Of Forgiveness




This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25 

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“Hard to be Christ too, say Shug. But he manage. Remember that. Thou Shalt Not Kill, He said. And probably wanted to add on to that, Starting with me. He knowed the fools he was dealing with.

But Mr._______ not Christ. I’m not Christ, I say.

You somebody to Nettie, she say. And she be pissed if you change on her while she on her way home.”

And forgiveness, in black, is anaesthetic labor. It is in the sound, in the vibration, in the music. The choreosonic sociality [1] of blackness informs the way I consider various kinds of practice as pulsating with life, with birth and breath. Continually.

It is in the sound, in the vibration, in the music. Listen to the way Hammond organists in black churches take up the instrument, how they become made instrument with the mechanical object. How they announce with each chord change and bass run, with each arpeggio and flatted fifth, each suspended and augmented chord, possibility for difference. They could choose to play other progressions, other notes, other chords. But they choose this way in this particular moment to respond to the moment of worship, of praise. The keyboards are constraints but also occasions for the practice of difference. This is a way to think worlds. It is the practice of inventiveness, of construction, of making worlds otherwise than the given. It is in the way of and on the way to an abolition from — and of — the given, the normative, as all that is possible.

I listen to the practices of Hammond organists in the black gospel tradition a lot. And one thing I noted before I ever played myself is that the concept of sameness and difference is constantly in flux and flow, is continually engaged through expansion and critique. You can play the same song differently, you can play the song “Blessed Assurance” or “Amazing Grace” in various ways based on the chord progressions chosen in any pursuit of performance at a given moment.

Yet this same with difference not only happens with and in the same musician but also across different musicians. It is why there is something noted as a Detroit style or Chicago sound or a Brooklyn sound that is difficult to describe if you’re not a musicologist — I am not one — but that you can sense and feel when it’s happening.

The unexpected chord following another chord or melodic line or run. That unexpected, the moment of delight and surprise. That unexpected, the practice of tension and release. Like the copula deletion in the preceding two sentences, the inventiveness the Hammond organist plays emerges alongside and against the anticipatory drive of musical phrasing and statement. You expect the choreosonic corollate of the is but it doesn’t come, that loss compels you to sense the sentence, and sense into it, into what is expected but not there, what’s there but does not emerge. You hear, you sense, the same with difference.

This feeling and sensing of the same with difference calls out some viscerality in the chest, in flesh. This is the effectuation of the anaesthetic practice. It is anaesthetic insofar as the numbing and deadening of sense perception are partly the objective of the practice, which in itself creates and sustains and encloses, the individual subject. But. There is more. This more is the and. And an opening to sense perception being what it’s always been — a collective practice of the social world.

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It’s in the constant struggle that freedom is found, Angela Davis informs us. We share in air. Here. In this place. We flesh. Even those that have renounced relation to flesh, which is their relation to the earth, to the social, to the sensual sound, to blackness. And it is urgent to think about how we can live together, to breathe with one another — to, as Gwendolyn Brooks says, live in the along. This, in the language of Katherine McKittrick, livingness of blackness is a syncopated, arrhythmic, polyrhythmic thing. Found in the sound, in the music. Not about or for or in the direction of linear progression of spacetime but is a thing that happens in some otherwise relation to normative time and space. It also doesn’t long to return to normative function and form; it is instead about an otherwise form of music and an otherwise praxis that would produce a radical alternative to and against the normative in our current moment. A different temporality.

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Forgiveness is on the minds and mouths of lots of folks, again as if for the first time. Eternally. Amber Guyger was convicted of murdering Botham Jean. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Brother Brandt Jean offered a hug to Guyger, said he forgave her. “I forgive you. […] I want the best for you, because I know that’s what Botham would want you to do. […] Can I give her a hug, please?” This gesture was interpreted in endless ways — as an act of genuine compassion, as forgiveness for settler colonialism and white supremacy, as backward spirituality and religiosity, as silly and dangerous indoctrination, as the pandering to white woman tears.

Allison Jean, Botham’s mother, after noticing the dismissive and deeply terrible ways people responded to her son, stated,

What Brandt did today was remarkable. […] But I don’t want the community to be mistaken by what happened in the courtroom. Forgiveness for us as Christians is healing for us. But as my husband said, there are consequences. It does not mean that everything else we have suffered has to go unnoticed.

And father Betrum Jean: “We don’t hate you, [Amber]. You have broken us but we would like to become friends at some point in time, I believe I have the ability to do it, despite my loss. God is good. That is why I want to do this.”

And sister, Alissa Charles-Findley:

What Brandt did, I truly admire. I pray everyday [sic] to get to the point of forgiveness and he is already there. That’s a weight lifted from him. He hugged our brothers [sic] killer to free himself and I stand behind him 100%. For those who feel any different, I respect that. Not everyone is in the same mental place at the same time — but do not be disrespectful with your posts and comments on social media or by word of mouth. Let my brother be free and keep the negativity to yourselves.

There have been, of course, comparisons made to the family members of the Charleston 9, who also expressed the desire to forgive the murderer. In both instances, this desire to practice forgiveness is blamed on Christianity, which is then understood as a kind of weakness. This is a kind of Christianity which makes people docile and unacting, which placates people instead of allowing for anger and rage to flourish. The victims of the violence of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy are then blamed for not having the proper affective or emotional response to trauma and violence.

But I think what happens is an attempt to act out what I call an anepistemology of feeling. This is not an individual’s feeling and affect and emotion and mood that is a kind of private property one can own and exchange. Rather, the anepistemology of feeling is about a collective practice of care for and in and with the social world. Affect and mood would then not be predicated upon innocence or blamelessness but the fact of birth and breath as the grounds for attempting to refuse the logics of white supremacy, including the affective responses it is supposed to presume or forestall.

What if we actually thought about what the Jeans did — the complexity of their words, and actions, as well as their incredible sense for possibility in this, and thus against the normative, world? What if we considered forgiveness to be a reckoning and confrontation with what happened, is happening, will happen? What if we considered it to be a reckoning and confrontation with harm done? What if we recognized it as not the search for innocence but a choreosonic vibration out from a different epistemology that doesn’t search for perfect victims, victims that would then perform victimhood “correctly”?

Harm harms the social worlds. What if forgiveness — like the practice the Jeans elaborated for us — emerges from a collective practice? What if we begin to think of it as a feeling that refuses to consider harm on an individual basis even when harm has in fact been inflicted on certain individuals? And in deeply racialized, classed, gendered, sexed ways? What if forgiveness takes the collective shared breath and breathing as its line and root? And what if from this form of forgiveness otherwise, we might create a different kind of wrestling with the world?

Then it would be this: It would be a practice that exceeds reason, sense, logic, rationality. Forgiveness would exceed these insofar as reason, sense, logic and rationality are the products of modern constructions of the proper ways to be a human. This form of forgiveness would otherwise go beyond the imperative to divide mind from flesh like a good Cartesian dualist. This form of forgiveness would not be property to own but a thing in which we share, a practice that allows for deep connection to all that is. It is capacious, widening, against enclosure. And that it is most forcefully felt in moments of the reprehensible and illogical. But what would be considered reprehensible and illogical would only evince one horizon. Like Octavia Butler says about newness and suns, there are other horizons. Brandt Jean is already there.

And, and also but, so is Esaw Garner, wife of deceased Eric Garner. She said, “As long as I have a breath in my body, I will continue to fight the fight to the end” toward justice for his murder. And when asked if she would forgive former police officer Daniel Pantaleo, she responded, “Hell no. The time to show remorse would have been when my husband was yelling to breathe.” The practice, whatever practice it might be, must be non-coercive, has to be the desire of the one — the ones — that are responding to the way — the ways — harm occurred.

Can we hold this complexity? The fact of her refusal with the fact of Brandt Jean’s refusal? They are, perhaps like the sound emanating between Chicago and Detroit and Brooklyn Hammond organists, the same with difference, attempts to feel and feel with and in and through the complexity of our world, the desire for otherwise than this. Garner’s response was both about the murder of her husband and the material conditions of the world in which she lives — the concern about feeding her children, providing shelter and clothing, the deep practice of care and parenting that was interrupted because of police violence. She was indicting the world with her hell no.

And the Jeans, too, indict the world. I have been attempting to reject Greek ideals of movement — the idea that life is a series of movements higher, away from the flesh, away from the social, toward something ephemeral, ideal, heavenly, amaterial. Such that the Jeans aren’t trying to be higher or better than or more ideal than the Garners. Perhaps we find movement inward, into a way of living that rejects the division between the so-called interior from the exterior life. I want to focus on the Jeans’ practice of forgiveness because of the way it was so readily and immediately dismissed as a too-immediate and too-ready act of immorality, a too-immediate and too-ready act of resigned religiosity, an unthinking, unfeeling act, which in and of itself supported white supremacy. Narrated, in a word, as simple.

Can this — the desired practice of forgiveness and compassion and hugs of perpetrators of violence and offers of friendship — be weaponized in the service of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? Certainly. It has in the past and continues. For those committed to the normative world and its operation, who only want inclusion and consider reform as the horizon of their thrust and imaginative drive, then yes, this practice of the Jeans can be used in the service of the project of white supremacy. But that is not the fault of the ones attempting to practice it. What we must do is create conditions under which harm can be acknowledged and confronted in all its complexity.

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James Cone is an ancestor. His work guides, still, to think otherwise possibility. In and as a flesh thing. The imagination for and practice of the alternative. His attempt to honor the people, most fundamentally and foundationally, of Bearden, Arkansas — the folks that made his birth and breath and thought and theorizations possible — is what we find throughout the arc of the work and teaching he practiced and shared with the world. What he was after is a way to think the density and complexity of the dense and complex world that gifted him a love of black breath and breathing.

In God of the Oppressed, he offered this:

The black tradition breaks down the false distinctions between the sacred and the secular and invites us to look for Christ’s meaning in the spirituals and the blues, folklore and sermon. Christ’s meaning is not only expressed in the formal church doctrine but also in the rhythm, the beat, and the swing of life, as the people respond to the vision that stamps dignity upon their personhood.

Right here we have the opening, the incipient movement, of the double critique of theology and philosophy, particularly in the way that it marks persons to be either included or excluded from its zone and domain. This marking of persons by way of inclusion or exclusion is the practice of power and authority vested in the ones that nominate themselves to perform such serrational activity, and yes, such violence.

The black tradition, Cone informs readers, is antagonistic to such serrational activity, such divisionary practice. And it is because the black tradition is a practice and activity and movement against enclosure. It is a practice and activity in which meaning exceeds the enclosures of doctrine and theology. The black tradition — and not all things that black people do or perform or merely gesture; but a tradition made by the enactment of otherwise possibility in the service of the flourishing of all life and birth and breath — cannot be reducible to doctrines and creeds and what we call the religious, though it is no doubt a forcefully spiritual thing.

James Cone, and Black Theology in general, is the thought of one otherwise possibility or alternative to and not of theology. But, and also, this does not mean that we should rest there. We have to determine what are the resources, particularly of performative fleshly practices, that a modality of thought allows to emerge for us as gift and gifting. What happens, for example, if you don’t accede to the idea of a deity as all knowing, everywhere present and, most importantly, all powerful? What if there is a weak god? What if that weak god is one that cannot change things but can be in relation with you still? This is friendship. Not as an object to be owned but a desired practice in which to share.

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For some, there is embarrassment and deep shame around the posture of compassion. Because it is thought weakness. And weakness is thought to be a sign of colonization. But if I am informed by a Christianity (I claim agnosticostalism, an agnostic with Pentecostal roots and leanings), it is the one Lynice Pinkard preaches — weakness is not a thing we should shun, and strength is not a thing we should aspire to in this normative world. On the one hand, the concept of weakness as a state that we should escape — forgiveness being an expression of this state — is deeply ableist in its construction, because it considers strength as a kind of normative ideal. Fitness and health become dependent on a state of strength.

But what if we think of weakness differently? What if weakness is the refusal to center white supremacist violence as the main producer of possible behavior and response? Then, perhaps, weakness is a gift. That is, to give or withhold a thing because of structural racism is to only and ever respond to that thing as the centering logic for life and birth and breath. But the tradition of the same with difference does not take as its line and root white supremacy. Because it does not think white supremacy as a creative capacity. Such that whiteness does not and cannot create the thing enacted and practiced and loved called blackness, it can only respond to it. And with violent force.

Shug understood this truth, taught it and breathed it and shared it with Celie.
Wanted Celie to be who Nettie was waiting for, not something transformed by Nettie’s having gone away. Because who would Celie be if she allowed for, if she yielded to, Mr.________ fundamentally reorienting her path and mode and movement, if she allowed him to become the centering force and gravity for all that was for her? Shug understood that something, Nettie, was coming toward Celie, that something was arriving — Fred Moten might say, out from the outside — approaching her, and in such approach desiring the Celie that was known. A waiting outside of and beyond and against the colonialism of Western time and space. Shug presented otherwise possibility as a flesh thing, as a connection thing, a yielding and presumed preferential option for weakness such that she could ongoingly practice love, care, concern for Nettie.

One world, the genre of world that overrepresents itself as The World, as the only possible world, attempts to weaponize any idea, tool, practice, or behavior for its goal of excluding what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the Others of Europe from the domain of humanity. In this particular genre of world, everything is engulfed and enclosed by antiblack settler colonialism, and thus can and has been used against the ones practicing modes of care against them.

But the folks James Cone thinks of and about and with, and Shug elaborating for Celie a method of ongoing care against violence and violation experienced, each understand that it is not the particular practices of black life — the deeply dense and varied performances — that create or structure white supremacy. It is the fact of blackness — the fact of black life as a deep, dense, varied, sensual possibility — that white supremacy attempts to discipline, devour, destroy. Such that we should not, in my opinion, relinquish our capacity for complexity, which would then include the noncoercive (because it must be noncoercive) practice of forgiveness, if it is a noncoercive enactment of and in the flesh. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy, antiblack racism and settler colonialism, is the perpetual practice of renunciation and relinquishment of flesh, of relation, of care and concern, of the social world. Such that relinquishing and renouncing a desired practice that attempts a more capacious understanding of possibility does not, cannot, and will not undo antiblack racism nor settler colonial logics for personhood.

The Jeans attempted the practice of a complex sensual openness and vulnerability against the imposition of a violent world that would attempt to exploit that sensual openness and vulnerability. The logic that would stand against this practice emerges from a logic of antiblack racism, a settler colonial desire for place and placement of and against some other. From ground, from thought, from feeling. There is a supersessionist logic at play, in other words. This logic is the normative epistemology of Western thought, that we who would so perform the relinquishment and renunciation of a certain set of sensual open protocols and vulnerabilities are, in Sylvia Wynter’s terminology, the dysselected against those that would renounce, the selected. The latter are the selected, they supersede and practice through a kind of ideal toward perfectibility over and against that which came before. And displace. From ground. From thought.

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Could it be that forgiveness otherwise is never in the time of its enactment, that it is not given to Newtonian theories of cause and effect? That it is, instead, a momentary event that makes clear the ruse of linear time and progressive narratives? This is why saying that these acts of forgiveness are “too quick” or “too soon” places the pressure for the texture of a desired practice in the organization of time and space in rationalist discourse of sense and action. Another displacement.

But then there’s the sound. But then there’s the rhythm.

My friend, Kendal Brown, offered this on Facebook:

Black church clapping is a science. It’s not just about clapping on the downbeat (2 & 4). It’s about hand positioning. Do you know what to do with your hands on the 1 & 3? Do you know that swinging into the clap is a no-no? Do you know that the golf/cupped-hand clap is reserved for the male chorus? Do you know that your bounces and claps have to be in synch? Can you syncopate (mix the rhythm with accents)? Can you maintain the 2 & 4 on the FAST shout beat? (Most mega churches fail … lol). Do you know that we stomp the downbeat if there are no drums? Can you switch from standard black rhythm to South Carolina low-country in the middle of a song? Do you know that 3/4 time “Oh How I Love Jesus” (Stomp-Clap-Clap) is the sound of heaven? Can you guess someone’s denominational tradition simply by the way they clap? Yeah. We magic, y’all.

He begins with science and ends with magic. We cannot forget the Jeans as St. Lucian, a place wherein black rhythm and sound would have its own magical science, scientific magic, in and through and as diaspora too. This space between is a sign of life, of birth and breath. If science, then not predicated on the faulty method taught in lots of compulsory schooling situations. If science, then a critique of scientific practice, a critique of science as a particular kind of neutral, unbiased, abstracted knowledge that can be replicated over and over again with precision.

This is a science of the contingent, of the improvisation, of the creative class of black sociality. The science is an atheological practice, not given on the down beat of doctrine and theology but exceeding beat to involve and be about and enunciate the flesh. The space between science and magic is the beauty of black performance. And instead of the oversimplification the beauty of black church culture, perhaps allow the edges to remain. Maybe the edges — between the Jeans and the Garners — are where complexity is most pronounced, and perhaps that is where life emerges, the possibility for critique. Life in practice.

I like the word practice as opposed to offering because it doesn’t imply sacrifice or sacrament. It implies method or form. It is important because yes, the colonialism of Christianity cannot go unstated — this tradition has been used to justify heinous acts of exclusion, harm, violence, and brutality. But those within the folds of sociality have also contended with tradition, sought otherwise, practiced alternatives. They utilized a hermeneutic of the flesh, their flesh. I think of the Jeans this way, their complex, dense, textured practice of forgiveness and its refusal as the space between science and magic, against the downbeat being the only thing that carries, but that understands the flesh and how it moves is itself important for meaning, for worldmaking.

Sylvia Wynter:

So if I went down to the country with, let us say, eight dresses, by the time I came back, I came back with two. My grandmother would have given the other six to the group of poorer children whom she had informally adopted. I remember we all slept together, stacked horizontally on a large four-poster bed. Even today, the memory of that gives me a sense of grounding in an existential sense of justice, not as grim retribution but as shared
happiness.

Wynter understands and elaborates and attempts to practice an epistemology of otherwise possibility. She demonstrates that the same actions can be considered with difference, that the same with difference is the gift of a black radical tradition. Rather than considering her grandmother’s redistribution of the dresses as a violation of her personal private property, she was and is able to frame such giving and gifting as the desire to share in happiness, to spread happiness, to practice happiness as a social fact and mode of connection. This sort of gift giving illustrates the way those marginalized by systems of domination have something that is not private property that they share, share in, share in as a practice of joy and love. This would then mean a cheerfulness and joy and pleasure in the disbelief in the structures under which we find ourselves, while also using what we have to live otherwise than this, to again and again practice with hesitance and rhythmic spirit otherwise possibility.

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The practice of forgiveness does not, for me, require anything of the person who harmed. Because it has to be noncoercive. Because it is not about the one who harmed as the center of gravity.

Cedric Robinson:

I believe that the historical struggles in Africa and the New World culled some of the best virtues of their native cultures. One such virtue was democracy, the commitment to a social order in which no voice was greater than another […] This heritage gave Black Radicals many things. For example, it gave them an ability to retain the value of life, a fact that had many consequences, such as presenting restraints on the use of violence as a political instrument.

The practice of forgiveness is not the antithesis to acceptance, or anger or rage or reality; it is not inaction or complacency or docility. Forgiveness, for me, is the acceptance of the fact of harm and the desire to figure out how to live, how to breathe. What is left to work out is how I think about my relation to harm, how I have been harmed, and how I can move from it to — as Gwendolyn Brooks says — live in the along. This means allowing anger and sadness or whatever is felt to move toward an active engagement with the world, which would then mean moving beyond and against and away from the moment of trauma or harm. And the restraint from a desired replication of harm as recompense. It’s an abolitionist posture, the desired inculcation of an abolitionist disposition.

In this way, the restraint on violence as a political instrument, we might find that a hug and a practice of forgiveness could be an enactment that does not belong to, even when it is an expression of, Christianity. The desire for an end to violence and violation is the practice of the tradition of black radicalism, expressed in different ways and means. As a prison abolitionist — not as identity but desired posture; not as identity but desired relation to the earth and our creaturely existence; not as identity, so I fail and harm and am not innocent and need compassion and forgiveness too — I think my work, as part of a collective struggle, is to make a world wherein we care for people that are harmed. With joy and pleasure and delight. It is a kind of modality Cone elaborated for us from Bearden. It is a way of life Shug helped for Celie to imagine as possible. It is the tradition as practice of making worlds otherwise.

[1] Choreography and sonicity, movement and sound, always working and acting and functioning and being performed simultaneously; the division between movement and sound is illusory and the word choresonic marks that connection.

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Ashon T. Crawley is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and African American Studies at the University of Virginia. He is author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press) and The Lonely Letters (Duke University Press).

 

 

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