White Bears in Sugar Land: Juneteenth, Cages, and Afrofuturism

We resist enclosure. Deer roam forests. Vines colonize abandoned Coliseums. A human being held in solitary confinement will self-harm, scream, plead, kick doors, smear feces on their cell walls, and refuse food if there exists even the promise of seeing the sun for fifteen minutes of their day. There are many words in English for what that human being quests for: liberty, emancipation, freedom, independence. So much of the American project has been dousing its cultural fabric in these colors. No mention of brotherhood and precious little of equality. Justice is nowhere to be found. Peace, somewhere far off in the distance. Over the horizon, in fact. Those messy words presume an After, and they presume that this After is other than post-apocalypse. Liberty, emancipation, independence, without brotherhood or equality or justice or peace, presume utopia. Any alternative imagining can only be fiction.

An episode in the second season of Black Mirror, titled “White Bear,” dramatizes precisely this conundrum. The protagonist, a woman played by Lenora Crichlow, awakens with amnesia, haunted by a symbol that flickers on the television screen in her room and hunted by unreasoning pursuers. People on the street catch sight of her and immediately raise their cameraphones to record. Even as her pursuers shoot at her and those who have decided to aid her, the spectators remain just that. Spectators. They’re being held captive by a signal from a transmitter at a facility called “White Bear.” Get to White Bear, destroy the transmitter, and free the world from their stupor. When she and her confederate reach the transmitter, two hunters attack. In what is supposed to be the episode’s climax, she wrestles a shotgun away from one of her assailants, aims, and pulls the trigger.

Out comes confetti.

The whole thing was a hoax. Her name is revealed, as well as the fact that she and her fiancé had murdered a child, her sentence for which is daily psychological torture. Relive the same day over and over and over again, with no memory that it has ever happened before.

Emancipation with no hint of peace. Some would watch the aftermath of that reveal, the woman being driven back to her compound while those spectators from earlier curse her and damn her and spit at her, and say that’s justice. They might say that, in punishing her, whatever justice system that exists in the world of this episode is simply operating out of procedural fidelity. Maybe the algorithm decided this, and an algorithm sees neither color nor sex nor gender nor faith, that renders us equally as numbers. But of the many things I came away from that episode holding in my chest, nowhere among them was any sense of justice.

Black Mirror places the episode somewhere in our future. An After, as it were. The paradox of progress here is that it takes our imaginations to create an After where there are no Afters, revealing the mistake inherent in founding your identity on the sole item of liberation. The light at the end of the tunnel, brought to you by lamps that have been hung up in the next portion of tunnel. If your organizing principle is freedom, maybe all you’ve done for yourself is fashion another cage. And a cage does not need metal bars and concrete walls to be obvious.

Count on the Brits to expose American absurdity.

In early 2018, the Fort Bend Independent School District broke ground in Sugar Land on the site of what was to be a new technical center. It was in February that the first remains were discovered. By July, archaeologists had discovered a total of 95 bodies. The bodies were buried in individual wooden caskets. Initial analysis places the youngest of the deceased at 14, the oldest around 70. Analysts deduced, early on, that the bodies showed evidence of severe malnourishment and physical stress, pointing to a history of hard labor. Prison labor.

A former prison guard, Reginald Moore, had told officials in the fall of the previous year that there might be a cemetery there. Since his term as a corrections officer in the 1980s, he had adopted as his mission excavating the land’s past and serving as caretaker for the Imperial Farm Cemetery, also in Fort Bend County.

It is speculated that the bodies were buried between 1878 and 1910. Technically, none of the buried could have been slaves at the time of their deaths. Slavery had officially ended in Texas 13 years prior.

 

June 19, 1865

Union Army General Gordon Granger stands on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa. Maybe there are banners commemorating the occasion. Maybe a flag hangs from somewhere. Maybe he has bathed, maybe he has not. The previous day, the General had arrived on Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. Just over two weeks prior, on June 2, the last of the Confederate forces, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, had formally surrendered. Maybe they hadn’t believed reports of Robert E. Lee’s formal surrender on April 9 of that year. Maybe they thought it Union propaganda. Maybe the officers leading that corps had lost the mail. News, back then, didn’t travel as quickly as it does now.

But on June 19, 1865, General Granger unfolds a piece of parchment and reads aloud from what is marked “General Order No. 3”:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The once-enslaved rejoiced in the streets.

The 14-year-old boy, whose destiny is a shallow grave near the Brazos River, is one year old. Born a slave before the moral border crosses him, and he’s suddenly freed. In thirteen years, he will be buried alongside the rest of the prison labor.

An even cursory reading of General Order No. 3 reveals just how conditional freedom was in the post-bellum Re-United States. Despite “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” the freedmen “will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Nor will they be allowed to “collect at military posts.” Whether they served the Union or the Confederacy, they will be left with nothing but the scarred skin on their backs. There will be no government assistance, no 40 acres, no mule, no “help them get back on their feet” allowance. Liberation pure and simple. A typical American blunder to mistake emancipation for justice, liberation for peace. To mistake the light up ahead for the tunnel’s end and conclude that the hard work has been finished.

The After that these freefolk walk into is a Texas whose economy depended heavily—too heavily—on sugarcane, a Texas whose economy had depended almost entirely on free labor. So two Confederate veterans, Edward Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis, sign a contract with the state in 1878 to lease the state’s prison population. The Vagrancy Act of 1866, also known as the “Act Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants,” drafted and ratified by the Virginia state legislature, forced into imprisonment for a term of up to three months anyone who appeared to be unemployed or homeless. It is only one example of the type of legal regime that proliferated over the United States. So-called Black Codes declared, among other things, that if a freedman left employment without the employer’s permission, he would be denied his wages. Also declared was the fact that a worker could be fined $1 for acts of disobedience or negligence or 25 cents per hour for every missed hour of work. In Texas, a system of apprenticeship was enacted, along with a host of vagrancy laws.

Cunningham and Ellis suddenly had their workers.

In many instances, men were handpicked, noted for their heavy bearing or their workers’ hands or their strong backs, innocent men, targeted as they walked through the thoroughfare because they looked like good laborers, arrested, and swept into the machine of convict leasing.

That year, 1878, the 14-year-old boy, if he is not already serving time in a cell or on a plantation, will arrive at his destination and not last the year.

Out comes confetti. Emancipation? Freedom? The whole thing was a hoax.

By the time he died, Ralph Ellison had compiled thousands of pages of notes and drafts and pieces of drafts on what was to be his second work of long fiction, the novel that would follow his masterwork, Invisible Man. He never lived to see it completed. Looking at the themes it examined, perhaps unfinished is its most natural state. There is a dying race-baiting Senator who once was maybe a small black boy destined to be a preacher. There is a parodic exploration of filmmaking culture as an allegory for Franklinian ambition, the American ideal: reinvention. There’s jazz in the prose and in the story. There’s a tragicomic scene where Senator-to-be Sunraider, as a maybe black boy, is raised out of a tiny coffin by his adopted preacher daddy during the course of a rousing sermon only to see a white lady from the congregation loudly claim him as her long-lost son. The story is ostensibly a satire, but the shape-shifting of the maybe black preacher’s son to race-baiting United States Senator brings to mind more fantastical creatures, the werewolves and sprites and witches and vampires who all, in one way or another, embody our fears and hopes and lusts. The werewolf’s human form is a seduction, and so is the promise, in Ellison’s unfinished second novel, of whiteness. Of freedom.

Long after Ellison’s death, a near-comprehensive collection of what was supposed to be this novel was released, titled Three Days Before the Shooting. Previously, the material had been compiled, condensed, and published by his editor as a novel coming in under 400 pages.

Its original title was Juneteenth.

 

July 22, 2013

I arrive at the Ofer military court for the first time. It wasn’t that far from the office in Ramallah. We took a service taxi to the gates, offloaded and got into a van that operated much like a taxi the way a plainclothes cop is police and we crossed the first major threshold, whereupon we passed through the first metal detector and showed our passports to the bored guard behind the glass. When we came out from beneath the shelter of that first station, we walked down an outdoor corridor to a waiting room where waited family members of those whose trials were scheduled today, along with men and women in the process of attending their own hearings, often for parking tickets.

In May of 2013, I began work at an organization that represented and advocated on behalf of Palestinian Arabs detained in Israeli prisons. At the time, I occupied a flat in Ramallah with a classmate of mine from law school. She was working on women’s rights. I was at the Ofer military court on this day with a supervisor and a few colleagues, one of whom was a student like myself, from Harvard Law School.

My supervisor took our passports into the main booth and then after a wait, we went through. Shoes and belts removed, pockets emptied, then we came out on the other side with our belongings. Down another corridor and into a courtyard that looked very much like the prison courtyards in the US, only this was populated with family and friends of the to-be-incarcerated. Heat blanketed everything, and people bounced in and out of the shade, waiting, joking about what they’d do if they couldn’t get rid of the parking ticket. I talked career paths with this fellow intern and movies, I think, with another. Inside a small shack-like building that resembled a mini airport waiting station, I practiced my Arabic script and a fellow intern taught me some new words and I worked on my numbers. With us, at that time, were the wife and the brother of one of the detainees we’d come to see, a man who had worked and researched with our organization and who had been arrested and detained the previous September. We were here for his sentencing hearing.

Our colleague is being held in Trailer 4. There are four prisoners in the box here to our left. Less chaos than hearings earlier in the day. There’s one dignified hijabi woman who looks like defense counsel. New witnesses enter, and we play musical chairs to shuffle so that the men sit in an unbroken line.

The translator here has a wide, sharp face, stubbled, shiny blue eyes, looks like so many kids I went to school with. A Billy club hangs from his back pouch.

A dumpy middle-aged prosecutor charges his phone in the wall behind him.

The prisoners here are older than most of us in the audience. Much older.

One of the prisoners received word from his wife, behind me, seated amongst the spectators, that his friend had just died. “My God,” he said, “rest in peace.” The expression on his face is beyond my ability to describe. Before he can fully process the news, his attention snaps back to his hearing.

The prisoners are handcuffed in pairs and led out. That was it.

It turns out the hearing for the man we had come to see was now moved to July 29, 2013, a week from today. Four hearings in five minutes.

On July 28, 2013, the night before our colleague’s trial, I’m in Jerusalem with yet another colleague from work. The friend she’d brought with her had on a Metallica shirt.

It took quite a bit of cajoling on my colleague’s part to eventually get me to Jerusalem and while the three of us sat on the roof of the Austrian Hospice with the sun gilding East Jerusalem, waiting expectantly for the muezzin so that we could begin eating the sweets we’d picked up in the souk, she asked why I’d waited until my last week in Palestine to come to Jerusalem.

I thought of the Qalandiya checkpoint that I’d seen numerous times and had occasionally passed through and how the very sight of all those Palestinians herded like cattle through the stations, many of them waiting in lines in a shack reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic Six Flags, made my hands start shaking. I thought of how comfortable I’d gotten in Ramallah, even as this place had begun to wear on my spirit. It was familiar. More familiar than leaving.

And I thought of everywhere else I’d traveled to. All the other countries where voyaging was an effortless thing. A wish was all it took to put me on a train in Paris that would spirit me to Amsterdam. Being stranded at the Kosovo-Serbia border and having to negotiate my way through Macedonia, cut a path through Bosnia, to wind up back in Croatia again, that was an adventure. Rabat to Tangier, an inspired odyssey.

Here, though, freedom of movement didn’t seem to exist beyond the contours of Ramallah. There were passable barriers, but the trouble of negotiating them overwhelmed me so that it took as long 10 weeks for me to see a city that was but 10 kilometers away. There was security behind bars. Should our imprisoned colleague eventually be released, this is what would have been waiting for him. More tunnel.

So, when my friend asked me why it took me so long to get to Jerusalem after I’d been in the Territories for almost ten weeks, I shrugged and said I was scared.

The next day, our colleague went on trial. Again.

After my ten weeks in Ramallah, I would return to law school where I would be put on the habeas corpus case for a man who had been wrongfully convicted and held in prison in my home state for over 18 years. I would write a long and heavily-researched paper on carceral philosophies fed and watered in the US and exported to El Salvador and the Occupied Territories. I would later graduate and spend a year at a job, part of which required observing minors held in solitary confinement. After that would come Rikers.

Spend enough time on the outside looking at people held in cages and you might shake your head, look for confetti under your shoes, and begin muttering to yourself, “the whole thing was a hoax.”

 

September 15, 2018

Liberation is one of the principal themes in the myth of the United States of America. Liberation from tyranny, liberation from savagery, liberation from taxes. Hell, early Americans even liberated themselves of imported tea. What a mess they must have made on those ships docked in the Boston Harbor. Clean-up is for later. As is the burial of convicts leased out for labor. As is the release of the modern American incarcerated. And with a largely monochrome literary lineage, American letters has largely allowed myth to morph into accepted wisdom, some facsimile of fact. American letters gave Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a Pulitzer Prize. And though the film The Birth of a Nation is largely credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, it was adapted in part from the first two novels in Thomas Dixon Jr.’s Ku Klux Klan trilogy: The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the Whiteman’s Burden – 1865-1900 (published in 1902) and The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (published in 1905). Less sanguine a patrilineage but just as alabaster, one may start somewhere around Washington Irving or even Edgar Allan Poe and work one’s way through Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Mailer, etc., etc. etc. American myth.

Those works that did exist to scrub away some of the varnish, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, more often than not written by those on the margins, largely concerned those on the margins. Even after the tiff between Henry James and H.G. Wells results into the greater beef between “literary” and “genre” fiction, that writing by the racially marginalized, in order to be seriously considered as a work of merit, need by definition concern the racially marginalized.

So the first alleged science fiction novel by an African American isn’t about aliens. It isn’t about other planets. The novel figures our own is strange enough.

Its author is one George S. Schuyler. Its title is Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940. And at its center is a scientific procedure. Protagonist Max Disher, after having been spurned by a white woman in a Harlem speakeasy on the simple fact of his blackness, reads of a scientific procedure that could result in the complete bleaching of his skin. “Black-No-More” claims to be able to turn a black man white.

The scientific procedure grows in popularity, throwing the social and economic order of the country—predicated on a strictly delineated racial hierarchy—into bedlam. NAACP leaders with their Talented Tenth aura hate it. Southern segregationists, desperate for a critical mass of Other to hate, despise it. Meanwhile, Max Disher, now Matthew Fisher, wins the white girl. The novel’s hijinks involve a potential mixed-race baby, a jet plane and mutilation at the hands of animalistic, atavistic Mississippi whites.

“[S]peculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture,” that is how Mark Bould defines Afrofuturism in “The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF.”

And lately, the word “Afrofuturism” has received a lot of purchase, eagerly slapped on any story in which black people and magic (or sufficiently-advanced technology) are co-pilots. It’s another attempt to categorize and catalog, some way to trace genealogy and link Schulyer with Octavia Butler with Tananarive Due with Sheree Thomas with Samuel Delany with Andrea Hairston with Colson Whitehead with N.K. Jemisin with P. Djeli Clark. A justification for putting them in the same cupboard, aside from the fact of their shared blackness. That would be too gauche a reason.

But the fact of the matter is that the aforementioned authors resist sameness. Time travel, galaxy hopping, climate catastrophe, zombies, broken cities with burnt skies, they are at the business of excavating myth and pulling humans out of it, same as any other bushel of writers. The fact of their blackness does not mean that they are obligated to allegorize black death or black anguish or black angst (whatever those reductionist terms may mean or entail) or that the entirety of their oeuvre must stem from the primordial wounding.

If they were to address injustice and un-freedom and the paradox of progress, it would be by choice.

It is a Saturday. September 15, 2018. At a place called Roulette on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Somewhere in the emails, perhaps on the Gala invite itself, there’d been dress code instructions, but due to characteristic failure of foresight, I arrive at the venue wearing jeans and a black t-shirt that reads “Abolish ICE.” My worries are assuaged by a young man in a rumpled, dark-colored button-down waiting in line just in front of me for the bar.

It’s my third time at the Brooklyn Book Festival, second time as a dude who wrote a thing. And, thus, my second time at the pre-Festival gala. So many of the writers I’d been lucky enough to have befriended or known over the previous two year are in attendance. Crystal Hana Kim, author of the Korean War love epic If You Leave Me; essayist and novelist Naima Coster; R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries. In the low lighting, I’m sure there are others I would recognize if only they came affixed with name badges.

After enough time has passed, we are urged to our seats. I and friends take our seats in the balcony. In June of that year, it had been announced that the Best of Brooklyn Award, given annually by the festival, would go to N.K. Jemisin. The previous honoree had been Colson Whitehead.

In the time between her name is called and she makes her way to the stage to accept her award and give her speech, everyone rockets to their feet. There can’t be more than a few hundred of us in that hall, but it feels like we are one thousand strong. Applause thunders. And thunders. And thunders.

The previous month, Jemisin had won her third consecutive Hugo Award for Best Novel, making history twice over as the first author to threepeat and the first to win for every novel in a series. For a series of novels quite explicitly about injustice and un-freedom, into which can be read with remarkable ease black anger and black pain and so many of those other complex weavings of emotion that stem from having buried somewhere deep in one’s genealogy that primordial wounding. In short, a series of novels that not only stars black people, but that thematically concerns itself with the business of being black in the United States of America. A series of novels about having too little and too much power simultaneously, about loving in the face of loss, about the separation of families, about containing in one calcifying body both God and woman.

UX Designer and theorist Florence Okoye writes: “Afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.” She ties the Afrofuturist project to a reaching back. Far from operating from the blank slate baseline that results from the wholesale obliteration of one’s history by the triangle slave trade, “we can reach back to our past to inspire our futures.” We’ve snatched the pen, the tablet, the laptop from the hunter and type out, with our claws, the true story of the savannah. Oppression seeks to pulverize the possible, to atomize hope, to granulate not only dreams but the very act of dreaming. What control does one have over the slave, the sharecropper, the convict in a capitalistic enterprise if they can imagine another Now, if they can build, in the cathedral of their mind, an After? No, better to erase their name, indicate only their present physical features on the bill of laden, amputate their familial bonds by scattering the children into plantations all over the country. A century later, however, rappers walk the streets of New York City with Africa pendants hanging from their necks, at work, knowingly or unknowingly, repairing American injury. Telling story the way Schuyler told story, the way Butler told story, the way Jemisin will tell story. Afrofuturism is exhuming the bodies buried in Sugar Land and reanimating them. Afrofuturism, this imagining of Afters, pushes the laborer toward the tunnel’s mouth. That warmth? The feel of the sun on your face. Prison still persists, environmental racism aggravates illness, material and professional advancement will still be thwarted, but there is nothing like the moment when a prisoner the first night of the 1971 Attica Uprising, stares up at the sky from a D Yard crowded with other prisoners crafting a civil rights moment, and says, tears leaking down his face, that he hasn’t seen the stars in 22 years. We resist enclosure.

I think of the Broken Earth trilogy and the word that comes to mind is liberation. Authors from marginalized backgrounds may, to varying degrees of success, deny the more pernicious aspects of American publishing and refuse to write their marginalizations, to allegorize them even, or to reduce themselves and their demographic to suffering. What matters is the choice. Because should a black author face the plight of black Americans in the United States since before its inception and allegorize that, excavate from the mythmaking of Irving and Thoreau and Hemingway and Mitchell a series of humans the same color as her, the result can be a piece of writing so powerful and painful and daring that we can’t look away from that most essential truth it purrs, screams, weeps, shouts, whispers into our ear: that liberation without justice is not liberation, it is simply a hoax.

 

May 30, 2019

On this day, a Thursday, someone dear to me begins his jail sentence. He was convicted in Connecticut for a crime he is alleged to have committed in Connecticut, and when he is released, he will, absent permission from a probation officer, have to remain in Connecticut. His sentence is for one year. He will be eligible for parole in eight months.

He is a college graduate and a veteran of the Air Force. He enjoys difficult video games, then, bafflingly, replaying them at higher and higher difficulties. By turns brooding and articulate, reluctant and insistent. He loves potatoes, eats irregularly, and his metabolism is so powerful that whatever food he digests seems to vanish entirely, leaving no trace in his stomach or his ass or his chest or arms of its ever having been. If we are not plagued by the same haunts, the same principalities that swing us not from happy to sad but from ecstasy to sorrow, that render life for us in nine dimensions, that set whatever’s inside our ribcages on fire, if we are not whispered to by the same voices, then, at the very least, those phantasms, like the bodies hosting them, share DNA.

The afternoon of the first day of his sentence, I sat at a table in the Jacob Javits Center and, for ninety minutes, signed copies of a novel I’d written. It is difficult to say that anything other than providence had a hand in placing me here and placing him there, but there it is.

When he is released into probation and given his set of instructions, his list of constraints, and whatever methods they’re going to use to continue monitoring him, I hope I’ll be able to look at him and think of his time inside and now his time outside, his having lost a year in the prime of his life, him leaving a house of Corrections for a world of ankle monitors and check-ins, to look at him at the end of all of this, the entirety of his sentence, and not say out loud, “the whole thing was a hoax.”

Between the time he went in and the time he gets out, I will have published two books, the second of which is about, in part, a young man in jail. I wrote it because I think science fiction, fantastika, is one of the best tools I have to help build an After. Imagining justice. Imagining equality. Imagining peace. Cleaning up the mess American mythmaking has made of this place. I hope he is able to read this book. I hope he is able to read Riot Baby and know that I tried my best.

I hope he makes it to the end.

I wrote it for him.

Tochi Onyebuchi’s fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, and Omenana Magazine. His non-fiction has appeared in Nowhere Magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. He holds a B.A. from Yale University, a M.F.A. from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, a J.D. from Columbia Law School, and a Masters degree in droit économique from L’institut d’études politiques. His debut young adult novel, Beasts Made of Night, was published by Razorbill in October 2017, and its sequel, Crown of Thunder, was published in October 2018. His next YA book, War Girls, will hit shelves on October 15, 2019, and a novella, Riot Baby, will be available from Tor.com Publishing in January, 2020.

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