The Color of the Enemy in the New Millennium

The Color of the Enemy in the New Millennium – Critical Essay

Jim Perkinson

The unresolved meaning of blackness calls the practice of whiteness in North America into the open.

The West of our time is facing a crisis of enemy-atrophy. Since the demise of the East-West conflict in the last decade, global capitalism has scrambled to serve up new “enemy-images” serious enough to stimulate arms production; at the same time, technological advances push war-making into the realm of the surreal. On the one hand, the Gulf War provided the “exciting” (albeit fictitious) possibility of prosecuting a war without losses — and Kosovo has confirmed the scenario. On the other, however, like markets themselves, “enemies” now are quintessentially local and subject to rapid reconfiguration. As events in Littleton, Colorado and Conyers, Georgia have served notice, who qualifies as a “worthy target” in the post-cold war era is not so readily controlled. It should not be surprising that when violence against an “other” is vigorously conscripted to secure one’s own identity and the technologies of that violence are rigorously marketed as commodities, “enemies” are more likely to appear–and be used “as ” enemies — in familiar places. As Pogo not long ago prophesied: “The enemy is us.” The problem, however, is that the “us” of such a late capitalist pop culture proverb does not really mean all of us. Understanding the new boundaries of belonging in our new postindustrial world order is part of the purpose of this essay. What follows here is an augury that I hope proves false.

The recent teen-on-teen violence of Littleton and Conyers could serve as a significant portent of the new millennium if America had the theological capacity to read in depth and not just in alarm. Fellow classmates newly defined as “enemies” are not to be dismissed as a mere whim of teenage fantasy (like in “Dungeons and Dragons”), nor are they the result of testosterone on a rampage. What is frightening about Littleton, in particular, is its linkage with a growing phenomenon in North America that will likely be combated only with broad-based action and a kind of political will not characteristic of our history. That phenomenon is a resurgent form of white nationalism galvanized by a growing sense of white dispossession (as the country diversifies). The portent is the possibility of a racial conflict that might not look all that different from recent events in former Yugoslavia.

For instance, recent years have witnessed ritualized forms of racialized violence in North America — enacted on official and unofficial “enemies” alike — that are arguably not so much anomalous as symptomatic. The dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, the wasting of an unarmed Amadou Diallo by nineteen of forty-one bullets fired on him by the New York police, and the savage sodomizing of Abner Louima in the same city by five officers are emblematic of something ferocious and unresolved in the dominant culture. But these rather obvious “signs of the times” are only one species of signal. Their appearance becomes more foreboding when considered alongside less apparently racialized happenings like the conviction of Timothy MacVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing, numerous arrests for plots to bomb various other public sites, and the enigmatic bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta — all involving some measure of right-wing paranoia about a broad international conspiracy to initiate a new world order unde r the secret control of the “surrogates” of Satan. At the same time, conspiracy theories (involving some combination of national government, international elites, and supraterrestrial aliens) have gained an ever-more fascinated following in North American popular culture, as evidenced in “cult-shows” like “X Files,” “Dark Skies,” and “Millennium.” On the other side of a divide that remains profoundly racialized (despite multicultural claims to the contrary), gangsta rap continues to defy a society it portrays as viciously brutal in its neo-colonial policing and judicial “management” of urban desperation. A group like “Public Enemy” captures much of the irony of the situation in its name alone: whose is “the enemy,” in which public space, constructed by what media, under whose control?

We enter the new millennium with a deeply unresolved dilemma that could make us easy prey to disaster if we are not critically attentive and diligently active in questioning the “images of enemies” our culture offers us.

Carl Rowan’s 1996 book, The Coming Race War, provides the motive and to some degree sets the agenda for what needs to be pondered. Rowan argues that social-political developments over the last twenty years or so have set the stage for what could become an intractable race war. As Rowan points out, the June 1996 arrest of ten men and two women in Phoenix, Arizona on charges that they were plotting to blow up the building housing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service and other federal agencies is but the tip of an iceberg that is far larger than most Americans are aware of or want to believe (Rowan, 8). The militia movement — for which that Viper Militia group in Arizona is merely an emblem — has already become the targeted base of operations for white supremacist ideologues like William Pierce, author of the virtual bible of far right paranoia, The Turner Diaries. It is part of a formula for disaster that includes: large-scale white denial; a deeply hi dden white racism that remains harrowing precisely in its hiddenness; the loss of real wages among U.S. workers as wealth concentrates at the top levels of society; and the division of our social space into enclosed and tightly secured communities of affluence and communities of poverty and color policed like colonial states. The mobilization of racial categories to “explain” economic and/or political losses, the exacerbation of racial conflict to focus blame, and the reorganization of institutional practice to reassert white privilege are ominous signs of the times.

In the present climate of political and cultural uncertainty, the attempt to understand how “enemies” are constructed in our imaginations is no idle exercise. What is ironic is the degree to which secular institutions of power could be pushed into a cataclysm that is motivated by “theological” war.

Strangely enough, at first glance, rabid white supremacy and radical Black separatism seem to share similar theologies of “the problem.” For instance, much of the dominant culture in America is long familiar with the “white is the color of the devil” preaching of Elijah Muhammad in the 1950s, popularized by Malcolm X in the 1960s (Malcolm X, 213). By the time of his break with the Nation in 1964, Malcolm had recanted his blanket characterization of all white persons (though not whites collectively) as “devils by nature” and revised his vision of struggling for (only) black liberation to one of struggling for human rights in general (Cone, 1991, 205, 207).

But with Louis Farrakhan’s takeover of that part of the Black Muslims that did not follow Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wahlid, into this more open path that Malcolm had started to blaze, the “blue-eyed devils” gradually became more specifically identified as the “bloodsucking Jews,” the class of merchants that did business in the black ghetto from the 1920s through the 1950s before turning over the reigns of easy gains to successor groups like the Arabs and the Koreans (Rowan, 63, 68). Farrakhan’s more notorious speeches labeling Judaism as a ‘gutter religion,” Israel as “an outlaw state,” and Hitler as “a (‘wickedly’) great man,” were repeated with a vengeance in the speeches of Farrakhan’s hand-picked “spokesman,” Khalid Abdul Muhammad, beginning in November 1993 at Kean College and then again in the winter of 1994 at Howard College (Rowan, 63–64). The refrain of the warm-up talk preceding Khalid’s speech at Howard, for instance, developed a call/response litany with the audience that identified the Jews as bei ng responsible for everything from the capture and killing of the slave rebel, Nat Turner, in the 1830s, to the exploitation of black entertainers and athletes in the 1990s — and further as being in control of everything from the Federal Reserve banking system of recent decades to the media and Hollywood of today (Rowan, 65).

By the 1990s, “the Jew” as the quintessential enemy of the black community had emerged as a profound Black Muslim symbol finding significant echoes in various quarters of the black community at large. Even in dismissing Khalid Muhammad from the role of spokesperson and attempting to extricate himself from the resulting PR damage, Farrakhan opted to stand by “the truths” that Muhammad had spoken (Rowan, 65).

What is less well known, and ironic in the extreme, is that the quintessential enemy on the far right of white supremacy is the same figure (Barkun, 173–96). For white supremacists, it is the Jew who is reputedly in charge of everything from the international banking system to the coming one world government, who is projected as the ultimate “alien” robbing those of European descent of their history and identity, morality, and memory (Rowan, 10). For example, the catalog that accompanies mail-order copies of The Turner Diaries rails against a “Jewish-liberal-democratic-egalitarian plague” that supposedly does its dirtiest work through entertainment media by trying to persuade a whole generation of whites that: homosexuality is a normal and acceptable way of life; that there is nothing at all wrong with White women dating or marrying Black men, or with White men marrying Asiatic women; that all races are inherently equal in ability and character — except that the character of the White race is suspect becau se of a history of oppressing other races; and that any effort by Whites at racial self-preservation is reprehensible. (Rowan, 15)

For supremacists, that vision of society is their worst nightmare. Their inevitable conclusion is to call for a struggle of armed resistance to rid America of all non-whites that, in their own words, will entail the shedding of “veritable rivers of blood” (Rowan, 10).

In both of the above cases, the enemy image (or construct) is underwritten by an idea of genetic inheritance that would be utterly comical if it were not so potentially devastating. In the writings of the Nation of Islam, for instance, the white race supposedly is the result of an experiment gone awry when a madcap black scientist named Yakub, experimenting with a mutant gene six thousand years ago, accidentally created white skin (Lincoln, 78-79). According to the Nation’s Yakub myth, that albino aberration was granted license to rule for a time by Allah but will be overcome by a return to black dominance in the end. The myth may seem laughable by scientific standards, but as a myth, it arguably represents a scientific truth in story form: it is the case that, genetically, African DNA is the oldest DNA on the planet and the ancestral origin of the entire human race, including Europeans. In the beginning, we could say, was black blood. On the other hand, the Nation’s focus on the Jew as the ultimate force of black oppression is not articulated in mythic terms, but in the language of realism. For Farrakhan’s followers, Jewish bedevilment of black life is simply historical and “factual.”

On the other hand, in white supremacist discourse, it is indeed the Jew who emerges as the evil essence writ mythically large. The major source of this kind of thinking is a fundamentalist group called “Christian Identity” that originated in nineteenth-century Britain. In its earliest versions, Christian Identity claimed to have discovered the lost ten tribes of Israel under Celtic and Anglo-Saxon skin. When Christian Identity moved across the Atlantic into North America earlier in this century, however, its mythic imagination became even more delirious. For Christian Identity, “The Jew” is not even human, but the offspring of the race of giants described in chapter 6 of the Book of Genesis who coupled illicitly with Eve, or other “fallen daughters” of the ancients, to spawn a hybrid race of demon-creatures, usurping the name of Israel. For Identity adherents today, the Jews are literally, by genes, the seed of Satan, unconvertible, irreformable, invariably working to destroy the true race of “white Israel” they so confusingly and insidiously imitate. The white-supremacist task is then to come to a clear recognition of the reality of white identity as the “chosen race” and of the Bible as a “race book,” mapping the course of struggle against the deceptions of that demonic spawn. In this latter vision, blacks are not the quintessential enemy, but only “mud people,” a subhuman pawn of the Jews who are Evil Incarnate.

What we have then is a lurid likeness between white supremacy and Black separatism in one aspect, but a clear difference in another. In the case of Black Muslim thought, we have whites as the bearers of a demonic (or negative mythic) force and Jews as the immediate historical agents of that force in the black community. In white supremacist thought the Jews are the real devil and blacks mere symptoms and surrogates. But in either case, I would suggest that the real danger rests with the immediately identifiable skin-signs more than the hidden designs. I do not think Rowan is wrong to read any coming racial apocalypse in its sociological likelihood, even if its motive is a convoluted and crazy mythology. The historical enemies line up as black and white, even if the Jews supposedly mediate the tangle.

Indeed, I think it is important here to catch sight of the black-white opposition along the lines of its contemporary political continuum. At one polar extreme, we find what anthropologist James Aho would call the racist Identity groups, encompassing, but not limited to, the Aryan Nations Church, the Covenant, Sword and the Arm of the Lord, the Knights of the KKK, the Mountain Church, the Socialist Nationalist Aryan Peoples Party, the White American Bastion, the White American Resistance, and the White Student Union, attracting as well some Posse Comitatus, Liberty Lobby, and Barrister’s Inn School of Common Law “constitutionalist” types (Aho, 19). Not too far removed from them, but not as predisposed to radical analysis or radical action, are (so-called) non-racist Identity sympathizers like the Lord’s Covenant Church, the World Wide Church of God, the Church of Israel, or various Christian Constitutionalists like the Freemen Institute, the Sons of Liberty, and the John Birch Society. Closer to the more mai nstream right are more issue-oriented patriot groups like the Center for Market Alternatives, the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, with various right-to-life, right-to-work and homeschooler advocates following in their wake. And stretched out along this “right and white” spectrum are the various state militias whose

anger was inflamed by the Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, fiascos, in which Federal agents ended up killing citizens. According to Klanwatch Project head Morris Dees, some 441 such militias, buttressed by another 368 patriot groups espousing similar ideas, were in existence between 1994 and 1996, themselves representing a range of activities from law-abiding to terrorist sympathizing, but all engaging in defensive training and weapons handling (Dees, 201-2]. At least 137 had ties to the racist extreme, operating out of a leaderless “phantom cell” structure that Aryan nations leader Louis Beam advocates as the most effective in combating state tyranny and the most resistant to infilt ration by undercover agents (Dees, 208). Somewhere between this Identity extreme and the more evangelical mainstream, white theological supremacy closets itself in white cultural normativity, exemplified by a group like the Promise-Keepers which claims for itself an anti-racist personal intention even while many of its leaders and supporters work for rollbacks of affirmative action, cutbacks in capital gains taxation, an end to minority-based political districting, the abolition of welfare, the privatization of prisons, etc.

The other pole is much more visibly occupied by some of Farrakhan’s following, rippling back into much less visible, but perhaps more politically significant, influences that are Afrocentric in commitment, Afrosympathetic in vision, militant in attitude, and rhetorically mesmerizing. The demographics here are urban and adolescent; the organization ad hoc and unpredictable; the ideology aggressive, popular, and prolific. The message is the medium: a rhythmic dissertation upon the stark impossibilities of being black, young, and poor in post-industrial U.S. of A. The hood is strapped down tight — armed, angry, and unapologetic for its nihilistic trigger finger. And while “X” marks the spot as urban and black, “hop” hips a much wider young audience. The gang-banger today may well be a Latino “she”; the consumer of the urban ferocity, a white suburban kid with Internet access at his fingertips and not a clue in his head.

At one level, the poles here represent a strange mimicry of each other. In their most extreme expressions, each side is very clear on the question of absolutes: the “enemy” is either anyone “not white” or anyone “not black.” They are also clear on their means: the “ideal speech situation” is believed to be an armed camp meeting, the ultimate argument the quickest bullet. Both deal in a market that is “black” —

* either, in the case of white supremacy, in the form of going “off the grid” altogether, refusing auto licenses, social security numbers, and official money instruments in favor of a locally initiated “tax” system and barter economy;

* or, in the case of disenfranchised black youth, in never having been on the grid in the first place, knowing life only in the form of a neighborhood forced to depend, for its very survival, on the underground economy of crack, car jacking, and the codes of the street.

But at another level, the poles are profoundly dissimilar, and it is that dissimilarity that gives rise to the real question of this essay. The motive force on the side of supremacy is a loss of something mistakenly perceived to have once been justly possessed — a historical “right” to property, privilege, status and security, and a country that in political fact, but cultural and ethical fiction, was once “white.” On the side of young black cynicism, the motive force is a giving up on something ambivalently perceived to have once held promise — the possibility of finally gaining access to property, privilege, status and security, and a country that might yet become in ethical and cultural fact, rather than merely political fiction, “America the beautiful.” White supremacy has lost a fictional past, black cynicism a real future. I understand both. But I sympathize only with the one rooted in reality. My real concern here is particularly with the way these two very different losses — the one seemingly conc rete and nearly touchable, but in fact untrue, the other seemingly utopian and largely dreamlike, but in fact much closer to the truth — are so profoundly tangled up with each other.

The Irish self-exile James Joyce once wrote of what he called the “Jewgreek,” or the “Greekjew,” running the two words together to describe an impossible conflict, an enmity that is irresolvable because its two parts do not exist without each other. It is my argument that we are dangerously close to realizing a similar dilemma in the dynamics of our own peculiar complex of “blackwhite.” Left to their own logics, the extremes do seem to add up to Rowan’s race war, sooner or later, in a complex and crazy welter of competing loyalties, cross-cutting identities, confused contrarities. On the one hand, we would have “White versus Jewblack,” in which the term “Jewblack” means Satan/African, Asian, Arabian, Caribbean, Mexican, and multi-cultural “pink.” And on the other hand, we would have “Black versus Jewwhite,” in which the term “Jewwhite” means local liquor store owner/Anglo-Celtic, Korean, Chaldean, Croatian, Chilean, Cuban, and cosmopolitan high mellow yellow. The continuum here is “whitejewblack,” all run together as a great historical confusion and contradiction. Throw out the mediating figure of the Jew and you have the real deal about the way “enemies” are likely to go to war with each other in contemporary North America.

In reality, there is something that does mediate these two poles: it is the meandering middle, the liberal-democratic-committed civil society of American dreams where the real fate of the American nightmare will be decided. Here “enemy-talk” is more difficult to fathom; its mythology more difficult to unearth and decipher and exorcize. Our liberal democratic heritage gives us a vision of individual equality: before the supposedly color-blind law, each of us is formally the equal of every other one of us. But in actual social practice, these formal equalities are just that: formalities laid over the substance of a political life and a civil society that are anything but color blind in their actual institutional operations or color-neutral in their projections of cultural norms and codes of conduct. They are rather like the videotape of the Rodney King beating, posted freeze-frame by freeze-frame around the Simi Valley courtroom, during the trial that found his beaters guilty only of doing their job; no single frame offered indisputable “formal” evidence of brutality or testament to any observable racism on the part of the LAPD. Only the substantive “whole” of the action, its cumulative effects read in context of this particular history, its content filled in from the struggles characterizing this particular society, could provide such evidence. When Simi Valley perpetuated a formally “color-blind” and individualized notion of justice, the South Central community had to erupt to strike the scales off of the color-blind eye. Color has never not been part of the question of justice in this country.

It is part of the insidiousness of white supremacy and white racism that it inhabits the tiny spaces of social structure, such that institutions whose official bureaucratic policies are non-discriminatory can perpetuate and even intensify racialized practices in actual operation because race-perceptions and ethnic-assumptions continue to find expression at the level of social microstructures — the tiny habits, the little presumptions, the seemingly innocent perceptions, the taken-for-granted norms governing the actions of the bureaucratic actors, from top to bottom in our society. Here lies the real question of the hour: How do we develop an antidote against enemy-ideologies — that is, a critical consciousness capable of discerning and discrediting enemy-creating propaganda–adequate to what happens, not at the extremes where the images are clear, but in the middle, where the vision is murky and where the real stakes lie? Here the lessons to be learned are not obvious. They are covert and complex, working at the level where content is not yet ideologically explicit. The frontier for anti-racism work in the twenty-first century will lie in combat zones in and around our ever-more technologized forms of cultural embodiment, the identities that are offered to us through our “screen culture” (our TVs and computers), where our large institutional structures interlink with our tiniest habits of thought and perception (Foucault, 1980, 92-108). The new battleground is between macro-structure and microstructure and mediated by the screen.

From this perspective, the continuum I have been mapping here is one of relative power. It runs from the obvious white supremacy of the Christian Identity far right through the more invidious white racism of the “new right,” to the surreptitious operation of white cultural normativity in the mainstream (Omi and Winart, 113-36). This continuum does not carry over into a kindred concern for so-called black racism. Despite the belief of 12 percent of the white population that blacks constitute a numerical majority in the country, the huge psychic space occupied by blacks does not translate into anything like a huge political hand (Rowan, 118). Power is in numbers, and the numbers go increasingly against black power. Even the much vaunted new black middle class sits lightly to its newly acquired position. Where white median net worth rounds out at $44,408 per family household, for instance, the comparable black median figure is only 1/10th of that amount — at $4,604, scarcely an unemployed month or two away fro m the streets (Rowan, 117). And that fact is made worse by the looming prospect of Latino power becoming a larger, more certain, and sophisticated aspect of minority demographics and politics.

The real question of the enemy in America today that encompasses and gives real social bite to all the others is an accomplished fact at the level of myth. It is the black enemy that already lives in “our” (white) guts, haunts our dreams both political and unconscious, leverages budget decisions national and local, determines condominium architecture and ex-urban infrastructure, terrorizes parents about the musical tastes of their teenage sons and the dating habits of their growing-up daughters. It is an enemy-idea that was brought fully into mythological articulation in a Puritan Christian notion of predestination 350 years ago that read dark skin as the irrefutable surface sign of a hardened spiritual heart. If one had black skin, that was evidence of a darkened destiny. What the evolutionary process had developed as an early strategy of survival (melanin), Puritan cosmology damned as a form of metaphysical subhumanity and theological curse (traceable back to Ham) (Haymes, 21; Bastide, 270-85). That cosmol ogy is no longer quite so evident among us, but its image of blackness has scarcely been purged in a mere decade of civil rights activism or thirty years of affirmative action.

Dig deeply enough into the nightmares of any of us who claim the privileges of whiteness, and you will find that our terrors wear blackface. That is the enemy the dominant cultural theology has bequeathed us. To talk about the enemies imagined by those we might be tempted to think of as our “own” enemies– like, say Timothy MacVeigh — without having faced the fact that his imagined enemy is also our own, is an enemy that lies so close to the bone and is so familiar as to be unrecognizable, borders on the unforgiveable. It is part of the luxury of a technologized society that the soundbite gives us new enemies to agonize over every hour on the hour. But the cost is never confronting the one that has always dogged and determined our deepest sense of social identity in modernity.

The enemy of our day remains “black,” and the theology that “entbroned” him — and I do mean “him,” the archetypical black man — is a white Christian theology that has not ceased to remain violent in effect, even if it has become tame in affect and absent in fact. We have only to remember the responses in New Jersey in the Spring of 1997 to an African American actor playing Jesus in a popular passion play. The response was literal death threats; there was not a single complaint when the next night he played Satan.

There is not space here to launch into a genealogy of white identity in the history of this country, but suffice it to say that the culture at large has yet to escape an entanglement that is pervasively “blackwhite.” It is an entanglement that affects every person in the culture, of whatever skin color or ethnic affiliation, and affects each of our institutions. Works like David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness or Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White make clear the degree to which whiteness is an empty category of identity dropped into immigrant laps in the last century to buy off deeper criticism of “wage slavery” and the labor solidarity across race and ethnic lines that could have posed a more radical challenge to industrializing capital. Unlike blackness, which has been continuously labored by African Americans–at great cost and with no little artistry–into positive meanings that countered its imposed pejorative meanings, whiteness has entailed little active cultural labor. It has rather conferr ed its benefits almost entirely as a negation: “whatever else I may be as a poor white, I am at least ‘not black’!”

The foil against which that fiction of “white” identity has cast itself, the blackness it imagines onto skin tones ranging from albino-cream to indigo-brown, is the color of the enemy at the world millennium. It may appear as a psychic terror-image in the nightdreams of an entire culture, leveraging analysis as a modern growth industry, or as a mystery of melanin whose exact ancient origins remain provocative for the genetic science of our day, or as a riddle of modern geopolitical inequity unaccounted for by political economy.

But in whatever guise, blackness continues to mark the historic meaning of human difference-making at its mythic extreme. Whether as unconscious threat, as unimagined ancestry, or as real oppression, the unresolved meaning of blackness stands as the question mark, of all of our Eurocentric categories of alienness and enmity in the modern world, that most puts its North American inquirers in question. It asks not only why “our” enemy (whoever he or she may actually be, whether Moamar Kaddafy in Libya, Africa, or Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Asia, or the kid in the next neighborhood) is almost always “black” in the deepest theological sense, but more pertinently what we can do to change the theodicy function blackness is made to perform in a late-capitalist world dominated by Western values and perceptions? (I.e., the way that particular label serves to “justify” white exploitation and domination wherever it is successfully imposed.) Why do we image evil as dark and the enemy as “black”? Here is the real pertinence , indeed the saving impertinence, of Black Theology’s assertion that Jesus Christ must be and is black (Cone, 1975, 135). But that is another paper.

The way the hip hop group Public Enemy plays with the category of “enemy,” in the highly public medium of rap music, points towards what must be taken seriously by all the rest of us. Public Enemy’s name is its own way of signifying on a name that is not its own. Much like W E. B. Du Bois’s opening in the Souls of Black Folk, where he states that the real sentiment that greets him in pubic is the unspoken question, “How does it feel to be a problem?,” Public Enemy makes unavoidable the updated sentiment that greets its own public appearances (Du Bois, 16). The “problem” of turn-of-the-century America has become the “enemy” of turn-of-the-millennium America. He is young, black, male, street-wise and sharp-tongued, and not about to settle for sentiment. Or at least so the dominant culture would have it. For all of his supposedly threatened status as an “endangered species,” this young black male remains the cipher for danger in the public at large. Unlike Du Bois’s “problem” label, however, the “enemy” image i n the creative hands of Public Enemy vocalists Chuck D or Flavor Flay is seemingly embraced and simply replayed in reverse. But the “seemingly” here is sheer ice, an irony that affords no footing. In a rap riff like “Fear of a Black Planet,” a kind of homeopathetic [1] medicine or “root remedy” is offered, a mirror to the scared eyes of a cowering white supremacy, cloaking itself in middle class pretensions to polite innocence and upscale uprightness. The fear is named, the enemy is identified, the blackness polished into a surface of pure reflection. “What you see” is not only “what you get,” it may well also be “who you are:” enemy of “the enemy” and truly lost for not being able to recognize it.

Beyond the obvious potency of “blackness” as a dominant cultural stereotype to call down official and unofficial terror on young black heads — not just Rodney King in LA or Malice Green in Detroit, Johnny Gammage in Pittsburgh or Carlton Brown in Brooklyn, but now Abner Lonima and Amadou Diallo in Brooklyn and Patrick Dorismund in New York — beyond this, however, the stereotype also affords a strange refuge. It offers the possibility of hiding in plain view to carry out an alternative practice in the very face of real enmity. As have most stereotypes of African-Americans through most of our history, the image of the young black as “public enemy writ large” imposes a discipline that, for all of its unwanted coercions, has also been crafted into new forms of knowledge and new capacities for beautification. Jon Michael Spencer’s The Rhythms of Black Folk tracks the way African cultural sensibilities for a life lived under a beat have been continuously updated and reinvented in a diasporic situation of severe trauma and tension. The result is a syncopated instinct for survival with style that arguably offers a model for enemy exorcism in the twenty-first century.

Spencer creatively appropriates the thinking of French social theorist Michel Foucault to characterize black cultural experimentation with rhythm as, in part, a kind of “insurrection of subjugated sexualities that range from blues lyrics to rap dramaturgy” (Spencer, xxv). What Spencer means by such a phrase is that African diaspora religion, musics, dance, language, writing, and intellectual production in general have refused to abide by white attempts to police bodily expressions of desire and pleasure. The dominant white culture in this country historically has said the body is to be used up in working hard in the factory, or in bearing babies in the home, but otherwise it is to be rigidly repressed, except for occasional moments of mad release at sports events or in the local bar. African American culture, on the other hand, has continuously seen the body as a resource for subversive forms of creativity — sometimes, as in slavery, the only resource available — and has constantly innovated ways of using bodily sensitivity to rhythm to craft an alternative sense of identity and alternative forms of knowledge. The call/response litanies of black church preaching, and the DJ/audience antiphonies of rap sidewalk sampling, are witness to such. Spencer sums up this cultural labor as an insurrectionary retrieval of black sexuality from the deadening confines of white mechanisms of control and regulation.

This must not be misunderstood, however, as a stereotypic reiteration of the idea that “blacks are more sexual than whites.” The emphasis here is rather on a sophisticated refusal to be dominated and a continual exploration of the power of translating human desire into cultural creativity. I am not saying that there is something genetic in African heritage peoples that predisposes them to be obsessed with sexuality. I am rather saying that Anglo-cultural obsessions with sexuality, expressed in repression and fear, have not simply been repeated in African-diaspora cultures. Often enough, the latter have instead seen the body — and its capacity to express joy and pleasure in myriad ways and not just in intercourse, as the dominant culture would have it — as one of the most important “places” to resist white domination and work out alternative codes of meaning and communal identity. It is simply damnable that such an innovative sensibility has been taken over by advertising interests, repackaged as a commodit y, and sold back to its community of origin as a misogynist form of sexual exploitation and violence.

This latter development also suggests how the social construction of blackness as “the enemy” in North America is structured into the society as a whole. It is a patently white patriarchal myth of black male sexual potency that gives social structure to psychological desire across a range of institutions and social positions. In the “common sense” of the dominant culture, the basic perception of society is one that positions the white male on top organizing “white power” in the large corporation, locates the white female underneath that dominating supervision in the middle class home, grants the black female third-class status as the matriarchal head of a deviant, feminized household of color, [2] and holds the black male at bay in the bottom level of unemployed “leisure” time, managed by the courts and the prison system (Fraser, 1989, 132). In those operative stereo-types, the white male is breadwinner, the white female baby-producer and home-maker, the black female a fecund recipient of welfare largesse, a nd the black male what Michael Eric Dyson calls a “walking, talking penis,” impregnating whatever is at hand and wasting whoever gets in the way.

Obviously, these stereotypes are old and do not at all match social reality for the majority of the actors or the institutions. Yet the fantasy remains intractable. White male fear of black male sexual prowess is only recycled in the image of the latter as either “def” and “dope,” or dangerous and deviant. Whether as Michael Jordan on the court or M. C. Hammer on the floor, Ice-T on the movie marquee or Ice-Cube on the tube, black virility and vitality hovers in silent menace over the troubled relationship between a white male increasingly uncertain of his ability to hold his own in either the boardroom or the bedroom and the white female he supposes to be his prize and comfort. Spencer says, for instance,

The title and the substance of Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet, points directly to the fear among whites of the ghetto’s allegedly “illegitimate sexualities” penetrating their neighborhoods and their bodies, not to mention their fear of the “spiritual peril” of what C. G. Jung called “going black under the skin.” As I explain further on in the chapter, this is the reason there has been a misunderstanding of black culture in general, a misunderstanding comprised of the fear of being tricked into falling out of the white light into “darkness.” (Spencer, 166-6 7)

The actual material forms of black cultural potency (the CDs, the videos, actual black persons, etc.) may well be nowhere present in a given white male’s daily life, but precisely in that physical absence maintain black culture’s power of threat. The black female can be accorded greater access with less anxiety and thus shows up more frequently in the office or the college classroom. But in contemporary urban social reality, black male “space” is sequestered ever more harshly and inaccessibly through a combination of surveillance and policing in the ‘hood and monitoring and eviction in the mall (Davis, 149; Dumm, 189). Despite (and because of) the stereotypes, the media image of black maleness — commodifled in everything from Shaquille O’Neal’s appetite for tacos to Michael Jordan’s bald head re-imaged as a

mountain–emerges in late capitalism as a big ticket sales image even as black male reality is ever more stringently policed and imprisoned.

Recognition of the role of sexual fear and fantasy in the racialized organization of American social order underscores Spencer’s celebration of the vibrancy of black survival tactics. He is clear that the stake in the creativity of rap — as of jazz and blues before it — is a negotiation of violence. “Violent aggressivity,” he says, “the ‘scratching’ of rap DJs giving sound to blades slitting throats — is physiologically canalized, transformed, and exorcised” (Spencer, 145). Rap is a form of deliverance ritual. The comment is merely an updating of the Caribbean revolutionary and psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon’s reading of spirit possession and dance in the African colony, in relationship to which Fanon says,

The native’s relaxation takes precisely the form of a muscular orgy in which the most acute aggressivity and the most impelling violence are canalized, transformed, and conjured away — there are no limits — for in reality your purpose in coming together is to allow the accumulated [sexual] [energy] libido, the hampered aggressivity, to dissolve as in volcanic eruption. Symbolical killings, fantastic rides, imaginary mass murders — all must be brought out. (Fanon, 1963, 57)

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Spencer’s book further extends the discussion:

They dance; that keeps them busy; it relaxes their painfully contracted muscles; and then the dance mimes secretly, often without their knowing, the refusal they cannot utter and the murders they dare not commit. (Sartre, 19)

Public Enemy enacts a “revenge fantasy,” Spencer argues, brings symbolic murder “out into the open, so that the accumulated libido can be dissolved on the very border that crosses over into outright violence” (Spencer, 146). It is not a new tactic, nor one only limited to black musics. Black fiction writers and culture critics alike have engaged in the fantasy. One only needs to read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison. And obviously, the tactic is not uniquely black; it is one instance of a ritualization of aggression that anthropologists have documented all around the world under the rubric of “rituals of rebellion.” Indeed, for Spencer, one of the most helpful theorists for his own understanding of rap is the French economist Jacques Attali, who offers a political economy analysis of the function of music in both maintaining and disturbing the social order. [3] For Attali, “noise is a weapon,” and music, at its deepest level, “is the formation, domestication, and ritualization of that weapon as a kind of ritual murder” (Spencer, quoting Attali, 149). Located somewhere between noise and silence, music, in Spencer’s reading, constitutes a peculiar “mastery of form” (Spencer, 149).

Spencer’s s vision of what is going on with black rhythm gains its power in the context of the comments by Fanon and Attali, a comment by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, on religion, and his own representation of rap. “Civilization,” Spencer argues, “is itself a mask” — one of whose false faces can be religion (Spencer, 149). Unmasked, however, this latter reveals “the possibility of murder, or at least police brutality” (Spencer, 149). Such an unmasking of (false) religion in hiding brutality was particularly the gift of a rhetorical genius like Malcolm X. Nietzsche, Spencer goes on to comment, put it succinctly in the last century. “You say you believe in the necessity of religion. Be sincere! You believe in the necessity of police!” Updated for late capitalist America, says Spencer, we can hear the “popular culture industry say…it believes in the culture and economic necessity of black music, television, and film, of Public Enemy, Homey the Clown, and Spike Lee, promoting them and capitali zing on them despite warnings that they unmask these alleged Malcolm X types” (Spencer, 149). “Be for real!” Spencer argues. “The industry believes in ritual violence!” (Spencer, 149).

The black male in our day represents a kind of social mirror, unmasking our national pretensions to civility. In his face, at least as embodied in the ritual revelations of rap, we encounter

* not only the enemy (marked not with an “X” but with a simple daub of black),

* not only the attempt to cauterize the violence of our largest institutions by the coopting, commodifying and capitalizing of the energies of resistance they give rise to at the bottom levels of society,

* not only the dispersion of subversion by its ritualization in music.

but we, in fact, come close to the scary border where religion emerges in all of its raw uncertainty and possibility. We face the nadir of our society where an ultimate face of life appears in unresolvable ambiguity, as perhaps death avoided and an enemy (whiteness) identified and exorcized, but also perhaps as the discovery that the ultimate enemy may indeed be Ultimate and may well be against us. In our unrecognized projection of blackness as the enemy, we, who advocate a “Christian love of light” in this country, may well one day wake up to find our own “born again” selves on the wrong side of God.

In conclusion here, I speak primarily to white identified people. Rap, in its best moments — beyond its easily criticized misogyny and sexism, its rampant immaturity and now overdone imitations, and what too often can amount to its sheer boredom in our day — reveals an eye in public that looks back and does not look aside. What is in that eye, perhaps (as Sartre said about African possession cults) even without its human bearers fully realizing it? What looks back at us in the hardness and the blackness of that gaze, the harshness and staccato pointedness of that gesture? What impulse of life is being humanized here, in the ritual counter-rhythms of a body that has been made to bear so much meaning, so much of our meaning of enmity and fear — that has had that meaning beaten into it and is threatened with having it beaten into it again and again, without redress, by the official representatives of “our” order and our claim to a monopoly on violence? (hooks, 169-71). I would suggest that rap fascinates bec ause it gives stark embodiment to an unhappy religious moment; it invokes the memory that religion, at least the Christian religion, transforms and transfigures a primal murder: Jesus Christ died as a subversive criminal at the hands of the state. I would suggest rap also frightens because, in it, we cross over a border where we might discover ourselves actually to be the murderer rather than the followers of the Murdered One.

In black public rhythmic assertion — in our day carried out most decisively in the medium of rap — we meet

* an “enemy” embodied and threatening,

* an enemy coded into the pulsations of an ancient memory of transfiguration,

* an enemy reconfigured in a community that turns the act of consuming into a further production on and in the body,

* an enemy that remains uncertainly identified in the mirroring of an order that is disorder. [4]

That order is “us.” Whether that enemy-image ever breaks in two into the polarized subjectivities of an actual civil war, locked in a mimetic logic of enmity and carried out simultaneously by white-supremacist-led paramilitaries and black-separatist-minded urban youth may well rest with the ability of all the rest of us to learn from these youth.

JIM PERKINSON is Associate Professor of Ethics at Ecumenical Theological Seminary of Religious Studies/Philosophy at Marygrove College.


(1.) Cf. Theophilus Smith’s Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formation of Black America for a reading of the civil rights movement as a homeopathic response to the violence of white supremacy (Smith, 159, 168-69).

(2.) Though I also recognize, from another point of view, it is quite arguable that the black woman occupies the lowest position in the social hierarchy, being subject to the sexism of both black and white males in addition to the oppressions of race, class, etc. Cf. bell hooks, Breaking Bread, 154.

(3.) As also for rap theorist Tricia Rose, whose Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America is a direct “trope” on Attali.

(4.) For a quite similar take on the role of black musics — and the affective structures they codify and communally reproduce — see Paul Gliroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation and The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Gilroy differs from Spencer in emphasizing black style as a recapitulation of the terrors of slavery, conserved and overcome in constantly renewed and re-innovated practices he glosses as forms of the “slave sublime.” Both Charles Long and Toni Morrison work off of similar understandings of the need to re-visit and transfigure trauma from the past for the sake of a new future.


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