Biko Mandela Gray is assistant professor of religion at Syracuse University. He writes and thinks about the relationship between race, religion, and subjectivity, particularly as it relates to questions of embodiment and ethics. He has co-edited a forthcoming volume entitled The Religion of White Rage and is currently finishing his manuscript Black Life Matter, which turns to the lives stolen by state-sanctioned violence as a commentary on Western philosophical subject-formation.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard I can’t breathe.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, though. After all, anti-blackness suffocates. It is suffocating. It drains the very life-force of blackness, the life-force that is blackness, in order to sustain the violence of this world. You don’t need a noose (although some people are now turning to them). An arm, or perhaps a knee, will do.
But we are also suffocated by narratives of “progress.” We run away; a president reluctantly signs a piece of paper. We march, speak out, and protest; the country passes a set of laws. We are targeted by a “war on drugs”; Barack Obama is elected. Each time, we’re told we’re much better off than we were before. But this narrative isn’t about “being better off.” Or, put differently, this narrative is about this country being better off. Blackness still dies. Black people still die. Black people are made to be acutely aware of their imminent death. There is only this long, slow vicious cycle. Suffocation.
These narratives of progress are all the more suffocating because they are diffuse and recalcitrant. They are too widespread. And they appear unbreakable. We cannot shake them; they are the symbolic justification for our demise.
There’s something eerily religious about this logic. It feels, well… Christian. The late James Cone once wrote that “the cross and the lynching tree interpret one another,” and he was right. There is something about the way this country lynches and kills black people for its own salvation that feels Christological in the worst way. Maimed, burned, bitten, hosed, hung, shot, and—yes—choked, U.S. history is one of a country killing its own inhabitants (I wouldn’t dare say “citizens”) in the name of its own “progress.” “Martyrdom” is forced upon us; we do not choose it.
This logic of sacrifice, of forced martyrdom, is a philosophical, theological, and literary problem. Philosophers like William Jones and Lewis Gordon call it “theodicy.” Theologians like Anthony Pinn call it “redemptive suffering.” And writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky described it as a wager: Would you sacrifice one person to save the entire world? For this country, the answer is yes—always, and without question. And the number isn’t “one”; it’s many. This country suffocates and sacrifices blackness, black life—black lives—for its own good. Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are only the most recent names on a list too long to recite. (Some of these names this country doesn’t even know: Islan Nettles, Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson.) And, having done the sacrificial work, the country then awaits the benefits.
On the one hand, there’s a benefit in knowing that there are “good” cops who aren’t like the “bad” ones. We know the “bad” ones because they are the ones who do the shooting, the maiming, the choking. They are the Derek Chauvins of the world. As a result, people advocate for training reforms and revised use of force policies; people push for making all cops “good” cops. It doesn’t matter that one of the origins of policing in this country is slave patrolling. Neither does it matter that cops are rarely held accountable—even within this particular justice system. So, no one acknowledges that “bad” cops are actually doing what they’re supposed to do; they are never held accountable because they were carrying out the justice of this world. In fact, some of them even get new jobs. In a weird and violent twist, then, the “bad” cops turn out to be the good ones. And the “reforms” only strengthen their resolve.
There are other benefits, too—symbolic and moral ones. There’s catharsis in coming to terms with black death. Educational institutions release statements about how they “reject racism of any kind” while underpaying, overworking, and tokenizing their black faculty and students. Apple, Amazon, Uber, Lyft, Starbucks, and other corporations play at racial justice while underpaying, overworking, and in some cases firing their workers. Political leaders kneel with kente cloth stoles while refusing to provide relief for black people disproportionately dying from a global pandemic. And Joe Biden said earlier this week, “Even Dr. King’s assassination did not have the worldwide impact that George Floyd’s death did.” The impact is the benefit. And the others? Breonna Taylor? Tony McDade? They’re just noise. They don’t even rise to the level of consideration.
This is the theodicean and theological logic that structures the antiblackness of this country. This logic is as old as philosophical theology; it comes from an attempt to justify the goodness of God in the face of insurmountable and incontrovertible evil. God has always been a controversial figure. But when the state becomes God, when it kills black people in the name of its own goodness, then things, as Frantz Fanon once said, “take on a new face”: The very appearance of blackness becomes cause for lethal action.
This is the logic. It is philosophical. It is theological. It is religious.
Sometimes, religious reflection provides hope. Other times, in this case, it can provide perspective.
Don’t underestimate perspective. Different perspectives offer different possibilities. This is what I see happening right now: Even if they do not have the language, so many black people across the country are seeing this theodicean theo-logic for what it is and are saying no to it. The protests, direct actions, and calls for abolition are loud no’s to the anti-black theology and theodicy that animates and sustains this country—this world.
These refusals, then, are also religious. They are eschatological; they are, as Vincent Lloyd writes in his contribution to this forum, calls for the end of this world. They are visionary; they are expressions of what Ashon Crawley might call “otherwise possibilities”—right here in the present. They are expressions of loving, caring, laughing, dancing, and mourning black flesh; they are enactments of Toni Morrison’s Clearing in Beloved.
This country—this world—may need sacrifice.
But there are many of us who are already living something beyond what this world needs.
Here, in this here place, we flesh. Love it. Hard.