The Black Subaltern
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The Black Subaltern

An Intimate Witnessing

Shauna Knox

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The Black Subaltern

An Intimate Witnessing

Shauna Knox

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About This Book

In The Black Subaltern, Shauna Knox revolts against the construct of the decontextualized self, electing instead to foreground the complex and problematic lived experience of the Black subaltern. Knox offers an account in which Black humanity is flattened, desubstantialized, and lost in a state of perpetual in-betweenness, which she coins subjective transmigration.Over the course of this book, Knox weaves autobiographical vignettes featuring her own journey as a Jamaican migrant to the United States together with theoretical reflection in order to elaborate on the conditions of Black subalternity. She considers the dissolution and disappearance of the subaltern authentic self to be a prerequisite for acquiring access to society. Knox reflects that Black migrants, though rooted in a new country, still remain integrally engaged with their country of origin, and as such, ultimately find themselves in a purgatory of in-betweenness, inhabiting nowhere in particular.This book's innovative use of postformal autobiography to give voice to the Black subaltern provides students and researchers across the humanities, Black studies, diaspora studies, anthropology, sociology, geopolitics, development, and philosophy with rich material for reflection and discussion.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2022
ISBN
9781000602081

1Flattening

In this section of the book, through postformal autobiography, I explore the phenomenon of the psychosocial flattening of the Black subaltern subject. In her text, Black women, writing and identity: Migrations of the subject, Carole Boyce-Davies (2002) proposes the concept of a ‘flattened identity,’ drawing on a Saudi woman’s interview during the Gulf War in which she said “I resent not being able to drive an automobile more than I resent having to wear a veil.” Boyce-Davies points to the woman’s U.S. press-facing clarification of what truly inhibits her liberation, calling every witness beyond their imagined rendering of her domination into the fundamental truths of its reality. In the slippage that caused this exposure, Boyce-Davies investigates the “multiple significations of self-presentation and self-effacement,” “double-voicedness,” and the “motion between identities” as conscripts of “flattened identity.” I extend Boyce-Davies’s theorization of “flattened identity” beyond its re-negotiation between the subject and the other, in order to surveil the alterity that exists between the subject and the self. I analyze the internal reality of being flattened, scrutinizing the distortions and reductions of the subject that cause the self to lose dimension, deflate, and become pressed out. Beyond its defined designation as flattened identity, I investigate flatten[ing] as a condition of the colonized self, contemplating the implications of becoming a “spectator” to oneself, “crushed into a nonessential state” (Fanon, 2007).
In attempting this, I present 15 autobiographical vignettes, each of which features the multilayered experience of becoming flattened out elaborations which issue from the subjective locus. I attend deliberately to the intangible afflictions that issue from the flattening process, survey what metabolizes from it, and give voice to where it leaves the subaltern self. The accounts meticulously consider how the flattened Black subaltern subjectivity turns inward and regards itself, how it conceives of its own humanity, how it mediates the world’s projections of its sub-humanity, how it hardens, narrows, loses sight of self, endures the embezzlement of its access to its own empathy, and ultimately visits its infirmity on other Black subaltern beings. In order to reinflate that which has been flattened out within the subaltern subjectivity, I engage a politics of radical truth-telling and exposure, to release the hold of secrets Black subalterns are forced to keep and perform. In search of resuscitation, I chronicle the marvel of vacating the self, disclosing the terms of ugly bargains that only afford temporary stays of humanity, and offer visibility to the psychic devastation of subjective flattening as daily ritual.
I elucidate the poverty of thought and limitation on spirit that issues from an obligation to incessantly subvert the violent ignorance of Eurocentrism. I challenge the subjective instinct toward safekeeping, prodding at the morally reprehensible norms to which we have agreed if only to avoid the alternative, while attesting to the gradual yet demonstrable decay of self-betrayal. In a very practical sense, the Black subaltern must go numb and fixate on survival in order to stay alive. I illustrate the internal matrix of losing humanity as the subaltern subjectivity becomes remote from its selfhood. In these accounts of flattening, I read aloud the inscriptions of Blackness in their battle for significance within the imperialized body—conquered into respectability and an ethos of decorum that demands a deafening silence. I walk through the dynamics of the subaltern subjectivity, understanding itself as beast of burden, suffering the intrusion of Eurodominant civilizing impulses that prevent it from accessing authenticity for fear of complicit vulgarity. The translations of those interactions, intent on taming the subject out of its own validation, often meet proximate protest in the deep cultivation of internalized White supremacy, so that in a real sense, the Black subaltern is never really there. I address the castes of subalternity as deepened through the darkness of skin, the pursuit of passing into Whiteness and its privileges, and in-fighting between the hues. I discuss the true governance over Black subaltern bodies with flattened subjectivities, the implications of them existing for pleasure and curiosity in the world, and their fugitivity for refusing to die. In the naming of the unnamed and saying of the unsaid, this cannon breathes out new possibilities for subjective freedom for every flattened Black subaltern reader.

Falling Locs

The Virgo Family

In 2018, Dale and Sherine’s five-year-old daughter was denied the right to attend to the Kensington Primary School in St. Catherine, Jamaica, because her hair is locked. The public school claimed that her hair violates its institutional policy.
At the school’s orientation meeting, the principal told Sherine that children with locs are not permitted entrance for “hygiene” reasons—to purportedly “avoid outbreaks of lice.” Though the court handed down an injunction allowing the girl to attend the school temporarily, Kensington’s decision was ultimately upheld as constitutional, and the Virgos, officially denied, decided to homeschool their little girl.
Reading this story reminded me of the uncleanness I felt when my mother told me about her British-trained aunts’ contempt for her own hair. For years, before I had my own locs, my mother refused to perm my hair, so she used a texturizer in it—loosening my curls but not straightening them. One Saturday my father took me to his sister’s hairdresser, an Indian-Jamaican lady who straightened it all the way through. When he picked me up, he said, “This is the way I like your hair.” That day my hair reminded me of his sister’s daughters—it was not my hair. I wondered if he liked anything about me that was mine. I never asked.
I remember my time studying in South Africa fondly. But I remember less fondly the voice of my Indian-Zimbabwean thesis coordinator asking me if I would be washing my locs in my three-month stay. Too stunned to respond, I looked back at her, feeling the heaviness in my tongue paralyze me. She elaborated that the program had hosted Black female scholars before me who allegedly didn’t wash their hair, and she gesticulated wildly while she described their stench. She waited for me to smile into complicity, betraying the mirroring in me that reminded her of them. I did. I had wanted her to believe me—that I was clean in spite of my locs—but my treason would earn me neither that classification nor my humanity, only the emptiness in acknowledging my own defeat. She flattened me, and I allowed it.
I never understood why all the Black girls in those schools in Durban had shaved their heads, when all the girls of other races got to keep theirs. I was told that it was to protect them from infestations of lice. They were dirty too.

The Lost Language of Tenderness

My course to callousness was complicated and onerous. Before my first day of school in Jamaica, I had lived all six years of my life in the United States. I walked into a new world in that school building, with its jarring egg-green walls, the coldness of its shiny concrete floors, metal chairs, and wooden desks, accentuated by the unusual accents wafting over chests intentionally coated several times over with talcum powder. There were so many things I had never seen before. Prior to my first day, school meant reading corners, giant pillows, colorful carpets, glossy posters, and beautiful picture books. My teachers were different in Jamaica—they did not smile at me. Their eyes looked angry and remote, and I knew that if I was left with them, I’d get lost. My tears didn’t move them and no one hugged me. I was made to sit, made to regulate myself, made to stop “giving trouble”—the trouble of my crying was disconcerting to them. I was terrified. On my first day of school, I lost the language of my tears, and long before, my teachers had lost the language of their own tenderness—we were all surrounded by loss. I walked through the doors and somehow my feelings became a public nuisance, not a private right. Among them, my right to feel and express didn’t belong to me anymore—if I did that here, I was just a “naughty girl,” not a sad one. They made me obedient, and I made my feelings to obey me—I made them go away. On my first day of school, I learned that a “good Jill” can make herself stop feeling or pretend that she does not feel. I didn’t hit myself on the palm with two wooden rulers tied together as my teachers did, but I did push my pain inward in a way that felt just as violent as “Mr. Dickie.” Sadness wasn’t in our dissociative vernacular—at school we were obedient or we were punished for disturbing the unhealthy homogeneity we were never meant to escape. By my second day, I understood the purple boxes crawling all over me, crawling over all of us were there to remind us that we are not meant to be who we are. I often wonder, when my aunt looked into my eyes through the grillwork, could she see that my sadness was already gone for good?
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor released its Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor Report, indicating that even though 98.9% of the Jamaican population’s children are going to school, a significant number of obedient children aged 5 through 14 are also silently “engaging in the worst forms of child labor.” The US-DOL reports that “at the behest of parents or criminal leaders, referred to as ‘dons,’ [obedient children] are forced into commercial sexual exploitation. (1) Children also continue to be recruited by criminal organizations to engage in illicit activities, such as gang violence, guns and drug smuggling, and financial fraud, including lottery scamming (1; 13; 16). Child domestic workers may be subjected to domestic servitude, and some children are subjected to forced begging.” The cost of being refused their feelings and thereby refusing to feel is that without feelings, we are less than human and can be made to do anything. If society fails to see every human as a feeling being, some humans will be made more vulnerable to abuse. The colonized society dehumanizes its children because it is a place in which humanity cannot survive.

Docile Black Breasts

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