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Labor’s Aphasia: Toward Antiblackness as Constitutive to Settler Colonialism

June 10, 2014

by Tiffany King

For the past few weeks a convergence of social media discussions on reparations, Shona Jackson’s book Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean, and her recent post “Humanity beyond the Regime of Labor,” as well as my own thinking about Black Studies’ engagement with Conquest have all compelled me to think critically about the issue of Black labor.[1] I would like to take a moment to focus on the conceptual limits of labor as an epistemic frame for thinking about Blackness (as bodies and discourse) and its relationship to settler colonialism. I am particularly concerned about the ways that Black labor may crowd out Black fungibility as a conceptual frame for thinking about Blackness within settler colonial discourses.

While many scholars who understand themselves as humanists have long ago conceded that strict or heavy-handed Marxian (political economic) analyses are generally impoverished and wanting; labor as an analytic persists. Indeed, labor as a discourse, or what Shona Jackson would call a “metaphysics” and “ontoepistemology”—a way of living and a way of articulating this mode of living— still haunts our critical theories (Jackson, 2012, p. 217).[2] This is particularly true as scholars undertake the difficult work of understanding and naming how racialized people are situated within White settler colonial states. Configuring People of Color into the calculus of settler colonial relations is onerous and in fact laborious. It is especially difficult when trying to conceptualize the unique location of Blackness. I commend scholars for taking on this task.

In order to do this cumbersome work, scholars tend to rely on the tried and true rubric of labor. Labor becomes the site and mode of incorporating non-Black and non-Indigenous people into settler colonial relations in White settler nation-states. People of Color scholars often rehearse histories of arrival as populations of coerced labor as a way of explaining their presence, as well as distance or proximity to the category of the Settler. Labor also becomes a liberal discourse that allows immigrants and migrants to narrate the terms of their belonging and citizenship within White settler colonial states. In this way, labor functions as another discourse of inclusion. Recently, Jamilah Martin in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” made a similar and astute point in her blog post “On Reparations: Resisting Inclusion and Co-optation” that reparations work as a discourse of inclusion within the project of American Democracy within the “U.S. anti-Black settler-imperial state.” While the integrationist project of reparations may be a liberal project of inclusion, it also relies on a “teleology of modern labor” (Jackson 2012, p. 147). It holds out hope for Black inclusion into a human family of laborers/workers. Yet, despite the claim of the Black laborer as “subject”, embedded within the metaphysics of labor, the bill H.R. 40 (otherwise known as the Reparations Bill) has not gained traction.

H.R. 40’s lack of success partially speaks to the inability of Blackness to become fully legible through human categories like the laborer/worker. Further, it evinces the ways that laborer and worker do not explain the ontological state of Blackness. In Red, White and Black, Wilderson attends to the ways that Afropessimists “have gone considerable lengths to show that, point of fact, slavery is and connotes an ontological status for blackness; and that the constituent elements of slavery are not exploitation and alienation but accumulation and fungibility (Wilderson 2010, 14). The “alienation” and “exploitation” that the human worker experiences through labor are contingent conditions resulting from human conflicts.

Many people can and have occupied these temporary and conditional abased human coordinates. White, Asian and South Asian, Latina/o and Middle Eastern indentured and other kinds of laborers have long inhabited White settler territories and nation-states and, as laborers, immigrants and migrants have all helped build the settler nation. Black laboring bodies have even been used to build the settler nation. However, Black labor is just one kind of use within an open, violent and infinite repertoire of practices of making Black flesh fungible.

One way that I have explained fungibility to my undergraduate students in my course “Gender and Sexuality in the African Diaspora,” is to think about the slave owner Madame Delphine LaLaurie’s use of enslaved bodies in the FX television series, American Horror Story: Coven. LaLaurie uses Black flesh to meet uses and desires beyond those of labor and profit. She runs a torture chamber in order to satisfy lusts that include and exceed the sexual. In one episode, she murders and then uses the blood of an enslaved newborn child as an elixir that wards off the aging process. One gets a sense that the possibilities for Black flesh are unending under her ownership.

The infinite possibilities for fungible Black flesh mark a fundamental distinction between fungible slave bodies and non-Black (exploited) laboring bodies. Further, Black bodies cannot effectively be incorporated into the human category of laborers. If Black laboring bodies were incorporated into the category; “laborer” would have no meaning as a human condition.  Blackness is constituted by a fungibility and accumulation that must exist outside the edge and boundary of the laborer-as-human. If there were no Black fungible and accumulable bodies there could be no “wage laborer” that cohered into a proletariat.

While labor as a discourse may work for non-Black and non-Native people of color as a way of interpellating themselves within settler colonial relations, it does not explain Black presence, Black labor or Black use in White settler nation-states. Theories that attempt to triangulate Blackness into the Settler/Native antagonism in White settler states do so by positing Blackness as the labor force that helps make the settler landscape possible.[3] It is true that Black labor literally tills, fences in and cultivates the settler’s land. However, this singular analysis both obscures the issue of Black fungibility and reduces Blackness to a mere tool of settlement rather than a constitutive element of settler colonialism’s conceptual order.

Fungibility represents a key analytic for thinking about Blackness and settler colonialism in White settler nation-states. Black fungible bodies are the conceptual and discursive fodder through which the Settler-Master can even begin to imagine or “think” spatial expansion (King, 2013). The space making practices of settler colonialism require the production of Black flesh as a fungible form of property, not just as a form of labor. In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman argues that the enslaved embody the abstract “interchangeability and replaceability” that is endemic to the commodity (Hartman, 1997, p. 21). Beyond, the captive body’s use as labor, the Black body has a figurative and metaphorical value that extends into the realm of the discursive and symbolic. What Hartman names as the “figurative capacities of blackness,” allows the Settler-Master to conceptualize Blackness as the ultimate sign for expansion and unending space within the symbolic economy of settlement (Hartman, 1997, p. 7; and King, forthcoming). Blackness is much more than labor within both slavery’s and settler colonialism’s imaginaries.

Like Hartman, I argue that Blackness’ figurative capacity and interchangeability has a life—or afterlife—within the discursive and spatial projects of settler colonial expansion (King, forthcoming). Settler colonialism requires a symbol of infinite flux in order to animate and imagine its spatial project (King, 2013). In my dissertation, In the Clearing, I argue that Jennifer Morgan’s book Laboring Women: Women and Reproduction in New World Slavery, configures Black women as spatial agents who are [symbolically] essential to the settlement of land during the colonial period in the coastal regions of the South and the West Indies. In fact, the Black female body must be discursively constructed in order to make it possible to even conceive of planting settlements during the “first generations of settlement and slave ownership” in South Carolina and Barbados (Morgan, 2004). Morgan argues that 18th century settlement required particular symbolic constructions and particular uses of the Black female body (Morgan, 2004, p. 26).[4]

Black fungibility represents this space of discursive and conceptual possibility for settler colonial imaginaries. Black fungible bodies work beyond the metrics and “metaphysics of labor” in White settler colonial states (Jackson, 2012, p. 215). Labor becomes a limiting frame for conceptualizing Blackness on White settler colonial terrain. Reimagining Blackness and theorizing anti-Black racism on unusual landscapes requires that we rethink the usefulness of convenient and orthodox epistemic frames. We must venture beyond labor and its limits in order to think about settler colonialism’s anti-Black modalities. Fungibility and other frames deserve our attention as we continue to think about anti-Black racism, Native genocide and the US settler-slave (e)state.

I would like to thank my colleague Lia Bascomb for her fine reading eye and critical feedback.


[1] See Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations” and Jamilah Martin “On Reparations: Resisting Inclusion and Co-optation.”

[2] Jackson’s book is a testament to how critical deeply contextualized analyses of labor are, particularly as onto-epistemic systems inherited from Enlightenment traditions that circulate within Black Caribbean and “post colonial” thought. I make a distinction here between Black people who live in “post colonial” nation-states or contexts where the Black population has seized the nation-state and Black people who reside in White settler colonial plantation nation-states. Black people’s relationships to Native people, settlement, and the nation-state vary depending on geography. However, Jackson’s attention to the trappings of what she describes as the “metaphysics of labor” which rely on the logics of negation and reproduce Enlightenment categories such as the Master/Slave (Calibanesque figures) is to be taken seriously. The metaphysics of labor work in a different ways in White settler colonial nation states.

[3] The conventional logic within contemporary literature in the fields of settler colonial studies and scholarship that brings conversations of Indigeneity and Blackness into conversation is to focus on genocide and labor as conceptual analytics. See Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1) (2012).

[4]In Laboring Women, Morgan makes the cogent argument that ‘Because England’s contact with West Africa took place in a historical moment marked by the determination to ‘plant’ valuable American colonies with equally valuable workers” the discursive constructions of Black women’s bodies as especially fecund (which entails labor without pain) and also capable of work is possible.’


Tiffany (Lethabo) King is an assistant professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University.

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