by Tryon P. Woods (11/6/2016)
It seems like a modest gift from the universe that those of us educators working in an abolitionist vein or out of a black studies tradition (and the latter is necessarily the former, although the converse is not always true) always have recourse to current events to illustrate or emphasize the concepts we are teaching on any given day. Long before the current campaign for U.S. President began to fester with accusations of gender and sex violence, I had planned to teach about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, using Wahneema Lubiano’s essay from the 1992 Toni Morrison-edited volume, Race-ing Justice, En-gender-ing Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality.[i] Reading Hill-Thomas in the midst of the latest diabolic election season makes the earlier moment seem curiously quaint—straightforward, even, in its sexual racism. Of course, as the contributors to the Morrison volume are at pains to reveal, one person’s wealth of clarity is another person’s regimented scarcity.
For Lubiano, Hill-Thomas underscores the lesson of reading state narratives and deciphering the cover stories in which power masquerades as something it’s not. One kind of white power—the lynching narrative and the trope of the emasculated black male—effectively displaced attention from Thomas the sexual harasser and from Thomas as agent provocateur of the civil rights backlash. Antiblack narratives of “welfare queens” and the “black lady” enabled another kind of white power: Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court. Lubiano leverages the insight that power is most operative precisely where it is least visible towards the recognition that it achieves its most efficient cover when hiding in plain sight. This seeming contradiction is made possible by the “interstice,” Hortense Spillers’ word for that critical term of language that is only present in its absence. As with grammar itself, this “missing word” serves as both the condition of possibility for speech and the subject about which we talk routinely—and which shares, “in this case, a common border with another country of symbols—the iconographic.”[ii] Pathological blackness is the interstitial iconography that is rent across the narratives Lubiano exposes as essential to how stories of racial progress, injured masculinity, and mythic individualism effectively covered for the sexual racism of Thomas’ confirmation.
Cover stories seem to be particularly the order of the day during election cycles. In reference to the rise of Barack Obama and Deval Patrick to the presidency in 2008 and to Governor of Massachusetts in 2006, respectively, Joy James demonstrated that black “success” does not in any way displace the discourse of black pathology, but rather is made possible by it.[iii] The 2016 campaign for president is thus staying the course, despite the impression that with Trump-Clinton things have gotten out of hand. Recall that, from the perspective of black struggle, things have been out of hand, as it were, since at least the time of the first U.S. presidential election, when the slaveholding class anointed one of their own to oversee the consolidation of what Gerald Horne argues is properly understood as the American counter-revolution against the enslaved. The colonists famously presented their cause as revolutionary because it sought to throw off the shackles of enslavement—when in fact, their resistance was counter-revolutionary in that it endeavored to keep the shackles on the Africans, even at pains of war with their European motherland, which at the time was moving towards abolishing the slave trade while the North American colonists remained steadfastly committed to it. Horne surmises that George Washington was at least as concerned with policing the rebellious slaves on his plantation at Mount Vernon as he was with leading the nascent nation, noting that “by 1764, he owed one of his London creditors a still hefty eighteen hundred pounds sterling and certainly had an incentive to both preserve his slave property and escape from the Crown which seemed to be calling it into question.”[iv] The same observation would also apply to Thomas Jefferson, whose personal debts were far more substantial than Washington’s, and to the Founding Fathers as a class.
The point, then, of considering election season through the abolitionist politic of black studies—from Lubiano to Spillers to James to Horne—is not the humdrum one that presidential candidates cannot be taken at their word, but rather that containing black self-determination remains essential to campaign cover stories into the twenty-first century. In 2016, once again, sexual violence and sexual racism hide in plain sight, with blackness the interstitial element. Donald Trump attempted to deflect scrutiny of how he has used his business ventures to prey on women and girls by accusing Bill Clinton of serial rape and Hillary Clinton of covering it up. Trump references allegations which have been levied against the Clintons going back over four decades—which is not to minimize the accusations as dated, but rather to emphasize that present behaviors are deep-seated.[v] No one listens to Trump, however, because the cover story of sexual violence is a male chauvinist acting boorishly, not the savvier political operations of the Clinton franchise. This failure of admission to the full breadth of sexual violence is not unlike how the ideology of colorblindness holds up the rabid white supremacist as the archetype of racism, and in so doing, obscures, minimizes, and normalizes the mundane realities of racist violence today. With Trump-Clinton, then, the sexual racism hides in plain sight.
Although officially the Clintons continue to escape liability for their long list of transgressions, from the serial sexual violence, to Whitewater, Travelgate, Troopergate, Filegate, and the death of Vince Foster; to the Clinton Foundation, the private email server, and the FBI’s non-investigation—the weight of evidence in the public record paints a different picture.[vi] That the eleventh hour obstacle to the Clintons’ 2016 campaign came by way of the sexual vulturine behavior of Anthony Weiner is both poetic and true to form for the Clintons—as Janine Jones put it, “an apple tree that grew in the Clinton orchard.”[vii] Even this latest development simply augments the cover story, however, if we fail to indict the Clintons as prototype for the sexual violence of a civilization for which these latest headlines are an unremarkable feature, and not a deviation or a corruption. Greg Thomas has written that “sexuality is academically, analytically coded to mean what colonizers do to themselves for pleasure, not what they do to the colonized for purposes of pain, pleasure, or politics.”[viii] With respect to the Clintons, what this means is that their record of pursuing policies that (1) quarantine black and brown power; (2) pathologize black people as violent degenerates, criminals, and sexual deviants, and (3) capitalize the accumulation of black bodies and territory represents one side of this society’s erotic practices.[ix]
The Clintons’ use of blackness for sexual pleasure, political control, and cultural clout illustrates the other side of this civilization’s erotic use of blackness. Bill Clinton was notorious for grabbing pieces of black culture to cover the way in which he was otherwise wantonly possessing and using black bodies.[x] In The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power, and beyond, Thomas shows how sexualities are formulated, ritually propounded, and thought about as “race”—or rather, in the service of a global historical traffic in white supremacy and antiblackness. Clinton’s use of black popular culture, in other words, and his exploitation (monetarily and culturally) of the Haitian people, is an expression of sexual violence that presents itself in racial terms: Clinton the “first black president”; or, Clinton the “global humanitarian.” The Clintons’ prosecution of black “super-predators” was equally an expression of the capacity of white people to name, pursue, and capture black people as if they were personifications of sexual violence threatening the very foundation of civilization. The current Clinton campaign has run a television advertisement in South Carolina featuring the husband of one of the victims of the mass murder at the Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015.[xi] In the immediate aftermath of the Charleston shooting, Clinton gave a speech at a black church near Ferguson, MO, where Black Lives Matter emerged onto the national stage during the protests over the killing of Michael Brown and the routine harassment of black residents by local police. In the black church, Clinton stated “all lives matter,” drawing the ire of her black audience.[xii] A month later, after her Democratic Party opponents had been thoroughly exposed for their racism, Clinton averred, “Yes, black lives matter.”[xiii] The thin veneer of the Clintons as the anti-racist alternative to Trump is waylaid by the deep-seated centrality of fungible blackness to the Clintons’ success.
About the author: Tryon P. Woods is Associate Professor of Crime & Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Adjunct Lecturer of Africana Studies at Brown University, and author of the forthcoming book Blackhood Against the Police Power: Punishment and Disavowal in the “Post-Racial” Era (Illinois).
[Cover image: “Bill Clinton and his sax visit Arsenio,” June 3, 1992 – via Today in TV History.]
[i] Wahneema Lubiano, “Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means,” in Toni Morrison, ed., Race-ing Justice, En-gender-ing Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Social Construction of Reality (New York: Pantheon, 1992).
[ii] Hortense Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: Chicago, 2003), 156; P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods, “Upgrade and Upstage: Injunctions Against Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, ‘Black Feminism,’ and Hip Hop Studies at the Ledge,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 27(3) September 2015.
[iii] Joy James, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 108, no. 3, (Summer 2009): 459-481.
[iv] Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York: NYU, 2014), 19.
[v] I am indebted to Deborah Bowen for sharing her research on the Clintons and for insisting that there is more there to take seriously as crimes against blackness (and thus, against humanity) than even what meets the eye.
[vi] Utrice Leid has exhaustively reported during the present election cycle on the Clintons’ criminal and ethical problems. See her interviews with the independent investigative researcher Charles Ortel; Kim Ives, editor in chief of Haiti Liberte; and Haitian journalist Dady Chery, author of We Have Dared to Be Free: Haiti’s Struggle Against Occupation, at www.leidstories.podbean.com.
[vii] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/29/us/politics/fbi-hillary-clinton-email.html; Janine Jones, “The Pitfalls of Being the Best Black Surrogate a White Woman Could Hope For,” Abolition, November 3, 2016, https://abolitionjournal.org/pitfalls-best-black-surrogate-white-woman-hope/.
[viii] Greg Thomas, The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power: Pan-African Embodiment and Erotic Schemes of Empire (Bloomington: Indiana, 2007), 23.
[ix] The supporting evidence is too lengthy to list in full here. On each of the three points identified, see for example: (1) Voting Rights Act violations by Governor Clinton and lawsuits against his racial profiling directives for Arkansas State Troopers; (2) criminal justice expansion, welfare reform, and the evisceration of the economic and educational bases in black communities (and throughout the nation) through neoliberal restructuring; (3) Clinton Foundation’s exploitation of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti into a multi-billion dollar “charity fraud.” See Utrice Leid’s extensive interviews with Charles Ortel at www.leidstories.podbean.com; and Dady Chery, “Clinton Disaster Fundraising: Predatory Humanitarianism?” News Junkie Post, May 20, 2016, http://newsjunkiepost.com/2016/05/20/clinton-disaster-fundraising-predatory-humanitarianism/. Also see the 1990 Supreme Court decision in Bill Clinton, et al. vs. M.C. Jeffers, et al., available here: https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/osg/briefs/1990/01/01/sg900402.txt.
[x] Reports of Clinton’s alleged use of black prostitutes abound. See, for example, Dolly Kyle, Hillary: The Other Woman (Washington, DC: WND, 2016). The 1998 Hollywood film Primary Colors fictionalizes Clinton’s alleged use of black women.