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Understanding Aiwuyor: Laziness, Lies, and the Clout Bait of Clouding #ADOS

About midway through Understanding ADOS: The Movement to Hijack Black Identity and Weaken Black Unity (the first of what I’m sure will amount to a small volume of anti-#ADOS literature by Jess Aiwuyor, since this one was met with such raptures from those who are seated at the popular table she so nakedly longs to join), the author asks ten questions that she seems to feel will problematize the #ADOS initiative and highlight its supposedly crude, narrow and ultimately bogus criteria for determining eligibility for reparations. They range from issues of the identificatory (e.g. how would lineage be proven in African Americans with “no trace of documentation beyond grandparents or great-grandparents”?) to issues of the administrative (e.g. who is going to manage this “fact-finding/witch hunt expedition”?).

Of course, she doesn’t actually want to know these things. And it’s worth noting, before going any further, that while there’s a quality of sheer laziness apparent throughout Aiwuyor’s entire ‘report’, nothing in its 27 pages quite so captures that intellectual lethargy like leaving these questions (and the other totally legitimate ones that she raises) unanswered for her readers. Moreover, it’s next to impossible not to feel that by presenting these questions in a way that suggests to her readers that there are in fact no answers to them (or that the mere fact of asking them somehow serves to implicitly confirm the supposed deficiencies of #ADOS), that what animates this supposedly sedulous dive into the politics of #ADOS is less a desire to seek out actual information about that project and more a determination to obfuscate and further muddle its message.

As a piece of quote-unquote scholarly writing, there is nothing even remotely rigorous about what Aiwuyor has produced. There is nothing actually meaningfully informative or communicative about it, which (it seems to me anyway) is maybe what writing should at least aim for in the grown-up world in which we live and on which stuff like Aiwuyor’s intends to comment. Understanding ADOS is purely an expressive act of writing that strives (and certainly succeeds) only to validate Aiwuyor’s own template of assumptions and preconceptions that she brings to it. And in doing that, she violates just about the most elementary and basic axiom of argumentative and critical writing: namely, try not to assume that your reader automatically shares your opinion of yourself as being the smartest person in the room. It is, in fact, your obligation to other adults (who in reading your ‘report’ are taking time out of what is probably their extremely busy day) to respect the idea that if you assert a proposition, that reader is then realistically going to expect some proof of its accuracy. Unless of course your only intent as a writer is to encourage your reader not to look too closely at—or to think more deeply about—something that might be worth their attention.

So anyway, I guess that’s my preamble-y bone to pick. And I say it only because it took me all of about three minutes to type up those aforementioned questions into an email to send to Dr. Sandy Darity, the individual who—as even Aiwuyor herself acknowledges in her article—has contributed a great deal to the understanding of what reparative policy conceived within an #ADOS framework might look like in the U.S., and who is thus exactly the person to whom a responsible writer would try to reach out in order to address and perhaps help clarify any questions that arise when thinking about certain less-than-straight-forward circumstances.1

Anyway. Within a few hours of my having sent that email, I had in my inbox a characteristically thorough response from Dr. Darity delineating each one of Aiwuyor’s hypotheticals, the answers to which I won’t include here because I’m not gonna do Aiwuyor’s own work for her. This article is intended less as a rebuttal to her mischaracterizations of #ADOS (there’s a fine one of those already out there) and more as a rebuke of her obviously self-serving and totally dishonest motivations for even writing about #ADOS in the first place. The terrain of actual ideas is clearly not at all where Aiwuyor intends to meet and wage a contest. Hers is a work of propaganda. And because propaganda doesn’t aim for the minds of its audience, there’s really no point in trying to intercept it on that level by earnestly addressing the ‘substance’ of what’s being said. The point, rather, is to simply reveal to that audience the ways in which the propagandist proceeds from a position of total contempt for them—how the propagandist starts from the premise that her audience in fact has no free thinking minds to begin with. And if the idea is that, because I’m white, I’m necessarily to be checked from speaking on issues like this, or in this manner, then that’s fine, because libelous crud like Understanding ADOS can’t help but eventually meet its comeuppance, and at some point someone somewhere who is the permissible color or gender to point out its many, many flaws in both conception and execution will happen upon it and do exactly that. Until then, consider this a placeholder.

And also until then, consider this: what seems to, above all, cause Aiwuyor the most worry and anxiety about the #ADOS model of repair is the matter of documentation—‘slave papers’ as she tellingly and disparagingly terms it. This is, of course, what would give legal validity to an individual’s justice claim against the country that enslaved his or her ancestors and which has since been in the highly profitable business of essentially caste tending his or her group for the last century and a half. The cynical intent behind her deployment of ‘papers’—a charged word if ever there was one in our present political moment—is glaringly obvious. And one should have little difficulty understanding exactly what kind of menacing specter she is trying to raise in borrowing the parlance of immigration enforcement and putting it in the mouth of the #ADOS movement. For her, ADOS asserting its particularity is something that she needs to portray as promising, at best, excessive bureaucracy, and at worst, the monstrous barbarism of the state. It must promise these things, but never, ever that which is in fact its very seed: justice.

Yet, for such an avowed pan-Africanist, Aiwuyor seems quite ignorant on what actually happens out there in the real world, in the 21st century, when you begin abstracting out from the specific cultural identity/historical experience/victimhood of an oppressed group, particularly as that identity/experience/victimhood relates to a justice claim held against the group’s national transgressor.

Indeed, one need only consider the quilombo movement in Brazil, a reparations initiative that has sought to have permanent land titles issued to the descendants of slaves whose ancestors had escaped the plantation and subsequently established autonomous, free settlements throughout the country’s hinterland (i.e. quilombos).

In just about every way, the quilombos embody a kind of pan-African ideal, not only in their initial resistance to the dehumanizing condition of bondage, but also in their societal organization, which—as Aviva Chomsky points out in her article, Why Black Panther is Revolutionary, Even Though It Isn’t—was committed to “reviving or recreating neo-African forms of government and culture.” Nonetheless, while it worked to preserve these modes and customs particular to the continent from which they’d been taken, the emancipatory politics espoused by the quilombo people on Brazilian soil were ones that initially rejected any theoretical system that sought to erase the distinction between their specific plight and those of other oppressed peoples. Addressing the Second Congress of Black Culture in the Americas in 1980, noted pan-Africanist and Brazilian scholar Abdias do Nascimento said in his essay, Quilombismo: An Afro-Brazilian Political Alternative, “Quilombismo, as a nationalist movement, teaches us that every people’s struggle for liberation must be rooted in their own cultural identity and historical experience.” How is this assertion any different from what #ADOS has been saying all along? Why does it seem that Pan Africanism has so radically curtailed its tolerance for one group to articulate the importance of acting in self-interest? For cautioning the limitations of a political-social struggle that tries to encompass a plurality of oppressed at the expense of one group’s singularity? Is that not precisely what Nascimento speaks in defense of when he says something like, “Unanimity is impossible in the social and political field. We must not waste our time and energy with criticisms that will come from outside the Quilombist movement. We need to develop constructive self-criticism, within our own organizations, in the sense of widening our Black and Quilombist consciousness toward the final objective—ascension of the Afro-Brazilian masses to the levels of power.” And finally, does not Nascimento, in declaring, “Nationalism here must not be translated as xenophobia,” make the very same plea for respectfulness and an understanding of intention that today redounds from within the ADOS group as they pursue their particular justice claim here in the U.S.?

If Quilombismo was able to be accepted on those terms, then what is it about the #ADOS movement that makes such agreement with its approach impossible to find? Is it the fact that #ADOS refuses to pretend that these internationalist alternatives for popular black political organization have not unequivocally failed and that the world has not changed in such a way that the terms of engagement must necessarily be re-evaluated in light of those changes? Because they read the actual political landscape and not just old texts and politics tracts? Because they have the sense that the once trickle of possibility for an international uprising has not been handily stanched by just tightening the tourniquet of capital? What does it mean today in 2020 to seriously commit to trying to slacken that tourniquet?

Because if the idea is that the solution resides in there being less distinctions among black people throughout the globe, or in a country, then the present state of Brazil’s quilombo movement may prove instructive.

Having initially required claimants who sought recognition as quilombos to be able to trace their lineage to a runaway slave settlement, a 2003 decree issued by then-president Lula Da Silva expanded the legal definition of quilombo and allowed essentially any Afro-Brazilian community to apply for certification so long as a majority of its residents agreed. In other words, in Brazil, you can essentially opt into the ethnicity of a quilombo. At the time of Lula’s decree, the number of certified quilombo communities was at 29. In just ten years, that number swelled by 8,000 per cent. And while this extremely inclusive collective of poor black Brazilians no doubt elates the pan-Africanists who locate a radical potential in such a oneness of black people, the capacity of it to actually deliver justice leaves a lot to be desired.

In a 2014 article entitled “10 Reasons Brazil’s Quilombo Reparations Program is Failing Afro-Brazilians,” Dr. Jan Hoffman French, a professor of anthropology at the University of Richmond and author of Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil’s Northeast, cites the fact of there being no official definition of quilombo—of the definition of quilombo for purposes of recognition “remaining permanently in flux”—as something that seriously complicates and hampers the group’s ability to make effective land rights claims. In addition, a report on Afro-Brazilian property rights released by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice highlights how—even though the group may rightfully be entitled to land claims—the quilombos are too economically dislocated to meaningfully oppose wealthier interests who have competing land claims and (naturally) a far great amount of political influence. The report also identifies how, in the absence of “meaningful government intervention”, the quilombos are simply too vulnerable to monied interests and the country’s vivid legacy of racism to stave off further marginalization.

In other words, the lack of a specific legal identity for a group and a lack of government intervention/protection specific to that identity have served to consistently undermine that group’s efforts at securing reparative justice. Are these not the two very things that #ADOS foregrounds in the reparations component of their national black agenda (an agenda which—it bears repeating—would in fact prove advantageous to all black Americans)? What does it mean that, while so many rural Afro-Brazilians could align with one another against the state in a bid for land claims, it simply did not seem to matter precisely because they all have been made to be so poor? So uniformly politically weak? Is the solution to incorporate yet more poor blacks? Or does a more viable approach for consolidating power consist in developing a more exacting definition of who is owed what compensation for particular state-enacted harms, and for that group to then mobilize and advocate for government policy in order to insulate and develop that compensatory wealth? Does not the #ADOS national black agenda speak to the group’s ultimate aim of using that compensatory capital and government protection to secure political influence in order to then work towards enacting broader change and protections for all black Americans? Thinking more broadly, what are the implications for efforts at international support across diasporic black communities when the respective groups actually begin gaining some influence from the compensation to which their specific cases against state oppression entitle them?

It just seems strange that Aiwuyor doesn’t even attempt to ask these kinds of questions when thinking about #ADOS. From start to finish, it’s reflexiveness, rather than inquisitiveness, that appears to govern her examination of the movement. And it’s difficult on some level not to wonder what a Pan Africanist like Nascimento would have made of Aiwuyor’s conclusion, which is, in effect, to issue a rallying call for a coordinated takedown of it. After all, doesn’t Aiwuyor—by encouraging her readers to reject out of hand the particularity of the ADOS experience—fit exactly Nascimento’s description of what he felt was the most repugnant of adversaries? A person who, he says, in doing what she is doing, “merely display[s] a form of contempt for us, since they do not respect our identity nor the specificity of our history and problems as victims of racism, nor our struggle to overcome that specific oppression.” Isn’t that Understanding ADOS in a nutshell?


1. Not to mention the fact that Professor Darity tends to exhibit a preternatural patience and be maximally respectful when discussing with his interlocutors some of the more ambiguous aspects of the mechanics of this thing.

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