Rest, Beloved is the work of Pyar Seth, a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His research focuses on Black thought, health, policing, suffering, and violence to understand the public good, everyday life, and the political/bureaucratic processes that shape our understanding of epidemiological information concerning Black bodies. Pyar is an American Political Science Association Diversity Fellow, a current research associate to the Paul Robeson Research Center (University of Central Florida), and research consultant. He graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas in 2019 with degree in Political Science and Social Theory with a concentration in African American History.
The work of the late Toni Morrison is sure to remain steadfast in academic scholarship. Deeply relevant to our contemporary world after the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, her rhetorical versatility, and emotional range illuminate both the possibility and collapse of our shareable world. Unfortunately, much of political philosophy is concerned with systematic argumentation (Lebron, 2020) and Morrison herself said that she was never interested in producing systematic writing. Here, the field of political philosophy is missing an opportunity to transform into something far less individualized, less andro-centric, and less elitist (Spence, 2020). There is a need to broaden the scope of philosophical exploration beyond that of Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, or Johns Rawls, namely because we cannot ignore how Black people contest white supremacy, reimagine democracy, and challenge the normative basis of the relationship between the state and the public.
Morrison’s refusal of prescriptiveness is embodied in all of her work so challenging political philosophy with a piece of her literature is a situation of choosing and/or preference. I have decided to evaluate Beloved as a piece of political philosophy, one that can translate sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination (Morrison, xi). Beloved is certainly a story of healing and recovery but also the foundation of what I call political and social rest — a theory mediating the cultural and epistemological clashes of colonial history and thus affording Black people the evermore valuable and rare luxury of stillness. As a memory, racial violence is played over and over again in the mind of an individual and can only be made coherent through public reflection and discourse (Eyerman, 2001). Beloved is not a place of the dead but a place where one can recollect, to look upon the sculpted shape of sorrow and transform memory into a property of consciousness with the heightened imaginative power to retrieve community. In the paper, I argue that without rest, there is no true sense of collective healing.
We must prioritize rest to write, work, love, and celebrate our victories. Here, there is a conundrum — Black people must simultaneously hold in view an urgency to condemn racial injustice and a duty to embrace the possibility of democratic redemption. As Chris Lebron (2014) discusses, there is a continuous push and pull of Black affective and rational capacities. On one hand, there is a physical, mental, existential, and social labor required to reimagine democratic politics and create a more racially egalitarian society. On another, living in the wake of racial violence does not allow for peace of mind, where Black people experience a condition of perpetual uncertainty regarding the security of their freedom in the present (Glaude, 2016; Hanchard, 2018; Rogers, 2018). Within a society in which Blackness is reduced to production (racial capitalism), there is a need to prioritize rest, namely because Black people never seem able to. To rest would be to rejuvenate the spirit, center healing, and remind Black people that they are not their productivity (Glover, 2020).
Historical injustice is a defining characteristic of Black political and civic life. As Toni Morrison said herself, “There is no reliable literary or journalistic or scholarly history available to [Black people], to help [Black people] because they are living in a society and a system in which the conqueror is writing the narrative of their life.” However, Saidiya Hartman (1997) and Christina Sharpe (2016) both famously described how Black life is can become animated by the afterlife of slavery, where humanity can survive despite such insistent violence and negation. Through theorizing rest, I hope to unearth a more effective and beneficial wellness intervention for Black people, where suffering is not deemed a functional necessity.
Although there is a great deal of criticism regarding political philosophy’s willingness to examine race and racism, the question of historical injustice does receive some consideration. For example, John Rawls noted that constant epistemic withholding under the veil of ignorance would be detrimental to the making of a strong theory of justice. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls provided the following:
“Since the persons in the original position know that they are contemporaries (taking the present time of entry interpretation), they can favor their generation by refusing to make any sacrifices at all for their successors; they simply acknowledge the principle that no one has a duty to save for prosperity. Previous generations have saved or they have not; there is nothing the parties can now do to affect that […] Therefore, to handle the question of justice between generations. I modify the motivation assumption and add a further constraint. With these adjustments, no generation is able to formulate principles especially designed to advance its own cause and some significant limits on saving principles can be derived. Whatever a person’s temporal position, each is forced to choose for all” (Rawls, 121).
Despite revising the veil of ignorance and responding to the criticism around the a-historical orientation of ideal theory, many continue to view the Rawlsian framework as entirely anemic to race and racism (Mills, 2008). Rather than becoming preoccupied with ideal theory or Rawls and his relationship to race/racism, I look to provide Morrison with another philosophical conversation partner, Alasdair MacIntyre. Though holding multiple theses, After Virtue: A Study of Moral Theory can be read as an examination of how to inform or be embodied in a stable, on-going community. Placing Toni Morrison in conversation with Alasdair MacIntyre is one manner in which I intend to unsettle the boundaries of political philosophy and also understand where “mainstream” political philosophy can be helpful and/or unhelpful in the pursuit of racial justice.
In the paper, I focus on the following: biopower, healing, and narrative. To effectively theorize rest, there is a need to understand the social and political power over Black life (biopower), how to cultivate an understanding of (in)justice and our relationship to the two (narrative), and the possibility of redress in a remarkably anti-Black world (healing). Ultimately, I conclude that locating a space of respite can be made possible through (re)defining the role of the individual/community in the movement for racial justice.
Rest as Biopolitical
Although Beloved went on the receive a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the novel is, however, a historical novel. Morrison rewrote the life of the historical figure Margaret Garner, who killed her child to prevent her recapture into slavery, and used the story as the focus of a recreation of Black life in the aftermath of slavery (Morrison, 2020). By “altering Euro-American dichotomies by rewriting a history,” there is an imaginative power to realize a latent, abiding connection to the past (Kottiswari, 2008). Saidiya Hartman (1997) described such writing as critical fabulation — a methodological approach involving a mutual braiding of archival research, critical theory, and fictional narrative. Through critical fabulation, there is room for a historiographic intervention, to understand the possibilities for the subjectivity of the slave. The use of fiction is not meant to be interpreted as revisionism or movement toward the a-factual but rather to note that the history of the oppressed is rarely autobiographical. For Morrison, there was a need to read against the grain of prevailing knowledge and unsettle the overrepresentation of man/whiteness as human (Morrison, 2020; Wynter, 1994). Here, consider fiction itself as a form of rest, where colonial logic is temporarily displaced and a reader is forced to rely on another body of knowledge. Stories of discontinuity can be made coherent, creating new modalities of existence. As a genre, fiction is a call for re-memory — to reorganize pain and free traumatized people from domination.
“I want my fiction to urge the reader into active participation in the non-narrative, non-literary experience of the text, making it difficult for the reader to confine himself to a cool and distance acceptance of data.” — Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard
Sethe and Beloved’s relationship is symbolic of a psyche struggling with the past, involving guilt, longing, rage, and death. Nevertheless, through the prism of a haunting, passionate, violent, and ultimately unresolved relationship between a mother and daughter, Morrison theorized the practice of making and unmaking. After the disappearance of Beloved, Sethe is both devastated and exhausted, looking for some answer to the roaming loneliness.
“I am tired, Paul D. So tired. I have to rest awhile […] Sethe closes her eyes and presses her lips together. She is thinking. No. This little place by a window is what I want. And rest. There’s nothing to rub now and no reason to […] She opens her eyes, knowing the danger of looking at him. She looks at him. The peachstone skin, the crease between his ready, waiting eyes and sees it — the thing in him, the blessedness, that has made him the kind of man who can walk in a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could” (Morrison, 334).
Across the world, there is a legacy of racist patriarchal body politics and bodily capacity inhibition. The dehumanization of Black women was often described by Audre Lorde as “ceaseless,” where the fabric of Black womanhood was “stitched with violence and hatred […] there is no rest” (Lorde, 1979). Foucault initially described the biopolitical apparatus as “the power to make life,” focusing on the intersection of power and the bodily autonomy of the individual (Foucault, 1990). The human body is brought into submission and treated as a space where external power can be effectively wielded to make the material body conform to the dominant aim of the state. Black bodies continue to be controlled even without direct and overt constraint. In the eighteenth century, medical inquiries concerning race worked to erase black bodies in the name of advancing science (Roberts, 1999; Threadcraft, 2016). The medical sphere framed research around race as a biological concept and prompted racial difference as a scientific fact, working well into the present day as textual and material subjugation of Black bodies (Roberts, 1999; Threadcraft, 2016). Here, any understanding of rest must contend with how trauma, whether initiated by physical abuse, dehumanization, discrimination, exclusion, or abandonment, is embedded in the body politic. Given the extreme depth of biopolitical subjugation, there is power in the ordinary act of closing an eye. The small place by the window, though not constructed as something grandiose, does not exist in a position of exteriority in relation to power. The closing and opening of an eye is a form of resistance — both a reclaiming of bodily autonomy and a process of constructing new subjectivities around bodily health, bodily integrity, sense, imagination, thought, emotion, and play (Nussbaum, 1999). Rest is antithetical to biopower, an affective life that is outside normative processes, where a new life can emerge (Anderson, 2011).
After closing an eye, Sethe can re-contextualize the motivation for murdering her child, the relationship between her and the community, her obsessive love for Beloved, and the release of the ideological confine of colonial commodification (Elliot, 2000). Here, for a moment, we should revisit Margaret Garner, the woman on which the novel Beloved is based upon. Garner, not wanting to see her child returned to slavery, committed infanticide. Though the event is somewhat of the apocryphal status, many interpret the infanticide as a statement of freedom, calling Garner a hero because killing her daughter showed that she valued freedom above life itself. Using the language of Tommie Shelby (2007), the story of Margaret Garner is not one where we should look draw the precise line between “what is permissible or what is impermissible” but rather to expand past binary thinking. The novel does not judge Sethe or her act of infanticide. The point is not simply to judge but to move, as a reader, through the making of a situation defined by injustice. The question could be, what does infanticide have to do with our understanding of rest?
In the enslaved world, Blackness is reduced to a precarious condition of life — mere production. For the institution of slavery to continue, it must exploit and prey upon the “unequal differentiation of human value” (Robinson, 2000). A moment of rest would be to move against the established power relation between the institution of slavery and the enslaved. What does that mean? Does death supersede bondage? There is likely no easy answer to that question. One could argue that infanticide does, however, call for world-making. The horror of slavery is unimaginable, so gruesome, that a life worth living is incomprehensible. Death is almost seen as a state of neutrality, where there is no pain, suffering, grief, or trauma. To equate death and rest would be entirely too nihilistic, something I would preferably like to avoid in the paper. But it is clear that rest is, in some fashion, beyond what is visible on earth. Enslaved people endured constant terror and were made to sleep on the bare floor, where sleeping chained together was something equally as uncomfortable.
Hence, the “danger” in opening an eye. Generating an alternative framework of relation that is capable of disrupting the racialization of the human is an arduous task. However, Sethe can move beyond the violence often inscribed onto Black bodies and focus on Paul D’s “blessedness.” The Black body is overdetermined by history but Sethe is a bearer of endless possibilities. There is nothing to follow the utterance of “they could,” representing an elevation of Paul D’s humanity and the fashioning drive from the ontological stasis of slave to “becoming” a man (Kang, 2003). Since the world is broadly a (post)colonial one, structured through imperial hierarchies that encourage the one-way transmission of political authority, rest is made to include lateral movement. Rest is of the postcolonial sense, where Black bodies re-create their own “body-historiography” and deconstruct the powerful allure of the white body as the hegemonic norm through some discursive ownership of time and space (Krumholz, 1992). “She is thinking […] waiting […] in his presence.” After space for respite is created, the cloud of racism must be replaced with stories that help build a fairer, freer world.
Rest as Narrative
The narrative concept is expanding beyond literary theory into political science, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, to name a few. Here, I look to introduce Alasdair MacIntyre into the conversation. As seen through the analysis of Beloved, Morrison is clearly interested in the concept of narrative. Similarly, narrative is central to a reading of After Virtue. A very general definition of narrative is discourse (or narrative as a subclass of discourse). Both Morrison and MacIntyre use the term in a more intimate fashion. For MacIntyre, developing a sense of responsibility can only be achieved through the idea of narrative unity. The unity of human life is often invisible to the people because “work is divided from leisure, private life from public life, the corporate from the personal […] childhood and old age have been wrenched away from the rest of human life and made over into a distinct realm” (MacIntyre, 198). Here, MacIntyre needed to contend with the argument that the unity of life is a fiction imposed and invented after death, never lived as reality.
“The narrative of any one life is part of an interlocking set of narratives […] the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity […] I am born with a past and to try to cut myself from that past in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of a historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide” (MacIntyre, 221).
MacIntyre believed in a unified narrative of human life, where people write the narrative of their life and also play a role in writing the narrative of a neighboring life. For MacIntyre, there is never a moment in which one more or less of a co-author. We all write histories and stories, embedded and intertwined in other histories and stories. Narrative unity is an inevitable aspect of human existence.
“I have always thought that [narrative] was the most important way to transmit and receive information. I am less certain of that now — but the craving for narrative has never lessened, and the hunger for it is as keen as it was on Mount Sinai or Calvary or in the middle of the fens.” — Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard
One can also understand the community in MacIntyre to be a space of both teaching and learning. Depending on the time and place, the role of each individual community member is subject to some change. In short, our role would be determined by history and the particular context. For clarification, MacIntyre used the game of chess as an example (MacIntyre, 188). I, the player, rely on another chess player to teach me how to play and strategies to win the game. With more playing experience and knowledge of the game, I can then develop a more personal strategy but I cannot ignore the entire structure of the game if I want to continue playing chess. MacIntyre is also clear that “tradition” should be debated with some regularity to assess the meaning and how it should be improved and developed in the future. Today, chess is not played in the same vein, and for MacIntyre, that is to be expected. Our role today need not be the same as yesterday.
Momentarily, I want to pivot back to Toni Morrison. For MacIntyre, narrative is beyond the work of the poet, dramatist, or novelist because they reflect upon an event that had no narrative order before it was imposed by the writer. However, the pervasiveness of racism would likely force MacIntyre to revise his position on the role of the fiction writer. As Morrison said herself, there is a “certain trauma visited onto people is so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice […] only the writer can translate such sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination” (Morrison, ix). There is a physical, mental, existential, and social stress to remembering. The search to locate a method capable of reconstituting and recollecting a usable past that can be made into a narrative is central to Morrison’s fictional technique, her investment in an oral, Black tradition of storytelling, and to resist the totalizing impulse of the reader. Similar to rest, narrative in Beloved is also of a postcolonial essence. Postcolonial narrative, which addresses the individual reader both in their singularity and as a member of wider communities, is caught between the transformation of the past into a narrative and the attempt to summon the dead and lay them to rest (Durrant, 2012). Postcolonial narrative is thus confronted with the task of locating a mode of writing that can immediately transform the formless into form, a mode of writing that recover a history (Durrant, 2012).
Back to MacIntyre. There is a crucial piece neglected in the text, where the voice of Morrison is needed — race and racism. Not much is said concerning After Virtue and the question of racial inequality, though to be fair, due to his understanding of the history of the subject and the condition of morality in our culture, the principal concern with the state of modern moral discourse is evidence of a clear desire fundamentally transform liberal capitalist western society. For MacIntyre, morality in our time is in a state of crisis (Schneewind, 1982). Modern liberalism, stressing individuality and the freedom to choose the life one can live, replaced Aristotelian morality. Without Aristotelian functional teleology, we cannot restore intelligibility and rationality to our moral world. Thus, much of the text is a moral and political indictment on Western democratic society (Schneewind, 1982). Surely, MacIntyre would contend that the liberal understanding of freedom as “freedom from the past” cannot address the pervasiveness of racism and racial violence.
However, the foundational problem is that the white American possesses narrative capabilities that can quickly define space and time, effectively deciding what is available to be remembered and who is allowed to recall the past (Lebron, 2014). White America often expresses a story on Blackness that is assumed to be the definitive story. Defenseless, Black bodies endure a sustained assault, a surplus to be disciplined, to be held, to be shot. Now, for MacIntyre, human life is also an unfinished narrative, thus meaning that there is room for communities to revise their moral and political orientation. In the case of racial injustice, a problem of segregated time and space, people must recall the past if it is not to return and haunt them, to persist in the form of ghostly threat to their self-governance (Brendese, 2014). As MacIntyre said,
“Local communities are always open to corruption and narrowness, by complacency, by prejudice against outsiders and by a whole range of other deformities, including those that arise from a cult of the local community.” (MacIntyre, 302)
Under the regime of modern liberalism, the state is incapable of distributing the necessary political, social, and economic support required to live a good life. Here, MacIntyre focuses on what kind of political community/institution is necessary for the achievement of individual integrity and broader political inquiry. MacIntyre argued that we needed small-scale political communities that could act as an active space of resistance. The reason for the small-scale — so that people can be protected from state incursion, to allow for deliberative participation in the decision-making process, and ensure that no person is denied the possibility of the kind of productive work needed to avoid economic deprivation (MacIntyre, 1998). The expectation is not narrative perfectionism, that is, to perfect the unity inherent in our individual narrative. Unpredictability is central to human life. For MacIntyre, the goal is that of a quest — to seek the good in a settled and undistracted way (intent), learn our personal moral character, and understand “what more and what else the good life is” (MacIntyre, 204). Through the concept of narrative, there is access to an outline for racial redress. To heal, essential to the prospect of rest, our ability to self-govern is dependent on how we relate to our memories of the past.
Rest as Healing
Beloved is an examination of the “afterlife of slavery,” where some interpret Morrison as having a preoccupation with merely presenting injustice rather than resolving injustice. From the desperate situation of a runaway woman with her children being remanded into slavery to the helplessness of a child, much of the text is presented in a manner that any injustice is only a part of the whole, each to be balanced by a consideration of another. Thus, Sethe’s circling and the spiraling stories operate as a metaphor for what is asked of the reader: the refusal to rest on any single component of injustice. The embodiment and promise of healing is a communal exercise (as demonstrated by MacIntyre as well).
From early in the novel, Denver is also associated with a capacity to move beyond a particular historical constitution. Initially, Denver is read as waiting to be saved, dreaming of salvation in the safe house she created in the boxwood bushes behind 124 Bluestone.
“First a playroom (where the silence was softer), then a refuge (from her brothers’ fright), soon the place became the point. In that bower, closed off from the hurt of the hurt world, Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because of loneliness.” (Morrison, 58).
By the conclusion of the novel, Denver no longer needed her being to be constructed from the outside. “And to be looked at by [Beloved], however briefly, kept [Denver] grateful for the rest of the time when she merely was the looker” (Morrison, 118) In a salvationist moment of escape, which Morrison called a “stepping off the edge of the world,” Denver operated as the personification of transcendence and the first move toward recovery in the novel. Her newfound empowerment is the catalyst to direct Sethe and Paul D, though their healing process
For Sethe and Paul D, to heal and humanize from the immense suffering and violence of enslavement, one must constitute it in language. Ultimately, Sethe and Paul D reconcile their memories through a call and response. Paul D is left encouraging Sethe to love herself. “Sethe […] me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow. […] You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” (Morrison, 335). The response from Sethe is notably, “Me? Me? (Morrison, 335). Given her interrogative response, there is often a question on whether or not the reader should believe self-actualization and the resolve of psychological torment to be possible. However, one could also read the exchange as a process of transforming oral histories into memories, a process that is dependent upon the interaction between the teller and the listener — who is saying (or writing) what to whom and how they say (or write) it, is of the utmost significance to the meaning of what is said (written). Morrison’s compact with the reader was not to reveal an already established reality agreed upon beforehand (Morrison, 331). The implication of the exchange between Sethe and Paul D during the closing scene of the novel is one existing beyond the boundaries of the text to challenge the notion of objectivity in the creation of history.
Morrison extended the conversation on healing into the epilogue. Disremembered and unaccounted for, Beloved cannot be lost because no one is looking for her. Even if they were, how can they call her if they do not know her name?
“Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name […] They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget until they realized they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said, […] Remembering seemed unwise” (Morrison, 337).
One could argue that rejection to recall the past does not seem helpful for the reflection of the present and the reconstruction of the future. However, since Beloved is a disremembered spirit, she cannot be claimed because slavery is not their inheritance, and claiming it would mean averring a legacy of racial domination. Beloved is an old flame rather than a fresh wound, one that must “be loved” even if she is unlovable and elusive. By insisting that Beloved is not a story to pass on, the epilogue of the novel is evidence of rising above a dehumanizing past.
For Morrison, history is not an abstract factual recital. It is a ritual engagement with the past. The archive is, by definition, fragmented and impartial. Here, Morrison urged memory to metamorphose itself into a kind of metaphorical and imagistic association, re-memory as recollecting, remembering, and reassembling the body, the family, the population of the past (Morrison, 331). Knowledge of the past can allow for emergence into the world, reconstruction of history, both national and personal, to combat the persistent oppression of Black people and create freedom of the heart and imagination. To redeem the past is to connect the living and the death, where death is a therapeutic instrument. Against the backdrop of death, life is made transparent — death is an indicator of life, evidence of a story to be told.
When Paul D interrogated Beloved concerning her origin, she could not tell him who she was, because, without Sethe, she is nobody. She told Paul D and Denver, “I don’t have nobody. […] I don’t want that place. This the place Iam.” (Morrison, 123). The place that Beloved does not want is death, where she would be alone and forgotten, feeling similar to that of a slave. Her fear of disintegration is a manifestation of existing alongside the violent discourse of racism and western historicity, both of which reduce Blackness to the status of a non-human. Having been a spirit without a body, Beloved reconstituted herself in an embodied form to undo the separation of spirit and body that resulted from her murder. When her tooth fell, she feared it was a signal of her disintegration.
“Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once […] It is difficult keeping her head on her neck, her legs attached to her hips when she is by herself […] She had two dreams: exploding and being swallowed. When her tooth came out — an odd fragment, last in the row — she thought it was starting” (Morrison, 298).
There is a yearning for belonging, to be recognized, and celebrated as a member of the family and community. Morrison said herself, “[where] can you or I can go […] to summon the presence of or recollect the absence of the slave” (Morrison, 17). Read in the context of Black history, disintegration is indicative of an experience of alienation and disconnection from the past. The loss of a body part is symbolic of a disconnection from community. Sethe sensed a need for (re)constitution in Beloved soon after her arrival.
“[Sethe] was sliding into sleep when she felt Beloved touch her. A touch no heavier than a feather but loaded, nevertheless, with desire […] The longing she saw was bottomless. Some plea barely in control” (Morrison, 70).
Beloved represented existential angst and uncertainty — a personal, social, and spiritual unease with slavery. She is inescapable, a looming cloud. “Like a familiar, she hovered, never leaving the room Sethe was in unless required and told so” (Morrison, 57). However, Beloved is also an articulation of an insistence to be compassionate, to forgive. Beloved forced Sethe to confront a reference point and establish a dimension within time. Rather than facing painful memories alone, the second-degree narration connected the two until both of them realized a full sense amid the complex fabric of the novel.
Re(Defining) Our Role
With Beloved, Morrison focuses on helping each character establish subjectivity through insistent negation. As a living chronicle of slavery, the novel is also an examination of the American atmosphere right after the abolition. Here, reimagining the past is decisive to the transformation of the present. Since the nineteenth century, Black people have battled to improve the nation. From the movement to abolish slavery to collective action in the 1960s, Black political thought actively inquired into the normative basis between the state and the public. Black womanhood, then and now, is deemed to be the epitome of strength, a long-suffering motherly type with limited individual need. In her contemporary form, the strong black woman is a motivated, hardworking breadwinner. Resiliency in the face of crisis is an important reinforcement mechanism for the belief that “strong” is a well-earned adjective for Black women (Harris-Lacewell, 2008). One admirable strand of Black thought is, should decency assume some form, democracy is worth the trouble (Lebron, 2014). However, the expectation of continuous Black strength does not allow Black people much room to be human (Harris-Lacewell, 2008). How democratic can a nation be, after all, if the viability of democracy is dependent on systematically disenfranchised people?
Here, we should look reintroduce MacIntyre. Aiming for a good life is not a solitary project. With selfishness functioning as a typical characteristic of modern liberalism, social and political order cannot be expected, it must be achieved. However, there is a tension to reconcile. Selfishness or special concern can undermine the cohesion needed for achieving a good life. Simultaneously, each person should also be concerned with their personal well-being. Therefore, the narrative of modernity is dependent on a constant (re)defining of the “we.” In the movement for racial justice, our personal biographical narrative should not remain the same. In the face of unyielding police terror and a global public health crisis, both of which created a dual crisis lifeworld in Black and Brown communities, mere strength is not entirely feasible.
In the introduction, political and social was the predicate to rest. I shall provide some clarification. First, the political. Black life was and is also animated by a competing interest of what society should look like (Johnson, 2019). Given the broader experience of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, Black political interest is unique in character across space and time. For some, the profound demographic change within the Black population rendered the idea of a racial “we” obsolete (Johnson, 2019). While the conceptualization of the liberal-conservative continuum is ever-evolving, from radical egalitarianism to Black nationalism, Black thought often establishes some common ground through a shared belief that Black people have been abandoned by the state (Dawson, 2002). The extensive histories of Black thought illustrate how subordination in the Western world reconfigured the boundaries between the political and the social (Hanchard, 2010). During our most recent election, arguably one of the most contentious in history, Black people were charged with “saving American democracy” once again, to remain a reliable, consistent, and powerful voting bloc.
“Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood.” — Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard
Black thought developed as a practice in response to racial domination, gendered violence, colonialism, and racial slavery (Hanchard, 2010). Without the legacy, activism, and mobilization of the canon, we could miss an opportunity to truly resist racial hierarchy and create a just world (Getachew, 2019). In short, we need Black thought. For MacIntyre, if we do in fact agree that we each write histories and stories, embedded and intertwined in other histories and stories and that it is reasonable for our role to change depending on the context, then we likely agree that Black people do play a role in the movement for racial justice. Given the context, that is, extreme racial violence, MacIntyre would likely advocate for the dismissal of tradition, where we revise the role of the individual/community to encompass/allow for 1) ideological and political diversity, where Black people need not be tethered to one unified belief system or way of living within a structure that already does not provide much choice 2) an opportunity to say no, to (momentarily and/or as needed) decide not to play chess (recall MacIntyre) 3) require more from the white American. Each of which must continuously be negotiated and renegotiated.
Next, the social. The state is invested in the life of the population, creating modalities of exclusion and thus a feeling of “living in death, being already dead, while being there — while having not necessarily left the world” (Mbembe, 1992). There is a wellness crisis in Black America. As demonstrated by Morrison, to rest, Black people must write their histories and control their bodies. Both of which function as a psychophysiological form of self-representation, empowerment, and healing. Exclusion and commodification, to which Black people have been historically subjected, cannot be undone overnight. Police violence, public health crises, wealth inequality, to name a few, do not allow the luxury of a mistake. For Black people, each day, to some extent, is a kind of “rolling of the dice.” Though reconciling the social component is less concrete, Toni Morrison and Alasdair MacIntyre move us closer toward a world in which rest is a part of our understanding of justice.
Responding to the death of Trayvon Martin with Black Lives Matter is much more than a reaction to a singular event. There is an urgency and exhaustion in the dissemination of the phrase Black Lives Matter — a restlessness concerning the continued seeing and experiencing of anti-Black dismemberment, torture, and fatality. Then, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were murdered. Black people were expected to endure — to come to work, to provide for their families, to denounce their humanity, and hide their anguish and rage. There is a reason for Black people to be restless, angry, and, as Langston Hughes said, “ready to explode.”
“Go home and rest” is the common advice provided to those that complain of chronic fatigue. Unfortunately, time is an asset under racial capitalism. The memory of racial violence and lack of rest can lead to a serious mental and/or physical health problem, including premature death. However, the state need not induce constant psychological distress or a dead body to effectively undermine health and well-being. We often reduce the overlap between mental health and physical health to visible death, disability, and/or disorder. Consequently, in the fabric of a rapidly changing world, a story of community (de)stabilization and trauma can be constructed as something mundane, ordinary, not dramatic enough to compel attention. Health is much more than physical well-being. It is the transcendence of suffering. Hence, the need to broaden our analyses of the distribution of health and well-being.
We often romanticize frontline action. However, liberation can exist in a quieter form, where we imagine both a future of Black rest, relaxation, and idleness and hold space for Blackness with love, humanity, and appreciation. A mindful pause can allow Black people to connect with, and honor, the affective happening within their world. Rest is the right to be respected, to be healthy people in the world, and to recognize the humanity of Blackness, something historically denied. Without rest, we cannot write, work, love, or celebrate our victories. Without rest, we cannot hope to resist or dismantle — or even on a smaller scale, be able to feel pleasure. Without the right to rest, we risk the battle for justice becoming even more difficult to win.
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