As part of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum, we interview scholars about a recent article they’ve written for either an academic journal or popular publication. We ask these scholars to discuss their article, as well as some of the books that have most influenced them.
This week’s featured scholar is Adam Bledsoe. Bledsoe is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota. His article “Neither Ground on Which to Stand, nor Self to Defend: The Structural Denial (and Radical Histories) of Black Self-Defense.”
Roberto Sirvent: In your article, you argue that U.S. law has historically “prohibited Black self-defense.” Can you share why this topic is especially relevant in today’s political climate?
Adam Bledsoe: Throughout (hemispheric) American history, Black actors have relied on different forms of self-defense to be able to pursue a variety of political goals and protect their communities from always-present forms of anti-Black violence. Because anti-Blackness is not an episodic phenomenon, but rather a structuring logic in the modern world, Black self-defense remains vital today, and will remain vital as long as anti-Blackness underpins the dominant relations that make up our world. Today, we see anti-Black violence take a variety of forms that have increased in concrete terms over the past half decade or so, with hate crimes committed against Black individuals growing over the past few years, and police violence continuing to disproportionately affect Black people. These are reason enough to highlight the continued importance of organized and individualized forms of Black self-defense. However, we are also living through a moment in which the most high profile demands currently put forward by Black political actors—such as abolishing the police—entail serious challenges to the political, economic, and psycho-social status quo of the world we live in. Historically, such radical demands are met with forms of violence meant to reinforce discursive and material forms of anti-Blackness in society. We can think of the intensification of white paramilitary organizations following Black political activities during Reconstruction and the early 20th century; the law and order agenda espoused by politicians of all backgrounds in the wake of the Black Power Movement; or the current media onslaught of images and stories about criminality in urban areas following the nation-wide Uprising of 2020. In the face of such violence, Black actors will continue to employ forms of critical analysis and organizing which, if history is any indication, will include forms of self-defense. Attention to Black self-defense as a viable means of struggle thus remains important for an understanding of historical, current, and future political struggles, as well as how we engage and represent those struggles.
How does your argument challenge the tendency of many historians to present a linear narrative of progress when discussing issues of slavery and so-called “emancipation”? In other words, how do you show that anti-Black violence is not a departure from U.S. law’s “highest ideals,” but is rather fundamental to its very structure?
In some ways, the tendency to suggest that we have made significant political progress as a society makes sense. After all, chattel slavery is no longer the default legal condition for Black populations, women have the right to vote, etc. However, if we think beyond legal statutes and instead consider techniques of domination and how power functions in society, we see the material and discursive continuation of well-established, centuries-old forms of control. Part of what I tried to do in my article is show how there remains a fundamental imperative in modern society to maintain Black bodies as the collective dominion of non-Black people, and to deny the possibility of Black spatiality. In short, there persists a commitment, at a societal level, to maintain Black populations outside the parameters of humanity. After all, without control/sovereignty over one’s self or the ability to create and inhabit spatial arrangements in a legible way, one cannot properly claim modern humanity. Prior to the formal, legal emancipation of slavery, the denial of Black humanity prevailed as a de facto and de jure reality; a fact openly codified in law and espoused in public discourse. However, following the legal end of slavery (a process of emancipation undertaken via the freedom drive and concrete actions of the enslaved), the societal insistence on Black inhumanity often took on new, surreptitious guises. In the article I point out that, while Black populations in the U.S. eventually became nominal citizens, various institutions—both legal and extra-legal—persisted in discursively and materially denying Black self-possession and spatial coherency. One of the manners in which this process took place was the continued prohibition of Black self-defense. From the 19th century deputization of private citizens who confiscated weapons from Black households, to the late 20th century police harassment of Black self-defense patrols, to the disproportionate present-day prosecution rates of Black individuals who engage in armed self-defense, societal structures continue to seek to curtail the ability of Black individuals and groups to defend themselves and their communities. Through these examples we can see how the insistence on Black inhumanity continues to animate societal institutions even when official legal statutes appear race neutral. The persistence of anti-Blackness as a logic informing the actions of individuals and institutions suggests that we do, truly, continue to live in slavery’s afterlife.
You write: “Anti-Blackness makes the prospect of legitimate Black self-defense structurally impossible.” Later, you mention how, structurally speaking, the prohibition on Black self-defense is not a prohibition that extends to non-Black colonized groups. Can you share a little bit more about this, and why we should be careful not to analogize Black and non-Black suffering?
As I mention above, the prohibition against Black self-defense is an outgrowth of the modern denial of Black self-possession and spatial legitimacy. To put this in blunt terms, modern ideas of humanity reject the possibility of Diasporic populations having a legitimate claim to their own bodies or the locations in which they find themselves. To conceptually lack self-possession and spatiality is a uniquely Black Diasporic condition created by the Middle Passage, the ascription of chattel status to Africans enslaved in the Americas and their progeny, and the persistence of the logics of anti-Blackness into the present. The experiences of other populations around the world—in particular those of non-Diasporic colonized peoples—remain distinct from those of the Diaspora, especially regarding the question of spatiality. Populations that can lay claim to an indigenous identity are subsequently able to practice self-defense in a legitimate manner, as indigeneity carries with it a legible claim to nativity and sovereignty. In other words, to receive recognition as “original” to a given location also means having conceptual recourse to self-defense. While Diasporic populations have been present in the Americas for centuries, modern spatial and political sensibilities void Black claims to indigeneity, which simultaneously void claims to nativity, sovereignty, and the right to self-defense. Of course, in the context of ongoing settler colonialism, non-Black, indigenous populations are hardly encouraged to practice self-defense. There are plenty of historical examples of settler/colonizing powers going to lengths to disarm Indigenous populations. However, when Indigenous groups invariably do practice self-defense (whether armed or unarmed) there is a perceived legitimacy to their actions, due to their legible claims to the spaces they create and inhabit. These facts notwithstanding, it is important to note that dominant notions of space and being do not recognize Indigenous actors and their spatial practices as equivalent to, for example, the spatiality of European or Euro-descendant populations. A modern sense of politics and space recognizes Indigenous spatiality more in terms of a kind of proto-sovereignty—a spatiality that is present and legible, but not legitimate in the same manner as that of fully Human actors. Furthermore, this proto-sovereignty and conceptual access to self-defense does not mean that Indigenous populations do not experience violence. Colonial violence remains a brutal reality that has claimed the lives of millions. Nonetheless, open resistance to that violence by non-Black, Indigenous populations carries a conceptual legitimacy that Black self-defense does not and cannot have in the modern epoch. Thus, while Diasporic and non-Black, Indigenous populations share a common experience of racialized violence, different logics underpin those forms of violence and, as a result, responses to racialized violence differ in their conceptual legitimacy.
In an earlier interview with BAR, you mention that in popular discourses, “Black groups’ willingness and proficiency in defending themselves is either treated as a masculinist, exotic oddity (a la the Black Panthers); tragic hubris (a la Nat Turner); or ignored altogether.” Is this more of a problem in academic or organizing spaces? What are some of the ideological and political forces at play that lead to this reactionary dismissal of Black armed self-defense?
In academic circles, Black self-defense emerges more as an episodic phenomenon that occurs in certain instances in certain places rather than as a trans-historical phenomenon that has been present in seemingly all iterations of Black struggle. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, as individual case studies require attention to the specifics of time and place. However, I have found few treatments of Black self-defense as a recurrent component of Black struggle, broadly (Nicholas Johnson’s Negroes and the Gun and C.L.R. James’ classic A History of Pan African Revolt are notable exceptions). Situating self-defense as a persisting aspect of Black struggle is important in part because attending to this fact offers nuance to the historical record of how we have sought liberation. With regards to popular, lay understandings of Black freedom struggles, self-defense remains even more obscure. Inattention to the question of self-defense may come partly from the fact that popular representations of Black histories tell wildly incomplete and amended stories that very often center the altruism and forward-thinking nature of non-Black actors as the actual key to Black struggle. Lost from these accounts is any meaningful sense of Black capacity to plan and implement a political program. In such renditions there is hardly any room for an acknowledgement of Black self-defense. I cannot definitively say why this is, except that I suspect there exists a commitment to obscuring the histories of Black self-defense precisely because of the societal injunction against the phenomenon. On the other hand, I think there is also a real hesitancy to laud the history of Black self-defense, given the brutal reprisals that have historically followed such actions. The militarized policing and hyper-incarceration that emerged across the entire United States following the rise of the Black Panthers is one well-known example of how societal institutions have historically responded to instances of Black self-defense. The intensified acts of concrete violence that the U.S. state and wider civil society unleash on Black populations for daring to defend themselves has led people to be understandably wary of a politics that openly advocates for Black self-defense.
You present many models of Black-self defense from throughout U.S. history. Can you share more about how the Black Seminoles engaged in this practice? Many of us are used to the terms “Black” and “Indigenous” being used in a mutually exclusive way. It therefore ignores many Black Indigenous communities from around the world, including Indigenous people of Africa. How do the Black Seminoles challenge our traditional understandings of Blackness, Indigeneity, and struggles for liberation?
After moving from South Carolina and Georgia to Florida in the 1770s, the Seminoles began to adopt escaped enslaved people into their nation. In the early 19th century, open, armed hostilities began to take place between the U.S. military and the Seminoles over the Seminoles’ unwillingness to allow the U.S. military to pursue runaways in Seminole territory and, eventually, over the question of returning those runaways and their children to their former owners. The Black-Indigenous Seminole community fought two wars against the U.S. (once from 1817-1818 and again from 1835-1842, respectively) in which the main point of contention was the return of the maroons to slavery. One of the most interesting aspects of this history, in my mind, is that it is an example of an Indigenous group actively and openly refusing to reinforce the slave system, even when such actions risked their own territorial sovereignty and existence as a people. Both the Indigenous and Black contingents of the Seminoles committed themselves to resisting the re-enslavement of Black Seminoles, a commitment which cost many Black and Indigenous lives. The Seminoles’ case offers an interesting and potentially generative, but also largely unknown, example of a non-Black commitment to combating anti-Blackness. Given that the question of Black-Indigenous empirical and structural relations is a growing topic of analysis (here I am thinking of some strands of Afro-Pessimism, along with the work of Tiffany Lethabo King and Jane Henderson, among others), I think the experiences of the Seminoles, as well as groups like the Garifuna and Miskito of Central America offer illustrative examples that embody the experiences of both Indigenous and Afro-Diasporic populations. These communities’ analyses and points of view on the interrelation of Blackness and Indigeneity should help shape our understanding of this phenomenon.
I understand you work with and support various social movements in Brazil, including quilombo communities in the state of Bahia. Are there any recent struggles you’d like to highlight for BAR readers?
I continue to work on questions of marronage (quilombismo) in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. For almost nine years I have learned from and with the quilombo communities of Rio dos Macacos, Ilha de Maré, and Alto do Tororó, which are located in the suburban region of the Salvador metropolitan area near the Bay of Aratu. While I have written a few articles in which I discuss the communities, their struggles, and their ways of life, all three have also done a fantastic job of sharing their own narratives with the world. Accompanying their processes of analyzing the political landscape in Bahia and Brazil, generally, along with their unfailing commitment to creating autonomous spaces that foster life has been perhaps the most impactful educational experience I have ever had. Over the past couple of years I have become familiar with other quilombo communities in Bahia, as well. Quilombo Boca do Rio, for example, exists in the same region as Ilha de Maré, Tororó, and Rio dos Macacos, and faces many of the same issues as these other communities regarding land grabs, environmental destruction, and the expansion of port infrastructure into their traditional territory. The situation in the Bay of Aratu is especially pressing currently, as the company Bahia Terminais is planning to build a new pier for their port complex, and has undertaken new, expansive rounds of deforestation and the uprooting of mangroves, which are vital to all of the quilombo communities’ subsistence and ways of being. I should also note that Bahia Terminais’ continued destruction of the mangroves and surrounding forests is occurring despite a federal judge’s order that it stop.
In the nearby municipality of Lauro de Freitas, the community of Quilombo Quingoma is also fighting for its existence in the face of highway construction that has irreversibly changed the community’s topography, as well as the ambitions of real estate developers who covet Quingoma’s territory. The private companies seeking to appropriate Quingoma’s land have employed unspeakable forms of violence against the quilombolas, particularly against women and children, and continue to intimidate and threaten community leaders with assassination. Sadly, cases like this are all too common in Bahia, Brazil, and the Americas, broadly. Anti-Blackness and the prevalent assumption of Black a-spatiality means that these struggles frequently remain unacknowledged even when the communities in question have a long term presence on the land, as in the case of Quingoma, which traces its origins back to the late 16th century. My hope is that we can continue to create connections between ourselves as Diasporic populations in the Americas, as sharing our stories with one another is perhaps the most important political action we can undertake in a world predicated on Black non-being.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.