This special section of the issue offers a discussion of South African theorist Tendayi Sithole's book The Black Register (2020). The section's essays explore the stakes of Sithole's work as well as its implications. They unpack the book around questions of geography, historicity, and visual representation.
On first reading Tendayi Sithole's The Black Register (2020), I found myself listening to the calypsonian David Rudder's “1990” on repeat as I turned the pages. I offer here an introduction to our roundtable on The Black Register by way of my own reading of Sithole's book with Rudder playing alongside. In June, 2020, I moderated a conversation with Sithole, Thabang Monoa, and David Theo Goldberg, hosted by the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs (ICCTP). It was clear that there was much that Sithole's book brought to the fore about the cartographies of blackness and the theorization of black (non)existence. Here, Monoa, Tshepo Masango Chéry, and I extend that initial exploration of the implications of Sithole's work. In her commentary on the book, “The Black Manifesto for Our Time,” Masango Chéry plots out the texts with which Sithole works, asserting the significance of Sithole's commitment to utilizing a map of blackness that knits together multiple geographic zones. It is this conscious effort at breadth that leads Masango Chéry to deem Sithole's The Black Register a “black manifesto of our time.” Masango Chéry surfaces that for us by crossing the supposed boundaries of black life and thought Sithole avoids the ethnocentrism that Sylvia Wynter outlines as a problem in some descendants of black studies in “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory.”1 Through “The Intricacies of Sovereignty,” Thabang Monoa returns to his initial challenge to Sithole about the place of monuments and artistic vernaculars, especially the visual, in Sithole's theorization of “the black register” through a reading of the book's cover—Dineo Seshee Bopape's 2017 “mabu/mubu/mmu.” Monoa's reading takes the book to the soil, to the land and the materiality of its violation. While Sithole's choice of Bopape's “mabu/mubu/mmu” for the book's cover speaks to his investment in the black register as occurring multigenerically and across multimedia, built into Monoa's critique is the absence of nonwritten texts from the book's focus. It is, perhaps, something that Fred Moten anticipates in his foreword when he explains that “the black register is theory's experimental band practice, . . . a Trinidadian panorama.”2 Some critics, familiar with Sithole's work and investments (in music for example), may ask where his engagement of other kinds of texts, beyond the written, is, but there is something that Sithole is doing with language here, black language. And that marks out a particular project of its own particular time. The project seems to be about attending to the word and the written.
In “1990,” David Rudder's song from which I draw my epigraph, Rudder looks toward the twenty-first century with the caution that “the more we change / the more we rearrange / everything just seems the same.” He hopes that time will “make a liar of [him],” but woven into his melancholic timbre and delivery, for most performances of the song, is a weary awareness that he is speaking truth despite his hope to the contrary. (In fact, Rudder noted in a 1992 performance that he had hoped he would not need to sing the song after 1990, but the beating of Rodney King and the failure of justice in response necessitated its performance.)3 The existential threat to black life—made visible as Rudder's “black man on the run” from Beijing to Brooklyn, Soweto to Alabama, circumnavigating the globe—would not expire as the twentieth century drew to a close and the twenty-first dawned, no matter how much Rudder (and others) willed it to. Rather, thus far, the current century has brought the continued proliferation of that threat. Or perhaps more accurate: the first decades of the twenty-first century have made abundantly clear that black life is the existential threat. Black life is the problem and antiblack racism the (antiblack) world's solution. This is Sithole's premise. In The Black Register, Sithole explains that
to be [black] is to be at the receiving end of antiblackness—to be structured in relation to the world that militates against the existence of blacks . . . is to be rendered non-existent and not even have thought itself. Simply, it means that blackness must disappear in the face of existence. But this is bound to fail, as blacks continue to raise existential questions that scandalize the antiblack world.4
Both Rudder and Sithole give voice to blackness as a state of precarity across the globe, but they do so from different “problem-spaces.”5 In Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (2003), David Scott defines “problem-space” as a “context of dispute” a space and time constituted by the political stakes of its moment. It is a relational “context of language” produced by a set of questions and their answers, and its answers and questions in turn produce each other.6 What is the problem-space of Sithole's The Black Register?
Rudder's “1990” emerged during a period of tentative and tempered hope. Nineteen ninety was the year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Despite post–civil rights and postcolonial disillusion—neither integrationist civil rights legislation nor formal political decolonization fully completed the project of black liberation—Mandela and South Africa stood as a kind of resurgence of possibility. Today, more than two decades after South Africa's full democratic dispensation and Mandela's release, it is clear that that vision—in which the end of apartheid in South Africa was a horizon for black liberation globally—did not come to fruition. Rudder's “black man [person?] on the run” is the protagonist of Sithole's monograph. The two texts are linked by this recognition of the (formal) end of South African apartheid in 1990/1994 as a horizon for black liberation globally, and South Africa's failure to be that horizon once apartheid ended is a looming crisis for the way forward. Sithole's The Black Register challenges its readers to really apprehend the ontology of blackness in the full realization that postapartheid South Africa is not only a nation-state, but representative of the state of the (black) nation and body politic. This is why his chapter on the 2012 Marikana massacre is located where it is in the monograph. It is a kind of crescendo; it is this moment toward which we have been building as the book moves from Sylvia Wynter to Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire to Assata Shakkur, George Jackson to Mabogo P. More, and ultimately, Steve Biko to the 2012 Marikana massacre. Sithole is concerned with blackness as fugitivity and the black register as the prison notes of the fugitive, whether on the plantation, the literal prison, or the mine.
When Sithole writes in the introduction that for the black subject “the myth of upward mobility and liberal meritocracy as the way to get out of the zone of non-being and into the zone of being is a fallacy,” he is referring to the learning of the post–civil rights and political decolonization era as well as the continued proliferation of assaults on black life of the current century.7 These assaults include: the vitriolic backlash against Barack Obama's presidency nakedly premised on his blackness (supposedly Muslim, not American, etc.), continued police brutality leveled at black (and brown) bodies in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and perhaps most significantly, the marriage of global white capital and a black postapartheid state and political elite in the 2012 Marikana massacre. One logic of an earlier generation was that education and acquisition of the trappings of middle-class propriety could protect the black self and the black collective from wholesale precarity, violence, rape, and murder. Another was that self-determination through national independence would also do this. Yet Marikana made visible the “fallacy.” We cannot understand Marikana, Sithole writes, “outside the contours of black life, which is structurally positioned in the antiblack matrix of violence.”8 The newly moneyed political elite mobilized the state to break the strike of black mine workers seeking higher wages and improved living conditions. It is not enough to decry the betrayal of the antiapartheid leaders who after democracy joined (or sought to join) the ranks of the capitalists. From elsewhere in the world we know that the comprador class quickly ascended, but for Sithole there is danger in reading Marikana outside of blackness. To do so, even when taking a leftist stance that seeks to critique the workings of late capitalism, is to give purchase to “the articulation of Marikana massacre in the hegemonic machine of the liberal consensus [which] position[s] the figure of the human” in order to erase blackness.9 This “machine of liberal consensus” in its quest to read Marikana as a sign of our degraded, common humanity situates Marikana in language as an event and therein “displace[s] it from the reality of black life.”10 For Sithole, Marikana is neither national tragedy nor human catastrophe, because to read it thus is to miss the longer and larger genealogy into which it fits, Rudder's “running and running.” Sithole argues that Marikana is not Giorgio Agamben's “bare life.” For that to be so, the black would need to be ontologically understood as having “‘a natural and a sacred life.’” Rather, “Marikana is actually the very act of questioning blackness. It is the non-existence of blackness where the whole conception of humanity is suspended and what is brought to the fore is blackness.”11 It is not the human who died in Marikana, Sithole argues. It is the black who died. In answering his question of who died in Marikana—“it was the black!”12—Sithole weaves Marikana into the race question. Our method of reading the lived reality of Rudder's “black [person] on the run” in the zone of nonbeing in language is what Sithole wants to make visible to the reader. The intervention is both global and local. But the local intervention is especially a matter of critical, theoretical language. If not “bare life,” what?
Sithole's Marikana chapter is about the massacre as a quotidian function of black life, not as an event. Sithole seeks to rescue Marikana from the discursive terrain of the liberal consensus in South Africa, from popular memory, as an event. Sithole's project is precisely about laying bare the grammar of life in South Africa and the insistent refusal to say that what happened in Marikana was black death—not national tragedy or human catastrophe, but the peculiar product of the “matrix of violence” that is inscribed in blackness. To refuse the centrality of blackness is to erase Marikana. When we attempt to appeal to an ethical code that honors human life, we miss the point. From this side of Marikana, the tentative hope of 1990 has not panned out. RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall came and went with the South African university still relatively unscathed. Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives have marshaled so much energy to fight, but Marikana, “blackness qua Marikana,” made it necessary.
We first discussed The Black Register three weeks after George Floyd's murder, days since Tshegofatso Pule was stabbed in her pregnant belly.13 We know that the list is longer. Shorter life expectancy for black people. Higher disease burden. More likely to experience police violence. Danger at the border. And the list of risks to the black body and spirit under a global order sustained by their devaluation goes on. Sithole opens his Marikana chapter thus: “The life of the black subject is always at stake for the very fact of its nearness and entanglement to wanton violence, humiliation, indignity, dehumanization, and death.”14 That is the truth to which a police officer genuflected for eight minutes and forty six seconds with his knee on a black man's neck. I refused to watch the video. I am not sure what it would tell us that Emmett Till's open casket did not. But the video lives in my visual memory and arguably our collective visual memory without any of us having watched it all the way through to the end. In 1997, Saidiya Hartman opened her book Scenes of Subjection with a refusal to recount the “terrible spectacle” of quotidian racial terror because such recountings “reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering.” Yet in our time of smartphones and social media feeds the “scenes of [black] subjection” are almost infinite and infinitely reproducible.15 To refuse the recounting of the “spectacular character of black suffering” as Hartman does has become all the harder in the digital era. The visual texts are widely available and circulated. The democratization of photography and videography mean that they are available both as evidence, which does not often lead to their contents being legally declared a crime, as well as potential pleasure texts for the antiblack world.
Since that initial discussion of The Black Register, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who took George Floyd’s life, has been found guilty of second- and third-degree murder. So far there seems to be no accountability for the officers who murdered Breonna Taylor sleeping in her own home. It would be to miss the point of state-sanctioned terror against black life for me to reduce this to gender. Chauvin’s conviction is but one conviction centuries overdue; the point of Sithole’s argument is the totality of the siege on black life across class, geographic location, gender, and sexuality. But I do think that this part of Sithole’s argument would have been strengthened had Sithole engaged the question of the black woman more explicitly. The scene from Shakur’s prison narrative that he reads in which the warden, a white woman, tells Shakur that as the warden she is “Mrs. Butterworth,” while she refers to inmates like Shakur and others (mostly black women) incarcerated with her by their first names and as “my girls” belies not only white supremacy but particularities of black woman’s oppression under that regime.16 To call a black woman a “girl” and invoke black girlhood is to invoke specific vulnerabilities that are tied to a long legacy of black women’s conscription into white supremacist patriarchy. Shakur’s assertion of the black register here is one that is shaped by this history; as is the warden’s demand that she keep her first name out of the mouths of “her girls.” That the engagement is around respectability points to the ways in which respectability and sexuality were historically conflated under white supremacy.
The Black Register is a fretful text. It is not always an easy read, not because of its chosen subject or because its language is dense. It is a hard book to digest because it tells us something we do not want to be true. It is neither fatalist nor optimistic. It is, I think, a reflection of our time. It mobilizes well-known black theorists and their texts—books many of us continue to turn to for a road map to the future—to help us understand our present and the state of black life within it. But what Sithole helps us see is that we have come to some kind of future. Our present demands that we reckon with where we have arrived. Postapartheid South Africa has not finished the work. If “apartheid was racism's last word,” it still speaks.17 Marikana is not the loss of humanity or the failure to allow humanity. Marikana was the fulfillment of blackness as produced by antiblack racism and the antiblack world.
Tshegofatso Pule was a young South African woman who was stabbed and hanged from a tree. See Bhengu, “Pregnant and Hung from a Tree.”
Sithole, Black Register, 157–58.