the education of the white man. The white man is the problem.”[2] I’d doubt this was a message she shared at the Klan meeting (she was offered a dozen more). I’d also argue the political thought is not fixed, just as I would argue that it’s dubious defending a white ally who visited a Klan meeting. The fine point here is that the race problem is not simply made by white men—but rather the equal opportunity oppression of white supremacy and its permutations across actors of all genders and biological sexes. Oppressions experienced by women in patriarchy come nowhere near to being monolithic. Or rather Mississippi appendectomies were for certain women—not all. A subtle lynching.

I see the black Civil Rights movement rising from the violation of Fannie Lou Hamer’s body. Just as I also know Sanger’s ladies meeting was no innocent thing. Nor is it a ghost to be conjured up to dissuade women of color from being centered in conversations about our reproductive rights. Such hauntings also indicate to me the many battles where our bodies will always be at the front lines.

In 1913 Mary Turner was lynched for seeking justice for her lynched husband. She was 8-months pregnant. “While she was still alive, someone used a knife [to cut open] her abdomen. The infant fell prematurely from her womb to the ground and cried briefly, whereupon a member in the mob crushed the baby’s head with the heel of his boot.” [3]

After this long line of black death, in this present day, I am tired of toe tags and hash tags. Modern day lynchings.

The announcement that the 28-year old Sandra Bland had supposedly been found hung by her own hand resulted in the Twitter hash tag #IfIDieInCustody:

#IfIDieInPoliceCustody ask every question, and know that I did not end my own life. And protest in the spirit of the founding fathers.

#IfIDieInPoliceCustody question everything. Don’t believe a word they say. Demand the truth by any means necessary.

After the announcement of Bland’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement minted #BlackGirlMagic as a day to celebrate black women, to offer what I would imagine to be a psychic reprieve. I used Facebook to shout-out my Seattle sister-friends who make my life more human and lovely with the #BlackGirlMagic hash tag.

Then, I remembered that in the fall my older sister Kila had sent an article about a scientific study that showed that white people believed black people were innately supernatural.

Its “researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks [with] superhuman words like ghost, paranormal, and spirit; [and] to think a black person as opposed to a white person has certain superhuman abilities.”

The notion of black super-humanness, according to the study, also led whites to believe “black people [have less] capacity to feel pain.” The article ends by musing ominously that “superhumanization bias could help explain why black patients are undertreated for pain [or] why ‘people consider Black juveniles to be more ‘adult’ than White juveniles when judging culpability.’”

After I read the article, I emailed my sister back, “This shit just explained everything and nothing at the same time. Based on all the shit we been thru if I was an oppressor I would think we were magical, too.”

When James Weldon Johnson penned the lines “Your Arms Too Short To Box with God” I wonder if he had any inkling that I would use it, in 2015, to point out the biggest irony about white racism in the 21st century. It is not that I am not super human. It is not that when placed in super/sub human conditions black bodies die. It is the enormous egocentricity of most white folks. It is the fact that they cannot imagine that all of the black death that surrounds them serves as the most prominent clue that there are plenty of racists that look exactly like who they see in the mirror. Imagine if all the white tears cried by the revelation that Atticus Finch is a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer in the new novel by the 89-year old white woman writer Harper Lee  “Go Set A Watch Man” were transformed in to outraged solidarity over the 500 unarmed real black people that have died this year in police custody.[1] Imagine if there was more than one white revolutionary like John Brown, and he did not live over one hundred years ago.

Because of the conceit that white people’s abilities to think well of themselves is the same as black people’s actual ability to stay alive, white America hits an existential crisis whenever the existence of racism and its most likely purveyors is debated.

Black people have never condescended to white people. There are no black missionaries. But like a good friend who will tell you when your breath stinks, we have mentioned to whiteness its spiritual halitosis. The only correct answer to the bad faith question, “Am I racist?” is:

“Of course, you are dear heart. Get over yourself. Help end this dying.”

The white perception that it can never sustain an insult to its fictive innocence in the face of black death is only evidence of narcissistic injury.

White supremacy feels as wily to me as the virus known as HIV. In the case of HIV, we have treatments, but no true cure. Sometimes I wonder if the scientists who replicate HIV in clinical labs feel energized by tackling such a tenacious foe. Blackness has found a way of holding whiteness accountable. It’s an intelligence that lives by its wits that I see as being equally groundbreaking.

In my mind’s eye, though I did not see until I look back, blackness has always had a wonderful warp and a woof, to it. A hair texture. A set to the nostrils. Take Negro laughter.

I loved my Grand Daddy’s black Seen-Jim Crow-to-the-Civil-Rights era cackle. He made a marvelous sound whenever something, or someone, tickled him. He lived on his 40 acres with his powerful and no-nonsense wife, and a mule that they had named Cody. His laugh continued long after all eight of his children had hopped on trains headed for the Northern Migration, from Arkansas to St Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois. Black was Southern for me in the exact same way that summers meant a 12-plus hour ride from the South Side of Chicago to my grand-parents farm in an unincorporated part of Arkansas quaintly called Palestine.

My grandparent’s burned their trash. Their house had no municipal water. The high iron in the water supply made our white clothes dingy after we washed them. I remember that when I drank from the water cooler it left the faint taste of blood in my mouth. Now, science tells me that the mineral content of the water is what made the water taste bloody. The poet in me, who attends to the poetics of human life, believes that that water tasted of bloodthirsty ways. The blood thirst that brought genocide to the indigenous people who lived here for generations before whiteness arrived at our shores. The blood thirst that maintained the peculiar institution of the transatlantic slave trades. The blood thirst that sought counterinsurgencies during the 1960s, imperialistically and domestically. I drank that water down with all of its physical and metaphorical properties. I believe I never choked on it because my safety was secured by my Grand Daddy’s joyful laugh.

There is one axiomatic belief that has defined the arc of my life in the United States since I was born as a post-Civil Rights girl child in 1976.

It’s the pendulum that says, on one hand, the tidy myth that whiteness is the universal subjectivity. It is beautiful, lovable, valiant, and god-like. On the other hand, there is the reality that whiteness has served historically as a force of terror in my communities—black, female, queer, working class.

What that axiom has meant in my life is that dominant society has asked me to pretend that I am imaginary to my own self when reading the paper, watching movies, looking at internet content. It’s also meant that whiteness insinuates itself to the top of any hierarchy—be it housing, adoption, or pornography. I use these specific topics because who we will live with, who we will raise as our children, and who we will imagine as sex partners often let us know about our social covenants, our social fabrics, and our social prejudices.

I’d argue that one of the main characteristics of whiteness as it is currently constructed is that it is alternately disavowing, disingenuous, or enraged. This dynamic plays out most frequently when the well-housed tenants of whiteness must look at unsheltered black person in the eye. Masters with bad conscious cannot stand the vividness of a slave’s memory, the damning recollection of her body and mind.

When antiretroviral drugs were introduced in the late 1990s they began a mutation in the human immunodeficiency virus that subsequently weakened it. While antiretroviral drugs are no cure, they have meant that the HIV pandemics from the late 20th century have changed. Cuba has ended mother to child transmission of HIV. The virus itself is less virulent, according to our scientific communities. Some gay men (the stalwart soldiers in the frontline of fighting HIV) have started taking the antiretroviral Truvada as both a pre exposure and post exposure prophylaxis.

Like HIV, the social virus of whiteness is in the process of being reconstructed in a way that is very similar to HIV in the era of antiretrovirals. I believe the tactics of anti-racist work can keep whiteness from developing into full-blown white supremacy, when we have a systemic response.

Our sign system is changing. And the social virus that we know as whiteness is changing, too. But into what?

Will this change reveal the flaw in my argument about whiteness? And change my argument about the salutary effect of white ego death on this ataxic black body and the soul of the black women who lives in it. If memory serves me correctly, maybe. Possibly.

One day my light-skinned older sister came home from school and told 5-year old me about locusts.

When I say locusts, however, I simply mean she gave me a snapshot of the social death that functions as whiteness in white supremacy. She had been learning about Christopher Columbus. She gave me a short primer in the moral righteousness that shapes black life. This is to say she told me how to look at blackness, as it exists alongside the version of social death that we call whiteness in racist America. What she said was this: They have been traveling all over the world, like locusts. Destroying everything.

When I think about it as a grown woman, this is an extraordinary critique for such a young girl. Kila Dayo Weaver had barely learned how to jump Double Dutch. She might have been in fifth grade.

Something is infernal about race in America. I mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally. There is something hellish about pointing out the poor ways of someone who is your life’s companion and counter-foil. And this is the case with blackness as it relates to whiteness in white supremacy.

The closest that I can come to an intellectual possibility of being free from the social death that masquerades as whiteness is to make a suggestive motion in the theoretical realm, to ask whiteness to find a way to become Other to itself so it can stop seeking Otherness amongst people with a darker hue who share the planet with them.

In one of its earliest translations, the name Satan simply means: accuser. To be more precise: God’s accuser.

The most trenchant critique of whiteness simply says white people just ain’t got no soul. I used to think that meant a stereotype about an white boy who has no rhythm when he danced.

The Bible says:

And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Job 2:2

That short little verse sometimes seems to describe for me everything that lies between colonization and gentrification: a whiteness “roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

The gentry, colonizers, settlers, missionaries all seem to me on these sad and persistent racist days to be devilishly white.

The thing with ad hominem attacks is that they pay in kind.

For every white demon I can imagine, I am seen and raised: a welfare queen, a coon, a coolie, an Injun, a chink, a raping black buck, a jigaboo jungle, a kaffir, an illegal alien.

These projections about the inferiority of the Other pay a regular dividend within white supremacy.

Just ask Britain. Jamaica sent Britain, a celebrated leader in global philanthropy, a bill for billions of pounds for the slave trades. The response that British Prime Minister David Cameron had to the request for reparation was you cannot total the cost. That’s funny because with big data we actually can. But Britain does not want to be troubled to end its easy narrative of “helping” folks who they once referred to as savages. That story pays. The new one on offer makes blackness into a creditor that capitalist white supremacy can scarcely afford. That’s a life changing move for a race surrounded by white-shaped death.

How long is hell fire supposed to last again?

When can I lay this ataxic (black) body down?

I dream one day that I will have a child named Abyssinia.

She will stare into the finally vanquished, human-shaped abyss of white death and recuperate the black body.

With it, something irrevocably human will rise.

[1] “I accepted an invitation to talk to the women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan…I saw through the door dim figures parading with banners and illuminated crosses…I was escorted to the platform, was introduced, and began to speak…In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose. A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered.” (Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography, P.366)

[2] A quote from Sanger’s interview with the Chicago Defender (1945) published in the blog https://sangerpapers.wordpress.com/category/african-american/

[3] Quoted from the blog http://thewriterfred.com/2015/07/26/she-failed-to-act-like-a-negro-should-act/

Davida

Seattle-based artist C. Davida Ingram received the 2014 Stranger Genius Award in Visual Arts. She is a writer and artist-curator who focuses on creating counter-narratives via education, performance, and curating. She  is co-founder of the Seattle People of Color Salon, and has been involved with many community-based arts organizations including Video Machete, Women in the Director’s Chair, and Insight Arts. Her recent projects included Avatar: Fanon & Decca; Object Lesson: Where Can My Black Ass Go to Be Safe; I Wish a Motherf***** Would. Her work continually explores the intersections of social justice, social practice, and the art of protest.

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