Blackness: A Conversation



In this epistolary conversation, two complementary yet distinct perspectives on global blackness are articulated. While Mohammed Elnaiem verbalizes his discontent with the way a US-centric epistemology on blackness has led to “transhistorical generalizations” and the distancing from Third World socialism, Cases Rebelles prefer focusing on how the shared experiences of anti-blackness around the world can lead to powerful forms of solidarities, far from academic theories that only affect marginally political movements.

Elnaiem Funambulist
The Trinidadian Black Power Revolution in Port of Spain in April 1970.

Dear Cases Rebelles,


As I’m writing to you about “blackness,” I must share my concern on how it is being both perceived and defined in the Anglosphere these days. But before talking about “blacknesss,” I can perhaps start with its antonym: anti-blackness. Let me describe what it has meant to me at a more personal level. During my late teens, I lived in Malaysia. I had always inhabited a black body, but during those days in particular, I quite literally experienced routine terror because of that fact. In one instance, Malaysian gangsters on bikes (Mat Rempits) surrounded my friends and I, and cowardly spat on us while they drove away. On an otherwise unfussy night, one threatened to slit my throat as he waved his knife in front of my face—in that case, some Mat Rempits who thought of me as “one of the good ones” actually came to my rescue. They would commonly call us “Awang Hitam,” a seemingly benign word which was encoded with the common refrain that to be African is to be criminal. As far as both the petty thieves, and broader middle-class society were concerned, the terror was vigilantism. Those who engaged in it saw themselves not as mere petty criminals, but as an extralegal force keeping the primal predisposition to crime of Africans like myself checked and tamed while legal means of denying us our rights were being innovated on a daily basis. There was, in this sense, an unspoken alliance between the rempits and the police; when the police stopped us, it wasn’t because we committed a crime. They could invent the crime if need be. It was because, unlike the white tourist, we could be made to stop. At roadblocks, the common question was: “Do you want this the easy way or the hard way?” Nobody I know decided to engage in a one-person act of resistance and find out what the hard way was, but the easy way was a simple bribe. A bribe to pass and a bribe to exist.

I won’t mention too much the moral panics, the landlords that refused to rent out to us, or go into detail about the televised and humiliating drug searches that were designed to keep middle-class Malaysians (including the racialized and dark-skinned Tamils, who themselves knew the taste of our suffering) feeling safe. I only mention all of this to first signal that there is *something* which seems unique about racism directed towards a particular kind of blackness. There is an obvious kind of blackness, which is imputed onto a particular kind of African body, and one which raises moral panics from Tunis to Guangzhou. And there is also something quite absurd about this anti-blackness. While Trump was calling Covid the “China Virus,” in China, African residents were not only banned from going into some malls and eating establishments but many were evicted and thrown out of their own homes. It is quite hard to make sense of this: even where Covid likely took hold, Africans were forced to pay for it.