For the past three years, I have taught a course entitled “#BlackLivesMatter and Religion.” The course is popular: I am a pretty good teacher, so the students are always engaged and, by the time we are done, they can articulate the religious dimensions of antiblackness, particularly when it comes to state-sanctioned violence. Many students—quite a few of whom are black women—find or strengthen their voices. Conversely, many nonblack students begin—but only begin—to detect the distinction between what we call “systemic racism” and the social ontology of antiblackness.
I have taught this course for three years. It has been successful, popular, relevant, and effective. By all external measures, the course is a success.
But after this year, I doubt I will teach it anymore.
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To explain why, perhaps it is best to describe how the class is structured. I break it up into two modules. The first module is organized around what I call the religion of whiteness. This module shows whiteness enacts antiblackness as a theodicy. Whiteness and white people justify themselves through the violence they enact against black people. The state and its actors adhere to the religion of whiteness. This religion is the geopolitical channel through which whiteness and white people justify themselves. This is why, for example, police are rarely indicted—let alone convicted—for killing black people. Their lethal violence is necessary for justifying the goodness of whiteness. (For those who are familiar with black religious studies, I turn to William Jones and Kelly Brown Douglas to do this.)
But here is why I will not teach this class anymore: the entire first module leads up to one day in which I show videos of state-sanctioned violence against black people.
I hate this day. And when I say I hate this day, I mean it. I say prayers before, during, and after class on this day. And before I show these videos in class, I encourage all of my black students to leave while demanding that all of my nonblack students stay.
No one ever leaves.
And then we watch.
If you are cringing right now, trust me: I am cringing as I write these words. Before 2020 though, I thought this day was necessary. I thought it was absolutely important for nonblack students to see the effects of their complicity. I thought it was fundamentally unethical to teach a class on the movement for black lives without directly attending to the violence that conditioned its emergence. They need to see this, I thought.
I was wrong.
Earlier this year, I stumbled upon this 2019 tweet from black studies scholar Katherine McKittrick. Description is not liberation—by which I take her to mean: describing violence and its conditions is not liberative.
I was unsettled by this tweet. As a phenomenologist, description is my primary method. But after I saw it, I could not unsee it. It became the lens through which I watched the DNC convention and the presidential debates. It filtered how I read articles about the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on black communities. Almost everywhere “black” or “African American” showed itself, sights and sounds of violence were nearby. “Trigger warnings” proliferated. Blurred images were played on repeat. All anyone was doing was describing violence. The “justice” conversation always and already stopped at brutal description.
And then, Joe Biden took the cake. In his DNC acceptance speech, he said: Maybe George Floyd’s murder was a breaking point.
It hit me: Not only is description not liberation, I thought, but when all you do is describe, you enact a theodicy. You justify the very violence you are describing.
I was pissed. I never liked Biden or Harris anyway (and, perhaps to cover my bases, I should make it clear that the other person and that entire party are too evil to even comment on) but this was disgusting.
And then, I thought about my class. And I realized: I have been doing the same thing.
I had duped myself. I had unwittingly carved a theodicy out of stolen black life. Moreover, I had justified the importance of this theodicean course in the name of a misguided ethical premise. It was not necessary to put black death on display.
But why and how had I done this to myself—a philosopher, a scholar of black religion, of all people? I had read Saidiya Hartman, who, in her text Scenes of Subjection had made it clear that a certain kind of (admittedly liberal) sentimentality had turned brutal scenes of antiblack violence into a cause for an “empathy” that, in the end, would provide little to no solace for black people in this country. Hartman refused, on ethical grounds, to reproduce the scene of Aunt Hester’s beating in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative; if one has to rehearse this violence to spark some kind of empathetic response, then, in the end, such violence becomes necessary. Reproducing these scenes became the worst kind of trauma porn. Describing violence only helped to ease white consciences—which meant that, at the end of the day, the antiblack world needed suffering to both fuel its rage and its “progress.”
I had also read Hortense Spillers, who made it clear that this world needed to enact and rehearse violence on black flesh. I had read these people. I knew these things. And yet, here I was, rehearsing this violence. How did this happen?
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Part of why this oversight occurred is because of that hashtag in the title. Focusing on the hashtag may seem trivial but consider it: a hashtag—that hashtag—is more than a mere archiving device. Or, put differently, the archive that hashtag creates and sustains is one that puts antiblack violence on display. I had been reading McKittrick’s essay “Mathematics Black Life,” and I realized that #BlackLivesMatter—beyond the intentions of its creators—“puts pressure on our present system of knowledge by affirming the knowable (black objecthood) and disguising the untold (black human being).” The hashtag encourages description—brutal description. It conjures images of pierced flesh and wayward elbows (and I will not hyperlink any of these scenes). It invokes pictures, videos, and hot-takes of knees plugging throats and faceless bodies choking in their own spit. Beyond the intentions of its creators, that hashtag has become an index and archive of black death and antiblack violence. If that hashtag is trending, you can almost bet that someone died. And if that hashtag is trending with your name, chances are, you are probably dead.
I used the word “trending” intentionally. #BlackLivesMatter is popular—and this is no longer a good thing (maybe it never was). Because it trends so often, the hashtag does not simply “put pressure on our present system of knowledge,” it puts that pressure to really good use. The hashtag mathematizes, amplifies, and eventually economizes black death through its virulent proliferation.
In essence, the hashtag effaces the lives it is supposed to reference. #GeorgeFloyd or #BreonnaTaylor can be counted and enumerated, but they reference little more than stolen lives. They are now names added to a list and subsequently rehearsed in the name of the very deaths that brought these lives to our attention. Hashtags efface lives. They direct attention to the sights and sounds of symbolic, physical, and social death.
Hashtags do more than this, though. Having effaced these lives, they engender an antiblack utilitarian logic that directs our attention to blackness as dead or dying in order to cash in on it. And if you do not believe me, consider this: almost every American institution justifies its own goodness by using black lives (up). Mediocre politicians and proud cops use them to pave their path to white houses. Corporations use them to increase their profit margins. Celebrities use them to promote their own business ventures. They found and fund entire antiracism™ industrial complexes. And, yes, they are doubly brutalized by unwitting professors who dupe themselves into thinking that description alone is liberation.
All of this usefulness is religious. As I said before, theodicy is a structure of justification, and—according the crudest of utilitarian logics—usefulness justifies use. Hashtags, then, transmute black lives into mere sacrificial matter that gets used (up) to justify the goodness of everyone except those who were killed. (They might be martyrs, but they still “broke the law.”) In short, hashtags demonstrate that, beyond traditions and orientations, beyond theologies and rituals, American religion is a religion of antiblack utilitarianism.
I told you hashtags are more than hashtags.
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Please know that this is not a criticism of the movement or the various strategies and leaders—many of which and who are black feminist in orientation—who have engendered a profound, and profoundly black feminist, work of radical and critical care. It is, instead, a criticism of the violence of American religion—which, as 2020 has shown us, has everything to do with a utilitarian sacrificial logic that carves American “progress” and “safety” out of black flesh. As I have written elsewhere, George Floyd—and so many others—have become unwilling sacrifices.
But I can no longer stop at the analytic—which is to say, the descriptive—level. I must go further than describing that logic. And this is why that class, especially the first half, has to go.
But I might save the second module of the course—where we focus on the movement for black lives as a modality of religious experience and expression, where care takes precedence. In that module, the students examine how stolen black lives are sacred—not because they make us better, but because they are still with us: they shape us beyond the violence. They still speak.
This does not mean that I am going to avoid the violence. The second half of the course is no rosier than the first. But instead of putting black death on display, it explores protests and marches as ritual celebrations, and highlights the movement of black flesh as a testament to the inestimable significance of stolen black lives as lives.
I might, then, teach a new class on black lives mattering. This one could be structured as a meditation on the ethics of caring for the dead who still speak. We might explore how to acknowledge the inescapable violence of antiblackness while tending to black life as exceeding it.
This is what I hear when McKittrick says: Trust the lies.
I also hear it when Christina Sharpe says: I had to take care.
But perhaps, I hear it loudest in Toni Morrison’s Sula, where the narrator chronicles Sula’s final moments. That description does not shy away from the violence, but it is also not content to stay there. Perhaps, then, it is best that I end this essay with excerpts from that scene:
Pain took hold. First a fluttering as of doves in her stomach, then a kind of burning, followed by a spread of thin wires to other parts of her body. Once the wires of liquid pain were in place, they jelled and began to throb . . .
Several times she tried to cry out, but the fatigue barely let her open her lips, let alone take the deep breath necessary to scream . . .
While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.
Sula felt her face smiling. “Well, I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”
Wait’ll I tell Nel.
I am looking forward to teaching again.