By

Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley, PhD

Assistant Professor of Public Address and Advocacy

Director of Debate, William Pitt Debating Union

Department of Communication

University of Pittsburgh

Amber Kelsie, M.A.

Doctoral Student, Department of Communication

University of Pittsburgh

Nicholas Brady

Doctoral Student, Department of Culture & Theory

University of California, Irvine

Ignacio Evans, B.A.

History

Towson University

The following comments are designed to offer a thoughtful engagement with the recent release of Brendon Bankey’s Wake Forest University M.A. thesis. The growing body of academic work on race-centered debate practice is a productive turn in our community-wide consideration of issues of inclusion/exclusion and the processes of knowledge production in debate. Yet, in this essay we hope to describe some serious concerns with this particular project in the hopes of adding even more complexity to our community’s current discussion of race, argument, and competitive political deliberation. We argue that the Bankey thesis is riddled with faulty assumptions and misinterpretations of Fanon, the Reid-Brinkley dissertation, and the practices of race-centered debate in contemporary competition.

The Bad Negro Family and Bankey’s Misreading of the Mo(ve)ment

Bankey’s fundamental misreading of the Reid-Brinkley dissertation and the development of race-centered debate practice produces a caricature of Dr. Reid-Brinkley as the bad black mother, the black matriarch, the failed female parent attached to the failed (and absentee) black father (Fanon) who produces deviant black children.[1] The thesis is populated by a number of references to race-centered alternative debate practice and practitioners, such as “Reid-Brinkley’s model of resistance,” “Reid-Brinkley’s movement,” “Reid-Brinkley’s supporters,” “Reid-Brinkley’s theory of resistance,” and “Reid-Brinkley’s resistance.” What initially strikes us is the reduction of the framing of resistance. Not only does Bankey attempt to place Reid-Brinkley at the head of a mo(ve)ment that has been successful exactly because of its lack of structure or central leadership, but he also incorrectly assumes that Reid-Brinkley’s work has offered a single method and/or theory of resistance for black debaters. We challenge Bankey to point to a place in any of Reid-Brinkley’s work where she has argued for a unitary, exclusive form of resistance. We would like to see evidence of this urge to define a universal black resistance in debate that is the central internal link to Bankey’s criticism.

The race-centered, performative style of debate has been heavily influenced by a number of thinkers, including Reid-Brinkley, Daryl Burch, Ede Warner, and Rashad Evans who do not agree on a single method or mode of resistance within debate competition. These thinkers did not require Dr. Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation to recognize that debate is “too white, too male, and too straight.”  That conclusion can be made by observing the writing on the wall.  And, though visible, these thinkers are only part of a network, or collective, of thinkers which includes coaches, judges, graduate students and student debaters. It should not have escaped anyone’s notice that this argument form has evolved over time. That evolution has been the product of conversations, where undergraduates and graduate students have significantly affected the thinking of coaches and academics. No one person drives or controls this mo(ve)ment. Movement here should not be considered a noun, a singular or confined entity, with a thingness that we can identify and define. Instead, this movement should be considered more like a verb, it is action and practice responsive to exigent circumstances; it is not identity. Mo(ve)ment is a bringing together of like minded people who are willing to think together despite divergences they may have in theory and practice. This mo(ve)ment is becoming—pushing against, through and beyond the fixity of negative black and brown stereotypes of which Bankey’s thesis is an exemplar (it is precisely for this reason that we believe that “resistance” embodies the disalienation Bankey seeks far better than Bankey’s thesis can).  Bankey, and he is not alone, has simply asserted a characterization or definition of this “mo(ve)ment” in a manner inconsistent with the reality of its development and its evolution. We would have liked this author to justify his use of the phrase “Reid-Brinkley’s movement” as we are unsure what this thing is that he is referring to. The Reid-Brinkley dissertation offers a description of the context of race within the debate space and an analysis of one means of resistance to the politics of racial exclusion in debate competition. Bankey describes Reid-Brinkley’s discussion of the significance of the body in interracial space as offering an entreaty to use the body as the only means of resistance. We do believe that the body is a significant tool for engaging in tactical resistances, but that just misses the point. The dissertation is significant because it makes the body part of the context, part of the description of the rhetorical situation. It is a misreading of the dissertation to argue that it suggests a single method of resistance simply because it outlines the context of anti-blackness in debate; the body is always already a part of the rhetorical situation. Enlarging the scope of the rhetorical situation to include the body means that the body can be one of many potential tactical sites of engagement with anti-blackness, as all tactical and strategic sites of resistance remain bound by their performance through the body. It seems that Bankey’s position on the body is more than thirty years behind contemporary rhetorical theory.

In critiquing the Reid-Brinkley dissertation, Bankey likens what he has identified as the Reid-Brinkley method with black nationalism and the Black Arts Movement. Drawing on Eric King Watts’ criticism of the Black Arts Movement, Bankey argues that the Reid-Brinkley dissertation privileges a black aesthetic resistance that seeks a “purification” of “proper” blackness, a “purely objectified” blackness that is designed to build a coherent concept of black identity in debate.[2] He argues that this tendency in the Reid-Brinkley interpretation is an example of rigid positivism and produces dogma. He argues further that Reid-Brinkley’s work and the kind of debate “inspired” by that work fails to attend to the causes of black suffering in favor of a focus on the aesthetic value of black performance. Yet, Bankey fails to provide any internal link from Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation or public rhetoric that would substantiate such a claim. We find these characterizations unrecognizable in any statements made by Reid-Brinkley. Reid-Brinkley’s work, even outside of her direct work on debate, persistently grapples with such characterizations of blackness and their relationship to producing avenues of resistance. Bankey even quotes Reid-Brinkley discussing her social location in the in-between spaces of various social identities that are often in conflict with one another. Her work goes far to complicate how black people define and perform blackness within the interaction between race, gender, sexuality, capitalism and heteronormativity. Any attempt to create a purified blackness has historically produced disastrous results for black communities. Bankey has significantly misread Reid-Brinkley’s work if he believes she would argue for any such purification.

Which leads us to the most significant mischaracterization of the Bankey thesis, one that destabilizes the coherence of the criticism it offers. For Bankey, racial resistance in debate can be conflated into a universal whole from which a generalized criticism can be launched. Yet, Bankey’s attempt to characterize all of race-centered debate as necessarily dependent on Fanon or Wildersonian Afro-pessimism is not only misleading, but is intellectually bankrupt. There is no such thing as a Reid-Brinkley model of debate and there is no single method or theory that characterizes this style of debate. If one has watched the evolution from Louisville to the spread of this argument across multiple college and high school teams, what should be immediately apparent is the diversity of methodological and theoretical engagements. Bankey’s conflation of this diversity is an attempt to construct a ‘strawman’ argument, and it is indicative of a shallow, but common, reading of what is happening in debate. Bankey’s reduction of black thought in debate to one theorist, theory or methodology is an attempt to constrain that which is clearly seeking lines of flight or thoughts of the outside. Because black experience is multiple, contingent and contextual, single methods or theories of resistance could not possibly offer an effective response to anti-blackness. Individual black people do not all have the same experience with anti-blackness (although there are likely to be some similarities) as their lived experiences are bound by the contexts in which they experience anti-blackness. Race-centered debate, Reid-Brinkley and Evans are not arguing for a singular notion of blackness from which to produce a universal model of resistance. Any scholarship based on such assumptions is by its nature false.

Whiteness and Demanding a Definition

Bankey questions Reid-Brinkley’s choice to not define whiteness in the dissertation and notes further that there is a conflation of whiteness with skin tone.  Relying heavily on communication scholar Bryant Keith Alexander, Bankey argues that Reid-Brinkley’s thesis participates in “White Studies,”[3] and “projects a subjective understanding”[4] into raced encounters.   Before commenting on whiteness and anti-blackness, we must point out that there is no rhetorical encounter that is not subjective.  To suggest so flies in the face of almost everything that has ever been written in the modern history of rhetoric.  Bankey seems confused in his thesis about the position of subjectivity and its validity in rhetorical practice.  At times, he includes subjective accounts of his own experience.  The stake for his thesis—presumably to protect high school students from the bad black people—is premised upon some notion of subjective harm.

It is common practice in race studies to define the use of the terms whiteness and blackness for the purpose of the authors work. Reid-Brinkley’s decision to not define whiteness was not an act of intellectual laziness as much as a resistance to defining that which seemed/seems to her to fundamentally operate by its very inability to be defined. Whiteness is not stable; it moves across institutions, values, beliefs, practices, bodies, performances, identities, subject positions, legal status, desires, sexuality, gender, nationality, religion, locality, ability, and so on. It can constitute all of these things some of the time, but not necessarily all the time. As rhetoric scholar Leda Cooks notes, “Whiteness, as a set of rhetorical strategies employed to construct and maintain a dominant White culture and identities, has always shifted to incorporate dissenting or divergent voices, to render invisible that which it cannot swallow.”[5] Whiteness is cannibalistic, eating or making use of any and everything that can be actualized toward its extension as an apparatus of power. As a doctoral student Reid-Brinkley chose to define whiteness through its examples rather than through a singular or particular definition of something that seems always already multiple. Whiteness exists in an adversarial relationship with blackness, and thus Reid-Brinkley is less interested in the study of whiteness directly as she is interested in the study of anti-blackness, or that underside of whiteness that seems to offer a coherence to a concept that actually can only function through incoherence. While biological appeals to racial distinction no longer make sense in our contemporary moment, racial distinction still serves as a tool of signification that makes stable whiteness and blackness and thus works as an apparatus of power. Yet, it is less Reid-Brinkley’s choice to leave open the question of the definition of whiteness that receives the most direct criticism, as much as it is the identification of “white people” with “white skin” and therefore with whiteness that frustrates Bankey. Bankey’s criticism is not new. Many authors, particularly white liberals, respond to contemporary studies of blackness and anti-blackness with this critique (we see such literature appear in debate rounds).  But what is whiteness without those that can be marked as “white people”? Or, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva asks, what is “racism without racists?”[6] Whiteness without white people is a project of a (neo-)liberal engagement with diversity and anti-racism efforts. Such positions argue that whiteness is the problem not white people.  Or worse (and simultaneously), they argue that challenges to racism are productive of racism.  This kind of post-racial appeal in Bankey’s thesis is especially disconcerting.  It is also at odds with Bankey’s mobilization of African-American studies.  For example, Eric King Watts, cautions against the post-racial argument that if racism is “socially constructed” then we can be done with the discussion:

“Tropes of ‘race’ do indeed have a signification system that is textual and material—coded into institutions we inhabit and the social relations regulated by them.  But there is more: tropes of ‘race’ inhabit us as those social and political practices and ways of being make emergent forms of subjectivities and identities with potent aesthetic values—that is, with values that are sensually learned and ‘known’.  Saying that race is a “fiction” does very little to disable its vigorous affects.”[7]

There is no racism without bodies coded and trained through practice.  There are subjectivities that are raced which means that there are bodies that “look white” that are implicated in whiteness.  White privilege in this frame can be recognized as an unearned benefit while offering a position of redemption when privilege is used toward anti-racist efforts. Yet, one can simultaneously be engaged in good anti-racist work as a white person, while engaging in political and social actions that reproduce privilege. And yet, we already recognize that whiteness is not just about skin color, though we cannot deny the existence of white-skin privilege.  Whiteness is normative—it produces behavioral and performative patterns that sustain the significance of whiteness as a signifier. Bankey critiques what he calls “Reid-Brinkley’s model for resistance in the flesh” as a failed political project with dangerous implications for contemporary debate practice. Yet, we are often confused by such criticisms that seem to argue that black scholars are producing racial, biological and social distinctions rather than simply responding to the context of anti-blackness. In other words, Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation work does not argue nor does it imply that race is biological. We are all made of meat. In fact, in the dissertation Reid-Brinkley specifically engages Hardt and Negri’s Empire which argues that, in the contemporary era, race is no longer authorized through the biological as it is through the cultural. But to be clear: although race is not biological, it does depend on the body. For the black body, it is its blackness that marks it as other, that marks it as not white. Thus, Reid-Brinkley cautions against the smooth transition from biological to cultural explanations of race, so that we not lose sight of the marked nature of the body and the body’s place in the process of racial signification. Bankey’s attempt to ignore the significance of the body is inconsistent with the actual history and contemporary manifestation of race, and it is inconsistent with the sustained academic and intellectual engagement on racism that would be found in a certain section of the library. The raced body in the American context is an inescapable part of any inter-racial (and intra-racial) rhetorical situation, even if race is not the immediate subject of the communicative engagement. The discourse that surrounds President Obama easily demonstrates this to be the case. Even winning the Presidency cannot fully erase blackness from Obama’s body and, in fact, he is held in contempt because of his black Body.  We can think here of the questioning of Obama’s relationship to the  “Harold Washington model” or, better yet, the relationships Obama shares with American citizenship, his African father, and the relevancy of his white mother. The speaking subject is a speaking body that is colored, sexed, gendered, classed, and so on.  The speaking black body is in a difficult position in American rhetorical contexts, as the body cannot be escaped.  The body highlights the internal tensions in the concept the “speaking subject.”[8]  Neo-liberal agendas on race, like Bankey’s, wish to ignore the body as context within rhetorical and deliberative spaces, but that makes the body as part of the rhetorical situation no less significant.

Another of Bankey’s major concerns is the constraint the Reid-Brinkley dissertation places on individuality or the development of subjectivity—i.e., the idea that we are always already trapped by our bodies. We agree that overdeterminations are concerning, but we disagree with the implication that we should jettison any concern for our finitude or context.  To do so would repeat the practices of whiteness, which produce decontextualized standards for subjectivity. The Reid-Brinkley dissertation does not engage in an abstraction.  Rather, we would say that the quest for an “authentic communication” is exactly the kind of abstraction of which we should be wary. Reid-Brinkley’s dissertation instead argues that the process of racialized abstraction of the body is a rhetorical context through which bodies communicate in the U.S. context. In other words, racialized abstraction is contextual; it is simply part of the rhetorical situation. Bankey’s thesis asks us to ignore the contexts associated with rhetorical situations and thus offers communication scholars an anti-rhetorical analysis of the rise and development of race-centered debate practice. If Bankey’s fear is that racial “abstraction” produces a fundamental antagonism that prevents the kind of “authentic communication” necessary to resolve communal issues of exclusions, he can only make this claim through a disavowal of racism. In other words, Bankey’s argument that the dissertation produces a false conflict between black people and white people could only retain a semblance of coherence if we suspended the idea that racism is pervasive.  This claim is not one in which even the authors that Bankey’s thesis relies upon would support. The abstractions on the body are always already there.  They are those persistent tropes that produce the racialized subjectivities Eric King Watts refers to in the above quote.

We disagree that the dissertation produces abstractions as much as it clarifies them.  We are however interested in the brief insight Bankey offers as a potential alternative to such overdetermining abstractions. Bankey argues that his positionality at the borderlands of black and white (vis-à-vis his interracial familial relationships) can be analogized to interracial dating. We agree that in the borderland space between black and white dating (or familial) partners one might find a useful space for theorizing the relationship between whiteness and blackness. But we take issue with the presumption that this space is especially accessible to Bankey.  It seems that Bankey can access his interracial relationships to actualize this borderland space, while simultaneously denying the space of the borderland to Reid-Brinkley and Evans. This move is shocking to us.  First, the denial of the borderland space to black people, particularly those at the simultaneous intersection of femininity and queerness is an act of white male policing. It is a stealing back of the center stage, an act of hijacking racial discussions, and centering white male experience as the only expert voice on race. The naïve self-righteousness of Bankey’s position becomes even more apparent when he notes that he doesn’t need to explore the black section of the library in order to understand race relations that were highlighted for him as a young man growing up in the suburbs in a biracial family. The pervasive assumption that one can simply know blackness—that it is not worthy of serious and deep academic engagement—is something you would never find in relation to any other object of study. The presumption that blackness and anti-blackness is not worthy of scholarly consideration is problematic. Many scholars have spent their academic lives studying black history, culture, and politics. If someone said they knew everything about the Jews and the Holocaust because they grew up in New York and were married to a Jewish woman that would be considered incredibly offensive. Equally offensive would be the argument (often made by those on the political Right) that women’s studies departments are unnecessary because one has a mother and a sister and therefore knows all that needs to be known about gender oppression. Such presumptuousness by a young scholar-in-training is politically dangerous and is an example of the contemporary assault on Black Studies. What scholar believes that they know so much about a subject that they no longer have to study it to learn new connections or new trends in thought? All of the authors of this response are blacks engaged in studies across black history, culture, theory and politics. For us, the study of race, and specifically blackness/anti-blackness, (amongst other things including gender, sexuality, class, and radical politics) has been a critical part of our intellectual development. Such study has offered us the language and tools of engagement necessary for reading and participating in racial, queer, feminist, and/or anarchist politics. If we as black people, who have actually experienced racial oppression, find it necessary to study race in order to more thoughtfully and more thoroughly define the black experience across the diaspora then it is disingenuous for white people to argue that they know all there is to know about race without the same committed study.

Bankey’s positioning of himself at the borderland while excluding (multiply situated) black people in debate from that same space makes little sense to those familiar with the history of race in America. Black people have never not had to be in close relation to whiteness.  This is Dubois’ theory of double consciousness (which, though especially emblematic of black experience, is a way of understanding the world that can be learned by non-blacks). Black people have always existed in an in-between space of blackness and whiteness with anti-blackness serving as the context for this relationship. Black folks in America are always already in an interracial relationship with whiteness; this is especially true in the context of debate. The tone of Bankey’s criticism assumes black people exclude white people from their space, but MPJ and other debate practices demonstrate the direct manner in which white people exclude black people from interracial dialogue in the debate space. An even more recent example of how structural racism functions is the exclusion of Elijah Smith, the reigning NDT champ, from the Kentucky Round Robin, and the attempt to change the rules pertaining to transfer students.  We are disappointed by this addition to the consistent complaint made by whites that black people must be constantly accessible to whites even while white people disavow the structure of policed segregation in supposedly common spaces.  In fact, it seems quite likely that this thesis will inspire debate arguments that produce exclusions of black students rather than an inclusive space of participation. We find it highly unlikely that it will produce an authentic communication or disalienation.  There are countless examples of the manner in which black people attempt to meet the communicative and bodily expectations of dominant culture and dominant debate.  Code-switching is part and parcel of our interracial romance with debate, an example of our commitment to compromise. Black people often code-switch into “white-people speak” when dealing with white people while using black language and tonal intonations (regionally specific) when in majority black spaces (in fact, it seems that it is when we “speak authentically” in the presence of whites—share ourselves with whites—that we are charged with the crime of being “intentionally” unintelligible). Within debates, (vis-à-vis framework for example) there is a denial or a disavowal of even the possibility of an engagement across rhetorical difference, which is the move Bankey makes. He refuses to code switch in the thesis by not attempting to understand the kinship networks in debate for black people or to engage in rhetorical practices to demonstrate a commitment to engaging difference at the level of method and performance.[9] How often do we encounter white people who can code-switch (and no we don’t mean the latest hip hop slang) into the communicative and socio-political practices of black culture? The black is always already at the borderland. But double consciousness is something that for most people—especially non-blacks—must be learned and practiced.  We believe that these kinds of practices and attempts on the part of black people to meet whites more than half-way are evident for those who choose to see.  But also we must point out that in communication studies code-switching, the vernacular, counter-publics, and many other concepts evoke the double-sidedness of rhetorical practice in ways that complicate the very notion that there could ever be a pure communication.  We therefore invite Bankey to read the Communication Studies section of the library as well as the Black Studies section.

Our relationship to debate can easily be described as an interracial love affair. The debate community is majority white and whiteness characterizes the performative and stylistic norms of competitive policy debate.  We need not only refer to Reid-Brinkley’s thesis for this kind of analysis.  Shelton K. Hill and Pamela Stepp’s work on black participation in debate and white stylistic practice has been overlooked for far too long.  We think that our relationship to debate is a romantic/desirous coupling, a flirtation across racial lines that has often left many of us bruised and bloody at the hands of whiteness and white people. We are in an abusive relationship, one that denigrates and maligns our black thinking while engaged in (neo-)liberal efforts to capture our black bodies. Nonetheless, we work to create an erotics of debate that can affirm our selves in the face of such denigration.  The borderland space that black debaters, judges, coaches, and directors occupy offers a unique perspective from which to view both the beauty and the ugliness of our community and its practices. Such a perspective provides new insights and new avenues of engagement toward changing the conditions necessary for producing new knowledge—the kind that does not block the development of black thought based on misdirected accusations of anti-intellectualism.

Signifyin’: Why Only The White Trickster (Gamester) Gets to Speak

Bankey argues that Reid-Brinkley’s interpretation of the potential benefits of the use of signifyin’ as rhetorical strategy in interracial deliberation ignores the notion of trickery which is foundational to the practice of signifyin’. However, Bankey adheres to a simplistic understanding of the practice of signifyin’ within black culture and thus Gates’ definition of signifyin’ and the significance of the trickster figure. First, Bankey focuses on the trickster figure in the Esu story because it seems to mirror the interracial context of debate. While Gates’ discussion of the Esu story is important, attention to the various kinds of singifyin’ deployed by black cultures across the diaspora gives a fuller account of the diversity of signifyin’ practices. Playing the dozens is an example of signifyin’ in the contemporary context of black America. Signifyin’, or the dozens in black culture, does depend on the use of misdirection in order to signify on one’s verbal opponent. Yet, it is a fundamental misreading of signifyin’ to assume it depends on an inauthentic form of communication. The dozen’s are played within black culture: some scholars are even analyzing the use of singifyin’ amongst black twitter users who mark their blackness through black language and cultural practices that are designed to signify to black readers. Bankey misunderstands the potential significance of signifyin’ as a potential rhetorical strategy in debate. The Esu figure is not just a trickster or figure of chaos; (s)he is a teacher, and (s)he guides and develops those (s)he encounters. The method of teaching may be painful, but (s)he provides important lessons. The Esu figure might be characterized by this “partial list of qualities” which “might include individuality, satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and rupture.”[10] Esu is a “classic figure of mediation and of the unity of opposed forces.”[11] In the context of black-white relations, the point is not just to trick one’s opponent through misdirection, it is also an attempt to highlight the seeming inability of white people to speak from and through black linguistic practices. Basically, white people require racialized others to speak in their coded language practices to the exclusion of other possibilities. In other words, Bankey’s thesis lacks any analysis of power that might suggest that communication is structured by a dynamic in which some forms of communication are hegemonic and some marginal.  It assumes that we all communicate in the same way, and then blames black people for not communicating in the appropriate manner to soothe white anxieties.  There is little distinction between the academic claims made by Bankey and the common complaint made in society that black people are intellectually lazy, illiterate, dumb, or obstinate for speaking in ebonics, or for rapping, rhyming or using figurative language.  These assumptions are symptomatic of a direct refusal to communicate in a full sense of the term through the privileging of a majority-controlled means of communication.  We think that so long as this refusal continues, “authentic communication” or “disalienation” remains impossible. Given the status quo, the use of black language practices within the space of debate is a potentially effective training ground for producing individuals able to engage in public deliberation across a diversity of cultures and communities. We train debaters to speak to elite populations and institutions, but we are failing to prepare them for the contemporary political and social sphere with all of its potential cleavages.

Bankey’s turn to Watts’ critique of the use of signifyin’ as a rhetorical practice in interracial deliberation is also nonresponsive to the realities of the competitive debate context. For Bankey and Watts signifyin’ is a practice of obfuscation one that violates attempts to create the “authentic communication” Bankey’s thesis calls for.  But even for Watts some play on, and appropriation of, a dominant text is part and parcel of “speaking unmasked” in public.  As example, Watt’s draws upon Dubois’ rewriting of the patriotic song “America” as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”[12]  Furthermore, to demonstrate a tenuous link from Watts’ criticism to the Reid-Brinkley dissertation, Bankey must make a number of faulty assumptions. First, the Louisville team signifies on the opposition. The discussion of the cross examination period is particularly instructive. Reid-Brinkley notes that cross examination is often an opportunity to flex both intellectual and attitudinal muscle as common practice in debate competition. In addition, she argues that the Louisville women appropriate this traditional performative strategy for cross examination, but with a signal difference. They flex their attitudinal muscle through a black women’s performative style that seems disquieting for their white male opponents who are not only unsure how to read their dismissals, but are surely confused about how to respond to them. It is not that their opponents fail to “understand” their language, but that the opponents have little lived experience from which to draw upon to read the Louisville women’s bodies, tonal inflections, etc., which they use to mark blackness through black cultural practice. Opponents miss the “meaning” or “significance” of the performance though they may understand the words.  Again, analysis of such rhetorical situations can only be enriched by an understanding of double consciousness.  We recognize Watts’ criticism as a cautionary tale about the potential for signifyin’ practices to disrupt communication. However, Bankey has demonstrated no clear link indicating that the signifyin’ practices Reid-Brinkley discusses and those occurring in contemporary race-centered debate practice falls prey to such a critique. Competitive debate is a unique environment. The practice of signifyin’ alone would fail to meet the communicative standards necessary to have a fair debate. Yet, none of the students involved in race-centered debate practice depend on signifyin’ or even black aesthetic performative practice alone from which to build their argumentative strategies. This argument is akin to the “race baiting” arguments those on the right deploy against any politic conscious of race.  It also reveals the value of double consciousness, and the unifying possibilities that can come from signifying in political discourse.  For example, Robert E. Terrill argues that Obama successfully used double consciousness rhetorically in his “A More Perfect Union” speech to respond to racist claims made by the political Right and to present a vision of unity across racial difference.[13] To imply that contemporary signifyin’ practices are only aesthetically valuable is disingenuous.  While performance is clearly important, an engagement with history, politics, and philosophy is also incredibly important. To ignore the collaboration or permutation, if you will, of performance, with history, theory and argument is yet another attempt to denigrate black thought as anti-intellectual.

Second, we find it interesting that the trickery associated with signifyin’ is considered a violation of the space of “authentic communication” when the debate community has its own history of a trickster figure in the figure of the gamester. Some of the most innovative coaches and debaters are praised for their ability to come up with tricky plan/counterplan texts or topicality violations or theory justifications. We hold these tricksters/gamesters in high esteem. This is yet another example of how practices marked by whiteness can be read as acceptable and those same practices when deployed by black bodies to justify black thought suddenly become unacceptable and are presented as barriers to the educational and communicative process. In other words, it is another example of how “black” debate does not count (or become intelligible) as “real” debate. When it is the “gamester” it is considered strategy, but when it is the “trickster” bodies become hailed as black and speech begins to signify inferiority. As H. Rap Brown noted, “America has negroes in the dilemma of thinking that everything black is bad. Black cows don’t give good milk. Black hens don’t lay eggs. Blackmail is bad. You wear black to funerals and white to weddings. Angel food cake is white, devils food cake is black. And all good guys wear white hats.” The West Georgia (Davis & Feliciano) example that Bankey cites is actually a better example of the traditional gamester figure in debate. Their play with the form and content of their advocacy statement is consistent with the strategy associated with constructing viable plan/counterplan texts. Bankey does not offer a direct explanation of why the West Georgia example qualifies as signifyin’.

How Do You Want Us Seasoned?: Bankey’s Misreading of Fanon

Bankey’s choice to highlight a very limited use of Fanon in the Reid-Brinkley dissertation ignores the broader methodology the work offers as a means of engaging black academic thought and performative argumentative strategies. The dissertation grapples with a number of theories and thinkers in an attempt to offer a potential roadmap for engaging in and theorizing about race-centered alternative debate styles. In other words, the dissertation rejects adherence to any one thinker or any one body of thought, and instead engages poststructural theorists, rhetorical theorists, black feminist theorists, race critical theorists, social movement theorists, and so on. The choice to engage a diversity of theorists is a tactical strategy of academic engagement. These theoretical traditions are often adversarial to one another, but the very nature of their disagreements allows these theories to highlight limitations and openings in theoretical and practical considerations of social liberation.  Bankey’s use of Fanon is self-serving and is part of a larger academic movement to liberalize black radical thinkers.  Bankey’s privileging of the Philcox translation without any engagement with the Markmann translation lacks historical and academic context.  The Philcox translation has become particularly popular in some academic circles because it transforms Fanon into a more palatable figure that the academy can easily digest—for example for the “cosmopolitanism” endorsed by Anthony Appiah. It is as if Bankey is suggesting that Fanon, the thinker that said “decolonization smells like cannon balls and gun powder,” would be pro-Framework or proper political discussion.[14]

Bankey is too quick to dismiss the Markmann translation and too quick to dismiss the bulk of the text Black Skin, White Masks in either translation.  The many misinterpretations that we find in Bankey’s analysis and application of Fanon are too numerous to mention here.  We can however point out a few:

1)   Fanon is neither just psychoanalytic nor phenomenological.  He is in excess of both.  Further, the “shortcomings” of the Markmann translation cannot be reduced to a privileging of psychoanalysis over Fanon’s interest in phenomenology.  This suggestion fails to take account of the text as a whole.  For example, Bankey places the bulk of this argument on the distinction between The Markmann and Philocox translations’ rendering of the chapter five title “The Fact of “Blackness” and “The Lived Experience of the Black” respectively.  Bankey argues—as his thesis title makes plain—that “The Fact of Blackness” does not exist.  The title, “The Fact of Blackness,” Bankey says, leaves out a concern for experience.  Bankey is not the first to make this claim.  But we think this misses the point.  Neither title evokes a psychoanalytic framing or a loss of phenomenological perspective as much as they both, in their own way, evoke the complicated and undecidable gap where performance and ontology meet (as Moten noted).  The Markmann translation evokes that “the fact of blackness”—that is, the fantasy of blackness that is written on to black bodies through the child’s declaration “Look! A Negro!,” Y a bon Bonania, “tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships,”[15] or the countless litany of anti-black abuses—is a fact of Black life.  As Bankey himself says, it constitutes the “fore-structure” of existence for black bodies.  We (and Fanon and many, many other black thinkers) recognize that individual bodies do things, think things, and live unique lives.  We also recognize that those experiences are constituted in part by anti-black racism.  We take that fact seriously, rather than facilely.  We think Fanon does as well.  Note that much of the book is about Fanon attempting to tease out the generalizable pathologies of blackness.  He deals in categories, not because it is convenient, but because there are categories of experience that are instructive.  Bankey becomes anti-phenomenological when he overlooks this important point.  Phenomenologically speaking, “experience” is lived experience, a bodily experience—not the “mere experience” to which Bankey reduces the concept.  The imprisonment that Fanon recounts in this chapter is both an epistemological and an ontological violence that influences his performance.  Note, for example, the difficulty that he finds in a bodily movement as simple as smoking a cigarette.  This bodily alienation is a fact of the lived experience of “the Black.”  Also note that the Markmann translation is not “The Fact of the Black,” but “The Fact of Blackness.”  Here Markmann’s translation evokes a quality of the affective force of being effected into existence by “the white gaze.”  Similarly, the Philcox translation (“The Lived Experience of the Black”) also evokes this paradox of individual experience and categorical experience.  Here we do not find, “The Lived Experience of Blackness,” but the lived experience of a particular category of being.  Honoring Fanon’s subtleties requires that we attend to the situated-ness of experience in a full sense rather than simply overwriting it with a narcissistic and insipid appeal to individualism.

We can give many more examples from the text that would support our reading of Fanon as thoroughly concerned with race as a ground from which to produce a radically new (non-pathological or self-hating) politic rather than offering a program for some superhuman overcoming of racism: the articulation of racism as “sociogenic” rather than “ontogenic”; the reduction of black bodies to objecthood; the concept of an “epidermal racial schema,” that complicates the coherence of the “body schema” concept in phenomenology; his statement that “we shall resort to the obvious fact that wherever he goes, a black man remains a black man;” [16] or his statement that “the universal situation of the black man is ambiguous, but this is resolved in his physical existence.”[17]  This reading is not positivistic, nor is it “scientific” or “analytic” in the sense of Fanon’s indictment.  It certainly is not more positivistic than the concept of “authentic communication” devoid of “abstractions” on the body.

2)   The claims that a) Wilderson’s work is premised upon an interior essence of blackness; b)all Afro-Pessimists can be reduced to Wilderson; c)Reid-Brinkley’s work can be reduced to Wilderson; d)Moten’s work negates Wilderson or Sexton’s work; e)“DSRB Inspired” debate is premised upon an interior essence of blackness because of some false allegiance to Fanon, are all suspect.  It almost seems as if Bankey is pitting black people against each other to make the case that black people need to get over it, rather than to explore the ways in which they are in dialogue, sometimes across space and time.  For example, Sexton and Moten have had complex and enlightening engagements with each other about where “Afro-Pessimism” and “Black Optimism” agree and disagree (in the end, they conclude that they are arriving at the same place through different avenues).[18]  Hartman and Wilderson have discussed how their work engages and complicates one anothers and found the process productive.[19]  Black students are not all reading Fanon.  If anything, Bankey himself demonstrates a false allegiance to Fanon, not simply because of his weak reading, but because he fails to complicate the coherence of his Fanon narrative.  Fanon indeed was a product of his time; but that claim is not enough to warrant the cherry picking of the last chapter of the book at the expense of the entire text or his whole corpus.  It is unclear to us how it is that Wilderson must “demonstrate that Fanon’s lived experience is the universal experience of all black persons.”  Bankey seems to first support this claim by pointing out a seeming reversal of the famous Fanonian maxim (in the Markmann translation), “Ontology—once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man.  For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”[20] The reversal is to be found in the re-rendering of this same passage in the Philcox translation: “Ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the black man, since it ignores the lived experience.”[21]  For Bankey, Wilderson’s reliance on the Markmann translation leads him to an essentialism since he ignores the lived experience of individual blacks.  We think this misunderstands the role lived experience plays in Fanon’s worldview (see point 1.). Bankey interprets “ignores the lived experience,” or “leaves experience by the wayside” as a call for a radical individualism: black people are so different that it makes no sense to speak of blackness in Bankey’s world.  This is incredibly reductionist.  First, becoming object is not simply an inability to be individual, though it is that too.  It refers also to the subject/object distinction and supports the claim that there is a (non-)ontology of blackness.  Moten, who writes of “the resistance of the object” in In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, would agree with this assessment.[22]  It is certainly necessary to recognize the individual experiences of individual black people, but it is not sufficient to overcome anti-black racism.  In fact, that very recognition of individual experience that ideal subjects enjoy is barred as a rule from blackness.  That is to say, the seeming “reversal” is no reversal at all.  Bankey has simply misread the text.

If we extend our selection of the passage from the Markmann translation we get:

“In the Weltanschauung of a colonized people there is an impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation. Someone may object that this is the case with every individual, but such an objection merely conceals a basic problem.   Ontology—once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that this is false. The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.”[23]

The Philcox translation offers a fairly different wording; significantly what is removed from the Philcox translation entirely is the line: “Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse.  I say this is false.”[24]  After this section of the passage, Markmann’s translation goes on to explain that the “metaphysics” of the Black (“customs and agencies”) were “wiped out” by civilization.[25]  In the Philcox translation, these same agental capacities and conditions are “abolished.”[26] Here is a moment in which a studied comparison between the two translations—and the Markmann translation in particular—can be enlightening.  Though the wordings are different (and one more strongly worded than the other), the relationship of whiteness to blackness offered in each is not mutually exclusive, but mutually revealing.  Bankey interprets this passage as indicating that a discussion of blackness as such reproduces racism by ignoring lived experience of individual blacks.  We think that is the opposite of what is expressed in either version of the text.  Rather, the texts explain that individual/subjective/agental experience of a given black person is exactly what cannot be accounted for because that being is overdetermined by blackness (at symbolic, material, and metaphysical levels).  Bankey misreads Philcox’s translation to suggest that we can “get at” “the lived experience of the black,” in a way that would be intelligible under the current (white) framing (gaze).  But the rest of the passage, not to mention the entire chapter and book as a whole, explain at length that lived experience is exactly what is unintelligible and distinct from subjective/white individual capacities for experience.  In light of this reading, Bankey’s implication that black people (in debate/in the world) stop interrogating whiteness and white bodies is especially nonsensical.  It assumes that racism is simply petty prejudice that can be bi-directionally imposed.  Fanon in this passage makes it clear that this proposition has no converse.

There are criticisms that one could make of Wilderson, and many have.  We here do not care to defend Wilderson’s use of psychoanalysis for example.  But the suggestion that he makes his burden a proof of universal black experience has failed to see the forest for the trees.  Black experience is universalized as black (“Look! A Negro!”).  Individual experience is constituted in this conundrum.  This condition—of blackness—is something we must work through, rather than wish away.

3)   Bankey’s second support of his claim about Wilderson, and black debate by extension, is that Markmann mistranslates “Y a bon Banania” as “Sho’ Good Eatin’.” For Bankey, this translation obscures the French colonial context of anti-blackness within which Fanon operates.  Attention to the specific context of a text is a fair concern (which we wish Bankey had more fully practiced).  Y a bon Banania for Bankey is a rhetorical trope that imposes “negative” essences upon individuals.  Since these stereotypes are socially constructed, “we cannot look to race to develop a universal interpretation of an individual’s existence.”[27]  Here it seems that Fanon’s statement, “The black man is not. No more than the white man” serves as an invitation for post-racism.[28]  Certainly, racial tropes are “socially constructed.”  They are also durable and easily transmittable in many permutations across space and time.   In this respect, we find that “Sho’ Good Eatin’” marks such a permutation that speaks to the endurance of racist tropes.  The Sambo, for example, has in its own right a rich legacy in the United States.  Y a bon Banania is not merely a blatantly racist symbolic sign.  Bankey seems to offer more to this account in his reading of affect, but it still falls flat.  Y a bon Banania is not just hurtful—it is an injunction for blacks to behave a certain kind of way for whites.  It calls for blacks to be the grinning Negro who soothes white anxieties about the phobogenic object which is the Black.  Bankey notes that this figure was premised upon a European desire for blacks to be happy with their oppression, but we would like to add that this trope also denies the intensity of racism itself.  That is to say, in response to racism, black people are called upon to smile, to not be discomforting to whites, to enjoy their suffering, to not be as Scott Harris wrote in his 2013 NDT ballot, “so busy socially constructing enemies that they lose sight of who their allies are as they throw them under the bus.”[29]  It flattens the lived experience of racism into a character that can be solved by a simple change in attitude.  The reality imposed by Y a bon Banania pairs well with this passage by Fanon:

There is a quest for the black man.  He is yearned for; white men can’t get along without him.  He is in demand, but they want him seasoned a certain way.  Unfortunately, the black man demolishes the system and violates the agreements.  Will the white man revolt?  No, he’ll come to an arrangement.[30]

Does Bankey want us seasoned a certain way?  Are we breaking too many agreements?  Should we simply smile?  For Bankey, perhaps Y a bon Banania is the “roadmap to freedom” or “authentic communication” that he denies to Wilderson.

4)   It should by now be clear that Fanon does not suggest that interracial discourse with whites is sufficient to overcome racism.  In fact, he makes it clear that many interracial interactions with whites are extremely unhealthy for black people.  For example, Fanon goes into great detail about the self-hate he finds in black women (and black men) who seek to garner favor from whites through cohabitation and other methods.  Appiah, in his introduction to the Philcox translation—which Bankey cites as his primary support for his privileged (mis)reading—points this out himself.  Bankey is so quick to argue that resistive practices in debate are anti-interactional that he fails to participate in the ongoing and relevant conversation that teases out what kinds of interactions are valuable.  As a result, disalientation for Bankey simply means soothing white anxieties.  For Fanon, the requirement that we soothe white anxieties is part and parcel of the pathology that infects black people and blocks blacks from a process of disalienation.

Fanon warns us: “In Europe, the black man, whether physically or symbolically, represents the dark side of the personality. As long as you haven’t understood this statement, discussing the ‘black problem’ will get you nowhere.”[31] We would like to sit with this warning.  Disalienation does not entail a forgetting of being Black.  It means not being imprisoned by one’s blackness.  It means making use of one’s blackness in an empowering way.  Not wishing it away, except insofar as we work against that which constitutes blackness: whiteness.  We end with the Fanon of Wretched of the Earth: “To break up the colonial world does not mean that after the frontiers have been abolished lines of communication will be set up between the two zones. The destruction of the colonial world is no more and no less than the abolition of one zone, its burial in the depths of the earth or its expulsion from the country.”[32]

 

Endnotes


[1] This racist trope which pathologizes the black family and kinship relations was brought into contemporary national discourse with the Moynihan Report, but Hortense Spillers points out that this trope has a long standing history in the US context.  The symbolic order, which the Moynihan Report reflects, is an “American Grammar” whose locus is the severed kinship relations of the African captive in the slave trade.  Within this context, we find it especially disconcerting that Bankey’s thesis is bookended with a pathology of the bad black debate family and the redeemed white family which adopts black children.  See Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Diacritics 17.2 Summer 1987, 64-81.

[2] Brendon Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist: An Evocative Criticism of Resistance Rhetoric in Academic Debate and It’s (Mis)Use of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Salem: Wake Forest University, 2013, 126.

[3] Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist, 151.

[4] Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist, 22.

[5] Leda Cooks, “Pedagogy, Performance, and Positionality: Teaching about Whiteness in Interracial Communication ,” Communication Education, vol. 52 no. ¾, 2003, 10.

[6] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed.,  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.

[7] Eric King Watts, “The (Nearly) Apocalyptic Politics of ‘Postracial’ America: Or ‘This is Now the United States of Zombieland,’ in ‘What is this ‘Post-‘ in Postracial, Postfeminist… (Fill in the Blank)?,’” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 34 no. 3, 2010, 216-7.

[8] For those interested in venturing into unexplored sections of the library, we would suggest the following works, which are instructive on this point.  See, George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006; Richard Dyer, White, New York: Routledge, 1997; Ruth Frankenberg, How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 1995, Thomas Nakayama and R. L. Krizek, “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, 291-310; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, New York: Routledge, 1994; George Yancy, Look, A White! Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2012; and Sara Ahmed, “The Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory vol. 8 no. 2, 2007.

[9] We would encourage the author to engage the following texts: Lazarre, Jane, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996; and James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 10th anniversary ed.,  New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

[10] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, 6.

[11] Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey, 6.

[12] Eric King Watts, “‘Voice’ and ‘voicelessness’ in rhetorical studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech Vol. 87 no. 2 2001: 179-196.

[13] Robert E. Terrill, “Unity and Duality in Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union’,” Quarterly Journal of Speech Vol. 95 no. 4 Nov. 2009: 363-386.

[14] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press, 2005, 3.

[15] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Charles Lam Markmann, New York: Grove Press, 1967, 112.

[16] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Richard Philcox, 1st ed., New York: Grove Press, 2008, 150.

[17] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 150.

[18] “But Moten is just that much more interested in how black social life steals away or escapes from the law, how it frustrates the police power and, in so doing, calls that very policing in to being in the first place.  The policing of black freedom, then, is aimed less at its dreaded prospect, apocalyptic rhetoric notwithstanding, than at its irreducible precedence.  The logical and ontological priority of the unorthodox self-predicating activity of blackness, the ‘improvisational exteriority’ or ‘improvisational immanence’ that blackness is, renders the law dependent upon what it polices.  This is not the noble agency of resistance.  It is a reticence or reluctance that we might not know if it were not pushing back, so long as we know that this pushing back is really a pushing forward.  So you see, in this perverse sense, black social death is black social life.  The object of black studies is the aim of black studies.  The most radical negation of the antiblack world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world.  Afro-pessimism is ‘not but nothing other than’ black optimism.” Quote from Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions Issue 5 Fall/Winter 2011, 37.

[19] See Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle, Vol. 13 no. 2 Spring/Summer 2003, pp. 183-201

[20] Markmann, Black Skin, White Masks, 110

[21] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[22] See Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Minneapolis; London: U Minnesota Press, 2003.

[23] Markmann, Black Skin, White Masks, 109-110.

[24] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[25] Markmann, Black Skin, White Masks, 109-110.

[26] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[27] Bankey, The ‘Fact of Blackness’ Does Not Exist, 76.

[28] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 206.

[29] Scott Harris, 2013 NDT ballot, pg. 10

[30] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 153.

[31] Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, 166.

[32] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, New York: Grove Press, 1963, 41.