Neoliberal Racism and Black Poetic Forms of Resistance

Anne Shea, California College of the Arts

As theorists have shown, neoliberalism entails, not a shrinking of the State, but its reconfiguration. While regulations on corporations have contracted, laws targeting the poor and people of color have expanded along with the penal system. Neoliberalism works within the law, not outside it, shaping legal categories to its own end. In this short essay, I read the song cycle, Zong!, as M. NourbeSe Philip’s critique of legal reason. If the Law is a form of social ordering, then Philip’s formally experimental text disturbs this order, mobilizing history against neoliberal erasures of white supremacist violence.

In many studies of neoliberalism, race hardly figures. But as Omi and Winant, along with a host of scholars in African American studies demonstrate, neoliberalism is a racial project as much as it is a strategy of capital accumulation (Omi and Winant 211). In the 1970s, neoliberalism mobilized white reaction against gains made by the liberation struggles of people of color in the two previous decades. Emerging within the post civil rights era which had expanded democratic participation and discredited overt racist discourse, neoliberalism employed code words such as taxpayer, as a strategy to mobilize white racism and resentment while disavowing racism itself (Omi and Winant 218). Setting about to dismantle the gains made by anti-racist, democratic movements of the previous era, neoliberalism criticized affirmative action by deploying mutations of the movement’s own rhetoric. If liberation movements had attacked racial oppression, neoliberalism now made the category of race itself an illegitimate category through its insistence on “colorblindness.” Within this frame, any mention of race could be construed as racist; this twist on the anti-racist movements’ own rhetoric served to advance first the neoliberal strategy of crying “reverse-racism” and second the more effective, long-lasting strategy of what Bonilla-Silva terms “color-blind racism.”

Because, in the United States, the working class has been structured by patriarchal white supremacy, its representational forms have taken these characteristics. Thus, representations of deindustrialization have often focused on the white working class man, reproducing the hierarchies and exclusions that marked working class formation and representation. If we look at Ferguson, Missouri we can see how neoliberal racism works within the deindustrialized city. Clarence Lang tells us that the St. Louis City metropolitan area, of which Ferguson is a part, “has been a national laboratory of residential segregation” (Lang). As black residents, many working-class, fought against historical segregation in the ‘60s and ‘70s, whites left (Lang). These changes shaped present-day Ferguson as a suburb of 21,000 where 85% of its residents are black while the city council and police force are overwhelmingly white (Cohen). In this deindustrialized Rust Belt city, marked by inadequate housing, unemployment, and decaying infrastructure, the neoliberal rhetoric of color-blindness serves to mask on going racial inequality in the United States.

In Ferguson, law enforcement has used aggressive ticketing for minor offenses to extract revenue from its poor residents, such that “court fines and fees” constitute the city’s “second-largest source of income, generating over 2.4 million in revenue in 2013”  (“Policing and Profit” 4).  Unlike Fordist economic strategies that required wages to be high enough for workers to buy consumer goods produced in the factories in which they worked, “neoliberalism relies on the inequality of the rich and poor” (Dean). Along with economic dispossession, criminalizing populations serves to constitute social inequalities as natural and inevitable.

It’s within this context that Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot to death by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9, 2014. The grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

In the months following Michael Brown’s murder, the Caribbean Canadian poet, M. NourbeSe Philp, wrote: “Zong! Ferguson, Ferguson Zong!, Zong! Ferguson, Ferguzong, Fergusong, Fergusing, sing a song of Zong, a song of Ferguzong.” In Philip’s message, sent as a tweet, she brings together the slave ship (Zong) and the neoliberal city (Ferguson). Her words render the neoliberal city as slave ship and grave, revealing both as sites of racial terror and murder. Katherine McKittrick has written “the [slave] ship while materially and ideologically enclosing black subjects” is also “a location of black subjectivity” and “black resistance” (McKittrick xi). McKittrick shows us how to understand the slave ship as a material, discursive, and imaginative site that enables stories that emphasize both the devaluation of black life and, paradoxically, the valuation of black life in struggle. Neil Smith and Cindi Katz remind us of the “imbrication of material and metaphorical space” and the poet enters into this imbrication in order to resist neoliberalism’s dominion over contemporary spatial stories (McKittrick xiii).

Philip uses the slave ship as an imaginative site in her Ferguson tweet and in her book-length poetry cycle Zong! (2008) based upon the legal document Gregson v Gilbert. In 1781, the captain aboard the Zong ordered the murder of nearly 150 African captives so that the money for which they were insured might be collected. Because the insurance claim provoked a legal dispute, the conflict ended up in the English court as Gregson v Gilbert. Making the decision to  “lock[ed] myself in the text” as a means to uncover what “remains hidden below the surface of the legal document,” Philip created the first cycle of poems in the book using words found within the text of Gregson v Gilbert.  After composing that first set, Philips began to manipulate or, in her words, “mutilate” the legal document, by “whiting and/or blacking out words.”

Zong!’s structure resists order – the order of the court, law’s order – and the linear narrative form with its implications of a beginning, middle and end. In this telling of the story of the Zong which is simultaneously an untelling of the story of the Zong, Philip opposes the “marking of slavery as an archaism, destined to be superseded by the emergent history of freedom” (Johnson 222). Rather, in Philip’s text the relationship of slavery to freedom is that of “dynamic simultaneity” (Johnson 227). This story, if we can call it that, hasn’t concluded. Zong’s resistance to closure is not a formal interest in the open-ended text as much as it is a political insistence that the devaluation of black life, the global capitalist systems of exploitation, and the Law’s deadly reason remain with us.

The Law is a form of social ordering. Philip disturbs this order; she tears at Law’s taxonomies. She unloosens its sentences and sets words adrift across the page: “suppose the law/is/not,” she writes (Zong! 20). Philip’s text mourns diasporic Africans subjected to dehumanization through Law’s reason – those aboard the Zong and those whose lives the Law continues to discount in our own time, like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Mya Hall, and Trayvon Martin. Zong! shows us the past in our present, but also, implicitly, it reveals how the past’s deadly logics might be undone.  Philip recounts a history of white supremacist violence, but also she illustrates “the rhetorical structures by which the languages of supremacy are uttered, rationalized – and ruptured” (Sandoval 2). Chela Sandoval, in Methodology of the Oppressed, asks that we

…not lose sight of the methods of the oppressed that were developed under previous modes of colonization, conquest, enslavement and domination for these are the guides necessary for establishing effective forms of resistance under contemporary global conditions: they are the key to imagining “postcoloniality” in the most utopian sense (Sandoval 9).

As an aesthetic work with its roots in de- and postcolonial movements, Zong! creates textual passage-ways between temporalities in order to expand the vocabularies of resistance to contemporary white supremacist violence. In this song cycle that demonstrates Law’s power, Philip manages to, paradoxically, shrink its dominion by bringing us to its limit.

In her solo readings, Philip performs the text in multiple ways, at times reading only individual poems, other times readings sections or the entire book over multiple hours. She reads at different paces, sometimes reading so slowly that the performance becomes one of silence interrupted by words or silence erupting through words. She stretches words, releasing them into sound or splintering them into percussive beats. Vowels open out into the air, linking insides to outsides, one body to another. Even when Philip reads alone, she seems to be reading with other voices. For Philip, the “public genealogy of resistance’ which her work makes audible has always entailed challenging “the singularity of the lyric voice” with a “multiplicity of voices” (Genealogy 115).

Fred Moten teaches us to pay attention to sound, to the way it might help us hear what he calls “socialities” other than the ones in which we’re entangled. Sound arranges an other order, another sense, through song: “Zong! is song – the song we have always sang,” says Philip, “particularly when we were brought here to the land of untelling.” Zong! understands the normative order of the neoliberal city as a “war on Black life” (Moten). At the same time, through its radical form, the book and its various performances offer a “lawless freedom” (Kant qtd by Moten) that “challenges…the many ways of death that globalization offers” (Philip “Song Lines”). In forming her critique of neoliberalism, Philip taps into the aesthetic strategies and the political imagination of the twentieth century anti-colonial movements and theories that set about to dismantle Western rationality and the European imperium.

Collective and durational readings include the “audience” and/or other artists. Watching and listening to these performances, we note moments of singular voices, cacophonous eruptions of sound and words, chants, joined voices, disjointed voices. Some people stand, others sit or walk, some dance, others read. If the poem can be understood as a kind of tool for gathering people together, this gathering is not organized exactly. It’s something I can’t quite describe which seems important. Because it might be gathering us together in ways we don’t quite have words for or can’t quite name. And in this way the text points toward a future, a search for something which isn’t and which might be if we stay in this space long enough to be transformed by it.


Works Cited

Cohen, Cathy J. “From Ferguson to Flint: Race, Neoliberalism and Black Politics.” African American Studies Lecture. Princeton University. 5 Apr. 2016. Web. 27 May 2016.

Dean, Jodi. “Complexity as Capture: Neoliberalism and Communicative Capitalism.” Neoliberalism, Crisis, and the World System Conference. York University. Aug. 2013. Youtube. Web. 27 May 2016.

Developments in the Law. Policing and Profit. 128 Harv. L. Rev. 1723 (April 2015): Web. 27 May 2016.

Johnson, Walter. “Slavery.” eds. Glenn Hendler and Bruce Burgett. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. 2nd ed. New York: New York U, 2014. 224-27. Print.

Lang, Clarence. “On History, Protest, and “Respectability”” Labor Online. The Labor and Working Class History Association, 17 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 May 2016.

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2006. Print.

Moten, Fred, and Robin D.G. Kelley. “Fred Moten and Robin D.G. Kelley in Conversation.” Do Black Lives Matter? Bethany Baptist Church, Oakland. 13 Dec. 2014. Vimeo. Web. 27 May 2016.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. A Genealogy of Resistance: And Other Essays. Toronto: Mercury, 1997. Print.

—–. “Song Lines of Memory in a Globalized World.” Insurgent Cross-Cultural Conversations in the Expressive Arts: Contesting Notions of Transnationalism and Citizenship. Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. Mar. 2006. Lecture.

—–. Zong! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.

Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Spence, Lester K. Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2015. Print.


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Live Poetry and the Seizure of Literature in São Paulo, Brazil

Carlos Cortez Minchillo, Dartmouth College

In Brazil, Neoliberalism, and even before it, elitist state-led policies of industrialization since the 1950s have generated abnormal levels of wealth concentration, migrant flows to urban areas, and quasi-legal social segregation. In poor, underserved areas of Brazilian big cities, dwellers have been abandoned to their own devices, living for decades now in the crossfire between a frequently abusive, corrupt police and murderous criminal gangs. Under such circumstances, citizenship must not be taken for granted: it is never an undisputable right, but rather something to fight for, against hegemonic sectors of society. Just to give a more precise idea of how resilient these social actors are, as I write this post conservative politicians representing the traditional elites in Brazil have overthrown a democratically elected president and retaken the power. Emblematically, one of the first decisions of the new government was to abolish the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights. Also, all members of the new cabinet appointed by the acting president are white men.

This political setback runs counter a long and steady struggle of marginalized people in Brazil for social visibility and political voice. Literary venues that have mushroomed in poor areas of Brazilian metropolises in the past fifteen years have a lot to do with that. When I first started studying this cultural movement in São Paulo, I was particularly interested in checking how the controversially labeled “marginal literature” articulated a political and aesthetical counter-discourse. By attending poetry slam events, and through textual analysis and interviews, I wanted to examine the social dynamics and political impact produced by slam poetry, as well as the ways it potentially challenges aesthetical assumptions and well-established literary appraisal criteria.

As Brazilian geographer Milton Santos explains, in Brazil, the possibility of being a citizen depends, to a large extent, on where he or she lives. This perverse cartography of citizenship and the corresponding spatial segregation perpetuates educational, occupational and economic disparities and produces phobic symbolic representations. Very little room is left for positive roles and expectations. The underprivileged is depicted (or sometimes self-depicts) as illiterate, ignorant, idle, socially unadapted, threatening, violent. Often, they are seen as lazy “welfare scroungers” by those who oppose governmental social programs that in recent years were responsible for lifting about 40 million Brazilians from the poverty level.

The media and the arts contribute to consolidating many of these stereotyped identities, even when they expose Brazil’s societal flaws by adopting an empathic attitude toward those oppressed and vulnerable. A recent study by Regina Dalcastagnè shows that in a corpus of 258 Brazilian novels all Black characters are poor, and 58.3% of Black male teenagers are criminals. Thus, in Brazil, literature –or, at least, mainstream literature– does not necessarily reconfigure bigotry, despite potential good intentions underneath the lines of its often brutal realism.

But by using alternative channels, new voices are telling different tales of the city, and they are being heard. Frequently connected to hip-hop culture and social activism, a vibrant literary scene has been gradually expanding in marginal spaces of Brazilian metropolises. In the last years of the 20th century, initiatives like the communal organization of public libraries in poor neighborhoods or the distribution of poems written on recycled cardboards and attached to light poles prepared the ground for major changes. Since 2001 two types of spoken word events emerged in the peripheries of São Paulo: saraus and slam poetry. In common, both saraus and slams first occupied marginal and popular spaces not traditionally associated with literature: cheap neighborhood bars, abandoned squares, and unused areas inside metro stations. Also, they both rely primarily on oral performances, a largely neglected form of literary art. Even when printed, literary texts previously performed in saraus and poetry slams seldom circulate through conventional channels like mainstream publisher houses and bookstores. In other words, to some extent “marginal literature” redefines where and how literature circulates, and who creates, controls and consumes it. That’s what I have been calling the “seizure of the literary” by those who until recently were largely ignored as producers and recipients of literary texts. The casual and inclusive social space of slam poetry and saraus is a key leverage factor in a country where, according to a recent survey, 30% of the population has never bought a book, public libraries are inaccessible or in poor conditions, and schools are uninspiring or even hostile spaces.

Through literature performed in poor neighborhoods, marginalized subjects have been developing a stronger sense of citizenship and political agency. Especially among underprivileged youngsters, a sentiment of entitlement has recently surfaced, giving birth to deviant discourses and self-representations. As “marginal” writer Alessandro Buzo puts it on a poem, for affluent Brazilians a favela dweller carrying a book is a “contraindication”. The association between a favelado and a book represents a symbolic shift whose magnitude can only be assessed if we accept, together with Gramsci, that hegemonic confrontations are not limited to traditional political institutions. They require the deconstruction of common sense and the formation of new subjectivities. Literature, of course, plays a crucial role here. That explains why it is so remarkable that many marginalized Brazilians have elected literary gatherings as the embodiment of a distinct ethos and an alternative strategy for a non-partisan political struggle. Alternative spaces for experiencing literature, non-printed texts, and heterodox ways of circulating and trading printed materials are the foundation of an original literary system, providing room for non-professional authors, new audiences, and unusual poetic discourses. Not only do they stimulate literature as a vehicle for political messages, but equally importantly, they can transform the politics of literature and the aesthetic features of the literary object.

For those who live in the peripheries and favelas of São Paulo, saraus and slams establish a social and emotional network that can partially compensate for the lack of supporting institutions and services. They not only bring the same old literature to new audiences but also, most importantly, stimulate authorship among those who are usually considered uncultured. In saraus and poetry slams, people perform for their fellow neighbors, but as imagined communities, they create, perform and spread new images of themselves. In doing so, they consolidate a collective voice against a society that despises them. One may recriminate them for perpetuating a binary discourse in which the world is simplistically divided in two: on the one hand, “playboys”, “the system”, the rich, police officers and politicians; on the other hand, them, the marginalized. But who is to be blamed for using this binarism as a segregation tool in the first place? Before things can get better, peripheral citizens have to teach in very simple yet poetic terms what is like to be on the other side of society.


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