As the nation has watched cultural upheaval around the matters of race, politics and religion, it is clear that Western civilization is in the midst of a turning point. A turning away from some of the traditional modalities that went accepted for decades, even centuries, around beliefs, behaviors and practices. A speech on race shortly following Ferguson seems myopic after the death of George Floyd. The givens around democracy and public life during the Obama-era seem Pollyanna after the election of Trump. Recent Pew Research polls let us know that for the first time in America, less than half of the population regularly attends church. Times are indeed changing.
Still, there are ways in which the institutions that govern our day-to-day life seem unchanged. Race is still a checkbox on most forms, police officers still disproportionately kill unarmed Black citizens compared to white ones, Black and brown folks disproportionately struggle with affordable housing and Black thought-leaders are primarily brought into predominantly white spaces to speak on the issue of race as if other abstract thoughts are beyond the reach of their minds due to their skin color. Gerrymandering still besets electoral power, the Democratic Party, at its core, still seems beholden to institutional powers and the GOP is an in-time case study of intellectual, moral and spiritual rot. White evangelicals dominate the arena of American religion, Islam is still viewed as the lowest of the Other to the Western world, Jews are still the targets of malicious attacks and the Black religious experience gets relegated to the crowded field of “race” broadly in America.
That is to say, for many melanated folks, we have one foot in a postmodern world and another shackled to modernity in the former world. To put it in a uniquely Christian context, so many of us are a people stuck in the middle of the Jordan river: modernity behind us, postmodernity in the front of us. This isn’t just a matter of transgressing borders and seemingly fixed boundaries, but actually about a bordered existence. Vegetation, sustenance and abundance are on both sides, but neither seem like welcoming places. Enslavement to the past in modernity, giants and a walled city of postmodernity in front of us.
As bell hooks noted in her 1994 essay “Postmodern Blackness,”
It is sadly ironic that the contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience, one that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge. If radical postmodernist thinking is to have a transformative impact then a critical break with the notion of ‘authority’ as ‘mastery over’ must not simply be a rhetorical device, it must be reflected in habits of being, including styles of writing as well as chosen subject matter.
In other words, far too much of the abstract thinking of Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard still suffers from the racial shackles forged in modernity; their white gaze didn’t allow them to see race in a way that affected them.
Part of this failure of the [white] fathers of postmodern thought is because the animating reasons for their incredulity at modernist metanarratives was and is not the same for Black Atlantic folks. It took World War II—the destruction of Europe, the Holocaust and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—for them to have the wake-up call that the preconceived notions about the way things were, were… well… not good. Black Atlantic folks, on the other hand, knew this for a certainty in the 17th century the moment enslaved Africans were delivered to Jamestown to work for no wages in perpetuity. And presumably, Africans on the west coast of Africa and indigenous people in the Caribbean and what is now South America knew this reality as early as the 15th century when the Portuguese built Elmina Castle in 1482, in what is now present-day Ghana.
It must be noted that the modern movements of Europeans establishing their control over land and people predates the intellectual era of such largely attributed to Rene Descartes famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” Again, for Black Atlantic folks, the era of realization around this matter was the amassed genocidal horrors of four centuries, not just the war of less than a decade.
Was the white gaze of Levinas, Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard so provincial that it circumvented the experience of an entire hemisphere? In short, the answer is a disappointing yes.
This matters to Black lives today because, for all intents and purposes, postmodernity mostly charts a path forward for whiteness. (I’m not referring to white folks in this description.) As a classmate noted recently, postmodernity is just a “crisis of whiteness.” A handful of mid-20th century thought-leaders woke up to the realization that, indeed, their shit carried a stench. A mild one. Not an over-powering one, but a smell nonetheless. Meanwhile, the Black Atlantic departed the land of modernity at the first opportunity realizing the land was sour, polluted from the rotten blood that stained the ground, the moulded bodies of their people massacred and the excrement of the colonial powers themselves.
So we, the Black Atlantic, find ourselves in the water of this Jordan river. Not just on the border, but in the border, embodied and in our minds.
We codeswitch when we need to talk to the folks on either side and adopt our own coded language with the folks who occupy the border with us. We speak the language of the travelers who traverse between the two worlds. Sometimes, if the weather is nice, citizens of either side spend time in the border with us, but more often than not, they realize in the rushing of the water, that being water-border-dwellers with us isn’t their lot in life and seek dry land on either shore.
Perhaps this resignation of mine is a result of my own aging and cynicism on the matter. My realization is that postmodernity ain’t the savior it seemed to be at one time. At best, postmodernity can save whiteness and only whiteness. But, the presidency of Donald Trump, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the depravity of white evangelicals routinely challenge the notion that whiteness is redeemable. Because we all have human agency, let me be clear, white people are redeemable. Having what we in the Western world perceive as white skin does not remove someone from redemption, but aligning with whiteness pushes the boundaries of said redemption. Thus, where does this leave the Black Atlantic water-border-dwellers?
I think the conclusion, not so much the answer, is more complex than it is comfortable. I think the easiest answer is that the Black Atlantic ought to walk into postmodernity and address the problem of race. Some have already done that, namely bell hooks and Cornel West have charted a path forward. But it isn’t the only path forward. Perhaps some may join them on that side and find meaningful existence. Perhaps another conclusion is one where the Black Atlantic folks make the existence in the water—in the border itself; a rejection of the binary that reclaims the pessimism that both sides offer. However, at least for now, one conclusion is for the Black Atlantic to see the border for what it is: a water way away. Who knows what the water holds? Who knows, truly, where the Jordan river begins and where it ends. Just because the promised land was promised doesn’t mean you have to accept the bargain.
As I see it, traveling down or up the river opens up the futuristic possibilities of places to live and find meaning in existence. There may be other people in these other lands who will open their homes to us. Or maybe, maybe we find land that is actually uninhabited and we create anew. New ways of being that aren’t erected as monuments of binary rejection, but stand on their own as symbols of new thoughts and renewed beingness.
Yet, in the present, we continue as water-border-dwellers. Our day-to-day task is to be Black and live caught between empires with dual citizenship carrying the hope that one day our children will build boats to carry us down the river, and hopes that we live to see the day when we can get on board as well.
Live and be well.