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To Be Black? September 25, 2007

Posted by alexis in Uncategorized.

Peace Everyone,

Last week we thought about responses to racist, gendered and homophobic violence in terms of what is “at stake” in this class.  This week I want to extend that to think about health or lack of access to healthcare as a specific form of institutional violence that manifests itself along familiar lines of oppression.  I find political scientist Cathy Cohen’s work especially helpful here.  (That is probably because from the first time I heard Cathy Cohen speak…she has been my hero.)  I refuse the violence of stalking, but I strongly recommend that we all follow the groundbreaking, brave and radical work that Cohen (now Director of Africana Studies at University of Chicago) is doing.


 Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness, published in 1999 is an important analysis of a specific failure of racialized politics.  By investigating why despite the fact that African American communities in the United States were disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic mainstream African American institutions and political leaders were slow to respond, Cohen looks at the limits of “racial consensus” politics when the “consensus” about who is black (and by consensus she means not the true consensus but rather the percieved consensus created by those within the African American community with the privilege of defining “the consensus)  excludes queer black folks, black mothers on medicaid, black folks in prison and black sex workers and black folks suffering from drug addiction.

In other words, the black people MOST impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic were (in)conveniently narrated out of black subjectivity.   Cohen argues that the extreme class differences between black people with access to wealth and the majority of black people who (as Cohen investigates in her earlier work with Micheal Dawson) are disenfranchised (i.e. denied the social, economic and political resources necessary for basic decision making power in their communities) have led to a situation where the “black leadership” imagined to consist mostly of people with economic and educational privilege is MORE concerned with presenting a “respectable” face to the dominant culture and reaping the rewards of proximity with white folks than with being accountable for the lived experience of the majority of black folks.    This narrative about respectability is what Cohen argues made mainstream black leaders afraid to center the needs of queers, prisoners, single mothers, sex workers and drug users.

However (and this is what makes her my hero), Cohen demands that this scary, non-respectable centering is exactly what needs to happen.   She argues that shaping a “black community” on terms catered towards white acceptance can only result in continued dehumanization…namely the dehumanization by black people with privilege of “other” black people who are marginalized…twice.  What Cohen describes as “advanced marginalization” is the deadly situation where marginalized people (for example black folks) because of racism and poverty are denied certain levels of access to mainstream institutions (say schools, hospitals, and voting booths that work).  Because of this situation of anti-black racism black people who have the most NEED for HIV treatment and  preventative healthcare services are MORE dependent on institutions WITHIN the black community (i.e. clinics at black churches, NAACP representation, Urban League advocacy etc).  HOWEVER because the consensus about who “counts” in the black community excludes the folks with the most need this black institutions are not serving the people who need it most.

So our people are dying.

Cohen demands that a movement to effectively end the AIDS epidemic must CENTER the needs of those who are usually demonized in the black community…and not only that…but the actions of sex workers, drug users, prisoners, single mothers on medicaid, queer folks must be seen as the new place of POLITICAL LEADERSHIP.  Michele Berger (Women’s Studies professor at UNC) elaborates on what this looks like in the fight against HIV in her book Workable Sisterhood (which I HIGHLY recommend).

So in 1999 Cohen says that if there is going to be a viable “black politics” (and “black” seems to have some major slippage with “African American” in this use) it MUST center around the leadership and needs of sex workers, queers, drug users, prisoners, and welfare mothers.  The bogeypeople of mainstream American Politics.

Interestingly, when I discussed this in the “in person” version of To Be A Problem with about a dozen 17-19 year old Duke Students, most of whom identify as “black” the students reflected much of the discourse that has come along in the decade since Cohen’s book was released.

Now…they insist AIDS is a “black issue”. (Though we did not reach “consensus” on whether this was because people had taken up work like that of Cohen and Berger or because so many black people had died from AIDS and are living with HIV that it has become undeniable). BET, Essence, Tavis Smiley and the crew have all jumped on board.

BUT…they also insist…it shouldn’t be.  AIDS should be a “human issue” since all human beings are succeptible to AIDS.   They elide Cohen’s demand for a radical black politics centered on the most silenced subjectivities by remembering that in their generation they have learned that AIDS is a “human rights issue”…..that just happens to disproportionately kill black people.

In some sense the move to “human” is also part of a discourse that transports AIDS “back” to Africa where it supposedly “started”. That is the point that the ONION article


parodies.   The students were surprised to learn however that the rates of HIV in the Bronx in NYC are HIGHER than the rates of HIV infection in Uganda.

While we ran out of classtime (which we always do) I questioned whether the new “human rights” discourse on AIDS wasn’t reproducing racism:

see up and coming scholar Alisha Gaines on Kate Moss’s anti-AIDS minstrelsy here .

Do the new “I am African” campaign and the exploits of Bono seem likely to truly impact the disproportionate effect of HIV on black communities everywhere? Or do they make the grim statement that the Onion amplifies: African life is not valuable.  We now admit that all people come from Africa. Blackness is a “style” we can all appropriate.  Therefore it is okay if all of the black people actually living in Africa die…because we have stolen their subjectivity already.

Maybe that wasn’t the best note to end class I was profoundly disturbed that my students had more faith in  white “human rights” activists to impact the lives of the people most impacted by HIV/AIDS than in the people (queer/sex worker/single mother/prisoner/drug user) themselves.   I know that Cohen wasn’t suggesting that since black mainstream leadership had failed to address the problem early on we should just give up on black leadership altogether and put our faith into multinational initiatives controlled by white folks so this  leaves me with some urgent questions for you all.

How do you imagine we could collectively respond to HIV/AIDS?  Do you think that a “black politics” like the radical one that Cohen recommends could be viable?  Do we think that what Cohen says about “centering deviance” is possible?  Could/should it be applied on broader terms than “the African American community”?  Could we read Cohen to be saying that due to political changes and the unpredicted class divisions enabled by integration that there is no coherent “black community”?  What does this mean for “black scholars”, “black community organizations”, “black rebels”, anti-racist allies, people of color coalitions?

On what scale(s) do you see this next necessary phase of response to the deadly injustice of which AIDS is merely one salient example? Local? Global? Glocal? What kinds of community institutions could turn around the dynamic of “disenfranchisement” that Cohen points out?

Or as June Jordan asks in “Nicaragua: Why I Had to Go There”

“When will we seize the whole world with our freedom?”

Looking forward to your responses,