White people must refuse reconciliation to ongoing brutality; they must rend the fabric of the kinship narrative
“SLAVERY is the ghost in the machine of kinship.” Saidiya Hartman’s concise articulation gets to the heart of the ways that chattel slavery continues to animate the present: transatlantic chattel slavery’s constitution of domestic relations made kin in one direction, and in the other, property that could be passed between and among those kin. This is the ghost in the machine of contemporary U.S. life and politics.
We can trace this through the examples of U.S. Senator James Henry Hammond (1807-1864) and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond (1902-2003) and into the present. Hammond claimed ownership over other people of what he called that “inferior race,” and Thurmond, a Dixiecrat, declared: “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force […] the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.’’ Both were residents of Edgefield, South Carolina and both “fathers” of Black women, slave and free, whom they never claimed as kin in the ways that they would claim their white children. The laws of U.S. chattel slavery and Jim Crow made white kinship (legally, familially, and politically). These modes of recognizing white kinship and refusing to recognize Black personhood endure into the present; they make and unmake persons and families, and assign human beings value in and of themselves, or not. Thurmond’s declaration encompasses not only Black people, but Latinx, Muslim Americans and more. White kin in one direction, “property” in another.
Whiteness, then, is a political project. It is distinct from, but often acts in concert with, the political projects of making and sustaining nation, ethnicity, and ethnic nationalisms. Whiteness is a political project and it is also a logic, by which I mean it is a calculus, a way of sorting oneself and others into categories of those who must be protected and those who are, or soon will be, expendable.
It is this calculus that allowed Dylan Roof to sit, for one hour or more with the welcoming members of a Bible study and prayer group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in South Carolina (the oldest AME church in the South), and then to show them his gun, to rise from his seat, to slaughter most of them, and to spare three so that they could “tell everyone what happened.”
It is this logic that allowed Dylan Roof’s friends to say nothing. Those friends noted that he seemed changed and “angry” but they asked him no questions when he repeatedly broadcast his homicidal intentions in the weeks before he massacred six Black women and three Black men. The logics of whiteness allowed him to be captured alive (by kin) and then taken to a Burger King and fed because he said he was tired and hungry. That whiteness and white supremacy are logics of making the human also means that it is expected that the survivors of the massacre will offer Roof their forgiveness.
White supremacists are angry; those who claim that title and those who do not but who act in the interests of white supremacy. Not only are they angry, but also “we” are told that their anger must be understood–that “we” must make room for it.
This “we” is across race, sex, class, gender, and geography.
This unmoral, unethical anger has the full support of the state. It is the only anger that the state recognizes; the only anger not criminalized or met with deadly brutal force. It is the anger of Ryan and Ammon Bundy and the understanding of the jury of their all-white peers that found them not guilty of the illegal occupation and armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It is an unmoral anger that hits in the register and the grammar of violence, in the logics of law and order, in electoral victories and the grammar of reconciliation with kin by any means.
Many white people are struggling to figure out if they should speak and what they might say to their white kin now, in this moment. (Kin here means, all of those recognized by the self–in some fundamental, indelible way–as being like the self.) They are wondering if they should be silent or if they should broach the election with their intimates, with the people who are closest to them and who occupy different points of view, who voted differently, who apprehend the world in ways they self-report as deeply antithetical or inimical to their own. They acknowledge that the lives of people, not them, are at stake. They take to the streets to protest, and yet some speak this fear of potential loss of kin into the same ether as their co-workers, friends, and colleagues who are marked (as Black/Muslim/refugee/Latinx/immigrant/LGBTQI/differently abled/Asian and Native American/undocumented) and are in imminent danger. They equivocate at the thought and reality of losing kin, and at probable discomfort and pain; and in that interjacent space of equivocation, they reconstitute and re-enflesh that ghost of a past that is not yet past.
White people are searching for ways to show solidarity to people of color and some have landed on the performative symbol of wearing a safety pin. Symbols are important and a safety pin is not enough. A safety pin is a temporary fix for a rend in the fabric. One must be willing to say this is abhorrent. One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. One must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin.
Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship. Kinship relations structure the nation. Capitulation to their current configurations is the continued enfleshment of that ghost.
Refuse reconciliation to ongoing brutality. Refuse to feast on the corpse of others. Rend the fabric of the kinship narrative. Imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice.