From the moment the first black people arrived in Virginia in the shackles of slavery, they began to dream about and push for their liberty. This striving for freedom must have begun the minute the black people were abducted on the coasts of Africa and commandeered to the barracoons on the shores of the Atlantic, from where they were shipped to America, via Europe.
But freedom was hard to come by, because, as Derek Chauvin demonstrated and Rev Al Sharpton repeatedly told the world during the requiem mass for George Floyd, white America had its knee on the necks of all the people of colour whose plight it was to suffer American slavery.
The black slaves and their descendants, who laid the foundations upon which America now stands, have appeared in different versions in literature, within America and beyond; from Phillis Wheatly’s naïve acceptance of white propaganda about inherent barbarism in black people, to the ill-informed radicalism and petty criminality of the likes of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son.
Along the spectrum of representation of blackness in American literature, more nuanced and humane characters have pushed further the core argument of the humanity of the black American and demonstrated more acutely the gross injustices that they have suffered in their country of birth and ancestry.
Underlying all these has been an unbroken narrative of freedom; different forms of struggle towards its attainment, and different meanings accorded to it.
From the 17th century onwards, and despite the overwhelming violence that the white world inflicted on black slaves, the same slaves rose with rugged fortitude, mounting insurrection after insurrection in search of their liberty; first through the spirituals that linked them back to the Africa of their fathers, besides conjuring up images of eternal life as promised in the little Christian teachings that they had encountered.
Almost two centuries after slavery had become a key cog in America’s economic life, a tradition emerged among conscientious black Americans to celebrate their little victories and demonstrate their righteous defiance of slavery through forms of life writing, most of which affirmed the humanity that the white slave owners denied them, and also demonstrated the deep intellectual potential of black people, which their white masters relentlessly disputed.
One was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa,the African (1789), Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself (1845), and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In all these, the fundamental concern was a reiteration of black humanity and restoration of their dignity that had long been degraded through overwhelming violence, callous murders and rapes of black people, and wanton disregard of the autonomous selves of a people who were valued more for their hands than anything else.
Even in these early works, the seed had been planted that would, four centuries later, germinate into the Derek Chauvins and George Floyds of this world; both as genetically modified creatures of hybrid white and black ancestry that had been corrupted by criminality, racial bigotry, and cultures of defiance.
That was the point, one could argue, in Douglass’ first autobiography, in which he demonstrated the moral depravity of the slave economy and its beneficiaries, as well as the precarity of black lives at the hands of dehumanised whites who were trapped in a prison-house of racism.
The abolition of slavery was not necessarily informed by the sudden realisation or even appreciation of the lives of blacks, but rather a political acquiescence to religious and philosophical arguments by abolitionists that the continued indulgence in slavery eroded white America’s claims to superior humanity. In brief, abolishing slavery was supposedly a reiterative gesture that affirmed white America’s humanity, whichever way it was defined.
But the abolition of slavery also cast the former slaves into the wide and wild world of capitalist America, one that had no patience with poor men, especially poor black men.
“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships”, so wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, a statement that remains true today as it was in 1903 when he first noted the gross economic inequalities between blacks and their white compatriots.
The poverty of the black men, compounded by racial prejudice, made them easy fodder for white men whose psychosocial security and mistaken sense of superiority were shaken by the token freedom of blacks. It was then that thousands of earlier versions of George Floyd became victims of wanton lynching by whites, especially in the Southern states during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction periods.
Billie Holiday would capture this in what TIME magazine, in 1999, dubbed the song of the century, “Strange Fruit”. The lyrics, complete with emotive imagery of blood, forever memorialised the staggering 4,000 black souls that had been lynched by poor white men. This gruesome violence, the sheer staging of horror, was of course not linear; even black men are on record for having lynched white men at some point, and some white men such as Abel Meeropol, who wrote the song “Strange Fruity”, also abhorred the system that literally barbecued blacks for fun.
Whichever way you view it, “the black body swinging in the Southern breeze” was only a precursor to the black body that was begging for its life under Chauvin’s knee.
Both demonstrate the magnitude of the underlying problem, which Du Bois considered the tense “relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
Like their ascendants who reckoned with the predicament of blackness during the early years of the 20th century, through the Great Depression to the civil rights movement era, the current generation of blacks confronts unimaginable hardships of social, economic, and political terms, all caused by the fact of systemic exclusion that America’s – and most of the world’s – economy is modelled after.
This system was rebuked by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that appropriately invoked the metaphor of the dud cheque, the same thing that triggered George Floyd’s last encounter with white America, and which shows how the black American is lynched today: the rowdy ultra-white nationalist crowds of bygone days have simply given to the white policeman in uniform who does single-handedly what was previously done by white gangs.
It was this same America that, again, Richard Wright wrote about in Black Boy; as a hostile city that lifts up the poor black man in its burning arms; the America that, as Claude McKay in “America” noted, it feeds the black American “with the bread of bitterness/ and sinks into (their) throat her tiger’s tooth / stealing (their) breath of life.” McKay and other Harlem Renaissance artists then resorted to protest literature, including the widely quoted poem “If We Must Die”; but these works proved nothing more than a fantastical steeling of themselves and their race against the corrosive effects of systemic racism.
In critical ways, too, blacks have been willed into absence and invisibility, in Euro-America at large, as captured in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) and, later, Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) and The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1991). Although Gilroy’s critiques focus on the plight of blacks in Britain, where he argues intellectual and political leaders continue to ignore problems associated with racism, the problems affecting Britain’s black populations differ only in degree, not substance, from those of their counterparts in America. That is why Gilroy alludes to Du Bois’ idea of double consciousness among black Americans who, generally, are estranged in both America and Africa.
In all, George Floyd’s life and death were foretold in the invincible spirit that struggled for liberty from 1609 onwards, through the American Civil War period to the civil rights movement and the recent illusions by some incurable, if naïve, optimists who talk about a post-racial world. As writers experiment with defiance or surrender to the evil of racism, and as conscientious protesters remind white America of its moral degeneracy, the black American neck continues to feel the weight of the white American knee. These will remain perhaps the only credible tropes in American literature for many years to come.
The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.