In Defense of Black Shock
Words by Brittany Carter
When Trayvon Martin's killer was acquitted, when our government left us to drown in a hurricane, when Mike Brown's killer was acquitted, when our government poisoned our water, when Walter Scott’s killer was acquitted, when our government deployed militarized police forces into our communities, when Freddie Gray’s killer was acquitted, when our government suppressed our votes, when Sylville Smith’s killer was acquitted, when our government gerrymandered our districts, when Terence Crutcher’s killer was acquitted, when our activists were blacklisted and harassed, when Philando Castile's killer was acquitted, when our neighbors elected Donald Trump, we simultaneously questioned how such atrocities could occur and swore that we were either numb or not surprised. Our generation, so publicly committed to historical knowledge and critical consciousness, seemed paradoxically caught unawares. An apparent lack of mental and emotional preparedness reflected in a frequently performed mix of bewilderment and indifference.
Cynical and jaded as we claim to be after all that our people have endured, what is the
nature of black shock? In this climate of the infinitely conscious (remember: we are
staying woke), where does it come from? How does it sustain itself? Is it absurd? Or
At the outset, what we know is that black people are human beings. We reserve to right to grieve and mourn and hang our heads no matter how much we have overcome. We are
entitled to experience and display emotions that appear superfluous. At the same time, the black radical tradition has always involved a communal wisdom which advises
against trusting in the conscience of the system in the first place. Black citizens nurture an awareness that others don’t, see things that others don’t, and hear things that others
don’t. Social and cultural perception are among the powers of the Other. Politically, this wisdom has been characterized by, in the words of historian Nikhil Singh, a recognition
of “the limits of U.S. nationalist traditions as a source for justice.” Civil rights, perhaps the most celebrated of those traditions, theoretically protect the freedoms of individuals, but consistently fail to address the oppression of black people as a group. It is this group
oppression that ensures black hardship. The individual rights of black people are constantly and arbitrarily called into question precisely because we exist in a social and political culture that accepts the segregation and exploitation of black communities as legitimate. That culture continues to thrive. Make a false move in close proximity to a
police officer, for example, and not only does it become clear that there are suddenly no rights to which a black individual is entitled, but relatively few of our fellow citizens will argue on our behalf. The obsession with providing legal recourse to individual black
people during moments of exceptional crisis deliberately avoids the bottom line of the black struggle and the crux of our demands— liberating an oppressed population. It is the difference between building a dam and drying up a reservoir. The former is not concerned with eliminating the source, only with preventing the floodgates from opening. Thus, the brazen inadequacy of this so-called democracy does not shock us, but the unrelenting carnage produced by it, especially in the midst of righteous black protest,
Implicit in the charge to stay woke is a criticism of dreaming. More precisely, a rejection of the delusions and deceptions that pose as progress. Much of this has to do with the fact that the two most prominent dreams in the mainstream political imagination — the American Dream and Dr. King’s Dream — have long been diluted by liberal integrationist
fantasy, obsessed with ideals like equality but thoroughly unconcerned with realities like justice. It is in this context that shock - a heightened state of disturbance — appears to be
not just a feature of, but a necessity to liberation. An indictment on both complacency and fancy, it is an intense reconciliation with the perversities of reality and the limitations of reformism. Rather than indicative of naïveté or false consciousness, black shock in the
age of social media –the practice of collective public mourning - is essential for reminding ourselves what is at stake. A key aspect of resistance is the unrelenting refusal
to temper anguish. When confronted with sensational coverage of the horrific, we instinctively recall the injustices of ordinary, everyday black life. During these moments, we collectivize martyrdom. We radically share our suffering again and again.
In a recent essay for the Boston Review, Anuli Raza Kolb explores the concept of pessoptimism as it relates to the condition of Arab life in the West, particularly in light of
the resurgence of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee sentiment. She describes it as “the inseparability of hope and despair, of desire and knowledge under untenable historical conditions.” Put another way, it is the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will. Expecting nothing, but fighting anyway. She takes for her subject
the protagonist of the Palestinian novel, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Saeed endures life on and across the borders of Israel by declaring horror at each event of
injustice with undiminished astonishment and undertaking an obsessive accounting of locations, names, objects, and facts under the constantly shifting conditions of violence, disappearance, repression, and surveillance. He necessarily compromises himself in the process of fighting for justice within the state (or system of states) he wishes to dismantle, but his hyperinvestment in the recitations of abuse ensures his survival. The Pessoptimist, then, is one who stays and survives in an inhospitable place not by overcoming pessimism and optimism, but by being deeply devoted to both. Needless to say, Kolb’s observation applies just as saliently to the black condition in America. We, too, insist on dwelling in the contradiction.
In each instance, black shock is a confrontation with the fact that we cannot get out. Indeed, we should not get out. While our origins are elsewhere, so are everyone’s. The
fact remains that we are foundational to this place. Our shock is the recognition that we must stay even though our staying has historically been comprised of defeat, uneasy
concessions, and limited joys. But it also signals a visionary commitment to the notion that the future can depart from the patterns of history. It is the defiant declaration that none of us will call our individual security triumph while there is collective insecurity. It is resounding noncompliance - a rejection of the attempts of an increasingly privatized
state to differentiate and privatize our suffering too. In the final analysis, our shock is our revolutionary impulse.