Humanity beyond the Regime of Labor: Antiblackness, Indigeneity, and the Legacies of Colonialism in the Caribbean
by Shona N. Jackson
In 1970, the late Caribbean historian Elsa Goveia wrote that what unifies Caribbean society and culture is the subordination of blacks. It is a claim that has been roundly ignored within contemporary political and cultural work that seeks to frame Caribbean cultures in terms of survival, continuity, transformation, and the embrace of blackness. Goveia’s words, however, are as true today as they were then. Blacks were brought in to work on Dutch, French, British and other plantations because they were seen as the absolute lowest point of humanity. They could not be redeemed, even as Gentiles, as the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas strove to do for Indigenous peoples within the Spanish territories in the 16th century. This anti-blackness became foundational for the societies that ultimately emerged from colonialism.
However, this anti-blackness cannot be understood apart from the subordination of Indigenous peoples in early Empire, under colonialism, and ultimately in postcolonial nationalism throughout the Caribbean. Most writers and theorists tell us that blacks had to be brought into the Caribbean because its Indigenous peoples disappeared or were too weak to work on plantations. This uncritical argument, that the disappearance of Indigenous peoples was the reason for the introduction of black, and later indentured labor, hinders us from seeing how these two causalities are in fact irrevocably yoked.
Hegel illuminated this yoking most clearly by writing that, while Indigenous peoples were a disappearing presence in the New World, blacks were more “susceptible” to European cultures. For Hegel, the acculturation of blacks (made possible by their forced removal from Africa and enslavement in the Americas) was essential for their mobility within the Eurocentric hierarchy of human life, and labor was their route to salvation. When blacks left the plantations and sought political freedom they, significantly, argued that their labor in the colonies (read: greater proximity to European culture and economy) justified the ways in which they articulated their freedom. Specifically, they argued that, through their labor, they had not only transformed the land to produce contemporary societies, economies and cultures but they had transformed themselves into the rightful owners of the colony. This position with regard to work is also very clearly articulated in early post-independence documents put forward by formerly indentured peoples, who claimed that their labor “saved” the colonies after blacks literally left the work behind; thus, they too had a right to both inherit and rule.
Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, were not similarly humanized through labor nor did they transform “terra” into property or state. Thus, they could not claim the product of labor, i.e. the colony and the eventual nation-state that would emerge, to retroactively cement the freedom of the formerly enslaved and indentured. By essentially embracing and transforming the very terms of their subordination – labor for Europeans – blacks affirmed Hegel’s conception that they could only be human by engaging with Western society. They also affirmed Marx’s belief that the rationalization of European forms of labor was the true source of social and individual freedom. For Hegel, Africa was a land of “childhood” that had to be left behind because it was deemed unproductive for European humanity and society. Thus when blacks were forced to labor out of Africa, they could officially begin the work for European humanity and the transformation of global economic systems into fully capitalist ones.
By affirming work as the basis for their humanity, blacks have affirmed European political and social structures, specifically those that they were first the objects of as enslaved peoples and later inherited post slavery. They affirm anti-blackness by valorizing blackness as that which performs labor for European humanity and, thus, for the humanity of the black self. By representing Indigenous peoples as outside of colonial history, as prior to Black history, and as the ultimate ‘other’ to blacks because they can’t be called Creoles – since they could not perform the labor required to become so – blacks preserve anti-blackness in two forms. First, they preserve it in their antagonism to Indigenous peoples, who are literally scripted as the new zero sum of humanity. They are the new “black” that has to be overcome (read: continually enacted death and disappearance) in order for modern blacks to become fully human. Second, they simultaneously preserve the principle of black inferiority which split blackness into what was redeemable through engagement with Europe and what could not be redeemed, that which was always outside and thus had the most potential to threaten this new basis for humanity: modes of sovereign belonging that did not and do not derive from an identity in labor. Blackness thus exists as a bifurcation: that which can be represented within modernity and that which is both prior and an alternate to modernity.
To be anti-black is also to be fundamentally anti-Indigenous. It is a rejection of indigeneity (both in the New World and in Africa) as incompatible with the epistemic terrain of European modernity, its social and political structures, representative frames, and transformative processes. It is a rejection of what blacks were prior to their forced removal from Africa and of what Indigenous peoples still are precisely because they were never fully able to be represented as colonial or postcolonial laborers. It is a rejection of those dimensions of black belonging in the New World that do not comfortably articulate with state power.
I therefore call those of us who are truly committed to decolonization to reject labor as a humanizing basis, as the basis for claims to political and material right. I’m not arguing that black enslaved labor does not matter. It matters profoundly, as do the ways in which Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and Latin America are made to function as a disenfranchised and impoverished laboring underclass within globalization. However, what I am suggesting is that when labor is turned into the basis for our right to rule we articulate what is fundamentally anti-Indigenous or anti-native in both the old and new worlds. Even anticolonial discourses that deploy blackness as a transracial and transnational term for representation and organizing are insufficient when they are singularly oriented toward labor.
As blacks, as Caribbean peoples, we must reject anti-blackness in all its manifestations. We must recognize that an embrace of the regime of labor is always Hegelian, pro-capitalist (even where it is socialist) and necessarily anti-black and anti-Indigenous. We must seek solidarity with Indigenous peoples, not solely as equal citizens, not solely as Creoles—both of which require them to affirm modes of indigenizing based on labor—but as legitimate prior occupants who do not trace their humanity or their sovereignty through modern forms of coercive labor. We must stop regarding this other and prior basis for humanity as a threat. We must recognize the links between its disavowal and that of poor, disenfranchised blacks, especially those whose bodies are overdetermined by the discourses of criminality.
We must stop using poverty, political disenfranchisement, and denials of sovereignty as weapons against Indigenous peoples. We must stop making returns to Africa—the Africa that is in the Caribbean and outside—that evacuate the continent of anything other than consumable cultural forms. We must reject the mystification of Indigenous relationships to land and recognize the complex and evolving, pre-colonial social and political systems that Indigenous peoples developed and which they seek to restore through claims for sovereignty and land rights. We must recognize the complex spiritual returns to and transformations of Africa in the Caribbean and their potential to offer a new basis for citizenship outside labor, what N. Fadeke Castor calls “spiritual citizenship.” We must find a way to actively engage and writ large the political and social forms Indigenous citizenships and modes of social being can offer. It is ultimately the only way in which we can fully recover the diverse modes of the human from their subordination within the time-space of Eurowestern empire.
Shona N. Jackson is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University. Born in Guyana, she is the author of Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean (Minnesota 2012).