The suppression of black thought predates the dawn of the racial slave trade.
“Policing is not what we think it is.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Tryon P. Woods. Woods is Associate Professor of crime and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Special Lecturer in black studies at Providence College. His book is Blackhood Against the Police Power: Punishment and Disavowal in the "Post-Racial" Era.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Tryon Woods: I hope to support readers in questioning how our current situation is bound up in what came before. This means understanding history, of course, but it also means distending our conception of time in a manner that historians and other empiricists might find uncomfortable. Blackhood Against the Police Power can be summarized in six points. First, the book explores how the present state of affairs is produced through a direct confrontation against independent black thought across the generations. The suppression of black thought predates the dawn of the racial slave trade—indeed, it is the precondition for enslavement—and is alive and well today throughout the world. Second, the suppression of independent black thought contributes to communal disarray and collective vulnerability: to meld more than one strand of African Diasporic folklore, the people lost the ability to fly once they started seeing themselves through a lens not of their own making. Third, effectively grounded, black people’s collective efficacy is depleted. Fourth, the attenuation of black power paves the way for a political delusion which, in the fifth instance, leaves isolated acts of marronage misrecognized and under-supported. Sixth—if we take the preceding five points together as one way of understanding antiblackness, then the aim propelling the book as a whole is to better recognize how antiblack violence insidiously functions under other names, including emancipation, civil rights, freedom, and even anti-racism. If slavery is not over, as this book explores, then things are not as they appear.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
One of the main themes of the book is that policing is not what we think it is, and that the police power is most effective where it goes unannounced and appears as something else. Law enforcement’s claim to prestige in society rests on its assertion that it stands “in the trenches” and on the “frontlines” of society’s war with its anarchic and renegade elements, implicitly understood as insurgent blackness. In fact, law enforcement is merely the backup to the main antiblack policing functions taken up just about everywhere else in society; and secondly, the institution of the police takes a back seat to the very order of knowledge that effectively polices how we come to know the world. If we understand a “paradigm” as that which shapes how we think about a problem before we even are thinking about it, then I hope readers interested in, say, undoing the violence of law and state power might consider how the manner of our opposition can in fact promote the problem we seek to end. This problem is more readily visible with respect to “police brutality” (is there any other kind?) or mass incarceration (a symptom of a more fundamental societal immobilization), but is more difficult to see when it comes to coalition-building and various assertions of racial and sexual politics that are avowedly anti-racist. The book’s discussion of seemingly disconnected topics (a la Nina Simone, black missing persons, and the 4th Amendment, for instance) strives to illucidate these less visible, but ultimately hugely consequential, forms of policing.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Well, what I can speak to is what I had to unlearn in order to write it. If slavery is not over, and if slavery is the crucible of modern civilization in every sense, then not only are things not as they appear, but there is far more that we don’t know than we do know. There is something about the popularity these days about studies of slavery and its “afterlife.” On the one hand, it testifies to a growing awareness of slavery’s foundational presence in contemporary life. This is a welcomed development, since knowledge of slavery is the thing we disavow the most, and perhaps at the same time, the very thing we must know the most about. On the other hand, the fact that there is a certain cache to studying or evoking slavery today, in the midst of black suffering on a massive scale worldwide, may suggest one of the ways that slaveholding society insulates itself from the challenge that has always faced it. Eighteenth-century abolitionism (or mid-twentieth century civil rights, or…) was not about ending the relations of power on which slaveholding society rests, and moreover, all of the changes to slavery that we have seen across the modern era have been fomented by black self-determination. In this light, then, if I aspire to rigor, integrity, and healing in my life, which I do, I have had to be prepared to unlearn everything that the slave trade has installed on top of reality as if slaveholding were the truth of existence.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My response to this question ten years ago would be very different than it is now. I might’ve pointed to some of the same thinkers who are prominent influences in Blackhood Against the Police Power; or I might’ve averred that I don’t think in terms of “heroes,” which of course wouldn’t be entirely true. The truth is that I’m a product of a hero-worshipping culture, and I currently work in a hero-laden industry. In both senses, the ego negatively impacts the degree of self-knowledge we permit ourselves, as well as how well we’re able to perceive the world for what it is. I’ve been trying to learn how to regard every person I encounter as my teacher, for better or worse—which I’ve found requires a great deal more humility than I possessed a decade ago. My writing specifically is inspired by anyone who presents complex realities in a clear and direct manner. I am also moved by thinking that may be directed to one register of knowing, but simultaneously accesses other registers—for example, prose that presents an empirical argument but employs language that reaches for domains that flaunt empiricism. We should think and feel as one, and in so doing, think in different ways. Lastly, integrity in this manner inspires me because it is sorely needed in these trying times.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
It’s hard to imagine new worlds when our minds are occupied with (and by) a world that obsessively polices the imagination. I see Blackhood Against the Police Power as remedial work in the sense that it tracks my ongoing effort to recover basic truths that have been disavowed and denied for a very long time. In many ways, I agree with the assertion that prescriptions for remedying the harm of history are premature because we are barely able today to approach the reality for what it is. Critical thought and deconstruction are simply pragmatic and essential to self-defense and self-determination…but no more so than relationship-building and spirit-cleansing. New worlds will be borne only out of a synthesis of these inseparable processes. If my book aids someone in imagining the world anew, it will be because something in it connects with something already aflame inside of that person. The writing of it was relational—my family, work, and the histories of struggle I take up; the reading will be specific to the relational context each reader brings to it—what conversations they are involved with, to whom and to what do they hold themselves accountable, what they are open to; and any new world on the horizon will without a doubt be the product of what we choose to recognize about this one.
In this vein, I take up Toni Cade Bambara’s call in 1970 for “blackhood” as a way of instigating a particular kind of reimagining that doubles-down on black as all of the home that we need to get through this mess. Bambara was saying that gender and sexuality were getting black people twisted as to what really matters when it comes to getting free. I ask readers to consider with me what “blackhood” might mean given the particular complexities and contradictions of our present period—namely, I suggest it requires a different relationship to gender and sexuality, to law and justice, to the structure of racism, and to self-defense. As Bambara herself exemplified, political clarity, spiritual well-being, and self-preservation are one thing.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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