BLM 2020: Breathing, Resistance, and the War Against Enslavement

By Kerry Sinanan

On May 20, 2020 many celebrated the birthday of Haitian revolution leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture against a backdrop of ongoing murders of Black people at the hands of current and former police.[1] Ahmaud Arbery, shot while running on February 23, 2020; Breonna Taylor, who would have been 27 on June 5th, shot 8 times on March 13th while sleeping in her own home; on May 25th, Memorial Day, the world watched in horror as George Floyd was callously lynched by four police officers in Minneapolis; on June 5 footage emerged showing the murder of Manuel Ellis by police a month earlier, on March 3. In both of the videos recording Floyd and Ellis’ death they utter the words, “I can’t breathe.” On Tuesday, May 26, when Americans most recently began protesting police violence, the words, “I can’t breathe” again became the powerful anti-police mantra that it was in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder.[2] By Wednesday June 3, 2020, every state in the US was protesting, and the Black Lives Matter uprising had become global, stretching from Dublin to Amsterdam, Paris to Auckland. The protests continue still, worldwide, at the time of writing. The focus of the protests has effectively combined the demand for an end to systemic racism with calls, especially in the US, to abolish the police, who many have observed emerged directly out of slave patrols.[3] As I will argue in this post, calls to defund or abolish the police at this level represent a new aspect of these protests, one that asks us to consider the protests themselves as part of the centuries-long continuum of slave rebellion.

Demonstrators in Miami stand with tape reading, I Can't Breathe, in 2014. The protest occurred after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict the police officers involved Eric Garner's death. Getty Images
Demonstrators in Miami stand with tape reading, ” I Can’t Breathe,” in 2014. The protest occurred after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict the police officers involved Eric Garner’s death.

As if to confirm this, on June 1, 2020, President Trump threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act that would allow him to “call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection.” This Act arose directly out of the threat posed by Haiti which had declared its constitution in 1805, forming itself into a “free state, sovereign and independent,” with Article 2 declaring “Slavery is forever abolished.”[4] As Kevin Gannon reminded us upon Trump’s allusion to the Act, the Haitian constitution “closed a 14+ year revolution wherein Black and mulatto Haitians overthrew the colonial slave regime (called St. Dominique…and expanded their fight over the entire colony)”.[5] Gannon argues that, following Haiti, slave rebellions, and perceived plots of insurrection in the US, inevitably signalled the same revolutionary force that Haiti had so powerfully delivered: “This is the context in which we need to view the 1807 Insurrection Act: a demand from the enslaving class and its political representative for federal protection in case the unthinkable (but seemingly more and more likely) event of a Black uprising occurred.”  Gannon notes how making connections that link fear of slave uprisings to the Insurrection Act is about reading the “silences” both in between events and in the response to the Insurrection Act itself.[6]  Sometimes the historical moment of iteration is the context and the word “insurrection,” as in 1807, today certainly resonates explicitly with the fear of Black resistance: Trump’s invocation itself provides a link to Black resistance.

Reading the events in this way, it is impossible to ignore that on June 2nd, the day right after Trump called upon the Insurrection Act, was the anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s Combahee raid in which she led 150 black Union soldiers and liberated over 700 enslaved people.[7] In so doing, Tubman actioned a Black, female collective (as opposed to a patriarchal,  individualistic, libertarian) vision of freedom articulated by Toni Morrison: “the function of freedom is to free someone else.”[8] Freedom, as the authors of the Insurrection Act knew, is contagious. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that was already claiming a devastating proportion of Black peoples’ lives in the US and in the UK, these current protests and resistances force us to look back to the histories of transatlantic slavery and race and—while we explain the multiple ways in which, as Christina Sharpe tells us, “ongoing state-sanctioned legal and extralegal murders of Black people are normative and, for this so-called democracy, necessary”—to also read the protests as part of the long history of slave rebellion, that is, as a transatlantic, global movement that has spanned centuries and transcended national boundaries.[9]

In his new book Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Vincent Brown argues that, while there is value in thinking of the many kinds of acts of slave rebellion as a continuum, from “everyday assertions of independent will and volition” to “violent collective uprisings like the ones led by Tacky and Apongo,” this way of viewing resistance, at the same time, “is too reductive. It masks the complexity of large revolts, glosses over multiple aspirations of rebels, confines the contest to circumscribed locations, and forecloses important questions about planning, strategy, tactics, and claims to territory—the very questions we ask about wars.”[10] Brown’s argument, that we look again at slave rebellion as we do at war, ties in, he tells us with Olaudah Equiano’s famous description of slavery as “a perpetual state of war.”[11] As we witness a global, multi-faceted, complex network of uprisings, it seems as if we do indeed need such a framing, which credits the multiple acts of global protest with the kind of complexity granted to battle proper. Brown, as did C.L.R. James before him, tells us that war travels; it is transatlantic and exceeds plantation and island boundaries. And the emphasis on war as opposed to rebellion also explains how Black victims of police violence are in a state of war and their very existence is the act of aggression against the enemy.

Between these large protests and the murders that have galvanized them lies Black life as an ongoing resistance in the war. As Sharpe trenchantly proposed on June 6, 2020: “group noun for young (and middle aged and old) Black folks in the street is a breathing.”[12] Read as metaphors—thieves, drug dealers, fraudsters or, indeed, as a “breathing”—Black people face perpetual, extreme violence in a system designed to kill them in the war. We must frame these deliberate misreadings in the full context of the web and network of unceasing Black resistance to white power that is enacted simply by virtue of being Black: to exist is to resist.[13] Breonna Taylor was simply living in her own home when eight bullets wantonly fired by police officers claimed her life; Arbery was simply running, taking the air as he regularly did; George Floyd had bought some cigarettes. Yet these Black people were murdered as threats, enemies in a war, and their rebellion was to exist and breathe.

Plan for the slave ship “Brookes” that shows how to stow 454 people on board.
Plan for the slave ship “Brookes” that shows how to stow 454 people on board. It became a powerful abolitionist image in the late 1780s. Taken from: Description of a Slave Ship, published by James Phillips, George Yard, Lombard Street, London (1787). Copyright by permission of the British Library Board (Shelfmark: 1881.d.8 46).

Here, then, I draw attention to a couple of more un-noted moments—not part of any specific narrative of rebellion in the network of slave resistances—to highlight how Black life itself is a rebellion, a constant pressure today, and stretching back to the slave ship. In November 1786, having arrived in Barbados after crossing the mid-Atlantic passage, Captain James Irving writes to his wife,

We have…not yet disposed of our very disagreeable cargo, but expect it in the 7th instant when our sale opens…Often, very often have I perused my dear girl’s letter and each time with redoubled pleasure…I’m nearly wearied of this unnatural and accursed trade…I think I’ll desist as our black cattle are intolerably noisy and I’m almost melted in the midst of five or six hundred of them.[14]

Even above deck Irving finds the slave ship stifling and the enslaved people—horrifyingly reduced to livestock—are restive. The slaves’ presence is a serious threat, potent as it is with actual rebellion. Their noise unsettles Irving, his sense of being “melted” articulates an intensely warped expression of white fragility that masks his white power as enslaver. Ironically, Irving finds his own chosen position “intolerable.” As C.L.R. James describes, below the decks the conditions “turned these holds into hell.”[15] What must they have felt, six hundred people, in the bowels of the ship, languishing in the Barbados tropical heat, surging with the sea swell after months on-board? It was impossible simply to breathe. Yet Irving blames the captives for the hellishness, and will capitalize on their still being alive, on their still breathing, while he blames them for stifling him. Derek Chauvin, with the help of his fellow officers, murdered George Floyd calmly and quietly, in front of the gathered protesting crowd, by blocking his breath, by, as the independent coroner’s report has confirmed, asphyxiation. Now, as then, the Black person, cast as a threat to white power, is in fact overwhelmed to the point of death for the act of simply being, even when, as in 1786, they are on the point of being sold for profit. As Paul Gilroy insists, “the slaves’ perspective and positions…provocatively suggest that many of the advances of modernity are in fact pseudo-advances contingent on the power of the racially dominant grouping.”[16] Inverting the dynamics of power exposes whiteness as barbaric. It is the perspective of suppressed Black lives that we must center in the long war against slavery.

In his slave-ship logs, kept between 1750-54, John Newton also records from the captain’s viewpoint through which the slave’s perspectives are violently filtered. On December 17, 1750, offshore near Sherbro, Newton records the purchase of an adult male slave “for 60 bars…Our number is now 36.” The purchase of a male slave is noteworthy because Newton buys many children: adult men are in short supply and expensive. The next day he writes: “Having now 12 men slaves on board, began this day with chains and sentrys.”[17] The threat posed by the enslaved was one that was frequently realized and had to be guarded against. At sea the men below, indeed, mount an insurrection:

In the evening, by the favour of Providence, discovered a conspiracy among the slaves to rise upon us, but a few hours before it was to have been executed. A young man, No. —, who has been on the whole voyage out of irons, first on account of a large ulcer, and since for his seeming good behaviour, gave them a marline spike down the gratings, but was happily seen by one of the people. They had it in possession about an hour before I made search for it, in which time they made such good dispatch (being an instrument that made no noise) that this morning I found near 20 of them had broke their irons. Are at work securing them.[18]

As Brown tells us, these enslaved men did not come from nowhere: likely trained in war, they are ready to battle.[19] In this passage it emerges that the “silent” slaves, previously only listed in Newton’s journal numerically as they are either purchased or die of the “flux,” have been plotting their escape. The “young man” that has turned his injury to his advantage is strategic. Newton records that the slaves have made quick progress and, but for luck, would successfully have unlocked several male slaves. Given that on this particular voyage sickness had been as fatal for the crew as for the slaves, twenty or more male slaves out of irons would have easily taken the ship. The resistance is constant.

On May 28, Newton writes in his journal:

Their plot was exceedingly well laid, and had they been let alone an hour longer, must have occasioned us a good deal of trouble and damage. I have reason to be thankfull they did not make attempts upon the coast when we had often 7 or 8 of our best men out of the ship at a time and the rest busy. They still look very gloomy and sullen and have doubtless mischief in their heads if they could find opportunity to vent it. But I hope (by Divine Assistance) we are fully able to overawe them now.[20]

Newton is put on his constant guard and finds now the looks, the expressions of the enslaved people deeply dangerous: because they are. Resistance and life, war and breath in this long history are synonymous. These two small moments testify to the ongoing relentless war of slavery that exceeds national boundaries. I position the lives of Black people taken by white power within this war, even if their most “rebellious” act was just to live, and was ended by a tragic, “I can’t breathe.” Floyd’s last breath did not end the war, however. I take my cue from James once more: “In a revolution, when the ceaseless slow accumulation of centuries bursts into volcanic eruption, the meteoric flares and flights above are a meaningless chaos and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observer sees them always as projections of the sub-soil from which they came.”[21] The lives of Black people stretching back, across the Atlantic to Africa, are this “sub-soil,” a bedrock of breathing resistance that grounds the present volcanic upheaval. Echoing both Gilroy and James, Brown ends his Prologue with a similar reorienting of our vision: “The rebels’ perspectives on empire and insurrection should inform our own.” Repositioning and centering these Black lives allows us to see that the breath, lives, and resistances that have been ongoing for centuries are now opening up a door to, as Brown suggests, “another world.”[22] At George Floyd’s funeral, on June 9, a mourner carried a sign: “We will breathe.”

With special thanks to:

Professor Christina Sharpe: permission to cite

Professor Kevin Gannon: permission to cite

Professor Daniel Carey: editorial

Érica Elizabeth Alcocer: recommendation of To Exist is to Resist


Kerry Sinanan is Assistant Professor at UTSA’s Department of English. She is completing her monograph, Myths of Mastery: Traders, Planters and Colonial Agents 1750-1833. She has received research fellowships from the Beinecke Library, the James Ford Bell Library, and in 2017 she was a Visiting Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art where she began a new project on representations of slave mothers. Recently, she has been appointed Secretary/Treasurer for the Early Caribbean Society: http://www.earlycaribbeansociety.com. She is on Twitter @Kerry_Sinanan.

Title image:

Ballerinas Kennedy George, 14, and Ava Holloway, 14, posing in front of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s monument,  Richmond, Virginia, with protest graffiti. June 5, 2020. The monument is now slated for removal. Photograph by Julia Rendleman.

Endnotes:

[1] There is not clear consensus on the specific date of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s birth, but many celebrate it on this date.

[2] In 2014, Eric Garner said the words, “I can’t breathe” 11 times, and this eventually became the call for the emerging Black Lives Matter Movement in 2017. See: Matt Taibbi, I Can’t Breathe. A Killing on Bay Street (New York: Random House, 2017).

[3] “In the American South, the modern police evolved from a system of citizen slave patrols that were responsible for maintaining the system of enslavement and the established racial order, preventing rebellions and uprisings, and capturing runaway slaves.” Cassandra Chaney and Ray V Robertson, “Armed and Dangerous? An Examination of Fatal Shootings of Unarmed Black People by Police,” The Journal of Pan African Studies. Vol. 8. No. 4 (September 2015): 51. There is extensive literature on this topic. See also, Sally Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). Tyler D. Parry, “Police Dogs and Anti-Black Violence,” Black Perspectives (July 31, 2017): https://www.aaihs.org/police-dogs-and-anti-black-violence/.

[4] 1805 “Constitution of Hayti”: http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/history/earlyhaiti/1805-const.htm

[5] Kevin Gannon outlines the historical context in a thread on Twitter 1 June, 2020. https://twitter.com/TheTattooedProf/status/1267614772352212994?s=20

[6] Gannon:https://twitter.com/TheTattooedProf/status/1268971623354454021

[7] Helen Leichner, “Combahee River Raid,” https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/combahee-river-raid-june-2-1863/.

[8] Toni Morrison, Cinderella’s Stepsisters, Speech at Barnard College graduation, 1979.

[9] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 7.

[10] Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 6.

[11] Cited in Brown, 4.

[12] Christina Sharpe, https://twitter.com/hystericalblkns/status/1269331358704259072 (June 6, 2020).

[13] See: Akwugo Emejulu and Francseca Sobande, eds., To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe (London: Pluto Press, 2019).

[14] Suzanne Schwarz, ed., Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (Wrexham: Bridge Books, 1995), 112-113.

[15] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Vintage, 1938), 8.

[16] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), 56.

[17] John Newton, The Journal of a Slave Trader: John Newton 1750-1754, edited by Bernard Martin and Mark Spurrel (London: The Epworth Press, 1962), 25.

[18] Newton, 54-55.

[19] See Brown, Prologue, Tacky’s Revolt.

[20] Newton, 55.

[21] James, Preface to the First Edition, xi.

[22] Brown, 15.

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