March 3, 2016

Professor Explores Race Through Literature

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Prof. Gerard Aching, Africana and romance studies, stressed the ongoing need for racial consciousness by connecting two literary pieces, written 60 years apart, in a lecture Wednesday.

Aching discussed Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me related the themes of these two works with a quote from Fanon.

“Oh my body, always make me a man who questions,” Aching quoted.

He commented on the strength of the apostrophe — a literary device used to address the body as an autonomous character — in calling the reader to participate in self-interrogation and “to feel with us the openness of every consciousness.”

Aching related the use of apostrophe to the topic of race, which he said Fanon described as “our deadliest abstraction.”

“What relationship with one’s body could there be if it was assigned to states of abstraction?” he asked the audience.

Aching proceeded to connect the negative connotation of this abstraction to the Western oppression of Native Americans.

“Even though the indigenous communities in the Americas preexisted Columbus’ arrival, their bodies were subjected to legal, political, and cultural definitions at the start of the 16th century in order to rationalize the extension of European sovereignty,” he said. “Humanists in favor of declaring war against these communities invented an Indian that satisfied the needs of empire so that the appropriation of their lands could be justified.”

The lecturer said that the African slaves were deprived of all bodily significance, contrasting the appropriation of Native Americans to the suffering of African slaves.

“The African slave enters the Western hemisphere in the 16th century as commodified labor, as dispossessed body,” Aching said.

The commoditization of African Americans is ongoing, and the “acceptance of black bodies as currency” is a theme explored in Coates’ book, Aching said.

He compared the message of these two literary works to that of the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.

“The ability to look upon the body, affirmatively, must counter the historical dispossession of the black body, and in particular, the devastating combination of undervalued life and valuable body that Coates’ describes and the founding of the local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ithaca seeks to address,” Aching said.

To affirm and strengthen these movements, Arching emphasized the ongoing need for self-interrogation.

“There will be no curative sociogenic approach to the black subject unless he possesses the psychic space for self-interrogation,” he said.

Aching also stressed the distinction between the individual and “the one” — a concept he said was introduced by Prof. Hortense Spillers, english, Vanderbilt University — to define the role of African Americans in present society.

Citing Spillers, he defined the individual as someone who only exists in regards to the masses, while “the one” is a self-conscious, progressive being that speaks for both himself and his collective race.

“The one’ is a structure,” he said, quoting Spillers. “It is the small integrity of the now that accumulates the tense of the present as proofs of the past and as experience that would warrant or might even earn the future.”

Finally, Aching applied the concept of “the one” to what he said are the current challenges of being black in America.

“The Black Lives Movement is not motivated by abstractions of blackness,” he said. “It speaks for the movement of black lives, but it consists of many ‘ones.’”

Concluding with a quote from Coates, Professor Aching issued a final call to action to all attendees.

“You are a bearer of a body more fragile than any in this country, he quoted. What I want you to know is that it is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility.”