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The Historical Failure and Revolutionary Potential of Taking a Knee

When players take a knee in the manner made famous by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they cut the white emancipator from the frame and thereby create something new: an abolition image.

American Anti-Slavery Society, “Am I Not A Man and A Brother,” (1837) (photo: Library of Congress)

Why has “taking a knee” become such a focal point of what seems like the permanent crisis of the Trump administration? Every now and again, an image forces its way out of the endless stream of vernacular, commercial and artistic pictures and freezes our attention. When Colin Kaepernick and his allies “take a knee,” they adopt a pose drawn from the lexicon of 18th– and 19th-century abolitionism.  Whether consciously or not — for both performer and viewer — the form invokes and awakens cultural memory and becomes noticed. Its disruptive effect comes from being a repetition with a difference. Taking a knee cuts the white emancipator from the frame and thereby creates something new: an abolition image.

Abolition images depict subjects who are no longer the object of the rule of others but have subjectivity and are “levelly human,” as the Combahee River Collective once put it. That subjectivity is rooted in the mutual knowledge of others and others’ knowledge of the subject. This recognition creates what I have called “the right to look,” which is also the right to be seen and heard. W. E. B. Du Bois and Angela Y. Davis have called this possibility “abolition democracy.” Abolition images convey and contain the potential for such democracy to occur. In themselves, abolition images do not convict cops or end the war on Black people, to be sure. But they can ask questions, create solidarity, and generate new actions.

When players take a knee during the playing of the national anthem, in the manner made famous by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they kneel rather than stand. Consciously or not, the pose is derived from the 18th– and 19th-century abolitionist movement. Abolitionism was not, however, abolition democracy. Appearing first on English potter Josiah Wedgwood’s 1787 medallion, the kneeling figure was accompanied with the caption: “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” In short, are Africans human or not? The person who likely will answer is not the enslaved human being but the presumed white person being addressed. To answer “yes” is to claim the status of abolitionist. The resistance of the enslaved themselves, epitomized in the “unthinkable” Haitian revolution (1791-1804) that ended chattel slavery in the country, is excised from the frame.

In making this exclusion, the abolitionist motif has long been criticized for symbolically removing agency from African Americans and placing power in the hands of their white “emancipators.”  Du Bois and other Black radicals denied that the enslaved had ever been emancipated. In Black Reconstruction (1935), Du Bois showed that African Americans freed themselves by their “general strike,” as he called it, in which half a million enslaved human beings crossed Union lines out of slavery, at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. This world-historical action is still nowhere memorialized and remains unthinkable for those wishing to preserve white supremacy.

It is no coincidence that the kneeling pose became monumental after the defeat of radical Reconstruction. In the 1876 sculptural group “Emancipation Memorial” by Thomas Ball, Lincoln stands, raising a sacramental hand over the head of a kneeling, half-naked African American, whose shackles indicate he is enslaved. Although the memorial was paid for by the formerly enslaved, it was designed by an all-white committee. At the dedication ceremony, Frederick Douglass is reported to have said “a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.” In his 1997 study Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, historian Kirk Savage concluded that the Memorial was “a monument entrenched in and perpetuating racist ideology.” It is also notably a question for and about men, leaving women marginalized from their own freedom.

Thomas Ball, Emancipation Memorial (1876) (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When performed today by live African-American bodies — without the white hero — taking a knee reveals the hollowness of the Emancipation Memorial’s performative gesture. In adopting the abolitionist pose without the abolitionist, taking a knee makes visible its failures by means of what Christina Sharpe, an African-American scholar who writes on Black visual studies, has called “Black redaction.” By cutting out the presumed (white) liberator, the familiar but now different pose, “makes Black life visible, if only momentarily,” as Sharpe puts it. White abolitionism gives way to a glimpse of Black abolition democracy, the possibility of Black life. The journey from abolitionist to abolition may only be three redacted characters but it makes a different world.

The gesture resonates because there are other such performative forms already circulating in the collective memory. Following Sharpe’s use of the term in visual contexts, we can say that Bree Newsome redacted the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse in July 2015, for example. All such redactions get their present impetus from “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” the performative condensation of the police killing of Black people that began in Ferguson with the murder of Michael Brown. This gesture of individual vulnerability both reveals that racism is a collective vulnerability to premature death and becomes a paradoxical assertion of strength. For while the police do shoot individuals with their hands raised, they have not (yet) opened fire on a crowd of protestors.

Taking the knee asks what is now meant by “history.” If the thousands of Civil War and Confederate monuments have made it clear that white suffering is never forgotten, what has been done to repair the wrongs of slavery? Who was emancipated and by whom? If to reenact the request for emancipation with a difference makes Kaepernick a “son of a bitch,” as Trump has put it, what freedom has been achieved? Christina Sharpe bluntly declares: “Emancipation did not make Black life free.” To use the formal language of J. L. Austin, who investigated how words perform social action, emancipation should be understood as a “misfire,” a speech act that did not work. The power of the re-performed gesture is to reveal that emancipation failed.

Kaepernick and his fellows ask not an individual but white supremacy as a whole: “Am I not a man and a brother?” Settler colonialism replies, as it always has done from the indigenous expulsions to the ending of DACA: “go away.” But there is nowhere for these Americans to go. The United States tries to resolve this contradiction by violence — centering on mass incarceration — with its ancillaries of capital punishment and police killings. When there is no way out of a contradiction, another solution must be found. For Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, writing back in 1976, “a revolutionary period is one in which the only exit is a revolution.” The abolition image today asks: is there no way out but revolution now?

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