Sunday, August 17, 2014

Précis 2: The jabbering child in Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks

Questions of fixity—the inability to move in certain ways, the restriction on present and future action, and the restriction of the terms under which one can and will be identified—seem to be central to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon constantly grapples with the way that racism works to circumscribe the field of possible action for black men, moving through the ways in which both bodily movement and efforts at signification are overdetermined by colonial domination and white supremacy. In a text filled with beautiful moments, what stood out most to me was Fanon’s meditation on what it might mean to “jabber,” particularly because of what the tension set up between jabbering as “play” and the fixing of black men as children (I use “men” because Fanon used it) might provoke. Fanon writes:
“It is said that the Negro loves to jabber; in my own case, when I think of the word jabber I see a gay group of children calling and shouting for the sake of calling and shouting – children in the midst of play, to the degree to which play can be considered an initiation into life. The Negro loves to jabber, and from this theory it is not a long road that leads to a new proposition: The Negro is just a child.”
The initial statement that “the Negro loves to jabber” does not issue from Fanon himself; “it is said” by others, others who by virtue of Fanon’s use of passive voice are not explicitly stated but rather implicitly known—white people who look down on black men (and black people who look down on other black people), who think them incapable of intelligent conversation, where intelligent means that which is intelligible to the white hearer. To “jabber” might thus mean to be unintelligible in the terms set out by French imperialism and white supremacy.

But Fanon does not stop there, and that is precisely what interests me. He moves on to his personal association with the word—something which might be less restrictive, and which opens up “jabbering” as a space of possibility. For Fanon, “jabbering” is associated with a “gay group of children” who are “calling and shouting for the sake of calling and shouting.” These children are not speaking to be heard by those who prescribe what form speech is supposed to take or how one’s speaking is meant to be heard by others; they are calling and shouting for each other, engaged in a form of play which does not have to serve some kind of final purpose.

This calling and shouting, however, is not only a resistance to certain forms of intelligibility; Fanon categorizes it foremost as “play,” a life-giving, life-sustaining, and worldmaking activity. This play is characterized as an “initiation into life,” which takes on a double meaning in the way that the scene is bracketed by the way in which black men are already always understood as unintelligent children. When I first read the phrase I thought it was absolutely beautiful: an entering into life, where life is not necessarily readily intelligible and might exists without any purposive ends. To "jabber" is thus to become alive, and this life might be the life of play—the being with and for another peer (as opposed to an adult looking in on said play). Another connotation of “initiation,” however, might illuminate the way in which this “play” is later disallowed. Initiation as a bringing into society, as admittance to certain terms under which people are allowed to operate, might work to restrict the “life” of play.

Thus, with a sadness, Fanon writes that “the Negro loves to jabber, and from this theory it is not a long road that leads to a new proposition: The Negro is just a child.” It is interesting that Fanon here simply states that “the Negro loves to jabber” (previously who wrote that "it is said that the Negro loves to jabber"). This seems to signify that the statement, for Fanon too, is true. But it is important to separate the statement that “the Negro loves to jabber” (which might, through the terms under which Fanon has identified “jabbering,” be translated to any person or group of people, signifying any activity which exists to bring people into life) from the “theory” of the black man jabbering, and the “proposition” that the black man is a child. The act of “jabbering” and its life-giving qualities are only restricted when they get translated into theories and propositions used to facilitate racism. What has the possibility for inaugurating life, for making meaning outside of the terms intelligible by power, is turned into evidence used to support racism practices and understandings of the world. This section of the text, then, works through the ways in which what is playful and life-giving can be twisted in order to fix people and restrict their possibilities for movement in the world.


Sydney Rock said...

Sorry if it's weird to comment on my own post, but as I was writing this I couldn't help but think about the ways in which black boys are often stripped of their childhood (and stripped of their lives) due to racist constructions of black masculinity as always already threatening. I'm not sure how exactly this would relate to what I've posted about Fanon, but I think it's important to register this double construction of blackness: as both childlike (unintelligent) and un-childlike (threatening).

One example that points to this is the recent hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown which responded, after the brutal murder of Mike Brown at the hands of the Ferguson police, to the ways in which black masculinity is constructed in the media in order to justify the repeated killing of innocent black men. (Of course, the word "innocent" also lends itself to a respectability politics that problematically figures "non-innocent" lives as deserving death.)

Clinton Barnes said...

I particularly like the connection between "jabbering" and "life." It elevate's Fanon's argument from one regarding race relations (a very important argument) to one about the nature of life. The "jabbering" of children allows them to enjoy life to its fullest, and the disavowal of jabbering associated with adulthood results in a loss of primal enjoyment with life. "Jabbering" to Fanon, at least as interpret, should not be abhorred— it should be celebrated. The racial argument lingers when Fanon states "the Negro loves to jabber," as he argues that the act of jabbering is an advantage of the black man in an individual sense, but a disadvantage in the societal sense, because it is the white-dominated society who perpetuates the disavowal of jabbering.