By Andre Lopes Massa
In the light of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of what has been termed “critical race theory”, a branch has arisen to focus on how the experience of slavery has impacted the black subjectivity from an ontological level. Authors such as Jared Sexton, Orlando Patterson and Saidiya Hartman have given new insights into the experiences of slavery and the Middle Passage by arguing that slavery had left an ontological imprint upon the Black Body that defined them as less than human. In his book Slavery and Social Death, Orlando Patterson discusses the effect that slavery had upon the Black Body when he writes, “Slavery is a highly symbolized domain of human experience. While all aspects of the relationship are symbolized, there is an overwhelming concentration of the profound natal alienation of the slave. The slave’s isolation, his strangeness that made him most valuable to the master, but it was his very strangeness that most threatened the community. On the cognitive and mythic level, one dominant theme emerges, which lends an unusually loaded meaning to the act of natal alienation: this is the social death of the slave.” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, pg. 38). For Patterson, since the slave’s birth, they have been marked from the day they were born as fungible property. From the moment the slave is born, they are prevented from having social relations of any kind, a process of “social negation” that Patterson says is crucial to introducing the slave into the community of the master as a non-human. (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, pg. 38). The concept of fungibility and the Black Body is important in the context of social death because the idea that one can be traded without ever having a say in where that individual can go immediately marks the slave as one who has no agency in society s they are not able to decide what relations they can have or where and when they can work. Being considered a non-human Other caused the eradication of any form of subjectivity that the Black Body once had because their fungibility denied them the agency required in the first place to retain and further develop that subjectivity within the community of the master in the first place. Patterson’s work in analyzing the concept of slavery and social death from the time of the Ancient Greeks and Romans set the foundation for a new base of scholarship called Afro-pessimism, a term coined by Frank B. Wilderson III in his analyses of the state of Black ontology in contemporary society. In his 2010 book Red, White and Black, Wilderson argues that the same subjectivity, or lack thereof, that the conditions of slavery and social death that existed then still exist now because the Middle Passage has created an ontological construction of anti-blackness that necessitates the construction of the Black Body as the Slave in order to maintain the structures of civil society. For Wilderson, this ontological construction means that slavery still exists in some capacity, as we have moved away from cotton fields to the prison industrial complex. Because of this, legal reforms such as the Civil Rights movement will always fail because civil society requires the construction of the Black Body as the Slave in order to maintain its parasitic habits that are crucial to its survival and that only the “imagining of the end of the world ” is they way in which we can conceptualize a new paradigm of analysis that is capable of eradicating the very epistemology that has constructed the Black Body as the Slave. This paper seeks to criticize Wilderson’s theory by using the work of Gayatri Spivak to show how Wilderson’s universalizing of Black experience is a unique form of colonialism because it reduces them to the subaltern as well as the work of Gloria Jean Watkins to advocate for a politics of hope in the face of Wilderson’s negativity as a way to end the cycle of self-hatred that Wilderson perpetuates through his labeling of Black ontology as being in a state of “social death”.
Since the very beginning, Wilderson argues that the United States is an unethical formation because it was founded on the backs of slaves but that the current paradigm of analysis is incapable of making this judgment because it is incapable of understanding the grammar of suffering that the Black Body speaks. Criticizing those who advocated for coalitional politics and progressivism, Wilderson writes, “Those steadfast in their conviction that there remained a discernable quantum of ethics in the United States writ large were accountable, in their rhetorical machinations, to the paradigmatic zeitgeist of the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and the Weather Underground. Radicals and progressives could deride, reject or chastise armed struggle mercilessly with respect to tactics and the possibility of ‘success’, but they could not dismiss revolution-as-ethic because they could not make a convincing case-by way of paradigmatic analyses that the United States was an ethical formation and still hope to maintain credibility as radicals and progressives.” (Wilderson, Red, White and Black, pg. 4). If the formation of the United States is unethical and if there is truly a grammar of suffering that still seeks to speak to us, then why are current understanding of morality and epistemology derived from the Enlightenment or even new understandings of identity, meaning and power developed by postmodern philosophers such as Jacques Derida, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault capable of understanding this? For Wilderson it has to do with the banishment of the Black Body from the Human fold because their ontological construction is “the very antithesis to the Human subject”. (Wilderson, Red, White and Black, pg. 9). The reason for the banishment of the Black Body from the paradigm of human subjectivity has to do with the ontological condition that the Middle Passage positioned on the Black Body. In comparing the Middle Passage with the Jewish Holocaust Wilderson writes, “The gratuitous violence of the Black’s first ontological instance, the Middle Passage, “wiped out metaphysics. Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews. Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks. This violence which turns a body into flesh, ripped apart literally and imaginatively, destroys the possibility of ontology because it positions the Black in an infinite and horrifying and open vulnerability, an object made available for any subject.” (Wilderson, Red, White and Black, pg. 38). In understanding Wilderson’s argument, it is important to note the relationship between fungibility and Black subjectivity. Like Patterson, because the Middle Passage had destroyed an sense of kinship and culture Blacks had as Africans, destroying any sense of self-conceptions victims of the Middle Passage had regarding their own ontology. The difference that Wilderson highlights between the Holocaust and the Middle Passage is that Jews came out of the Holocaust still retaining their culture and kinship, in effect retaining their position as Human subjects after the event. Blacks, on the other hand, did not even have the privilege to retain these customs and bonds of kinship. Their status as fungible objects allowed for structures of whiteness to construct Black subjectivity as they saw fit while other groups, such as Jews, Latinos, Native Americans, were still considered Human to retain some independent agency with regards for the construction of their own subjectivity. Because of the violence of the Middle passage and its construction of the Black Body as the ontological Slave, current paradigms of analysis will never be able to account for the Black grammar of suffering because they are built from the very epistemological foundations that constructed the Black Body as a fungible object in the first place and cannot account for the ontological condition of the Black Body. Going a step further, Wilderson infers that these paradigms of analysis continue to eradicate Black subjectivity when he writes, “Whiteness is parasitic because it monumentalizes its subjective capacity, its lush cartography, in direct proportion to the wasteland of Black incapacity. By ‘capacity’ I have meant something more than comprehensive than ‘the event’ and it casual elements and something more indeterminate than ‘agency’. We should think of it as a kind of facility or matrix through which possibility itself can be elaborated. Without the Negro, capacity itself is incoherent.” (Wilderson, Red, White, and Black, pg. 45). This parasitic relationship is the foundation of anti-blackness. Wilderson argues that the paradigms of analysis that constitute both modern and postmodern epistemology necessitate the perpetuation of the ontological construction of the Black Body as the Slave because they are reliant on the incapacity of Black subjectivity to imagine its own possibility so that White capacity can have something to compare itself to maintain its own coherence, to have an example of social death that it can look to in order to assure ontologically that they have the capacity and agency to imagine possibility for itself. A prime example of parasitic Whiteness can be seen with Gilles Deleuze’s concept of being in a constant state of “becoming”, in which we refuse to be shackled by the static identity that dominant institutions label us with so that we can be in a better position to examine our own desire for repression that institutions seem to take advantage of. (Conley, Deleuze and Queer Theory, pg. 25-27). The parasitism that takes place here is that the idea of being in a constant state of “becoming” is inaccessible to the Black Body because it requires some form of independent subjectivity in the first place. In order for one to assure themselves that they are in the state of “always becoming”, that they have the capacity to engage in this process, the incapacity of the Black Body to engage in this form of “becoming” must be maintained so that Whiteness can have that model of incapacity to with which to compare itself to so as to assure itself ontologically that they are in the process of becoming. Legal reform falls into the same reasoning for Wilderson. He critiques these forms of coalitional politics as “feigning ontological capacity regardless of the fact that Blackness is incapacity in its pure and unadulterated form.”. (Wilderson, Red, White and Black, pg. 38). By incapacity, Wilderson means that the Black Body can never access the benefits o legal reform because they do not have the subjectivity to be able to advocate for their own interests nor will civil society ever recognize the Black Body because the construction of the Black Body as the Slave is necessitated by the parasitic nature of Whiteness so as to maintain an a conception of their capacity to shape their own subjectivity. Thus, in a world where we continue to placate the Black Body with the false hope of legal reform, anti-black violence will always be inevitable in that world because we will never take the necessary steps required to re-examine the epistemology that constructs the Black Body as the Slave in the first place. For Wilderson, the only way we can do that is through complete freedom by imagining the end of the world. Regarding the reconceptualization that is necessary, Wilderson writes, “The Slave needs freedom not from wage relation, nor sexism, homophobia, and patriarchy, nor freedom in in the form of land restoration. The slave needs freedom from the Human race, freedom from the world. The Slave requires gratuitous freedom. Only gratuitous freedom can repair the object status of his or her flesh, which itself is the product of accumulation’s and fungibility’s gratuitous violence. There are no feelings powerful enough to alter to the structural relation between the living and the dead. But one can imagine feelings powerful enough to bring the living to death.”(Wilderson, Red, White and Black, pg. 141-142). Imagining the end of the world is the only way that the Slave can truly become free form the Human race. This is the knowledge production that Wilderson advocates to bring about the “gratuitous freedom” that is needed to reconceptualize Black ontology. However, there are two negative impacts to this form of thinking. The first is that Wilderson’s call to imagine the end of the world is a form of colonialist knowledge production because it universalizes the experiences of the individual black people by forcing them to embrace the negativity surrounding their own ontological position in the world, reducing them to what Spivak calls the subaltern. The second is that Wilderson’s thought production destroys the potential for emancipatory political reform as his negativity creates a form of political apathy in which the Black Body loses all motivation to challenge the laws that perpetuate racism while creating a culture of self-hatred for one’s identity that destroys the possibility of forming coalitions that Bell hooks believes necessary to break down racism.
Gayatri Spivak in her 1988 article Can the Subaltern Speak offers a radical criticism of the postmodern philosophy of French intellectuals Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. In the article, she accuses Foucault and Deleuze for engaging in a form of intellectual colonialism because of the way that they have mystified the Other into a subject that is in need of rescuing. Spivak criticizes the way in which both philosophers and the way that they analyzed power relations and the role of desire in capital accumulation universalize the experiences of the Subject, creating a parasitic relationship between the French intellectuals and the Subject in which, because experiences become universalized, Foucault and Deleuze claim to speak on behalf of the Subject, requiring that the Subject be silenced so that they can advance their own philosophy and analyses as a form of intellectual liberation. This in turn creates what Spivak calls the subaltern, a Subject who is silenced because they cannot speak for themselves and their own experiences in the face of the Western philosophers who claim to understand their experiences and know what’s best for them. Spivak uses the example of colored women in Africa and those subjected to Hindu law in India as examples of the subaltern because these people are examples of the Subjects that Foucault and Deleuze claim their way of thinking is directed to. Their experiences become universalized, destroying their own agency and creating a relationship of colonialism similar to the way that colonial administrators and governments implemented policies and made decisions on the basis that they were what everyone wanted. While Spivak’s criticism is targeted to a school of thought that it radically different from Wilderson’s, my argument here is that the way in which Wilderson claims that every Black Nody is ontologically a slave and that every Black Body must imagine the end of the world in order to free themselves from the chains of their own ontology is playing into the same colonial logic that Spivak criticizes Foucault and Deleuze for because Wilderson has universalized the experiences of the Black Body by claiming that they are all bad, that these experiences mean that they all have no future within civil society. In building upon Spivak’s work, Linda Alcoff argues that speaking on behalf of others and what they should do for themselves in problematic when she writes, “There may appear to be a conflation between the issue of speaking for others and the issue of speaking about others. This conflation was intentional on my part. There is an ambiguity in the two phrases: when one is speaking for others one may be describing their situation and thus also speaking about them. In fact, it may be impossible to speak for others without simultaneously conferring information about them. Similarly, when one is speaking about others, or simply trying to describe their situation or some aspect of it, one may also be speaking in place of them, that is, speaking for them. One may be speaking about others as an advocate or a messenger if the persons cannot speak for themselves. Thus I would maintain that if the practice of speaking for others is problematic, so too must be the practice of speaking about others, since it is difficult to distinguish speaking about from speaking for in all cases. Moreover, if we accept the premise stated above that a speaker’s location has an epistemically significant impact on that speaker’s claims, then both the practice of speaking for and of speaking about raise similar issues. If “speaking about” is also involved here, however, the entire edifice of the “crisis of representation” must be connected as well. In both the practice of speaking for as well as the practice of speaking about others, I am engaging in the act of representing the other’s needs, goals, situation, and in fact, who they are. I am representing them as such and such, or in post-structuralist terms, I am participating in the construction of their subject-positions. Even if someone never hears the discursive self I present of them they may be affected by the decisions.” (Alcoff, The Problem of Speaking for Others, pg. 5-32). Wilderson has spoken for behalf of others. His claims that the Middle Passage has been the root of Black suffering because of the way that it has constructed their ontology depicts him as the messenger Alcoff criticizes because he claims to understand their situation better than they understand it themselves. When Wilderson claims that the Slave needs to imagine themselves free from the Human race, Wilderson has created a subject position of the entire Black community that is subject to his decision-making by the way he represents them. This excludes the majority of Black folk who believe that they have a future and who believe that the Civil Rights movement was a step in the right direction. He has silenced their experiences in favor of presenting the Black experience as one of universal suffering and negativity. The same way that Wilderson believes the capacity of Whiteness to imagine new possibilities is parasitic upon the Black incapacity to do so, Wilderson’s critique is also parasitic upon the construction of social death upon the Black Body so that he can continue to speak on behalf of the Black Body and present himself as their savior by imagining the end of the world. Spivak brilliantly articulates just how speaking for others is reminiscent of the logic of imperialism when she writes, “For the “true” subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself; the intellecutal’s solution is not to abstain from representation. The problem IS that the subject’s itinerary has not been traced so as to offer an object of seduction to the representing intellectual. In the slightly dated language of the Indian group, the question becomes, How can we touch the consciousness of the people~ even as we investigate their politics? With what voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak? Their project, after all, is to rewrite the development of the consciousness of the Indian nation. Imperialism’s image as the establisher of the good society is marked by the espousal of the woman as object of protection from her own kind. How should one examine the dissimulation of patriarchal strategy, which apparently grants the woman free choice as subject? In other words how does one make the move from “Britain” to “Hinduism”? Even the attempt shows that imperialism is not identical with chromatism, or mere prejudice against the people of color.” Wilderson has reduced black folk who believe in optimism to the position of the subaltern. He refuses to hear their experiences in favor of imposing his own vision of Black ontology onto their bodies. He has positioned himself as the British colonial master who attempted to rewrite Indian consciousness when he claims that we should imagine the end of the world. This is how he attempts to rewrite Black consciousness when he says that the only way in which they can recover their own Subject positions is by freeing themselves from the bonds of civil society and embracing their own negativity, inevitably excluding those such as Gloria Jean Watkins who believe in the hope of coalitional politics. While Wilderson claims that he has the solution for destroying colonial ontology, his methodology of speaking on behalf for others is reminiscent of the very same logic of colonialism that Spivak highlights, a logic that coalitional politics can help break.
As stated earlier, the main premise to Wilderson’s argument for Afro-pessimism derives from the work done by Orlando Patterson between the relationship between slavery and the condition of social death for the Black Body. Thus, because of this condition of social death, Wilderson believes that the Black Body is incapable of accessing the law through legal reform and progress because of the way they are marked ontologically as the Slave. However, historian Vincent Brown has uncovered evidence with regards to the experience of slavery and social death when he writes, “The premise of Orlando Patterson’s major work, that enslaved Africans were natally alienated and culturally isolated, was challenged even before he published his influential thesis, primarily by scholars concerned with “survivals” or “retentions” of African culture and by historians of slave resistance. In the early to mid-twentieth century, when Robert Park’s view of “the Negro” predominated among scholars, it was generally assumed that the slave trade and slavery had denuded black people of any ancestral heritage from Africa. The historians Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois and the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits argued the opposite. Their research supported the conclusion that while enslaved Africans could not have brought intact social, political, and religious institutions with them to the Americas, they did maintain significant aspects of their cultural backgrounds. For these scholars, the preservation of distinctive cultural forms has served as an index both of a resilient social personhood, or identity, and of resistance to slavery itself. Scholars of slave resistance have never had much use for the concept of social death. How could they have formed the fragile families documented by social historians if they had been “natally alienated” by definition? Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, if slaves had been uniformly subjected to “permanent violent domination,” they could not have revolted as often as they did or shown the “varied manifestations of their resistance.” (Brown, Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery, pg. 11-13). Patterson’s major theme regarding the social death of slaves is that, since birth, they have been unable to engage in the kind of social relations they desired because their status as fungible objects meant that those relations were always at the discretion of their masters. However, as Brown points out, Patterson, and subsequently Wilderson, have ignored that there were experiences free from the watchful eyes of the master. Furthermore, in the context of Wilderson, the fact that there remains to be evidence that slaves had preserved a distinct culture, than this would indicate that they retained some of there culture from Africa after the Middle Passage, the event that erased Black ontology for Wilderson. To put in bluntly, Africans did not come out of the Middle Passage as Blacks, but came out with some form of their culture still left intact, a culture, that, for Brown, still grew and developed in its own way even during the atrocities of slavery. If Wilderson’s main argument for the ontological death of the Black Body is because of their incapacity to develop their own subjectivity, then the formation of a distinct slave culture would invalidate this argument because the formation of a distinct culture shows that the Black Body still retained some capacity to form their own subjectivity, a sign of life in the ontological realm. Furthermore, if the Black Body were truly ontologically dead in the present, then statistics would indicate otherwise. A study by the Journal of Blacks in Higher education shows that since 1990, the graduation rate for Black men has improved from 28% to 35% in 2005 and subsequently 34% to 46% for Black women during the same period. The study does conceded that the statistics remain low, but that the progress made in the past 15 years has been encouraging and that reform has been a step in the right direction. If the Black Body were truly socially dead, then institutions such as the university would be completely inaccessible to the Black Body, yet the progress made in graduation rates show that the Black Body still has some agency and capacity to shape their own futures.
By disproving Wilderson’s claim that the Black Body is in a perpetual state of ontological death because of the violence of the Middle Passage and showing that the Black Body is not socially dead, then the possibilities of legal reform and coalitional politics become possible and desirable. For Wilderson, coalitional politics are just attempts to feign the ontological capacity of Blacks to shape their own future. He refers to white people and colored immigrants specifically who try to engage in coalitional politics with the Black Body as “the junior and senior partners of civil society” who pretend as if the Black is coherent and human. (Wilderson, Red, White and Black, pg. 39). It is this kind of ontological absolutism that Wilderson adheres to that David Marriott criticizes when he writes, “Wilderson is prepared to say that black suffering is not only beyond analogy, it also refigures the whole of being. It is not hard when reading such sentences to suspect a kind of absolutism at work here, and one that manages to be peculiarly and dispiritingly dogmatic: throughout Red, White, and Black, despite variations in tone and emphasis, there is always the desire to have black lived experience named as the worst, and the politics of such a desire inevitably collapses into a kind of sentimental moralism: for the claim that ‘Blackness is incapacity in its most pure and unadulterated form’ means merely that the black has to embody this abjection without reserve (p. 38). This logic—and the denial of any kind of ‘ontological integrity’ to the Black/Slave due to its endless traversal by force does seem to reduce ontology to logic, namely, a logic of non-recuperability.” (Mariott, Black Cultural Studies, pg. 37-66). Wilderson’s insistence of absolute negativity destroys the possibility for coalitional politics because it will always frame the Black Body as something that will always stand in an antagonistic position to the world. In engaging in this form of ontological absolutism, Wilderson effectively creates an ”us against the world” logic whereby its best to either succumb to the negativity surrounding the Black Body or destroy the world to free the Black Body. Furthermore, as Mariott points out, this dogmatic ontological absolutism essentializes the Black experience to its most negative point, a kind of negativity that reproduces a form of self-hatred that contributes to the destruction of positive coalitional politics. When one comes to believe that they themselves are ontologically dead, this encourages the logic of political apathy where one refuses to attempt to engage with agents of change because they curse their own identity and believe that there is nothing they can do about their situation because Blackness is an ontological condition. To put it in Lehman’s term, “why go vote if I’m socially dead?”. This form of disengagement from the political is problematic when racism is entrenched in our law, as Ian Haney Lopez points out in his book White By Law when he writes, “law is implicated in the construction of the contingent social systems of meaning that attach in our society to morphology and ancestry, the meaning system we commonly refer to as race. The legal system influences what we look like, the meanings ascribed to our looks, and the material reality that confirms the meanings of our appearances. Law constructs race.” (Lopez, White By Law, pg. 16). If the precedent set by court cases, as Lopez points out, were responsible for creating the precedents that shaped how we see race as a social construction, then the need to challenge racism through legal reform becomes more apparent. Wilderson’s ontological absolutism destroys the possibility to form the kind of coalitions that are necessary to engaging with the legal systems that use the law to shape our social perceptions of race. The kind of self-hatred that Wilderson perpetuates through his ontological construction of Blackness will only re-entrench racism because the Black Body will refuse to engage in the forms of legal reform necessary to change the law and they way it shapes how we view race as a social construction. If the law is what truly shapes the social construction of race and if the Black Body is truly capable of engaging with these institutions, then Wilderson’s Afro-pessimism must be firmly rejected to usher in a politics of hope that is necessary to mobilize coalitions against dominant power structures.
The idea of embracing a politics of hope and solidarity is a concept that would seem absolutely foreign to Wilderson. Indeed, with the recent events surrounding the likes of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the credibility surrounding the Afro-pessimist school of thought is increasing. Yet it is precisely these events that necessitate a politics of hope and solidarity that Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name Bell Hooks, advocates for in her 1996 book Killing Rage: Ending Racism when she writes, “Black Americans are succumbing to and internalizing the racist assumption that there can be no meaningful bonds of intimacy between blacks and whites. It is fascinating to explore why it is that black people trapped in the worst situation of racial oppression—enslavement—had the foresight to see that it would be disempowering for them to lose sight of the capacity of white people to transform themselves and divest of white supremacy, even as many black folks today who in no way suffer such extreme racist oppression and exploitation are convinced that white people will not repudiate racism. Contemporary black folks, like their white counterparts, have passively accepted the internalization of white supremacist assumptions. Organized white supremacists have always taught that there can never be trust and intimacy between the superior white race and the inferior black race. When black people internalize these sentiments, no resistance to white supremacy is taking place, rather we become complicit in spreading racist notions. It does not matter that so many black people feel white people will never repudiate racism because of being daily assaulted by white denial and refusal of accountability. We must not allow the actions of white folks who blindly endorse racism to determine the direction of our resistance. Like our white allies in struggle we must consistently keep the faith, by always sharing the truth that white people can be anti-racist, that racism is not some immutable character flaw.” (Bell Hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, pg. 269-270). Bell Hooks avoids falling into the colonial trap of Wilderson by speaking for herself and her own experiences. By acknowledging that there are many anti-racist whites, she has created a space where Black folk who believe that they have a future can speak of their own experiences and contribute to meaningful dialogue about how Black folk should take steps forward in the context of legal reform. Unlike Wilderson who universalizes the Black experience, Bell Hooks acknowledges that internalizing racist assumptions of the Black Body, or in the context of Wilderson, their own ontological construction, will only give into White supremacy because the cycle of self-hatred creates a sense of powerlessness that prevents the Black Body from ever getting out in the first place. Furthermore, Wilderson’s ontological absolutism is a tactic of White supremacy, because, as pointed out by Bell Hooks, it creates a sense of distrust that plays into the divide and conquer mentality that is crucial to White supremacy’s grip on society. For Bell Hooks, when the Black community gives into its own pessimism, White supremacists win because there is no motivation for resistance. In the wake of recent events, embracing a politics of hope and solidarity is more important than ever as racism begins to become more apparent. Hope offers the crucial first step towards encouraging the first steps towards resistance, a step that Wilderson’s extreme negativity prevents from ever been taken. Instead of imagining the end of the world, we must imagine a world with a better future.
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The essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was reprinted in this book from the original essay published by Spivak in 1985. I am only citing the essay.
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Wilderson, F. (2010). Red, white & black: Cinema and the structure of U.S. antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hooks, B. (1995). Killing rage: Ending racism. New York: H. Holt and.