Writing Against Black Brutality

Deborah A. Thomas, Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); 320 pages; ISBN: 9780822350866 (paperback).

• August 2013

America is currently country embroiled in a national conversation about violence, especially about guns and our ability—or will—to control their circulation. This debate has been reignited largely as a result of the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Tucson, Arizona; and Aurora, Colorado, to name a few. At the same time, the United States continues to trade in the racialization of crime and its perpetrators, marking lack bodies as always-already dangerous: In 2012 the New York Police Department stopped and searched over five hundred thousand people through its stop-and-frisk initiative. Of this number, 87 percent were black or Latino. Ultimately, 89 percent of those stopped were found to be “totally innocent.”1

Amid the intensity of the current debate surrounding gun violence, as well as the continued fixation on minority bodies as the perpetrators of such violence, comes Deborah Thomas’s recent contribution, Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica. As an anthropologist, Thomas is particularly attentive to the specificities of place, and meticulously grounds the text in both the history and contemporary conditions in Jamaica. Writing against a notion of Jamaica as a space of spectacular danger—an image shored up, for instance, by the 2010 standoff between Christopher “Dudus” Coke and a mix of Jamaican and American government forces—Thomas argues the importance of historicizing current conditions. A Caribbeanist scholar of the highest order, Thomas takes the reader through the region’s history of slavery and colonialism to demonstrate the ways these histories continue to affect life in the region. While Thomas is careful to root her claims in the Jamaican context, and specifically argues the importance of decentering the United States as the focus of analysis vis-à-vis contemporary events, her arguments regarding the pathologization of black bodies extend throughout the African diaspora.

In this text, Thomas is concerned with dangerous—yet persistent—culturalist explanations for “deviance” (e.g., “culture of poverty,” “culture of violence”), in which some (that is, black) people are deemed inherently and irreparably violent. Such “cultural” explanations are problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which are the ways they obscure continuing systematic disenfranchisement and the long history of violence enacted on black bodies.

On this point, Thomas introduces the notion of “repertoires”—scripts of violence to which descendants of the enslaved and colonized have access—as context for particularly brutal and performative acts of violence, such as the indiscriminate mass shootings and beheadings for which Jamaica has become increasingly well known. Rather than explaining away such acts as the products of irredeemable black brutality, Thomas provides context, pointing to common—and legally regulated—punishments that existed in Jamaica during slavery, including “the decapitation of slave rebels’ corpses and the display of their heads atop poles in public areas . . . [, as well as] the burning of bodies; and the chopping of ears, noses, and feet” (107). Thomas is clear that she is not claiming a direct link between past acts of (plantation and colonial) violence and those of the present. Instead, she argues for repertoires of spectacular violence as “techniques of performance that have developed over time and that are made available through a variety of public forums for improvisatory citation or reprisal” (89).

Linked to this argument regarding repertoires of violence is the recognition of a dynamic interplay between past and present. Thomas engages with this complex temporality along with scholars such as Achille Mbembe, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, and Jacqui Alexander, refusing to adopt a linear notion of “then” and “now.” Rather, she insists on recognizing both the continuing reverberations of history as well as the impact of repetition: “These performances of spectacular violence cannot just disappear from the repertoires of rule; instead, [they] still exist as potential resources for those Jamaicans who attempt to publicly display their own power” (110).

Throughout her text, Thomas acknowledges the costs of violence, both individually and structurally, yet she also points to its generative aspects, demonstrating the ways violence has been constitutive of both the colonial and contemporary Jamaican state. This is a recognition that shifts the conversation about violence away from an emphasis on the singular deviance of the global black community and instead grounds it in historical and structural realities. Thomas’s careful parsing of history also works in the service of illuminating one of the central concerns that animates this text—citizenship and the historical exclusion of blacks from this category through the discourse of deviance. Because family was seen as the foundation of the state and larger economy, dating back to the nineteenth century, and blacks were understood to have a dysfunctional (that is, nonpatriarchal) family structure, they were not considered full, productive members of the nation. In her broad discussion, Thomas examines the colonial period in the Caribbean, during which this “problematic” family structure of black residents was blamed for the region’s moral and economic failings. The tautology in which members of the African diaspora were seen to have a deviant family structure, and then were categorized as deviant because of this family structure, worked to exclude blacks from full citizenship. This racism, articulated as a problem of “culture,” also resulted in the fetishization of white femininity (demonstrated through, for instance, the discourse of respectability) and (failed) black masculinity. Through this engagement with the discourse of deviance, Thomas is able to illuminate the centrality of sexuality and gender norms within economic processes—an argument she extends to the present moment, demonstrating that many of the anxieties related to transnationalism and neoliberalism are displaced onto and become manifested as anxieties about gender, a substitution long noted by feminist scholars.2

In her analysis of the relationship between transnationalism and contemporary violence, Thomas is intent on complicating the narrative that the United States is the negative influence now infiltrating new areas of the globe—spaces that were ostensibly pure in an earlier moment. This insistence on decentering the United States as the sole global cultural influence is an important move, since the hegemony of the United States has come to dominate much conversation and scholarship in the contemporary period; so pervasive is this line of thinking that globalization is frequently termed “Americanization.” This thinking not only presumes a set of bounded societies and deny any cultural agency on the part of actors outside of the United States (such as, for instance, the ways some Jamaicans capitalize on their country’s violent, uncontrollable “brand”), it also “erases particular kinds of continuities between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ empires” (89).

Exceptional Violence is a text that will be of particular interest to those concerned with contemporary global circuits and the neoliberal policies that rule the present day: Thomas points to the well-documented failings of the current regime, including the ways black communities continue to be systematically disadvantaged by the “freeing” of markets through such structures as export-processing zones and vicious tax-and-salary cutting competitions in which governments undercut one another in order to attract capital. She masterfully links this structural violence and vulnerability to the acts of physical violence she theorizes throughout, writing that the latter “might be best understood as an ongoing performance of how the everyday is shot through with a dangerous history, a history that has rendered certain black bodies ever public and vulnerable” (124). Despite this, Thomas also points to the potentially liberatory element of neoliberalism as a system that privileges the individual and displaces the nuclear family as the central economic unit. That is, in the ways they converge with the flexibility prized by neoliberalism, “the flexible dynamics of West Indian family formation . . . could be construed as an asset” in the current moment (83). However, it is clear that Thomas’s argument is not that neoliberalism has opened never-ending vistas of new possibilities—as always, she is quick to note the continuing influence of the past on the present: now depicted as both violent and economically uncompetitive, “Black men have become problematic in new ways” (83). On this point and throughout, Exceptional Violence is a text that performs the delicate balancing act of demonstrating the ways contemporary conditions are influenced by the past and of theorizing the particularity of the current moment.

 

Tami Navarro holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University. Her research interests include Caribbean studies, gender and labor, development, identity formation, globalization/transnationalism, capital, neoliberalism, race/racialization, and ethnicity. She is the recipient of funding from the Mellon Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the American Anthropological Association, and the Ford Foundation. She is currently a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Rutgers University.

 


1 New York Civil Liberties Union, “Stop and Frisk Data,” www.nyclu.org/content/stop-and-frisk-data (accessed 24 June 2013).

2 For more on this point, see, for example, Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). Also see Jacqui M. Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, eds., Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (New York: Routledge, 1997).

 

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