“Without community there is no liberation, no future, only the armistice most vulnerable and temporary between me and my oppression.” Audre Lorde to Tony Morrison
Toni Morrison is one of the writers who wrote the most about ‘the home and racial justice’. In her emblematic novel Beloved, set in the post-Civil War South, she tells the story of a young girl murdered by her formerly-enslaved mother, Sethe. Sethe is importantly surrounded by the unheimlich (Freud), the stranger, where the foundations of our ethical judgment on slavery are found. In the United States, in the period 1882 to 1895, approximately one-third to half of the average black mortality rate corresponded to children under the age of five (Bhabha, 2002). We face the dilemma of judging these acts.
Sethe, in an act of love, kills her daughter Beloved to avoid her master’s appropriation of her daughter. Sethe was a pariah in the post-slavery society of the United States. She knew from when she was a slave what it meant for a woman to have her children taken when her breasts were full of milk; that she would have been beaten to exhaustion for others to take her milk. She was raped by her master, as was the case for many of the slaves of Sweet Home; that name itself being a mockery of a plantation that was held under a system of slave laws that collaborated on that tragic fate. If a female slave escapes, there is a double loss; the capacity for reproduction and for manual labor. The slave society must permanently produce new slaves for reproduction (Bidaseca, 2010).
Sethe insistently repeats:”It wasn’t a story to share. They forgot it like a nightmare (…) What should be forgotten before it is shared; what should be hidden and silenced as to not interrupt our present?”. I wondered in my book Perturbando el texto colonial. Los estudios poscoloniales en América Latina (2010): “This is not an easy story to transmit” but it needs to, as says Bhabha (2002), so that it may be engraved in our subconscious.
Morrison reflected on ‘home and race’ this way:
I prefer to think of a world in which race is not, in fact, important. I don’t think of a theme park, a failed dream that will always fail, or the paternal house with its many rooms. I conceive of it as a home. For three reasons. First, because making a radical distinction between the metaphor of the house and that of the home helps me clarify what I think about racial construction. Second, because it allows me to take the concept of the insignificance of race and turn it away from longing and desire, to turn it away from an impossible future or from an irrecoverable and probably non-existent past, to bring it closer to a manageable and feasible human activity. Third, because the job I can do is to eliminate the strength of racial construction in language. I can’t wait for the great theory of liberation to come in, define its operation and do its job. Likewise, both race and home issues are a priority in my work and have led, in one way or another, to my quest for sovereignty, as well as my abandonment of that quest I have barely recognized its disguise. (Lecture at Princeton University, 1994)
A similar approach is that of bell hooks’s (1990) Yearning. Race, gender and cultural politics where “Homeplace” is conceived as a site of resistance and a space to fight for liberation against white racism. In her words, “since sexism delegated women the task of creating and caring for a home, it was the primary responsibility of black women to build domestic homes as spaces for care against brutal racist oppression and sexist domination. Historically, African-Americans gave the construction of homeplace a radical political dimension” (p. 43).
In the context of the ongoing pandemic, the home has been transformed into the world. In the face of growing neo-apartheid racial injustices, the anti-racist feminist politics that ancestrally battled from the home is the source of inspiration for today’s resistance. Recently, they aroused global awareness of movements such as #BlackLivesMatter in the United States and the African Refugee Union’s “We Are Born Free!”, along with others from the European Network for the Peoples of Africa and the Afro-Diaphoretic Women from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Global Black power is reborn with Afrofuturism, “a way to unite the future with the past and help reinvent the experience of people of color,” said Ytasha L. Womack. Her intertextual and performing languages – science fiction; African cosmologies; music – condenses “the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and imagination,” she says. For Achille Mbembe (2016), the idea is “to free the racialized body from colonial and world trauma and from the weight of racism and revenge”, a project inspired by the “Gateway of No Return” (Gorée, Senégal) and the “tout-monde” (Edouard Glissant) of the exiles of racial capitalism thrown into the “zone of non-being” (Fanon, 1970).
The question of which experiences occur in our postcolonial collective body during the pandemic opens us to new reflections: How difficult is it to think outside the sphere of typical Western philosophy and aesthetics? How do we decolonize the aesthetic imaginary and dismantle the racist images that persist? Citing the performative writing of the African-American poet Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, so how do we then build a global power of minority brotherhoods and sisterhoods that can tear down the master’s house?
The Cry – Black Lives Matter!
“We Can’t Breathe”: the last words of George Floyd became a cry throughout the world. “Look at the Black man! He was ‘a Black man’ and admitted it (…). But he also had to admit that this treatment was evil. It was necessary to plead it, to confess it: he was guilty of being Black; to tell before the world that this ‘fact’ was a curse, this ‘fact’ a destiny, this Blackness an essential ‘defect’”, said Fanon (2009).
His death, captured on video, sparked widespread protests in the United States, which called for an end to police brutality against Black communities and people. At the sanctuary of North Central University, Minneapolis (Minnesota), a mural with the face of George Floyd was installed with the words “Now I Can Breathe” next to the names of other victims of racial violence in the United States. The world mobilizes behind these slogans against structural racism. “Black Lives Matter!”, they scream.
After mass demonstrations in the cities, monuments of slavers and racists were torn down: in Indianapolis, Indiana; Rocky Mountain, North Carolina; in Roanoke and Norfolk, Virginia, they are in the process of removal. In Richmond, the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was demolished. “Jefferson Davis was a racist and traitor who fled our city while his troops were carrying orders to burn it,” mayor Levar Stoney said.
Two years earlier, the statue of Dr. James Marion Sims had been lowered from his pedestal in Central Park in New York. Dr Sims is known in the United States as the father of modern gynecology and practiced medicine in a slave community in Alabama between 1835 and 1849, carrying out operations on dozens of slaves without anesthesia. He then moved to New York, where she founded the first women’s hospital in 1855. He pioneered fistula intervention and also invented the speculum and other medical instruments currently in use. Activists have reported for years that his achievements were based on experiments with “African-American slaves”.
The Cry can be traced back to even an earlier period: the New York State negotiating the abolition of slavery in 1799 and emancipating all slaves on July 4th, 1827. John Dumont, a slave master who rejected the emancipation of the enslaved, illegally sold Sojourner Truth’s 5-year-old son Peter to an Alabama man. Truth, later known for the famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, took the matter to court and got Peter’s return. This case was one of the first in which a Black woman successfully challenged a white man in a U.S. court. Sojourner Truth dedicated her life to Methodism and the abolition of slavery, writing her memoirs in 1850 through dictation, as she could not read or write, and in the same year speaking at the first National Convention on Women’s Rights in Worcester, Massachusetts. She began traveling with the abolitionist George Thompson, and spoke to crowds about slavery and human rights.
The movement crossed the “Black Atlantic”, as Paul Gilroy put it. “Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulled down a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and rolled it through the streets before unceremoniously throwing it into the River Avon.” The same was seen with the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which started as early as 2015 in South Africa with the post-apartheid generation organizing the first student protest for the decolonization of knowledge at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of the many remnants of the colonial and apartheid past, had stood since 1934 at UCT and was the center of a debate that encompassed the consequences of the neoliberal model. The movement coincided with the emergence of the cyber movement #PatriarchyMustFall, spearheaded by actions of feminists and people from the queer community who demanded the fall of patriarchy to carry out such a task. Hate crimes and homophobia in the lives of South African Black lesbians, notably the rise of so-called corrective rapes, are practices of extreme violence faced by the community. What they called a process of “healing” began.
COVID-19 and the Cry: Inequalities and Vulnerabilities for Afro-Descendant Populations
COVID-19 has a different impact among Afro-descendant and Latino/a/x populations in the United States, Brazil, and other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Afro-descendants are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. See below the case for Brazil (Cepal Covid19 Report, 2021)
In New York City, mortality rates were twice as high for Black populations as they are for white. In Brazil, 1 in 3 Afro-descendants admitted into a hospital die (compare with only 1 in 4.4 for white people) (Muniz, Fonseca, Pina, 2020). The spread of Coronavirus in Brazil was also much faster in Black neighborhoods.
In addition, there is the issue of statistical invisibility in official information when it comes to the impact of COVID-19 among Afro-descendants in Latin America. The Inter-American Network of High Authorities on Policies for Afro-Descendants (RIAFRO) has recently highlighted both how “the information available on the impact of COVID-19 among Afro-descendants in Latin America is virtually nil” and “the importance of improving the quality of information differentiated by race and ethnicity to improve the responsiveness of governments.”
With health systems collapsing, social distancing is simply not possible in places where the informal economy is a source of survival and is carried out in public space. The alternative is to go back ‘home’
The Home: Communities of Care
Audre Lorde wrote in “Cancer Diaries” in 1980 remembering her home while in the hospital battling against breast cancer:
At home this year we are celebrating the Kwanzaa Festival, the African-American harvest festival that begins the day after Christmas and lasts seven days. There are seven Kwanzaa principles, one for each day. The first principle is Umoja, which means unity, the decision to work for and maintain unity of itself and the community. The principle from yesterday, the second day, was Kujichagulia: self-determination, the decision to define ourselves, give us a name ourselves, and speak for ourselves, rather than being defined and described by others. Today is the third day for Kwanzaa, and the beginning for today is Ujma: collective work and responsibility, the decision to build and keep us together ourselves and our communities, and to recognize and solve our problems together.
Today, Brazil’s favelas organize their own fight against coronavirus. The movement of the virus to South America showed that these neighborhoods could have been devastated. The virus has disproportionately affected Brazil’s poor favelas, mostly Black ones. In São Paulo, people living in poorer areas and getting the virus are up to 10 times more likely to die than people in rich areas, according to data published by the city’s health department. Afro-descendant residents of São Paulo are 62 percent more likely to die from the virus than white residents in general. However, favelas are a great source of activism and resistance. Abandoned by government services, the Washington Post notes that communities have created parallel institutions—including mail, the Internet, and sanitation—and are working on health and education systems.
One of the alternatives that women in the Paraisópolis neighborhood of São Paulo developed was the “Presidents of the Street” program to monitor and curb the spread of the virus. “We decided to create alternatives so that if the government did not do its job, we could mobilize to prevent suffering in the community,” a favela’s resident said. In the Complexo do Alemáo favela of Rio de Janeiro, a database was created to track the disease. The community residents’ association of Cantagalo in Rio joined a local non-governmental organization to spray disinfectant. Also, Julian Carmo, a twenty-year old resident, partnered with other youngsters to map and fight the fake news related to virus (that warm climates would curb the coronavirus and that donated masks were contaminated with the virus). They also produced a video that addresses the most common misinformation and established a hotline to help people.
Community-based action is the key: “Without the community there is no liberation,” explained Audre Lorde.
Karina Bidaseca is a Principal Researcher at CONICET/University of San Martin and Professor at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A version of this text was published in Boletín Nº 3 de CLACSO 23/7/2020. Photo: Audre Lorde. By K. Kendall.