Dr. Carter: I am J Kameron Carter. I'm in the Religious Studies Department at IU Bloomington. I work on questions of religion in relationship to matters of race, and particularly Blackness. I’ve been really interested in the ways in which race and religion are entangled in the making of the modern world.
I'm also interested in the ways religion has worked and operates in relationship to the fugitive practices of Black life—practices of not just historically Black folk who have run away from plantations, from scenes of violence, but how fugitivity works as a kind of conceptual orientation, how religion has been mobilized as a resource for practices of black life in excess of the racial world and therefore portending the possibility of other worlds. So I’m interested in both of those things.
Eliza Craig: Right, so like religion as colonizing and then religion as escape.
Dr. Carter: Yes, so what would it mean to understand Rosa Parks as a fugitive, right? Her practice of sitting down on the bus when they say get to the back as a fugitive practice. Protesting in the streets as in the tradition of fugitive practices in the name of imagining other worlds.
Noura Ahmed: Would the colonization of religion as a means of suppression be like slave masters using the church as a means to make slavery seem inherent within humans, but then also 150 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, being a devout Christian and using that same ideology to speak out against racism.
Dr. Carter: Yes, and we don't even have to move up to King, right. If you've seen the movie or if you've read the slave narrative 12 Years a Slave, there is a moment in there, in which the master is having a religious church service on the plantation. And one of the slave women who's been ripped apart from her child, her child was sold, and all she does is cry and weep. Because the religious service is in many ways the scaffolding to legitimate this practice that has ripped her away from her child. So you’ve got enslavement, the breaking of the family, all inside the canopy of white religious practice.
And yet at the same time, many of those slaves had these hush arbor meetings off the plantation back into the woods in the wilderness, “off the grid,” right, not mappable within the geopolitics and the geography of the slave plantation itself. You have formal, recognized, sanctioned plantation religion. And then you have the informal, not recognizable, illegitimate, off plantation religion. Arguably, that's the kind of fugitive backdrop that produces the thing we call black religion. It's both related to formal sanctioned religion, so it will talk about Jesus, or if it's in some other kind of religious practice, it might talk about Yahweh, Jehovah. It may talk about the recognizable sanctioned figures of religion. But they're working in a kind of off-plantation, fugitive, hush arbor, out in the wilderness, type of way. That's what renders a person like Martin Luther King intelligible. The formal structures of political practice will try and make King a founding father. In some sense, take the fangs out of his fugitive religious practice, build a monument to him among the other monuments in Washington, DC. Or you already have talk about making John Lewis a new founding father. It's complicated, right, on one level it's a recognition of John Lewis's importance and stature politically and at the same time, it's a move that harbors the possibility of trying to defang him and make him simply intelligible within the plantation-political frame.
Eliza Craig: Right, so it situates his progress and his success within whiteness, which is totally not where it comes from.
Dr. Carter: Indeed, that's the yin and the yang. That's the to and fro of Black existence.
Eliza Craig: I've never conceptualized black Christianity as off-grid of the plantations. I always have imagined it within the construct, and that's so freeing.
Dr. Carter: It's complicated. It requires a nuance. It's both in but not of. It’s in it, but not reducible to it. And the irreducibility matters. That means that we have to at one level give an account of the framework that is violently brutalizing Black life, but also realize that Black life exceeds that violence. It's not simply a function of suffering.
Eliza Craig: Speaking of that framework that brutalizes, can we begin to discuss the origin of the framework of white supremacy? Where does it come from? When does it come from? How has it changed? What is it based in? Big question.
Dr. Carter: Yeah, It's a big question. This is how I want to answer it.
On one level you framed it as a kind of history question; where does it come from. I would argue that the specific groundwork of the kind of white supremacy that we are dealing with to this day emerges in what we might call the moment of colonization. We might use a symbolic year, of 1492, the year of Columbus; 1492 is both an actual historical year but it's also a symbolic year because there were things that happened that preceded 1492, that by the time we get to 1492, 1492 becomes this combustible moment.
So in the middle of the 1450’s, for example, before Columbus has ventures to cross what we would now call the Atlantic, there were the Portuguese who moved from Lisbon, Portugal, in their own ships down the western coast of what we now call the continent of Africa into sub Saharan Africa. Many people didn't go that way because it was believed that basically all kinds of monsters inhabited the place. The physical world didn't work the same way in the Sub Saharan part than they did above the Sub Saharan. A lot of this was Aristotelian imaginations of geography that had accumulated over the middle ages.
A lot of the Portuguese sailors—Prince Henry the Navigator, others—they enslaved these folk, taking them back to Portugal and to a number of the islands off of the coast of West Africa off of the Mediterranean Sea. And, this is when plantation life slavery was first practiced. It became the initial laboratory for the kind of violences that we would now begin to aggregate under the term white supremacy. The big thing here is that white supremacy is not first and foremost the thing that white people do. Those Europeans weren’t known as white people yet. A series of historical events would have to make that happen. The key thing is that a structure of domination and supremacy was coming into place. The rudiments of capitalism, the transformation of labor into a certain kind of value, is a historical process that we can narrate. What's being believed in is the structure of supremacy, the structure of property, the structure of value that these voyages, 1492 as the symbolic year, the Portuguese about 30-40 years before that in connection with the Atlantic and the movement of goods and people as goods, that's what establishes the structures of whiteness. As a structure of supremacy bound up with value, bound up capital on one hand and the symbolic worlds around myth and religion on the other.
Noura Ahmed: As someone who I would say I know a little more about these things than the average person, I would never have gone to that early of a year as the construction of white supremacy. To me, I conceptualize so much of the beginning of white supremacy as the British started colonizing the world and they had to justify their ill treatment of people and then slavery happened in America. They had to justify that. So to bring it so far back is a little mind blowing to me, that there's so much that led up to them being able to justify it, that ideology wasn't something they 100% created on their own.
Dr. Carter: That's exactly right. It's an accumulation of all of these kinds of tropes, images, icons, themes through the Middle Ages and even before. But when those tropes and themes re-situate themselves from the Mediterranean as the transportation and commercial center of life to the Atlantic, we have an innovation that happens. That innovation in shorthand is what we might call white supremacy, if you think about it using these racial languages, or what we might call racial capitalism where capitalism was always and never not about the racial. And so what I'm trying to do in my work is give a robust genealogy of how these terms work, so that we can understand that the struggle against what is called white supremacy, Black Lives Matter, these protests that we are still dealing with are happening inside of a laboratory experiment that is pushing 500 years old.
Across the classes that I've taught in my career, I tell my students, I say listen, the most important thing to understand about white supremacy and about the racial imagination, is that the first thing that it must do is enslave and colonize your imagination. That's the first thing. It has to put your imagination in chains. Everybody's imagination. It has to put the white imagination in chains in one way. It has to chain it to mastery. It has to put the black imaginary in chains. It has to make you believe that you are a slave. Then all the other people between those extreme poles of the racial spectrum, it has to chain them in different ways; maybe the Asian to a model minority vision. You know, we can get into the nuances of how people are differently positioned within the racial imaginary. But the main point I'm trying to make is that the racial imaginary must enslave your imagination, it must make you think that the world that is is all that there can be. And so the deepest struggle of protest is to free your mind. Your mind, your imagination has to be released.
And this is why people like Audrey Lorde, you know, these afro-futurists are so important because what their practice fundamentally is is a practice of the release of the mind and the imagination. And one of the ways in which I like to rethink religion, religion as an ally for protest is that at its best—not at its enslaving worst—but at its best, what religion is putting before us the possibility to release your imagination. When we say other worlds I want to transpose that from thinking about a heaven out there somewhere and reclaim the language of other worlds that basically says the world that is is not the world that has to be.
That capacity to think the otherwise is at the root of what religion can be, and certainly what black religion at its best, capaciously has been.
Eliza Craig: So I'm interested in talking about the shackling of the imaginary. What are the major systems at work that do this early on in the United States?
Dr. Carter: It happens on all kinds of levels.
The educational system is one of the ways in which the imagination is tutored. It shackles us to thinking that the aims and the ends of education is simply so that you can get your bank straight. It becomes completely calibrated to money rather than being calibrated to the release of the imagination, thinking towards possibility.
One of the kinds of ways that we see this is often the opposition between going to school and having a major that's going to get you a job, whether that's in business or engineering or whatever the case may be, versus the humanities. Like what am I gonna do with a philosophy degree? What am I going to do with a Religious Studies degree? What am I going to do with an English lit degree or whatever the case may be? In some sense, I went to beg off from answering that question and just say, well, listen: What animates that question? There's already a hierarchy about what these degrees are doing. And the way we already are thinking about education with respect to that question is calibrating it towards capitalist logics. How do we not do this? Here, not even trying to set up the humanities as being this kind of pristine place where we're more committed to something that's not about capital. That's not true either. I have my own critiques of the way me and my colleagues often operate out of the liberal humanistic disciplines. But, just for purposes of the question, it sort of sets up the stark contrast so that you can see the ways in which capitalism often works.
I'm very interested in how, in many ways, my uneducated grandmother was deeply involved in an educational and learning practice in the way she communicated to me and my cousins, and to people in the neighborhood about what it means to navigate and go through this world, in light of alternative possibilities. That was a serious educational protocol she was enacting. If you only think of education through the professionalized terms that capital dictates, you then have to bracket off all kinds of schools of possibility. What if, what was happening in the back hush arbors, off the grid of the plantation were University educational practices? When they went to the back hush Arbor and they're playing their music from the vantage point of the eyes of the plantation, they're just making a bunch of noise and shouting and acting ecstatically and Pentecostally, if you will, off the plantation. But what if that was actually a location of schooling, or a place of study? What if studying was happening there?
Eliza Craig: Earlier you were talking about protest and freeing the mind, and comparing it to religion as thinking of other worlds. Is there a way to think of white supremacy as a religion?
Dr. Carter: Yes. Well, okay, you might have to reel me in on this one. In many respects I'm finishing a book making this argument, and the thesis of the book, which in many ways you've kind of condensed into your question is what drives the race, religion, & democracy course. What drives the course, what drives the book, and what I take from your question is a fundamental claim that says we need to understand whiteness according to the logics of religion. It functions as a religion, and indeed it functions as religious myth. It's a mythical religious imagination that then translates itself into the secular register of political rationality.
Du Bois in “Souls of White Folk,” which was the complimentary essay to his more well-known book The Souls of Black Folk. He says whiteness must be understood as religion. It's written and published in 1920 in a book called Dark Water. And, that essay is a kind of reflective meditation. He argues that all of the things that we've been seeing crash around us through the decade of the 1910s, culminating in the World War and what was then called the Spanish flu, another pandemic. He says that what we are looking at here is the “religion of whiteness crashing upon the shores of our times.” That's a quote. And by the time you work through the chapter, what starts to come into view is that whiteness functions as religion insofar as whiteness stands in the position that God used to stand in. As God was transcendent now the imagination of whiteness is that which is supreme or transcendent.
Whiteness is, in my language, a “God-term.” The work that the word God does in religion, whiteness does within the racial imaginary. And the way it cashes out, Du Bois says, is it cashes out in these other “God-terms” like democracy, law, order, markets. These are all “God-terms,” terms of transcendence. If your life is not organized around these terms you get read as inferior and need to be brought up into modernity. That's whiteness as religion. And for Dubois, all of these various God terms get captured under a key term for him. What he calls property. He says that “whiteness is the will to own the earth forever and ever. Amen.” That's another quote. Property as transcendent and cashing out in all of these subordinate God terms to buttress it and hold it up. Then, by the time he gets to the end of that same chapter, he ups the stakes. He says, not only is whiteness religion, he says whiteness is a specific kind of myth. He turns back to the ancient Promethean myth coming out of the Greco-Roman world. Prometheus was one of the heroes, the Titan who wanted to resist Zeus, the chief among the gods, by ascending into the regions of the heavens where Zeus is and stealing the divine fire for himself. And in that way, the human being in the person of Prometheus becomes a god character.
Dubois says that whiteness is Promethean. He said in effect the practices of whiteness is the ongoing working out and revising of the ancient Prometheus myth. And he said in effect, you must understand whiteness as this ongoing struggle to establish its humanity as supreme. That’s what the struggle of whiteness is.
What he works out in the rest of Dark Water, is a series of writings, some in the form of poetry, several in the form of short novellas to actually begin to develop, what I call, a counter myth; an alternative mythic imagination that is not premised upon the theft of the divine fire as the ground for world ownership. And, for me is Du Bois is beginning to generate a theory of Black religion and he, himself working as, what I call, a Black mythographer. After him, Toni Morrison in her writings functions as a black novelist mythographer. Audrey Lorde calls herself at one point, working out myth. She's a poetic mythographer who I read in the tradition of black mythography that Dubois himself is generating as a part of what I see more broadly as the black radical aesthetic and intellectual tradition.
Noura Ahmed: When you were saying all of that, something I thought of was the term “proximity to whiteness” and how whole groups of people will be praised on their closeness to this mythology, very much on the basis of skin color. You're almost at our level of purity, you're almost included in our mythology.
Dr. Carter: Yeah. And that almost signals how even in that proximity, you get read nevertheless as a failure. You'll always, in some sense, fall short.
Eliza Craig: Because the theme is democracy, could you dive into a bit the God term democracy and sort of what you mean by that.
Dr. Carter: Yeah, it's a good question. Um, and the reason you're sort of like seeing me like, you know, have this kind of pause on my face and cross my arms is because democracy is a contorted term for me. I mean, depending on what day you catch me, and these days it's more often than not, I'm really down about democracy. I think, again, we have a certain celebration of this term almost a worship of this term. Black and white and everybody in between. What we want is more democratic institutions and more rigorous democratic practices. What pisses us off about Trump is that he's demolishing democratic institution. For those who have a certain fidelity to democracy, and on one level, I do. I at the same time have to reckon with the fact that democracy and anti-Black practices like slave holding were sutured together. Absolutely sutured together. Now what does that do then for the discourse of democracy, our fidelity to it?
In some sense I want something that's more radical than democracy as we know it. Now, we might want to preserve the word democracy and come up with some other way to inflect it to signal that radicality. I’m open to that. But part of what's at stake for me is getting us to be honest about how the very terms of democracy themselves are fundamentally in some sense undemocratic, the way in which there's something like enslaving about the word freedom. The practice of freedom in the United States was always bound up with enslavement. And even the so called abolition of slavery and opening up of reconstruction, finally failed. In some sense, it failed because people had a deeper commitment to the structures of the old form of liberty. And so, the category of democracy for me is very fraught. It's a certain inheritance that I have and that I think we all have. But it's also an inheritance that even as we all have it, some of us it don't want to have! What if we need something more radical than even our current imaginations of liberty and democracy?
Eliza Craig: I'm thinking about anti-racism and how the aim should be to dismantle the system. Is there a way to use anti-racism or black mythography to take down white supremacy?
Dr. Carter: Yeah. I want to think about Black mythography not in relationship simply to what it is opposed to and wants to take down. But more rigorously in terms of practices of the alternative that are already afoot in our midst. While the plantation was happening there was the off-grid alternative that was also happening. It's just that the plantation so monumentalizes itself as the shrink out of our imaginations the alternatives that are already happening. Right.
Mutual aid was already happening. We had to think about alternative forms of communion and life together on those plantations. If a mother or a father are broken away from their partner or from their child and now they find themselves amongst all these other people that they don't know, they don't have a per se blood relationship to, air quotes, they have to find and practice alternative modes of social life. And it's not just the plantation. From the holds of the slave ship they were already doing that. If the slave ship was an experimental scene and location for the violent production of the racial world, it was also another experiment always happening. In the holds of those ships, people had to figure out how to be with each other across the former cosmologies, across the various tribal differences, across the various linguistic differences that they had on the continent. All of those had to become resources that had to be turned and tweaked into new modes of communion in life together.
When we say blackness, we are talking about that alternative experiment that is already in play.
My grandmother trying to survive up there connected to the projects in Philly, and the stuff that she was doing, that was all part of a long standing counter experiment. It's alternative poetics, alternative mythographical practices. So it's not just that I want to think about black mythography, or even Black Lives Matter as a protest movement and so forth simply in terms of what it is not. Right. Because if it's only that, it's sort of like the photo negative. It’s always in some sense bound up with the image of which it is a negative and nothing more. It's just the inversion. Right. And to the extent that it's just the inversion, it reproduces in many respects, through resistance, the very thing it is resisting. But, if we can think beyond simply the mode of resistance and say, wait a minute. What if we thought about Black Lives Matter? What if we thought about any of these alternatives as not calibrated against what they're resisting, but as alternative practices and instantiations of the alternative of otherworldliness already now. Now we got something else going on. That's the way I'm trying to think about.
Eliza Craig: So that's like the difference between the term Black resistance and black joy. Like black resistance is posed as an opposition, you know, but it's just black joy. It is because it is.
Dr. Carter: Right. Internal to Black joy is something we might call resistance, but black joy is not reducible to what it resists and therefore it's not simply a function of resistance. Black joy is not reducible to the suffering that resistance is trying to speak back against. If we do that, that’s saying that black people are equatable to the violence that’s meted out against them. And I will... no. Black people are not reducible to the suffering that they endure. So you're making a very vital point, certainly vital in my own thinking. I'm trying to think about Black joy as already instituting and instantiating possibilities at the scene of violent impossibilities. Because I guess what I'm trying to do in my work is I'm trying to at a minimum insert a question in relationship to democracy. And maybe this gets back to religion too.
What shall our relationship to democracy be? Shall our relationship to democracy be that of a reformer? And here, I'm thinking about the Protestant Reformation. Do we want to be reformed democrats, the way in which the Protestant Reformers sought to reform Catholicism? Is that what we want?
If I want to be kind of coy about it and shy about it I will say; I'm ambivalent about that alternative. If I want to not be shy about it, I’ll say I'm not convinced about that alternative. I'm going to say why in a second. But first, let me just lay out the other side. Do we simply want to have a reformer’s relationship to democracy and reform it? Or do we want to have something like an abolitionist relationship to democracy?
The Civil War was a war over reformation or abolition. Reformation might tweak it, but fundamentally keeps it in place. Abolition says it's got to go, and we need to imagine an alternative all together. The first stage of Civil War, the actual fighting itself, the battle was over abolition. We get the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments of the Constitution. These basically become the amendments that in some sense reset the Constitution supposedly to get slavery out. Air quotes right. Ava DuVernay has helped us understand how complicated that was in her film 13th. But nevertheless, the first stage of the Civil War was about abolishing.
The second phase was Reconstruction to actually enact a new kind of polity. That failed. It collapsed. And we know it collapsed because that's when Jim Crow laws came in, these new Black Codes, lynching, the KKK. These were all emblems of that failure. Right.
When we come back to Reformation and reason I say this is where the religious comes back in, is because the European Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, moved away from Catholicism towards something else. Something that will be more free and liberating that was also entangled with the new logics of capitalism. The reformed nations pick up where the Catholic nations leave off. It starts with the Catholic nations, Portugal and Spain, they begin the capitalist-colonial project. But because it's constrained in a certain way by the church and not liberated to all individuals, capital was constrained. Well, the Protestant Reformation liberates religion to all European individuals and in that way it liberates capitalism. Anybody can get inside the slave trade now. And this is when the British, a Protestant nation, the Germans, a number of others who are the protestants, they get in on slavery. The ante gets upped when the reformation happens, it doesn't subside it; it ups the ante of it.
And so I'm taking that historical observation, in religion, religious history, and I'm migrating it over to the question of an anti-Black world. Do we simply want to reform the resources of an anti-black world? Reform democracy. Reform markets. Reform law. Reform the police. Do we want that? Or are we wanting to truly imagine the alternative and enact it, practice it. The slaves were calling for abolition, they don't want it anymore. They don't care how you revise it. It ain't good for me. And that's what I'm playing with when I talk about democracy. And in some sense, that's what I’m really trying to do in the course. It will succeed if it puts on the table the utter complications around this term democracy and other God terms and make it that much more difficult to simply say let's reform the system.