The Black future is already unfolding under your feet, and the narrow possibility that you might grab ahold of that leading edge of the asphalt and turn it in a different direction.
“I hope people will un-learn either/or Race-or-Class binarism.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Walter Johnson. Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His book is The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Walter Johnson: Well, I wrote it to help myself understand St. Louis. I began by trying to understand Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown as a social murder in the way that Engels used the term in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845): to understand the political economic conditions in Ferguson, in Missouri, and in the United States of America that framed that moment. Not to exonerate Darren Wilson. But to move beyond the idea that the crisis in our society could by finessed by having the police wear body cameras, or reforming the “bad apples,” or whatever. Police violence is a symptom of the deeper sickness in our society, and I wanted to use the history of St. Louis to understand and explain that.
Building on the work of ever so many scholars and activists, for me most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, Cedric Robinson, Nell Painter, Robin Kelley, David Roediger, George Lipstiz, Alexander Saxton, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Kelly Lyle Hernadez, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Nick Estes, Peter Hudson, Elizabeth Hinton, Manu Karuka, and K-Sue Park, I use the terms “racial capitalism,” “settler colonialism,” and “empire” to try to understand the long history of Ferguson. In so doing, I am trying to relate insistently the histories of empire and anti-Blackness in the United States. And also to understand contrasting versions of racial formation. The racialization of enslaved people in the South, for example, differed from, even as it was directly related to, the racialization of Native Americans. In the case of slavery, people were exploited up until death, and part of the surplus that was stolen from them came in the form of the descendants who worked in their wake, and on and on – sexual invigilation and natal alienation across the suffering generations. In the case of Native Americans, the nations were removed and targeted for extermination without any attention to the future at all.
“The racialization of enslaved people in the South, for example, even as it was directly related to, the racialization of Native Americans.”
Following from the premises of the idea of “racial capitalism,” and the long history of work thinking it through, I am also working in a space that stands between understanding American history as a four-hundred year-long episode in the working out of the intellectual and cultural history of white supremacy, what Robin Kelley calls Afro-Pessimism Lite, on the one hand, and the ortho-Marxism that takes any effort to understand the role of white supremacy and anti-Blackness (even those which are essential to and are themselves in essence modes of extration, dispossession, and exploitation) as a distraction from understanding the real underlying history of the modes of production and contest of social classes for state power.
It is understandable that many worry that analyses of class suppression might ignore anti-Blackness; there is more than enough racism and sadism in our world to suggest the source of their doubt. Like, that focus on anti-Black ideologies and epistemologies might ignore the importance of economic exploitation and domination; we are surrounded by the endemic capitalist inequality. But as W.E.B. Du Bois argued long ago, human agency emerges under specific rather than universal conditions, and in our history those conditions were decisively shaped by European empires, the Atlantic slave trade, and their sequelae. I’m focused on “both/and” rather than the “either/or,” and I understand the aspects of that “both/and” to be organically, dialectically, and everchangingly inter-related: racial capitalism.
“Human agency emerges under specific rather than universal conditions, and in our history those conditions were decisively shaped by European empires, the Atlantic slave trade, and their sequelae.”
It is difficult to think about change and persistence at the same time. The book tries to trace out a history of changing patterns of empire, extraction, and the harvest of surplus (finally, in the form of the harvest of human being themselves) and insistently relate them to a series of racist removals, each different from the one preceding it, but together tracing out the persistence and repetition as well as change. The point is to trace the history of the various changing forms of dispossession, exploitation, and extraction, and the way that they related to racialization. I try to suggest the ways that economic changes were imagined and enacted through racialization and thus pulled xenophobia forward though time along with economic “development.”
Imagining the histories of capitalism and racism as organically related but not identical to one another that has several implications. First, that we cannot reduce the history of capitalist racism to racial discrimination. It is often that, in the real estate market, for example. But think about the complex racial capitalism of Michael Jordan, who is both an icon of and an alibi for racial capitalism, who embodies what Chandan Reddy called the dialectic of exceptionality and disposability. Consider as well that racism and that racial capitalism produces a surplus of pleasure for white people; the pleasures of racism, the barbarism, and the sadism often operate in excess of the capitalism to which it is organically and historically related. Finally, I think we need to think of the violence of capitalism in general – towards poor and working-class white people as well as Black people, towards the veterans of imperial wars as well as their victims, toward everyone who lives near a waste dump or breathes polluted air or faces the onrushing planetary catastrophe, which is to say, in the final instance, all of us – as bearing the historical imprint of practices that were originally justified and pioneered in empire, in racial capitalism. This last is an idea that I really owe to K-Sue Park and her brilliant (really) chapter in the new Histories of Racial Capitalism collection edited by Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy, which is great from beginning to end.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I generally think of that question the other way around, as I have learned much more from activists and community organizers in St. Louis than I could ever hope to give back. Someone who recently reviewed my book criticized it for not offering “hope” to the people of St. Louis, and that seems to me to misunderstand the entire endeavor. I mean, I draw my hope from them. They make it clear each and every day that they believe that they have important work to do. I tried to offer tools and resources to people in St. Louis and elsewhere: analytical armor and maybe even some historical bricks to the activists; and the occasion to stop and reflect on our lives and the wrongs to others that make them possible for the rest of us. But as far as hope, I draw my hope from the kids in the streets and the people on the frontlines: I’m much more a borrower in the hope category than a lender.
And, for me, getting to know activists and organizers in St. Louis has been really transformative. I don’t want to sound too smarmy, but it is hard for me to find the words to describe some of the things I have learned, because they are more like revelations, like shifts in my axis of vision, than things that I can put into words. George Lipsitz introduced me to an essay where Walter Benjamin talks about the idea of “presence of mind,” the sense that you can have about the relation between past, present, and future when you are walking down a street, about the way that history has structured reality and the way that the future is already unfolding under your feet, and the narrow possibility that you might grab ahold of that leading edge of the asphalt and turn it in a different direction. I think that captures some of what I am trying to communicate.
There are some moments and relationships that distilled that for me. I learned from the journalist and organizer Sylvester Brown when he said, “people say we’re poor, but we’re rich, look at our children.” I learned from Macler Shepherd, who founded an organization that re-possessed and re-built houses on the North Side of St. Louis in the late 1970s, by way of the Mennonite Cecil Miller who moved to the city to work with Shepherd, that “an educated person is someone who can go anywhere in a society, from the top to the bottom, and not embarrass themselves and not embarrass anyone else” (although I have spent enough time close enough to the top to add “except when they deserve it”). I learned from Nicole Nelson and Kalila Jackson, the organizers with whom I worked on a project trying to get relief for people in Centreville, Illinois, where there is both endemic flooding and constant sewage back-up (the one exacerbating the other), who would let the best idea in the world wither on the vine if its picking had not been approved by the people of Centreville assembled to talk it through. I learned from Aaron Williams who works on cultural preservation and community building in one of the historical centers of Black St. Louis – the Ville neighborhood – that “the work moves at the speed of trust.” I learned from Johari Jabir and Jabari Asim that, for those who lived there, Pruitt-Igoe was just another place, that human flourishing abides within historical injustice, and that it is equally important to remember. I learned from the artist and designer De Nichols and the museum director Lois Conley that the stories people tell you are precious, and that you shouldn’t take them and use them without leaving something, something tangible and durable in exchange. More than anything, I learned about politics, solidarity, radical hospitality, and revolutionary love from Tef Poe, Percy Green, and Jamala Rogers, who showed me the city, told me what they had learned from it, and vouched for me as I made my way.
So, I guess, I hope that some of that spirit, some of that love that people in St. Louis shared with me, comes through the book.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Hmmmmmmm. That’s a good question. I guess I hope people will un-learn either/or Race-or-Class binarism that I was talking about before. And un-learn some of the history that they think they know about the United States, about the history of the Midwest as conservative, for instance. I want people to understand the deep history, the really visionary history, of midwestern radicalism.
There are a couple other things:
I want people to understand the long history of what I call “structural racism,” the way that prior forms of racial capitalism have been built into the environment and then built upon, covered over, euphemized, and denied, but how they still structure our lives. The most tangible example is probably the relationship between race and space, the ways that prior extractions – redlining, racial covenants, racist governmental policy (federal, state, and local) in service of what Lipsitz called the “possessive investment in whiteness,” and so on – frame our daily lives. The fact that this history is the material ground of our lives provides an alibi for continued racial capitalist extraction and inequality, which can now proceed in the absence of explicit attitudinal racism. Which is not to say that it always does.
And I want people to un-learn the ways that they think about “Freedom” in the absence of empire. An example of this would be thinking about the Civil War. There has been a lot of work that has problematized the liberalism of notion of freedom that came out of the war in relation to actual human emancipation (beginning with Du Bois, but, also, really pointedly in the work of Saidiya Hartman, Amy Dru Stanley, and Thavolia Glymph). But we’re just getting to the idea that the liberal notion of freedom was itself structured in the dominance of empire – that settler-colonial freedom, martial freedom, was the only sort available to most in the United States of America. Imperial freedom is something I have been trying to unlearn since about 1980, when Ronald Reagan got elected president and I first read Slaughterhouse Five, and I am still trying, most recently in the intellectual company of writers like Lisa Lowe, Phil Deloria, Nick Estes, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Oh my goodness . . . .
Apart from all those I have mentioned above, whose ideas, magpie-like, I have thievingly woven into my own little intellectual nest . . . And apart from all the music and the art; and apart from the courageous young people in Ferguson and Baltimore and elsewhere in 2014 and in the streets everywhere last summer; and Karl Marx, Peter Kropotkin and Cornel West, whom I haven’t yet mentioned; and apart from my own kids who seem so intent on living moral lives in the midst of the apocalyptic morass we are passing on to them, and my wife who thinks every single idea all the way out to the final instance; and apart from the wildly brilliant and visionary students I get to teach and work with; and apart from the everyday revolutionaries in Centreville and North St. Louis and the Close the Workhouse campaign and ActionSTL and the Arch City Defenders, from whom I’ve been so lucky to learn; and apart from the recovering addicts and the prison abolitionists (and, doubly so, those who are both at once) and Jesus Christ, Howard Thurman, Rev. Walton, Mr. Rogers, Derecka Purnell, and Deborah McDowell, I’d say . . . .
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The book is framed around the idea that the history of St. Louis prefigures (when it does not directly frame) the history the United States as a whole. That is the argument about empire and racial capitalism, and that is the argument about radicalism and uprising. I try at the very end to convey some of the hope I see in the city, some of the things that I have learned from the people who are working there to imagine and build what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “fragments of the future.” I want people to notice, learn from, support and even join this prefigurative work. St. Louis, Lipsitz says, is the right place for all the wrong reasons. And I want people to understand that, and build on it.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.