Violence Isn’t Black and White: How Contexts Matter for Understanding Racialized Violence
Often, violence is viewed within a binary of right and wrong, good and bad; there is always a form of acceptable and unacceptable violence. The US’ racialized power structure is partially fixed by white society’s hypocritical stance on violence—a claim that past and current civil rights movements have articulated. During the Black Arts Movement, activist and theorist Larry Neal argued that there is epistemological power (the power of an asserted knowledge or world-view) in the lie of a “universal” nature of violence. He argues that even though the West is “traditionally violent in its relation with the Third World, it sanctimoniously deplores violence or self-assertion on the part of the enslaved. And the Western mind, with clever rationalizations, equates the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor.”
The US enacts violence against African Americans yet condemns black self-defense as equal violence, hypocritically refusing to acknowledge its own acts as violent. This overt unequal standard of morality is a tool for regulating identities since any self-assertion on the part of the oppressed is defined, not as a “necessary evil,” like with white violence, but as morally reprehensible and baseless. The second layer of violence is the lie of the “universal” standard. The equation of the self-defense of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor disenfranchises the individual and the community of their tool to resist and survive oppression. If contexts are meaningless, violence becomes a tool that society only allows white people to use.
It is this unequal standard of violence that black feminist authors Toni Morrison and June Jordan deconstruct in their work. Morrison’s Pulitzer winning novel, Beloved, and Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights” both problematize the binary concepts of violence and its universality and recognize violence’s role in maintaining racialized power structures. By deconstructing racialized violence, Morrison and Jordan rewrite Black violence as an act of self-defense against oppressive systems and as a reclaiming of the self—both of which are perceived as violent because they force a recognition of the violent systems that necessitate them. By legitimizing contextualized violence, Morrison and Jordan resist the racialized power dynamics of violence and validate lived experience.
In “Poem about My Rights,” June Jordan develops the racialization that refuses to acknowledge white violence but claims Black identity is a “problem.” She writes:
I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general
I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
By listing various institutions, Jordan links them together to create a visual system of oppression. The C.I.A is equated with Apartheid through reference to South Africa, which is also equated with the economy through Exxon and with the entire white population. The speaker’s body is violently caught up in this interlocking system of oppression as each sector—governmental, economic, personal—all define her identity as a Black woman as the problem. And, in defining her as a problem, each institution hypocritically refuses to acknowledge the epistemological violence they enact against her—the violence of having her world and way of knowing reduced to wrong. Instead, these institutions support a racialized system of violence that condones white violence while condemning the Black woman as a “problem,” a condemnation which is itself a clear regulation of identity.
In Morrison’s Beloved, the imagery with which the white men describe Sethe’s (the protagonist’s) actions also develops the racialization of violence. Through Sethe, Morrison offers a fictional account of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave woman who killed her daughter instead of seeing her returned to slavery. Garner’s case sparked a legal debate on whether to try the case as murder, which would acknowledge the personhood of African Americans, or as the destruction of property. In this rewritten scene, upon seeing Sethe with her dead daughter, Beloved, the men conclude: “but now she’d gone wild…Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew…what would his own horse do if you beat it beyond the point of education.” The white audience reduces her violent act to wildness and, in doing so, racializes Black violence as universally negative and naturally animalistic. Violence is then a tool to uphold power, as the Schoolteacher’s right to own another human is perceived as acceptable while Black resistance is condemned.
In contrast to these external perspectives, Morrison uses Sethe’s own view of her actions to disrupt the internalized binary of acceptable and unacceptable violence. After Sethe’s lover, Paul D, learns that Sethe killed Beloved, he, like the white male characters, begins to question and condemn her actions as animalistic. Sethe interrupts him, however, by asking, “I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?” Morrison visibly interrupts Paul D’s internalization of this dehumanizing narrative through Sethe’s own assertion of necessity. Sethe doesn’t claim what she did was right; she just asks what the alternative was. Her questions interrupt racialized binaries of right and wrong and assert contextualized necessity when faced with the violence of slavery for her daughter. Sethe’s lived reality subverts the easy binaries of right and wrong by acknowledging white violence, and it begins to dismantle the racialization of Black violence as animalistic by rewriting it as necessary.
Similarly to Morrison, Jordan interrupts the power dynamics of violence by rewriting it as necessary self-defense within the context of legal systems that sanction male violence. Jordan writes that in France,
if after stabbing him if after screams if
after begging the bastard and if even after smashing
a hammer to his head if even after that if he
and his buddies fuck me after that
then I consented
The rapid succession of if statements that demonstrate various violent acts of self-defense build on each other—a mountain of physical evidence of gendered violence against the speaker. To call this “consent” immediately following the speaker’s violent acts of self-defense demonstrates the cultural dissonance in defining acceptable violence. If the legal structures call it “consent” even after violent self-defense, those structures invalidate the violence enacted on the speaker and reinforce a system where only white male violence is acceptable. In contrast, Jordan’s explicit articulation of violent self-defense forces an acknowledgment of another kind of violence, that which defines self-defense as unacceptable. In doing so, she destabilizes the power of this violence.
Oftentimes, what is perceived as violent is only externally defined as such because it threatens the systems of power that seek to invalidate black experience. For Jordan, this applies to the way her reclamation of identity is perceived as violence. After listing institutional and personal violences against Black womanhood, the speaker asserts:
I am not wrong: wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life
She repeats both that she is not wrong, which directly opposes society’s identification of her, and that she is her own, which claims ownership of the self. While she says that this resistance may very well cost you your life, Jordan situates this assertion at the end of her poem in a way that contextualizes it within the violence enacted against her daily. She merely acknowledges that an act of self-ownership and resistance to the racialized and patriarchal systems will be perceived as a threat to white personhood. The contextualization of the “violence” Jordan advocates for at the end of her poem frames it, not as immoral or negative, but as an act of self-defense against a system that seeks erasure of her identity. It is no longer violence; it is a claiming of identity within a system that would make it violent to claim ownership over herself. In doing so, Jordan rewrites this narrative.
Morrison speaks to this same violent attempt at identity erasure through syntax that develops a communal experience of the racialized trauma of slavery and neo-slavery. Sethe wants to make sure Beloved knows that worse than being killed, “was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind.” By listing their traumas in succession and then separating them abruptly from the following sentence, the violence of racism is held within the communal. It is the violence of being separated from self-ownership and identity that killed Baby Suggs, that made Paul D tremble. Against this overwhelming system of white violence, acts of resistance cannot be negatively connoted but must be understood as a reclamation of the self from a system that seeks erasure and ownership.
Both Morrison and Jordan problematize the rhetoric of universal morality in their works. Separately, they contextualize their perceived acts of violence within an oppressive and violent system that attempts to claim ownership of their lives, and, by doing so, they problematize an epistemology of absolutes. With the depiction of peaceful protests as violent, the demonization of black people in the media, and the violence against black bodies that sparked movements like #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter, this discussion of racialized violence is constantly in the room. These movements, authors, and critics all point to racialized violence as merely a way for white society to maintain power over and regulate Black identities—a way to disenfranchise survivors from legitimate forms of self-defense. Only by addressing racialized violence can we dismantle the harmful assumptions of universality that hold up systems of oppression.
About the author: Holly Lackey is an undergraduate student at Seattle Pacific University studying English literature and social justice and cultural studies. When she is not in class, she enjoys new experiences and finding new places to put on her travel bucket list.