Andrew Johnson’s Choice, Agency and Power

I am sitting here working through a paper on Foucault and Christian ethics and a quote from Foucault on the concept of domination struck me, particularly as many of us are thinking through the incident involving Andrew Johnson, the high school wrestler who was given an ultimatum from his referee to either cut his ‘locs or forfeit the match. Johnson’s ‘locs were then cut in public, in front of everyone, by a white woman based on this order from a referee with a history of being racist. Some have asked why didn’t Andrew just forfeit the match, presuming it should’ve been an easy decision because he is an agential being. But such a presumption does not take into consideration the variables that Andrew was weighing in regard to his choice. It does not take into consideration that having agency does not always mean that one can be fully agential.

Andrew had agency but I argue that it was agency under constraint because of the power dynamics above him and whatever “good” was connected to him wrestling the match as opposed to forfeiting it. It is possible that Andrew chose to have his ‘locs cut because he did not think he had another choice. When faced with a choice that is presented to you by someone with more power than you, the decision is not an easy one, particularly not when there is a possibility that you may have more to lose than they do. Maybe, as I told someone who is also wrestling with Andrew’s choice, Andrew made the choice he did because there was some “good” connected to it, for instance his performance on the team could put him in a good position to earn a scholarship. Or maybe his performance on the team makes it so that they maintain good stats for the season and he does not want to be the one responsible for ruining that. And so, like many Black and Brown people whose back became the bridge on which many walked over to success, Andrew, unfortunately, sacrificed himself for what he thought was the good of the team. Some have erroneously called this, Andrew being a team player. I disagree with that statement because a team should never let you make a decision like that or allow their teammate to be publicly humiliated–is there any good reason why his ‘locs were cut in front of everyone like that? I know the reason and am not afraid to call it what it is, racism. And one of the insidious ways that racism works in this country is through micro and macro-aggressions. Racism and racist practices persist because of relations of power between white people–or the people of whiteness as coined by my colleague-friend Jeremy Posadas–and Black and Brown people. Many Black and Brown people, despite having what many liberals might consider agency, only have agency to the extent that those they are in relationship with share power in mutually beneficial ways.

Being under constraint, particularly the constraints presented by power dynamics, warp an individual’s ability to make the best personal decision. This is doubly the case for a young Black man faced with a choice presented to him by a white man in a position of power over him. One cannot discuss agency and choice without discussing relations to power and who better–well, as far as I know at this moment–to put words to this than Michel Foucault. And I know that it can be trite to trot out Foucault when it comes to discussing power, but I promise that I didn’t go searching for this, it jumped out at me as I was working through one of his texts for a paper. Nevertheless, what I am trying to get at in my own claim that Andrew Johnson is an agential being whose ability to choose was constrained by his relation to power is perfectly summed up in Foucault’s words on the concept of domination and relations to power. And so I will conclude with his words.

“Power relations are extremely widespread in human relationships. Now, this mean not that political power is everywhere, but that there is in human relationships a whole range of power relations that may come into play among individuals, within families, in pedagogical relationships, political life, and so on. The analysis of power relations is an extremely complex area; one sometimes encounters what may be called situations or states of domination in which the power relations, instead of being mobile, allowing various participants to adopt strategies modifying them, remain blocked, frozen. When an individual or social group succeeds in blocking a field of power relations, immobilizing them and preventing any reversibility of movement by economic, political, or military means, one is faced with what may be called a state of domination. In such a state, it is certain that practices of freedom do not exist or exist only unilaterally or are extremely constrained and limited.”

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Wrestling with “This is America” Through Black Genius on the 4th of July

Note: I wrote this when “This is America” first came out and didn’t publish it out of fear. I had one person approach me about publishing a version of this but time lapsed and it became untimely–and also, the world needed no more thinkpieces about it. Yet it came to mind today, on this fourth of July, so here I am letting these words come to light. 

It has been almost a week since the release of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” a video that is as polarizing as it is profound. The first time I watched “This is America,” I sat in a state of paralysis as Gambino transitioned from a shirtless Black man happily dancing to sounds that reminded me of the Soweto Gospel Choir—albeit a choir aided by the voices of Gambino and Young Thug—to the dark turn that took us from our African diaspora origins to our tragic American home. For four minutes and five seconds I watched Gambino’s convulsing body shift from happiness to homicidal, revealing what I viewed as the tragicomic existence of Blackness in the public sphere. As the video concluded with a sweat-drenched Gambino running down a darkened hallway only lightened by the bodies of the white people chasing him, I was breathless and on the verge of tears. I had no clear words for what I had watched but what I did know is that I needed to see it and thus I took to social media to say one thing about it, “We needed this Childish Gambino in so many ways.” After that post I said nothing in public spaces about it, instead I discussed it with a few friends and observed the reactions to the video on social media. It turned out that the video was polarizing, either celebrated as a work of Black genius or decried as a poor meditation on Black death. In the cacophony of voices that took offense to it, I didn’t want to be an outlier, so I remained quiet. Yet I kept feeling the tug to respond with something more than, “We needed this…” and that more came in the form of reflecting on the video through the work of two Black geniuses who, though they are not talking directly to Gambino, have given me a lot to think about in regard to the tone and takeaway of “This is America.”

“Blackness, in all of its constructed imposition, can tend and has tended toward the experimental achievement and tradition of an advanced, transgressive publicity. Blackness is, therefore, a special site and resources for a task of articulation where immanence is structured by an irreducibly improvisatory exteriority that can occasion something very much like sadness and something very much like devilish enjoyment.” Fred Moten

A friend from Emory shared this Moten quote with me in a helpful, reflective conversation about the video. Her sharing this quote came on the heels of me sharing my read on the video, particularly how taken aback by Gambino’s somatic performance. Never static, his body transitioned between dancing and feet shuffling to a destination unknown. What we did know is the body was always in motion, so much so that I wondered about the Black person as moving target, one who creates out of the tragedy the body is steeped in, in order to free itself, if only for a moment. Thus our viral dances are not tools of distraction but resistance and recovery, a way to shake off the threat of danger that awaits us. My friend then layered my reflection with her remembrance of the aforementioned Moten quote, which, in its opaqueness, can communicate something about what could be seen in the video. It traffics in the dynamism and layers of an artist who is performing an understanding of being Black in America, part of that experience being contingent upon the ability to transgress boundaries—there is that moving target—and improvise through the body in ways that can read as BOTH sadness and happiness. There are levels to Gambino’s video and any point made about it that falls under the banner of a certain obviousness belies missing the point altogether. This is why I have sat with Moten’s quote and have been reading it alongside Gambino’s creation to gain insight into that which is complicated.

“Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the ‘peculiar institution’? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display -Saidiya Hartman

This quote from the introduction of Saidiya Hartman’s book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America has also helped me think more and deeper about “This is America.” It beckons me to think about a phrase that I’ve seen bandied about during it’s release, “Black Death.” This is also the phrase that once I saw it one too many times I became paralyzed and afraid of offering another interpretation lest I seem to have turned my back on my people. Yet I need to say that, for me, “This is America,” is not making a spectacle of Black Death–that feels too reductive–but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still some meditation to be done on the death of Black people at the hands of a state and a racist people who honors their weapons more than their people.

Hartman’s quote pushes me to consider my position in “This is America,” the song and the actual space. Am I witness or a spectator? Witnesses see and then give an account of what they saw—or as Hartman states, witnesses confirm the truth of what is happening. Spectators watch with fascination and then walk away, or, if spectators do give an account, it is of the spectacle of the situation because of how it titillated them, not how it convicted them about the brutal truth of a situation. Here I wonder what rattled so many about the video, is it that they saw themselves as the distracted—another response I saw to the videos utilization of viral dances? Hartman also bids us to consider what the exposure of many bodies violated by a racist state (and racism in general) yield. For me, it is hardly about Gambino but about a larger media project outside of him that depends on video footage taken by camera phones that is then embedded on news sites that broadcast Black death for traffic–and remember in the video how there were people above Gambino standing there recording the pandemonium below them. As we bear witness to various shootings of Black people and, in the instances where there is someone there to record it on their cellphone, that person becomes a de facto producer in an industry that sells Black Death back to us under the guise of making us aware. Black Death has been packaged and sold to us in far more deleterious ways than Gambino’s video. He, unfortunately, is art imitating life, the life that some of us haven’t skewered nearly as hard as we are skewering him.

In the end I think “This is America,” opens up a discussion of the “both/and” sometimes tragicomic existence of Black people in America. We can dance the Gwara Gwara and be keenly aware of our mortality in one fell swoop that really is the state of being black in America right now. We don’t have the luxury of the either/or but the both/and. Blackness is complex, as complex as all the things thrown at us in Gambino’s “This is America,” and complex beyond all the things it didn’t throw at us.

Spiritually-Mixed Marriages= Bad Sex

I haven’t posted in nearly two years but it is with good cause. I was in the thick of my PhD coursework but now I’m out, actually I’m just done with coursework. I’m currently studying for my comprehensive exams which are the exams PhD students take to demonstrate intellectual proficiency and prowess in their discipline and research and the test that, once we pass, we become conversant members of our guild. My core discipline is Ethics with a focus on Women, Gender, and (Sex)uality, thus my reading for exams spans those areas as well as Catholic Social Teachings because, hey, I’m Catholic now (more on that later). Nevertheless I hope to share a little of what I’m reading and thinking as I study over the next few months. The quote below is from True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis by Daniel R. Heimbach. This book isn’t on my exam list–though I’m considering adding it–I am considering using a chapter out of the book for a Sexual Ethics class I’ll be teaching for a group of high school students. The class will be a brief survey of sexual ethics on the spectrum–meaning students will study ethicists who theorize on sex from conservative, moderate, and liberal perspectives. I’m using Stanley Grenz’s Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective as our conservative sexual ethics text but Heimbach’s book goes the extra mile–and an extra 200 pages or so–to provide a thorough view of biblical sexual morality. The quote below jumped out at me while I was looking for a chapter to read with class. Check it out:

God’s general prohibition against spiritually mixed marriage is consistent with his interest in guarding the positive value of complexity, intimacy, and complementarity in sexual relationships. Spiritually mixed marriage weakens the complexity of sex by trying to construct relationships that do not include the spiritual dimension. Since sex remains spiritual no matter how we try leaving it out, relationships that ignore the spiritual dimension are doomed to failure because of what couples try pretending is not there.

The prohibition guards the value of sexual intimacy as well. The spiritual dimension of sex is not just unavoidable but is the most important dimension, and spiritually mixed marriage leaves a vacuum at the deepest level of sexual intimacy. So long as the vacuum is there, sex will never reach the potential for intimacy that God intends it to have. Nothing else in a relationship goes as deep as the spiritual dimension, and nothing else can take its place.

Finally, the prohibition against spiritually mixed marriage protects the value of complementarity in God’s design for sex. If a Christian marries a non-Christian, the two may be able to complement each other physically, emotionally, and psychologically, but they cannot complement each other spiritually. Daniel R. Heimbach, True Sexual Morality, 211

Simply put, an unequally yoked marriage will impact your sex life because you will be unable to reach the intimacy God intends in loving relationships. There can be no intimacy between two people with differing spiritualities.

This is fascinating.

I know those within Christian traditions are well aware of the prohibitions against unequally yoked relationships and marriages, but have you ever heard of the prohibition against it for this reason? Do you purchase the claim that a spiritually mixed marriage can impact sex life? If you do believe sex is spiritual, do you believe that your partner must share the same spiritual and religious practice as you do? And a more fundamental question, does shared spirituality come from shared religion?

It has been a longtime but let’s talk about sex.

Wined and Dined: A Fairy Tale

Last night a man wined and dined me, treating me to the most sumptuous foods and waiting on me hand and foot. This was our first time out but he was at ease in spoiling me, calling me “My Lady”–the way that British people say it (Mehlady). He had his finger on the pulse of everything this epicure enjoys, from mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, crab meat, and spinach to steaming hot paella chock full of fresh seafood such as lobster tails, scallops, and Mahi Mahi. He anticipated my every need and met it while being so careful not to overstep boundaries, after all, this was only our first time out. He even brought dessert, a selection of six decadent treats from Tiramisu to Pecan Pie of which I chose only one for fear that I would explode in delight with anything more. I exploded anyway. We kept things fairly light throughout the meal but by the end he asked me about what I was reading. I responded in the way one responds when they assume that someone won’t know who they are talking about.

“City of God, by this guy Augustine,” I said. His eyes lit up when I said Augustine and I realized that he knew him as well as I did–or at least as well as I was hoping to know Augustine.

“I recently started reading a book on Plato, even though I haven’t read much of that nature since my theology class,” he responded. I lit up at the sound of the words “theology” and “class.”

“Did you attend a theology school?” I asked, beaming in excited anticipation of his answer, hoping we shared a similar path.

“It was while I was at Xavier,” he said.

Now I was really lit.

“Are you Catholic?” I asked.

“I am,” he said. Inside I felt like the 4th of July, all fireworks and Katy Perry singing, “Baby You’re a Firework.”

“I am Catholic too,” the words spilling out of my mouth.

He smiled wide, put his hand over his heart, and extended his other hand in what felt like some secret greeting between people of the faith. I smiled on the outside but inside I was bursting with desire to know this person better, bursting out of desire because I finally found what I was missing, a man who shares my faith tradition and knows a little about Augustine and Plato. All of a sudden the wasteland I had been walking through evaporated and I was in a promised land.

We both smiled at one another and then he excused himself to get something in the back.

He walked away but then turned on his heels swiftly and said, “I’m sorry, I digress, what’s your name?”

As if we hadn’t already greeted one another with hands I extended mine for a chance to meet his again and said, “Nicole.”

“It’s really nice to meet you, hopefully I’ll see you again so that we can talk about Augustine’s City of God. I’m here every day,” he said in earnest as he walked away from the table.

I smiled at my good fortune on this evening. I wasn’t expecting to be wined and dined and treated like a queen. I expected a perfunctory dinner, but this was different, I was unprepared for this difference. I said farewell to this man and took leave of the place where I was wined and dined, walking past table upon table of people enjoying their sumptuous meals and decadent dessert. I squeezed past large groups awaiting seating and finally reached the doors to the exterior of Seasons 52.

As I walked toward my car I exhaled. I’d been waiting for this feeling, waiting to feel something more real than I’ve felt in a while and I finally felt it. I smiled. I got in my car and exhaled again, reaching into my wallet to pull out my receipt so that I could look at his name. He told his name but I hoped that I’d have more than his first name, unfortunately it was not to be. All I had was his first name and, of course, his place of employment, Seasons 52. Far from being in despair at this Cinderella-like fate, I was hopeful. Not because I was planning to make a habit out of going to Seasons 52–because that’s an expensive habit to sustain–but because that chance encounter restored my faith in something like love even if just for a moment.

I sit here now with the only memento from that night, a symbolic glass slipper that belongs to a Prince Charming-prototype. I wonder if he too feels like his only memento of the night is holding a symbolic glass slipper, a receipt with my signature scribbled on it and the last four digits of my credit card number. If I’m lucky he’ll use those two things to track me down and save me from this evil spell called living in this crazy world without a romantic equal. Alas life is not a fairytale, and he probably gives impeccable service to scores of people at Seasons 52, after all, it is his job.