In what is without a doubt the most reductive, strained, and flawed analogy thus far given for what it means to belong to the group whose ancestry has been made to carry and pass down the exponential cost(s) of chattel slavery and its many, many resimulations in America, Jess Aiwuyor poses this unspeakably offensive question to those very same people: “Let’s say, for example, you had a grandmother that, at one time in her life, went to prison,” Aiwuyor writes, before then asking: “Would you then proclaim yourself to be a ‘descendant of prison?'”
The sole point of this callous and dismissive little thought experiment is to try to tease out what Aiwuyor seems to feel is the absurdity of the group petitioning for legal recognition as American Descendants of Slavery, which—for the past couple of years now—is what they’ve been organizing around for the express purpose of establishing a legitimate claim to compensation from the culpable entity which sanctioned their ancestors’ bondage and also (in ways both overt and covert) the repeated applications of its basic formula over the past 150 plus years.
And but OK. Absent a willful ignorance of history and/or having lived and been educated in outer space, it is not, of course, even possible to accept the assumption on which this analogy rests: that chattel slavery and imprisonment can be neatly swapped out for one another in a discussion of what it would mean to even consider a unique genealogical experience in the U.S. having been sprung from the very group-specific cataclysm of the former. This much is obvious when one takes into account the basic fact of the latter’s not being a condition that is specific to one group.
The only way we could honestly do the comparative do-se-doe Aiwuyor wants us to do here (and I know honesty about the ADOS situation isn’t exactly a thing sought after with much fervor by opponents of the movement, since being honest about the scope and depth of the exclusion that ADOS face introduces a slew of nuance and complexity that might make us appear not so, like, y’know, not so ‘woke’ or whatever, but, maybe we can try…) is if one’s grandmother had somehow been imprisoned in the same way that an ADOS person’s grandma would have been enslaved. That is, if she was born into prison. I’m talking about if she was literally delivered inside the cell by her mother, who was herself born into prison in that exact same manner, and she the child of a woman who, in her turn, had also been brought forth by one who too had been born into the totality of that prisonlife, each of them being issued the same life sentence, and so on and so on until we get back in time enough to that one who was among the first to be dragged into that Evil and who began birthing babies which, in ways so unnatural and so hideously and infinitely tragic, became less her own babies than that Evil’s babies—systemstuff to be worked, beaten, sold and wholly absorbed into that which was utterly and uniquely devoted to siphoning away from them whatever it needed—their bodies, their labor, their personhood—in order to make wealth, yes, to be sure, but maybe above even that (no, absolutely above even that) to make and imbue meaning outside of the prison.1
Is that the context of the prison in which we find our imagined person in Aiwuyor’s hypothetical? The person whose situation she intends to use in order to trouble the belief in the legitimacy of—or the value in—a person identifying in such a way that articulates a grim, awful and all-surrounding truth about his or her life in this country as a descendant of slavery: that as such you were conceived in and delivered from two wombs—that of your mother and that of your oppression. Child of the one and subject of the other.
This is what it means to get deep-down honest about the sprawlingness of chattel slavery in America. The absolute non ‘stint’-ness of it. The way it thoroughly resists glib, facile analogies owing to the singular manner in which it was made to encase a whole succession of people with demobilizing prospects while the world around them just rushed on. And I gotta tell ya, I don’t really see why someone so ensnared in that existence wouldn’t call themselves a ‘descendant of prison’ when that prison has so obviously proven to be the most materially consequential event in that person’s life. When it has proven to be that which has completely distorted his or her basic experience of what it means to be a citizen in this country, a country which—it is always essential to point out—this person’s grandma’s (wrongful) incarceration in that prison effectively built. Because if I’m this person, and me calling myself a Descendant of Prison is how I advocate for the obviously wrongful imprisonment of my family and the specific and continuous and unrelenting harm that that institution’s legacy has wrought so heavily upon us and my entire group—the one whose bottom castedness derives from that specific experience—if that’s how I most effectively and precisely locate the cause of why my life looks the way it does, and if that’s how I take that particular claim to the offending party in order to secure redress for everything that was outright stolen, then yeah I’ll wear a t-shirt that says ‘Descendant of Prison’ every day of the fucking week while I am advocating for it to be made right, and then, once it is, I’ll wear one every day after so that you don’t ever forget.
The metaphor of national DNA here proves apt, in that it would seem you can no more realistically deny how the expression of some trait in a person corresponds with a unique sequence of information passed down and stored in the strands of DNA than you can deny these same processes being responsible for the expression of the particular features of American society. And in much the same way that geneticists isolate a specific fragment of DNA for the development and diagnostics and treatment, so too do the justice-minded turn their attention intently toward the particular mutation in the sequence of our national history that has resulted in the abnormality of ADOS life? The deformity of our apparent ideals. And what identity but ADOS speaks more clearly to the black person in America whose ancestry contains the event of chattel enslavement and who to this very day does not have the luxury of neatly relegating that experience and all of its pulverizing aftershocks to a fixed moment in the past? Who has not and cannot discover a way to escape the fact that in the body politic of the United States we have forever, since their group’s arrival here, sought to absent them from society, to absent them from all aspects of national life, to absent them in order to give ourselves presence. What else is #ADOS but a complete repudiation of that? What else is #ADOS but a way not to escape that, but to overcome it.
And like, I’m sorry, but from what vantage do you speak, anyway, Aiwuyor? How do you possibly say, in the context of a discussion about the lived experience of what it means to shoulder the inter-generational burden of chattel slavery, something as moronic as, “Let’s say, for example, you had a grandmother that, at one time in her life, went to prison.” You should be ashamed of yourself, making an egregious, bullshit proposition like that. Who are you trying to persuade that what ADOS are doing is stupid? Them? It can’t be. Because how are you going to appeal to the phenomenon of incarceration—a feature of ADOS life that is so bundled into the cost of slavery that it is widely regarded as its most obvious reconstitution—to try and convince them that they should avoid identifying with slavery in a way that suggests it is inseparably intertwined in every aspect of their being? It is so inescapable that, even when you go out of your way to try and undermine its intensity of effect, it nonetheless manages to rear its dreadful head and assert its permanence in these people’s being.
It would almost be humorously ironic if in fact it didn’t first make you want to vomit. Which, for you, it clearly doesn’t. It just gives you an opportunity to get on your pedestal and preach hoary platitudes while all around you these mindless sycophants who are themselves equally disengaged from the total horrors of the ADOS experience applaud you. And but which is also why for all of the anxiety and nervousness and consternation that you evince about how supposedly ‘de-humanizing’ it is to foreground the deep connection between the institution of slavery and the experience of native-born blacks in every dimension of national life in America, you consistently reveal yourself incapable of grasping how the implications of it still ripple out in its highly specific and utterly humanity-negating manner. Anyone clear-eyed can see that it is precisely the recognition of the humanity of American Descendants of Slavery, and how that humanity has long been denied, that animates the #ADOS political project. Theirs is a work of affirmation and no one—absolutely no one—should take you seriously after this latest fling at trying to contradict and corrupt that fact.
n o t e s1. Of course reading Aiwuyor carefully shows that it wasn’t even a life sentence that this imagined person’s relative served. Their ancestor’s imprisonment was, according to her, only “at one time in her life.” So does that change things? Does that suddenly make the idea of identifying as an American Descendant of Slavery seem purely ridiculous? Well, let’s maybe say that, OK, so one day the door to this person’s grandma’s cell swings open and she’s quote-unquote free to go out into the world and get on with the rest of her life as a ‘free’ citizen, ostensibly leaving the dehumanizing condition of imprisonment behind her. Except that society, it turns out, is still uniquely and demonically hostile to people who were once imprisoned; to be honest they’re maybe even more so now that the formerly imprisoned people walk among them all day flaunting that badge of freedom the way they do, which is a thing that you’ve just got to imagine absolutely burns deep inside the darkness of these people’s minds who weren’t imprisoned and who basically only know themselves in relation to those other people’s condition of un-freedom (I mean no, yeah, they’re obviously completely livid and terrified; they’re so livid and terrified that they’re literally severing the genitalia off of these ‘free’ people, shoving it into their mouths, and leaving their totally mutilated corpses swaying high from a thick limb of a cottonwood where birds alight on the shoulders of the dead to peck at their scalps, their gaping eye sockets, and whatever else of their flesh that isn’t so charred that the birds don’t just lose interest and end up flying away [the whole point, obviously, is to display the corpses in such a way as to let all the other newly ‘free’, along with their children, know in the most vivid sense possible that what they behold when they look aloft at that dangling body is a vision of their own possible end; the reminder that that same thing can happen to each and any one of them, at any time, without any warning whatsoever, out of the absolute clear blue; that’s the knowledge that society needed this person’s grandma to walk around with in her head twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week from the time she got out of prison until she was buried and could finally—in the most literal sense of the phrase—rest in peace]).
And then I think one other thing to consider is that this person’s grandma’s every ancestor had also spent his or her whole life wrongfully imprisoned just like she did. So obviously those people hadn’t exactly left her much in the way of actual material goods. And so this person’s grandma, when she’s quote-unquote free, she can’t really get adequate housing, and what little work is available to her is exploitative beyond all possible imagination and has basically a nature to it that is mightily reminiscent of her time in prison. And so anyway that’s basically life in America for Grandma. I don’t think I need to spell out for you the total un-lavishness of the inheritance she then leaves her own daughter when she eventually dies. And but so the daughter (which is Aiwuyor’s imagined person’s mom), you might say, had a bit of a better go of it here in the good ole U.S. of A, because she came of age at a time when society had really begun to make ‘progress’ and become sensitive to the plight of people whose ancestors were at one point wrongfully imprisoned (even though at this time our country had begun welcoming many, many other people whose ancestors were at one point also wrongfully imprisoned, albeit imprisoned by a different country, but who bore enough of a resemblance to our prisoners here that no one in America could much tell the difference between their prisoners and our prisoners. Not that they really cared to). And then society said, it said, “We will not discriminate against anyone based on the fact that they were imprisoned. That is wrong, and we have adopted a much more tolerant and impartial means by which we will determine winners and losers, and that is one’s financial standing.” And I have to think that when they heard that, everyone who had ancestors who’d spent their lives here in America being locked up behind bars, or strung up in trees because their family’d been locked up behind bars, well, they just all sort of looked at each other like, well shit. And so maybe it’s more accurate to say that while things seemed like they might have been easier for this person’s mom, in fact they really weren’t easier at all. She was still very much being forced to deal with basically all the same problems of what it means to essentially be excluded from life outside the prison, just like her own daughter would be. The manner of how that condition continued to be manufactured all the way down to her just shifted a little each time. And I gotta say that, while this person couldn’t say for sure, it probably seemed to them that they definitely weren’t gonna be able to leverage any appreciable advantage that her mom was able to secure in her quote unquote free adult life. And so I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if I’m this person, then I’m finding it real, real hard—despite what some other people are saying to me—to not be able to draw a straight line from where I’m at right now in my life right back to—not just where my grandma was at—but where my whole damn family line has been ever since some godless monsters decided to throw us into prison. (We’re still using prison as a proxy term to have this discussion, right? That is what you wanted?)↩