“The constraints empire placed on its racial contradictions are falling away.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Vince Schleitwiler. Schleitwiler is Acting Assistant Professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington. His book is Strange Fruit of the Black Pacific: Imperialism’s Racial Justice and Its Fugitives.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Vince Schleitwiler: The problem of the 21stcentury is the problem of white supremacy—of its decline and inevitable collapse, and of the question whether the conditions of life on this planet will survive its demise. The rise of Trump is merely an acceleration of long-building forces, clarifying their stakes. The decline of the US—the last of the great white empires—may unleash a self-destructive rage for which nuclear warfare and ecological catastrophe seem preferable to yielding to a world beyond white supremacy.
While my book examines an earlier period, it finds a valuable method for analyzing the geopolitical conditions and consequences of racialization in Du Bois’s writings on the problem of the 20thcentury, the color line—a concept formulated in response to the Philippine-American War and the rise of the US and Japan as transpacific imperial powers. It takes “racial justice” as a historical terrain of struggle, defined not only by opposition to white supremacy, but also by imperialism’s need for justification, imposed by geopolitical competition. In this light, the current administration’s celebration of coercive violence without justification must be understood as weakness—revelation, not cause, of imperial decline.
Indeed, the broader collapse of multiculturalism—the dominant form, post-Cold War, of what I call imperialism’s racial justice—preceded Trump’s rise. The breakdown of a corresponding regime of social perception was demonstrated by the unexpected capacity for viral videos of police violence to create openings for political debate. What I call an aesthetics of racial terror—a training of perception that manages the contradiction between the liberatory promises and overwhelming violence constituting imperialism’s racial justice—suddenly began to fail. While that moment of rupture has passed, the inability of structures of power to reestablish consensus means that social perception will continue to fracture, opening glimpses of worlds beyond this one.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
In general, I think that the production of knowledge mostly goes in the other direction. One of the tasks of a scholar is to learn from action, from collective processes within social movements, and then to interpret and extrapolate their insights, contextualize or recontextualize them, and recirculate them in new ways.
The movement in the reverse direction is more modest, but my book may offer some historical depth to analyses of the present. Although I draw connections to the era of multiculturalism in the final section, the book primarily considers an earlier form of racial justice, uplift. When I first recognized that US colonialism in the Philippines was justified in a language of racial uplift shared by Du Bois, I was able to see the imperialist deployment of multiculturalism in new ways. Similarly, studying the political, ethical, and aesthetic dilemmas of representations of lynching helped me see why similar dilemmas today, with regard to video of police violence, are both unavoidable and irresolvable.
This historical depth may also help you to recognize the peculiarity of the present. The false stability of unipolar US global power was an anomaly in the geopolitical history of race, which naturalized the presumption that racial justice could only be achieved through the elaboration of US national ideals. Now, the decline of US power means that the constraints empire placed on its racial contradictions are falling away.Trumpism is a coalition of the remnants of cast-off regional varieties of whiteness, outmoded racial forms of imperial privilege, that, at various points in US history, imagined themselves as inheritors of the world, and as just rulers over difference. Recognizing that the loss of empire empowers a white nationalist preference for vengeance over justice makes its weakness—as well as its dangerous volatility—easier to see.
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?
Right now, it seems like history is doing a better job of dismantling the naturalized ideologies of the post-Cold War era than any scholarly book can. One way I hope my book can help that process along is, again, by supplying some historical depth. In periods of rapid social change, like this one, the clearest perspective may come from those just coming to an understanding of the world, rather than those of us who were formed earlier, but this also means that those perspectives can be presentist. The strangeness of the past is a resource for opening up the present, if you can learn to read, within that strangeness, a predicament that you share.
The book also attempts to theorize and model a conception of reading, as learning-how-to-read, drawn from black literary and aesthetic radical traditions, within which literacy’s achievement is always critiqued and deferred, destabilizing distinctions between print and oral media, and signifying both the possibility of freedom and the threat of its foreclosure. The radical openness of this critical process is, to me, more important right now than the destruction or reconstruction of any particular ideology, and than any specific argument established in my book.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My work is inspired by the radical imagination of 20thcentury movements identified with the “Third World,” and begins from an understanding of the past hundred-odd years as defined by the jaggedly articulated social and political advances of black and Asian peoples—as an Afro-Asian century. This imagination is still latent within the lexicon and grammar of 21stcentury notions of racial justice—e.g., in the term and concept “Asian American”—even though the geopolitical conditions for Afro-Asian solidarity have long passed. My introduction to this radical imagination came through ethnic studies and women-of-color feminism—through mentors like Peter Kwong and Johnnella Butler, and through iconic figures like Yuri Kochiyama (a hero less for her words than for her labor of care that sustained social movements).
For me, the way to keep faith with this Afro-Asian imagination is through its failures—moments that seem hopelessly extravagant, doomed from the beginning, utterly contaminated, or incoherent. Rather than celebrating its successes and correcting its mistakes—which presumes the superiority of hindsight and freezes past and present in place—dwelling in its failures, fingering their jagged grain, might activate their still-unfinished capacity for historical change. Thus, the figures in my book whom I might claim, in various ways, as “heroes”—like Du Bois, Carlos Bulosan, José Garcia Villa, Eulalie Spence, Nella Larsen, or Hisaye Yamamoto—often appear in moments where their failures are most apparent.
Lastly—and not entirely by design—my book also marks its intellectual inspiration less through the theorists I cite, like Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Brent Edwards, and Nathaniel Mackey, than through music: figures like Betty Carter, Son House, and Billie Holiday. Somehow Mosquito, the eponymous narrator of one of Gayl Jones’s novels, belongs on that list too.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
That’s mostly a question for readers—it’s work that begins when a book enters the world. I took it up myself, after completing the manuscript, in a residency project at the Center for Art and Thought called “Lost Afro-Asian Worlds.” My goal was to reconsider the book’s implications through forms of public scholarship emphasizing how writers and audiences collaborate. I realized that behind my emphasis on failure was a sense that social reality is constituted by all its accompanying forms of the speculative imagination. Every world is just the occasion for all the lost worlds thronged upon it.
In the book, I cited Moten: “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world in the world and I want to be in that.” My book seeks other worlds by dwelling in those hopelessly extravagant radical visions whose failure to manifest outside the speculative imagination serves as a kind of hidden infrastructure to historical reality.
Robin Kelley has written that “[w]ithout new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.” I’d add that the desire to imagine new worlds is a desire to open yourself to what’s beyondyour imagination. Moten’s theorization of the prophetic capacity of improvisation, a radical openness to the unforeseen, is relevant here. The revolutionary victories of the Afro-Asian century are hard to celebrate now because they were so easily assimilated into structures of domination—what appears, if only in retrospect, as a failure of imagination. The revolutionary imagination I try to serve stakes its chances on a radical receptivity that can transport you beyond the successes and failures of the world you know. Other worlds are closer than you think.
Roberto Sirventis 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’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of U.S. Empire.
 See also Vince Schleitwiler, “A Demonology of Comparisons: Imperialism, Justice, and Anti/Blackness,” Comparative Literature68.2 (June 2016): 116-29.
 In Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study(Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013): 118.
 Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination( Boston: Beacon, 2002): xii.
 Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003): 63.