The Question of Ethics in the Semiotics of Brownness

• October 2020

           I dedicate this essay to my students who arrived at these questions long before I did.

 

Black thought, black culture, and black intramural relation are not ethically bound anywhere on this earth to save anyone nonblack nor to extend an enchantingly reworlding or future-naturalizing hand to any protocol of nonblack thought.1 “Brownness” distorts extraction into relation. However, this nonblack writer does not view relation as a given and writes with the suspended assumption that the sign of blackness must necessarily move toward commonality with nonblack signs and positions—on the levels of poetics, sociality, or aesthetics.

1.

As a Caribbeanist, and as another child of the Cuban diaspora in the United States who critically questions what we must not continue doing with Cubanity, I ask, Can the semiosis of US-Latinx brownness operate without Afro-Caribbean and African American thought?2 If the semiosis of brownness requires the diction and thinking of black philosophy, literature, critical theory, religion, music, and culture to operate, then what, we might ask, does it offer the semiosis and poiesis of blackness in return?

José Esteban Muñoz wrote extensively about brownness as a commons for being multiple;3 as a negative and antinormative US-Latinx, minoritarian affect;4 and as a nonidentitarian mode of existing as nonblack (in all of the Americas) yet nonwhite (in the United States)5—in other words, brownness maneuvers a ranging semiosis of “becoming.” His latter essays sought a Latina/o ontology through affect and, eventually, sense.6 His oeuvre does not examine the distinction between the Western philosophical and everyday constructions of blackness as a threatening, contaminating incoherence and those of nonblack Latinidad as a generative, assimilable incoherence.7 Rather, brownness’s semiosis often enacts a conversion with this difference. In it, African diasporic aesthetics and conceptual forms signify “vitality.” Their vitality undergoes a metamorphosis when copulated with white Marxist and affective theories, often to make language for the aesthetics and naturalize the life-potential of displaced white Cubans and nonblack Chicanxs. The former is my focus here. Their aesthetic cases are unwhitened or soft-whitened in their transit into the belly of US empire. Blackness, the unasked -for annihilative historical transformation of Africanicity and multiplicity, when in their semiotic vicinity, is a repository of unquestionably shareable sense, the life force to be reordered by brownness’s becoming.

 

What is absorbed in this conversion, among other things, is blackness as a point of view—one that may see the inevitability of relation and shared sense with the human project as premised on the project of black death and erasures of black knowledge. The specific semiotic acts I find myself at critical odds with dispose of black dispossession’s critique of the nonblack conversion of blackness for the vitalism of brownness. These acts recall the narrated Afro-Cuban women who passed under white Cuban Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s balcony in La isla que se repite, whose black sensoria and movements exist to comfort him (per him) to continue assuming his life and his world on his earth as endowed with futurity.8 The semiotic acts that I question come too close to the speech acts in a scene from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film Memorias del subdesarrollo (fig. 1). Seated on the left side of the frame is Edmundo Desnoes, a white Cuban man and the author of the book adapted for the film, speaking about his experience in the United States.9 Sitting at the table with him is the Haitian poet René Depestre. Traced by the camera, an Afro-Cuban man circles around the table to serve the speakers glasses of water. One wonders, if white Latin Americans sense themselves as “Negroes, discriminated against, oppressed” in the United States, then what (how, where) is blackness? Or post-1492 African diasporic history? How might black imaginaries sense themselves in this structure of language and thought?

 

"black and white film still of men at conference"

Figure 1. Still from the 1968 film Memorias del subdesarrollo, directed by Tomás Gutierrez Alea.

When Muñoz close-reads a passage from Hortense J. Spillers’s essay “All the Things You Could Be By Now, if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother: Psychoanalysis and Race,” he writes that brownness knows itself as such through a “displaceable attentiveness” and a “self-knowing formatted by the nation’s imaginary through the powerful spikes in the North American consciousness identified with the public life of blackness.”10 Muñoz is discussing a black subject position not within the minoritarian position he theorizes here but outside it. Also, Muñoz was not read as “blacktino,” nor did he write from an Afro-Cuban position.11 I am aware of the powerful feelings around the loss of Muñoz. I wrote an elegy mourning the loss of him and the black artist Terry Adkins.12 And we must exercise precision as well as care with the hagiography and with Afro-Cubanness.

What is brownness’s ethics? What about from the level of diction, such as when the terms “dispossessed” and “in the face of negation” are used for white Cubans? And at the level of argument, as in Muñoz’s essay “Vitalism’s After-burn: The Sense of Ana Mendieta”? The latter opens in a mixture of elegy and criticism, arguing that Mendieta’s violent death (Mendieta’s husband, the Anglo white artist Carl Andre, allegedly killed her) underscores the “intense vitalism” of her art practice, revealing “a concentrated interest in life itself.”13 Muñoz cites the prolific art writer Lucy Lippard’s introduction to Christine Redfern and Caro Caron’s curious graphic novel Who Is Ana Mendieta? as a source on Mendieta being “in fact ‘Brown.’” “Lippard easily describes Mendieta as brown,” he writes.14 I am not sure how this Anglo white woman’s impression carries critical authority on the Cuban racial schema that formed Mendieta as white. Throughout Who Is Ana Mendieta?, there is a range of caricatures drawn in defense of white innocence, and one page reflects that the Mendieta sisters were called the n-word on their arrival to the United States (fig. 2). That this may have been said, however, does not make them black or nonwhite; there is a subsumption of black(ness as) injury at work here and in various of Ana Mendieta’s statements about herself. This subsumption facilitates an “alignment” with the sign “people of color,” recast by Muñoz as “being brownness,” “encounter[ing] brownness,” and “a sense of brownness,” and a misalignment against blackness.15

 

"black and white page of graphic novel reading Viva la revolucion at bottom of page"

Figure 2. Illustration from Who is Ana Mendieta? by Christine Redfern, illustrated Caro Caron. Girls. Copyright © 2011 by Christine Redfern.
Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, www.feministpress.org. All rights reserved.

“Vitalism’s After-burn” focuses on Mendieta’s series Siluetas. Muñoz reads the earth that Mendieta physically and elementally reshaped as generative of a brown world in common. After noting the critical theorist Donna V. Jones’s The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity, which historically explicates and polysemically situates Henri Bergson’s “racialist” conceptualization of vitalism, its connections through existentialism to fascism, and its place in Léopold Sédar Senghor’s and Aimé Césaire’s (sometimes strategically essentialist) négritude poetics and philosophies, Muñoz indexes critical pause around Mendieta’s usages of the “figural language of . . . Afro-Cuban religiosity.”16 The criticisms are not analogous. Négritude poetics’ reimagining of a white European “mysticist” theory of life is not equal to a white Cuban artist’s unfettered uses of Afro-Cuban belief and figure. Belief and figure are part of a black critical and poetic tradition of African diasporic loss and reimagining of worlds.17 Rather than observing caution around vitalism’s potential antiblackness,18Muñoz espouses a vitalist take on the African as shareable spirit for Mendieta’s conversion of it into “the vital force of brownness”:

When considering the world of Afro-Cuban imagery that Mendieta called upon one need not visualize it as real or imaginary, nor about belief or disbelief. Mendieta relied on the figural language of African, Afro-Cuban and Taíno Afro-Cuban religiosity. Olga M. Viso mentioned the concerns that surrounded [Mendieta’s] use of sacred symbolism. Some believed her use of this image lexicon inadvertently “conjured forces that she did not fully comprehend.” The question of the artist’s intention or deliberate belief in relation to these images is somewhat beside the point insofar as the work instead suggests a sense of the world as the shareabilty of life that is attentive to the precarity and affectivity of brownness. The images are all imprints of life that call upon some potentially unifying notion of a real or imagined past world. . . . For some, racialist thinking is among the worst traps facing the intellectual or artist of color. Yet it seems that if we displace the predictable good dog/bad dog argumentation around concepts like essentialism we might see the mimetic operations and enactments, or “doings” presented in certain performances of élan vital (or what I am calling the vital force of brownness) that might be something other than a conservative or even reactionary appeal to heritage or common memory.19

Why is black belief beside the point? Why is African diasporic poiesis shareable sine quaestione by the nonblack Mendieta? Why would the world her art conjured not be black? Why do black worlds have no claim in/on the Mendieta Estate and its attendant discourses? Let me lead the horse to water: blackness is not a position in brownness’s semiotic world but material for its becoming. This kind of statement—“Mendieta’s endeavors emerged from the strain of the kind of negation that is loss of homeland, ethnos, and other vagaries of selfhood”—being made without any recognition that the terms of listed losses here also (and, I argue, given the Caribbean context, overwhelmingly) signify Africanicity becoming black in the Americas through enslavement evinces bad faith.20 White Cubans’ claims of injured feeling in the United States have a long history, as does their forgetting of Cuba’s and the Caribbean’s racial schemas and their “hostile,” antiemancipatory antiblackness.21 Brownness claims its precarity in making whatever use of Afro-Caribbean forms and calls it “potentially unifying.” Unifying of what and for whom? When Afro-Caribbean forms present questions of brownness’s relationship to blackness, then all traumas point to implicitly equal historical dispossessions. Rebuttal of the conversion of African and black into white US-Latinx vitality in the name of brownness is rendered as “reactionary.”22

That this protocol may be extractive is not merely because black people’s and black critiques are identitarian red herrings (as if blackness ever has a way out of “authenticity’s” harangue) or necessarily literalist. Such critiques are also about the aesthetic and philosophical complexity of linguistic, formal, sensorial, and social arrangements and perspectives, as well as their being forsaken or subsumed. Part of José Quiroga’s argument as to why the white Cuban writer, anthropologist, and lesbian Lydia Cabrera’s El monte is “one of the queerest books ever written by a Cuban author” is not just because its author was a lesbian or because of its aural narrative mechanics, but because the reader finds in it the observed (Afro-Cubans) observing the white observer and that these observers generate an expansive diction for queerness that eludes white Cubanity’s range and understanding.23

“Brownness is not white, and it is not black either,” writes Muñoz, “yet it does not simply sit midway between them.”24 Despite what the syntax claims, brownness sits squarely between black and white, semiotically emerging through subsumption and semantic negation. That negation disregards black critical theories of both ontological negation and epistemic plurality as the (non)places from which to imagine any kind of ethics, much less “future,” since 1492.

2.

What does brownness seed in the flourishing places of the black cultural and conceptual structures from which it harvests diction, orientation, sense, and social position?

While it is unfashionable to say so, I do not read relational possibility in US-Latinx brownness.25 Yet it covets relation, and without it there would be no nature, earth, or world for the brown commons. Brown semiosis disperses blackness into its system glaringly deadlocked with whiteness. For is the primary attachment of Latinx brownness not to whiteness? This comes in the form of anger at it (which I certainly share), or as exemplified here, in the form of preferred binding, as when Muñoz writes, “[Lippard] need not theorize that sense of Mendieta as performing, radiating, enacting and being brownness. This is the project that I take up in this writing.”26 Brownness binds itself to whiteness because that grants it a world to live in. But to make claims about feeling or sense, brownness converts blackness into unquestionably shareable no-longer-blackness.

As someone who understands Cubanity and relates to aspects of Muñoz’s theoretical range and irreverence—I am no outsider to the oeuvre—I sense that part of the trouble with brownness is that its indiscernibility disguises white Caribbean Latinx bad faith. Some of the writing vibrates with doubt. Some of its citational effects convey the violence of seeking an analogical position to blackness in the Americas.27 I think that its semiotic operation drifts too close to others where blackness is granted the right to rupture, only to be reordered by Western thought.28 I think that it has something specific to do with prerevolutionary white Cubanness claimed as dispossession, premised on its assumption of lost possession, founded on its violent disregard of Afro-Cuban historical dispossession and, per Nancy Mirabal’s Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823–1957, black notions of freedom and desire, as well as criticism emergent from that unthinkable position.29 I think that it enacts two of the motives it aims to critique: the universalizing tendencies of Western philosophy and the antiblack and anti-indigenous discourse of mestizaje.

Brownness does not make sense in Cuba; moreover, Cubans do not need another word for abject pleasure to come from the United States.30 Generously, I can see how in brown discourse there is a desire to find one’s own past—“A way of getting to a past that is my own (the Caribbean Sea),” as Jamaica Kincaid writes, “and the past as it is indirectly related to me (the conquest of Mexico and its surroundings)”—and precisely by one who has infelicitously migrated to the shithole United States.31 But we must assume that Muñoz was aware of Édouard Glissant (in his sixteen years of teaching at the City University of New York Graduate Center) and of the long history of black and white diasporic Cubans writing from New York. Brownness cannot withstand a critique from Afro-Antillean “Relation”—or any Afro-Caribbean tradition of thought—nor from Afro-pessimist or black critical theory.

Can nonblack readers of brownness’s corporeal, affective, sensorial, and worlded schema will our futurity in the face of black uprising against the antiblack world that we neither perish in nor inhabit in common? While it may be frightening to examine antiblackness in its schema, it is terrifying not to.32

3.

I am one of Muñoz’s close readers. His Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics was formative for me.33 Latinx brownness is a concept I studied for years. The concept fell apart for me in the readerly process of writing and revising my book, The Cry of the Senses, and its Caribbean Americas vantage.

My mother was born in Havana, Cuba, to a deeply Catholic mother and agnostic father. In the early years of the institutionalizing of the revolution, her nonblack-in-Cuba family moved from the streets named for planets and the Bay of Havana to San Francisco and a bay of another climatic and racial order. In facial features and skin tones, my mother favors her Lebanese grandmother, whose last name was Rubí. Her grandmother died in Santa Clara, a region known for its shrewd Lebanese businesspeople, a construct wrought in contrast to that of black idleness. My father, a white preacher in a conservative cult of Christianity, a verbal abuser, a charming depressive, and an athlete, was born in north Georgia. He is the child of Ellises and Dunns. Their racism and cruelty toward my mother growing up was vile and visceral and masked in that white Southern way, known but unrecognized as such.

I learned to look by looking at my mother. As a child, I was disturbed by how she had panic attacks en route to visiting my father’s people, who are discursively overwhelming; by how they talked down to her and how they—and he—talked about his children within earshot of us. I will not repeat my memories of his diction of antiblack epithets for us, but in the elision, I will say that this was clear: his children were not seen as white by those white people he called family because their mother was not. Before coming into any discourse of Latinidad, I understood myself as signifying something nonwhite in my racial ambiguity to them and something nonblack to my Cuban family. In both schemas, my existence is proof of the cruelty of whiteness and of not being black.

I grew up mostly in Memphis, Tennessee, but as a teenager, I worked summers in the law office of a Cuban uncle in Hialeah, Florida. This would have been less than a decade after Muñoz moved north from Hialeah and a little more than a decade before Trayvon Martin’s family buried him in a cemetery near there, after he was killed by the white (or brown?) Latino, George Zimmerman. My uncle, a studious, handsome, and angry man, was one of few members of my Cuban family who talked about Cuba, the hotels where my grandfather worked as a cook, and how he wished they had not migrated to the United States. Before he was a lawyer, he was a federal agent and, so the stories went, sometimes went undercover with a thick, black beard to appear “Arab.” As we commuted from his house in Boca Raton to work in Hialeah, my uncle would point out with disgust neighborhoods where Haitians lived. He also loathed Florida “crackers”—particularly the new rich, white, and culturally illiterate.

I position the personal here to pivot to the critical: whiteness is cruel, and its hails misdirect relation. Antiblackness pervades the United States and Cuba. And the racist violence that my Cuban family experienced in the United States does not erase that they are historically white Cubans and of a society sadistically shaped by sugarcane plantation slavery.

There are paradigms, epistemologies, and cosmogonies of blackness that are not subject to this world’s antiblackness. Nonblack US-Latinx brownness will not be found there.

Rather than bend black semiosis to make a brown one work, come hell or high water, perhaps we, readers, should consider that there are impasses. Signs can grow from breaks. Black visual theorist Tina Campt has offered “adjacency” for affective and spatial orientation to black art by black artists witnessed by nonblack subject positions.34 I offer a potential ethics of besideness, a possibility of being broken together that does not rush to repair.35 Latinx literary studies scholar and nonfiction writer Marcos Gonsalez cautions that where “brownness” seeks to be “equivalent to blackness, yellowness, and redness,” it enacts a dangerous collapse and reinvigorates white Latinidad.36 Thought premised on making black thought mean things not for black people and imaginaries generates critical consequences. There must be another sign and semiotics for how shitty indeed it feels to be a nonblack Caribbean “Latinx” subject of the United States.

 

Ren Ellis Neyra is the author of The Cry of the Senses: Listening to Latinx and Caribbean Poetics (Duke, 2020). An associate professor at Wesleyan University, they teach Caribbean, African diasporic, and US Latinx poetics, critical theory, and aesthetics in English and African American studies.


1. I take seriously Axelle Karera’s questions of an ethics of “non-relationality” and “hyperbolized,” “naturalized” relationality that conceals antiblack oppression, as I do David Marriott’s postulate that a nostalgic yet teleological “fantasy . . . collectivity” may be “at the very heart of hegemony.” Axelle Karera, “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics,” Critical Philosophy of Race 7, no. 1 (2019): 47–50, 43; David Marriott, “Black Cultural Studies,” The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory 19 (2011): 4.

2. Stuart Hall, Aimé Césaire, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston are inscripted.

3. See José Esteban Muñoz, “Preface: Fragment from The Sense of Brown Manuscript,” GLQ 24, no. 4 (2018): 395–97.

4. See José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” Signs 31, no. 3 (2006): 679; and “Wise Latinas,” Criticism 56, no. 2 (2014): 250.

5. See José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STD’s),” Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (2000): 67–79.

6. Muñoz, “Wise Latinas,” 250.

7. See Frank Wilderson, “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal,” Social Justice 30, no. 2 (2003): 18–27.

8. See Antonio Benítez-Rojo, introduction to La isla que se repite: El Caribe y la perspectiva posmoderna (Hanover, NH: Ediciones del Norte, 1989), xiii; The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James E. Maraniss (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 10.

9. Memorias del subdesarrollo, dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 97 min., Cuba, 1968. The camera mocks Desnoes in this scene. But the question remains: What does the ironic, white Cuban require to stay in place for the joke to work?

10. Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” 680. “Displaceable attentiveness” is Spillers’s term; see Hortense J. Spillers, “All the Things You Could Be By Now, if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother: Psychoanalysis and Race,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 400.

11. See the introduction to José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown, ed. Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong’o (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), xvii.

12. See Ren Ellis Neyra, “The Ideal Rock and Roll Song Is Three Minutes Long,” Women and Performance 25, no. 3 (2016): 357–60.

13. José Esteban Muñoz, “Vitalism’s After-burn: The Sense of Ana Mendieta,” Women and Performance 21, no. 2 (2011): 191. See Leticia Alvarado, Abject Performances: Aesthetics Strategies in Latino Cultural Production (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), in which Alvarado contextualizes Mendieta’s Siluetas.

14. Muñoz, “Vitalism’s After-burn,” 192. See Lucy R. Lippard, introduction to Christine Redfern and Caro Caron, Who Is Ana Mendieta? (New York: Feminist, 2011), 6–15.

15. Muñoz, “Vitalism’s After-burn,” 192.

16. Ibid., 194. See Donna V. Jones, The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

17. See Jay Wright, “Desire’s Design, Vision’s Resonance: Black Poetry’s Ritual and Historical Voice,” Callaloo, no. 30 (Winter 1987): 13–28.

18. “I do not think that vitalism or praxis philosophies,” Jones writes, “can ground critical theory today” (Racial Discourses, 57).

19. Muñoz, “Vitalism’s After-burn,” 194–195 (emphasis mine).

20. Ibid., 192 (italics in original).

21. See Anne Eller, “Rumors of Slavery: Defending Emancipation in a Hostile Caribbean,” American Historical Review 122, no. 3 (2017): 653–79.

22. Muñoz, “Vitalism’s After-burn,” 195.

23. José Quiroga, Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 76. See Lydia Cabrera, El monte (Havana: CR, 1954). For an Afro-Cuban critique of Cabrera, see Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, “Elogio del apalencamiento: Notas sobre la invisibilización de los activistas e intelectuales negros cubanos,” Negra cubana tenía que ser (blog), 25 May 2016, https://negracubanateniaqueser.com/2016/05/25/elogio-del-apalencamiento-notas-sobre-la-invisibilizacion-de-los-activistas-e-intelectuales-negros-cubanos/

24. Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” 680.

25. In an endnote in The Cry of the Senses, I imagine brownness may get some relief from relation; see Ren Ellis Neyra, The Cry of the Senses: Listening to Latinx and Caribbean Poetics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 173n7. But it precisely takes relation for granted and despite the affective temporality that Saidiya Hartman names “the afterlife of slavery” in the Americas. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, no. 26 (June 2008): 13.

26. Muñoz, “Vitalism’s After-burn,” 192.

27. See Saidiya Hartman and Frank Wilderson, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 183–201.

28. See Ronald A. Judy, Disforming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

29. See Nancy Mirabal, Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823–1957 (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

30. For the editorial introduction to Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown, Chambers-Letson and N’yongo narrate traveling to Havana in search of brownness (ix–xxxii).

31. Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden (Book) (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 7.

32. See David S. Marriott, Whither Fanon? Studies in the Blackness of Being (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

33. See José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

34. See Tina Campt, “Adjacency: Luke Willis Thompson’s Poethics of Care,” Flash Art, no. 327 (September–October 2019), https://flash---art.com/article/adjacency-luke-willis-thompsons-poethics-of-care/.

35. I theorize an ethics of besideness in The Cry of the Senses. See also “brokenness” in Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Indigenous Studies beside Itself,” Somatechnics 7, no. 2 (2017): 182–84.

36.  See Marcos Gonsalez, “José Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown,” ASAP/J, 3 September 2020, http://asapjournal.com/jose-munozs-the-sense-of-brown-marcos-gonsalez/