Trauma and Anti-Black Policing in the United States: Part II

Hypertext: An Opportunity

I want to end this blog series on an optimistic note. I insist that all is not bleak, despite this era of Trump where we appear to be moving further away from critical and compassionate race consciousness. Progressive movements with the goal of establishing equitable treatment are possible even in times of political impasse. With this in mind, I believe that hypertext presents a unique opportunity for black Americans to bear witness on the traumatic effects of racial profiling, police brutality, and police killings in the United States. When I speak of hypertext, I am referring specifically to the computer hypertext document. Hypertext would allow for black Americans to tell their own stories and set their own agenda for change, without relying on government leadership or waiting indefinitely for a more compassionate and race-conscious public discourse to emerge. There are two models that were most useful for me in envisioning this hypertext project: The first was Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the second was Wikipedia.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was organized by the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which settled the class action suit brought on by survivors of Canada’s residential school system (Truth and Reconciliation Commission v). The Commission concluded that from the 1870s to 1996, the residential school system operated to separate some 150,000 Indigenous children from their families with the intention of weakening family ties and cultural linkages, and indoctrinating Indigenous children into the majority Euro-Christian Canadian culture. For six years, the Commission traveled throughout Canada to hear testimony from more than 6000 witnesses (Truth and Reconciliation Commission v).  One major theme was the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse children suffered in residential schools and the impact these traumas have had on Indigenous communities. The Final Report, which is published on trc.ca, is a summary and discussion of the Commission’s findings, with chapters on the history of the residential school system, the legacy of residential schools, the challenge of reconciliation, and calls to action.

In many ways, I believe that a report on anti-black policing in the United States could parallel the Truth and Reconciliation Report. The primary objective of the project would be to collect testimony from black Americans—individuals, families, and communities—who have been affected by police violence and brutality. Witnessing could take the form of written, transcribed, and recorded personal histories, interviews, and panel discussions. Most important are the political dimensions of the project—that from a multilinear, multivocal, and dynamic hypertext could eventually emerge a static document with an agenda containing detailed recommendations and prescriptions that can be communicated and lobbied to government at the local, state, and federal levels.

Just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada organized the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the hypertext report I describe would require an organizing body. This is where Wikipedia comes to mind. Wikipedia (a massive hypertext encyclopedia) is owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit with all the standard functions of a charitable organization—legal, accounting, fundraising, communications, technical, and executive directorship. Up until 2010, the Wikimedia Foundation had only 35 employees (Ayers et al. 448). If such a mammoth project can be executed with a relatively small staff, then the much smaller hypertext I conceive of could also have a very streamlined organizing body. The hypertext project can begin with a call to action for participants across diverse Internet and social media platforms, as well as more traditional media outlets.

There are some important features of hypertext that explain why it presents a unique opportunity for black Americans to take control of their trauma and codify it on their own terms: First, the hypertext would be a large-scale co-authored document, making it polyphonic and multivocal.  It would provide an opportunity for people to bear witness on racist police violence who have normally been denied authorial authority. A range of different perspectives and experiences is necessary to obtain a truly reflective account of shared trauma in the African American community. The hypertext would be part of a much larger process to end racial oppression and promote racial equality in the United States. These objectives are vital to democracy, so it makes perfect sense to adopt a democratized form of writing like hypertext.

Second, according to George Landow, hypertext as an information medium assumes hypermedia (3), which means the text is expanded beyond written text to include many different presentational content forms. Examples are visual images like graphics, diagrams, and maps, as well as audio recordings, video recordings, and computer animations (Landow 3).  Compounded with a hyperlinking system that links to external resources such as academic publications, qualitative and quantitative studies, historical documents, and government data, these presentational content forms will likely engage many readers and encourage active, rather than passive readership.

Audio and video recordings are of particular significance because they present an opportunity for greater inclusiveness and collaboration in the hypertext.  For instance, older generations may have difficulty in publishing their personal accounts in the computer hypertext document, but they could be recorded, by audio or video. This would also be a good way to include economically disenfranchised people who have had limited access to education and reduced access to textual discourse as a result. Moreover, group and panel discussions, which are usually fascinating but also protracted, might be more effective for an audience when recorded rather than just transcribed into text. Ultimately, most of us are very familiar with hypermedia within the huge hypertext that is the Internet; if hypermedia can also provide more avenues for accessibility, accommodation, and inclusiveness, then that is a distinct and important benefit.

In conclusion, I believe that changing the pattern of anti-black police violence in the United States requires that black Americans control the discourse surrounding its traumatic effects on their lives. A long, detailed, and inclusive hypertext document recording the history and effects of racist policing on the black American community would serve as another avenue for black Americans to tell their stories, own their stories and set their own agenda. The hope is that having reference to such an important document will help to shift the racist social and political culture that surrounds policing and mass incarceration in the United States.

Sources

Ayers, Phoebe, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2008. Print.

Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. [Winnipeg]: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.

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Trauma and Anti-Black Policing in the United States: Part I

I wanted to centre these final posts on anti-black police violence in the United States for a variety of reasons. First, I feel that it is very topical; second, racist police violence has been at the forefront of my mind these past couple of years, as we have been inundated with reports and images of extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men. Researching racialized police violence in the United States helped me to think through some of these events and situate my feelings around them.

In this post, I will be analyzing anti-black police violence through the lens of critical race theory. Critical race theory is a theoretical framework centred on the application of critical theory to the intersection of race, law, and power (Aymer 368). My perspective is strongly influenced by the work of Michelle Alexander, who situates racialized police violence within the larger context of mass incarceration, a racial caste system in the United States that parallels American slavery and Jim Crow.

Intergenerational Trauma and Police Violence

When thinking about the complex issue of American trauma and racialized policing, the first thing to understand is that “policing and racism have been mutually constitutive” (Cooper 1189) throughout all of United States history. Police violence has been a powerful tool of social control targeting black Americans with the purpose of entrenching racial hierarchies and bolstering white supremacy (Alexander). Slave patrols, whereby property-owning white men organized to prevent slave rebellions and escapes, were actually the first state-sponsored police forces in the United States (Cooper 1189). During the Reconstruction era, police violently enforced the restrictive Black Codes, which were a precursor to the Jim Crow laws that implemented racial segregation throughout the Southern United States. And since the 1980s, the War on Drugs has escalated alongside the prison–industrial complex, which has intensified the racial and ethnic disparities in drug-related arrests (Cooper 1189). Taking into account the history of anti-black police violence in the United States, there can be little doubt that racialized policing is a source of intergenerational trauma in the African American community.

M. Gerard Fromm eloquently describes the manifestation of intergenerational trauma in the following quotation: “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency” (xvi). When interacting with police, black Americans often experience sensations of fear, anxiety, and hyper-arousal (Staggers-Hakim 392-397). These are symptoms of chronic re-traumatization, resulting from centuries of state-sanctioned violence. However, intergenerational trauma in the black American community has been met with apathy from the broader American public (Staggers-Hakim 391). Far from recognizing and addressing the realities of community psychic trauma, policing of black neighbourhoods and communities has only become more militarized and aggressive since the War on Drugs, as the discretion and powers of law enforcement have increased exponentially.

Lateral Trauma and Police Violence

Black Americans are also subject to lateral trauma because of state violence. According to Laura brown, trauma is spread laterally throughout an oppressed group “when membership in that group means a constant lifetime risk of exposure to certain trauma” (108). For black Americans, trauma is a way of life—for instance, racial profiling in the form of pedestrian and vehicular stops is a daily reality for many, and a daily risk for all. These stops become “a routine and pernicious form of harassment” (Cooper 1191) tantamount to psychological violence. Often, they escalate to physical violence and, as we have seen, even death. Moreover, many black Americans have been traumatized by nationalized cases of extrajudicial killings: Raja Staggers-Hakim asserts that “extrajudicial killings in African American communities by police aggravate excess mortality rates and further advance dismal physical and psychological health outcomes as well as hopelessness” (391). In her study, which uses focus group methodology, Staggers-Hakim found that black American boys, especially those removed from community violence, are traumatized by police violence and police killings (397). One participant’s contribution aptly captures the experience of lateral trauma as it manifests itself on the individual and community levels: The young man says, “‘I am fearful for my life. If I walk by a policeman or someone with authority, being a black man in this country in general is just a threat by itself…there’s always this fear that I could be killed or beaten down’” (Staggers-Hakim 394).

bell hooks writes that “No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women…When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women” (7). Unfortunately, the erasure of black American women in socio-political discourse extends to most critical discussions of anti-black police violence. Therefore, it is important for me to acknowledge that black American women are also subject to lateral trauma.

First, black women are themselves victims of racialized police violence. In 2015, “at least 15 black women were killed directly by police” (Smith). Furthermore, Christen Smith argues that black women are suffering from “slow death” due to anti-black police violence, particularly extrajudicial killings. She writes,

We know from the stories of black mothers who have lost their children to state violence that the lingering anguish of living in the aftermath of police violence kills black women gradually. Depression, suicide, PTSD, heart attacks, strokes and other debilitating mental and physical illnesses are just some of the diseases black women develop as they try to put their lives back together after they lose a child.

Because black American women play such integral roles in their families, their immense and too often unrecognized trauma reaches very far into their communities. The only way to combat and heal from anti-black police violence is to understand all the “cumulative aftereffects of state violence on black communities” (Smith), and gender needs to factor into these analyses.

Sources

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.

Aymer, Samuel R. “‘I Can’t Breathe’: A Case-study—Helping Black Men Cope with Race-related Trauma Stemming from Police Killing and Brutality.” Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment 26:3-4 (2016): 367-376. Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.

Cooper, Hannah LF. “War on Drugs Policing and Brutality.” Substance Use & Misuse 50: 8-9 (2015): 1188-1194.Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

Fromm, M. Gerard. “Introduction.” Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Ed. M Gerard Fromm. London: Karmac Books, 2012. xvxxi. Print.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Smith, Christen. “Slow death: Is the Trauma of Police Violence Killing Black Women?” The Daily Cardinal. 12 Jul. 2016. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

Staggers-Hakim, Raja. “The Nation’s Unprotected Children and the Ghost of Mike Brown, or the Impact of National Police Killings on the Health and Social Development of African American Boys.” Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment 26:3-4 (2016): 390-399. Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

The Problem of Nostalgia in Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother

In this post, I will be exploring how Saidiya Hartman expresses nostalgia in her book, Lose Your Mother, with a focus on the first chapter, “Afrotopia.” In writing about nostalgia, I refer specifically to the ideas of Svetlana Boym. In her introduction to The Future of Nostalgia, Boym writes a thought-provoking passage on nostalgia, belonging, and identity:

Nostalgia…is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed…Nostalgia is paradoxical in the sense that longing can make us more empathetic toward fellow humans, yet the moment we try to repair longing with belonging, the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity, we often part ways and put an end to mutual understanding. Algia—longing—is what we share, yet nostos—the return home—is what divides us…The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. (xv-xvi)

Reading this excerpt on nostalgia immediately brought Hartman to mind. Nostalgia serves as an explanation for Hartman’s problematic representation of Ghanaians in Lose Your Mother.

Throughout the past few months I have been writing about trauma, both intergenerational and lateral, and the many ways in which shared trauma can bond members of oppressed groups. Before encountering Lose Your Mother, I was aware of Hartman’s reputation as a lauded scholar of black American history and literature, and I eagerly anticipated reading her meditations on history, memory and the effects of slavery on the African diaspora through generations. I assumed that Hartman’s background would allow her to write with a level of knowledge, understanding, and empathy often lacking in scholarship pertaining to Africa.

Quite contrary to my expectations, Hartman’s depiction of Ghana and Ghanaians was very disappointing. It appeared that for Hartman, the powerful effects of nostalgia overcame any type of identification through shared trauma with African people. I believe the crushing feeling of being regarded as obruni (a stranger) in Ghana after years of longing and idealization disrupted Hartman’s ability to understand Ghanaians as people and Ghana as a nation. Of Accra and its inhabitants she writes,

…The landscape of anticolonialism was everywhere indicated by roundabouts named after freedom fighters and slain martyrs and boulevards endowed with the totemic power of ideals like liberation, independence, and autonomy. The city propped up thwarted and grand schemes of an Africa for Africans at home and abroad. I had been living in Accra for a month before I realized that few ever called the streets by these grand names. They were hollow ideals to most people… In getting around this city, few were mindful of the signs of slavery or independence. (Hartman 24)

This passage, one amongst others, shows that Hartman has little understanding of who Ghanaians are, what they think, or what they value. It is unjust—dehumanizing even—to assume that people do not value their liberty, independence, and autonomy because they go about their daily lives in ostensibly unreflective ways. After all, I would argue that almost everyone in the world goes about their daily lives in ostensibly unreflective ways, Americans included. In her nostalgic desire for “the Eden of Ghana” (Hartman 37), Hartman may have forgotten that Ghanaians are as complicated and ordinary as any other people; they are not and never were static symbols of postcolonial struggle.

Throughout “Afrotopia,” Hartman prefers to have outsiders speak for Ghanaians rather than let Ghanaians speak for themselves. The native Ghanaians Hartman encounters have almost no direct speech pertaining to Ghanaian politics and culture. Those Ghanaians Hartman does mention, such as the housekeeper Stella and the cab drivers in Accra, appear to share her low opinion of the country. Hartman expends much more effort in exploring the perspectives of her friends Mary Ellen and John Ray, a black American couple in Ghana who seem wholly incapable of accepting that they are, in fact, immigrants. Mary Ellen disparages the country for its inefficiency and corruption while John Ray cautions Hartman that Ghanaians target black Americans for scams and that Accra is full of “mercenaries, thieves, refugees, prostitutes, broke soldiers, corrupt policemen and the desperate hard-pressed…” (Hartman 27). Every observation they make of Ghana and its people is coloured with pessimism. Hartman is able to identify with Mary Ellen and John Ray because she understands “the pain and isolation of their exile” (43), as they do not feel accepted as true Africans. While Hartman’s nostalgia helps to foster a strong bond with Mary Ellen and John Ray, it also divides her from Ghanaians and prevents her from appreciating their full humanity.

That Hartman’s depiction of Ghanaians has not affected the overwhelmingly positive reception of her book is a testament to her American privilege. While I do not typically rely on hypotheticals to bolster my arguments, I feel that a hypothetical has its place here: Suppose an African scholar were to travel to the United States in order to conduct research for a book about the African diaspora and the legacy of slavery. Now imagine this scholar has little understanding of American politics and history, especially as they relate to race and social inequality. Suppose also that she were to take up residence in the overwhelmingly black and impoverished areas of Chicago, Illinois, and Baltimore, Maryland. If this African academic were then to write about how black Americans—even with all the advantages of inhabiting the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world—have fallen incredibly short of the glorious promise of Civil Rights and the Black Power movement while languishing in crime and poverty, she would rightfully be lambasted for her surface analysis and offensive implications. I see no reason why Saidiya Hartman is deserving of different treatment for her depiction of Ghana and Ghanaians in Lose Your Mother.

Sources

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.