Distinctions of humanness and the ongoing colonial project

I’ve been rereading Sylvia Wynter’s epic piece, Unsettling the coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom, and it has me unsettled and unsettling the ways in which Marxist/capitalist-based understandings of societal inequity must interface with racialized stratification. One of Wynter’s deeply intricate and historically supported points is that far more impactful than labor and economic structure is the fundamental designation of who can be human, who is merely man, and the overrepresentation of these differences, twisted and stretched to define all existence. Human is designated as being closer to God, to Christian God, and inherently better, smarter, more worthy. Man is ultimately and completely defined as a political subject of the state, and his/her rights and punishments are delineated almost solely through adherence to the rules of the state. These designations are fundamental to the colonial project – how can you own another, claim their land and their bodies as yours if you don’t claim higher form? Wynter does not dabble in the genealogies of these large scale knowledge projects for domination – she is thorough and unflinching in linking dense theoretical concepts together that have been dysfunctionally strewn into different disciplines as part of the colonial project. This means, for me, reading her work stretches my Western educated brain, making me wrestle not just with what she is saying but how much the working categories in my ontology have to loosen themselves to keep up with her analysis. Part of her points became clear[er] to me while I was watching two films recently, All is Lost and Fruitvale Station. I was on a long flight and watched them back to back. Across those two films is an almost crystalline manifestation of human vs. man.

First, I watched All is Lost, the man vs. himself/nature pic where Robert Redford utters maybe five words total. Then I watched, for a second time, Fruitvale Station, the biopic of Oscar Grant’s last day on this planet. To be sure, popular culture texts do not equate smoothly with material reality, but stories matter because they refract to us, in part, who can be sentient, be human, and who cannot.

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All the main character in All is Lost had to do to be human was show up and be white. Male was a bonus. As was wealthy.  We have no explanation of how he arrived to be by himself on a swish yacht, using MacGyver-like ingenuity to avoid potential seemingly sure peril time after time. Further, he didn’t need to be shown in relation to anyone, as a father/partner/son/brother. Or to any state laws. Just being himself on the screen sufficed. In fact, the film in many ways gives this character a deity-like level of control over his own destiny and future, echoing the colonial and imperial supremacy-based claims to owning others. Now, this doesn’t mean he didn’t experience suffering or hardship, but that in fact, this hardship was more immediately connective for the viewer because his humannness and worth were never in question.

In Fruitvale Station, the filmmakers demonstrated the inherent humanity of Oscar Grant by texturizing his life through all of those societal connections. We learned about his relationship to the law, to labor and employment, to school. We learned about his relationships to many of the loved ones in his life. We also watched Imagehow he was understood by complete strangers, for good and bad. All of this, I believe on the part of the filmmakers, was to show that he was human: loving, loved, flawed, hopeful. Human. And I believe they succeeded resoundingly. I defy anyone to watch Fruitvale Station and not feel their heart shredded not because Oscar Grant was an angelic model but moreso because he was three dimensionally human.

The endings of both stories are completely apt to the premises of who is worth saving and who is disposable. Sorry if you had your heart set on All is Lost and being surprised, but you should spend your money elsewhere anyway. Beyond the poetics of those endings, there are also the lessons to be learned in what little information and texture was needed for the filmmakers of All is Lost to successfully, at least for most if not ll viewers, establish empathy and care for a human absent state or relational designations. Simply put, the character is accepted point blank as human and worthwhile by showing up and being white. On the other hand, the makers of Fruitvale Station deftly used all of those relations to lift up Oscar Davis as a man, and perhaps even, as a human. The lesson is in who had to do what to speak to larger societal working definitions of humanity.

Analysis of media texts is often criticized as a deconstructive exercise that does not necessarily hold any material impact for the stark inequities in life. Fair enough, but with such widespread and interlocking versions of who is considered human and who is considered merely a subject of the state, media texts offer a pedagogical portal through which we can raise up these deep and overarching governing principles in society. They display a politics of worth and innocence that we often capitulate to without pause. In the aftermath of the latest state sanctioned violence on young Black boys and girls, there is often a response that lifts up the innocence and worth of the slain person. These politics of worth and innocence, while understandable, have a relatively short reach in demanding what it means to be sentient, to be human.  As much as I appreciate the twitter hashtag of dangerousblackboys, for example, black boys are human, and that is all we need to know in many ways. In fact, refusing to offer details of their worth and innocence is a way of refusing the politics of innocence linked to inclusion whose terms have already been set by a state built on colonial project of anti-blackness.

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2 thoughts on “Distinctions of humanness and the ongoing colonial project

  1. Your post reminded me of two things. First, please forward me Wynter’s article (:-). Second, it is so refreshing to be in a place for a time where the humanity of Black people is without question and where a hashtag like dangerousblackboys is without meaning. A group of males walking on the University of Ghana’s campus with a pit bull, or along Oxford street hanging out drinking beer or trying to catch a taxi, or any number of other ways they gather in large numbers or walk alone is absolutely normal. No fear, no tightness, no pulling of purses closer to the body. What it must mean to these boys and young men to feel safe in their bodies.

  2. Forwarding! No doubt and should be available to all racially minoritized people – to journey to some place where that process has no traction and no grounding. We can assign all the readings we want in our classes to teach that race is a social construct, but to experience the vacuum of that social location that defines everything here? Priceless. Thank you.

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