Anna Julia Cooper ’s collection of essays, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, published in 1892, identified the conflict over race as the central dilemma of her time, eleven years before W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that ‘the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line.’ Cooper argued that America’s domestic racial formation was intimately linked with international colonialism and that the exploitation and oppression experienced by Asian, Black and Indigenous peoples in the US were an integral part of the imperialist ideology of racial hierarchies. She questioned why ‘dominant meant righteous, and carried with it a title to inherit the earth’, and identified appeals to manifest destiny as an attempt to justify consigning ‘to annihilation one-third of the inhabitants of the globe’. Cooper also condemned the expansion of Western empires further into Asia and the Pacific. She believed, as Du Bois wrote, that the problem of the colour line was a matter of imperialism, ‘the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea’.
A different strand of Black intellectual thought, focusing on racism and racist violence in the US as a product of domestic enslavement, developed almost simultaneously with the global account of imperialist and colonial exploitation proposed by Cooper and Du Bois. In 1904, Mary Church Terrell, one of the founders of the National Association of Coloured Women, published an essay which concluded that ‘lynching is the aftermath of slavery.’ A year later, William A. Sinclair, who was born into enslavement, published The Aftermath of Slavery, a Study of the Condition and Environment of the American Negro. Terrell and Sinclair used the term ‘aftermath’ to make the point that their own era was contiguous with the three hundred years during which people of African descent had been enslaved in America. Sinclair worked as a financial secretary at Howard University, had degrees in theology and medicine and greatly admired Queen Victoria, the British Empire and Rudyard Kipling. He believed that the ‘blighting evils’ of his time, ‘mobs that torture human beings and roast them alive without trial; mobs who shoot down women and children; mobs who take possession of the streets of … cities, shooting down innocent coloured people and driving them from their homes; lynching and the reign of terror and blood perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan’, were an affliction both to ‘the white and the coloured people’. He insisted that this violence was rooted in the barbarism of US slavery, an institution which, ‘bad and debasing as it was for the negro’, was ‘probably even worse for whites … for it stupefied their conscience … twisted and perverted their moral conceptions’. Sinclair did not mention the sufferings of Indigenous peoples at the hands of white settlers and military forces; consideration of Native Nations was excluded from his conceptual and historical framework.
‘The afterlife of slavery’ (sometimes hyphenated and sometimes plural) has become an increasingly influential way of thinking about America’s domestic slavery and its consequences in the present. In Lose Your Mother (2006), Saidiya Hartman uses the phrase to describe the complex relation between the current inequalities and ‘skewed life chances’ that imperil and threaten Black life, and the ‘racial calculus’ and ‘political arithmetic’ entrenched in the system of enslavement. Hartman developed the term in the sophisticated historical analysis of her subsequent work, but it has now assumed an autonomous existence, which no longer requires us to understand that the ways in which ‘race’ comes to acquire meaning are contingent on particular times, places, cultures and economies. The word ‘afterlife’ assumes an intergenerational existence, but it also grants immortality to racial logic; the term connotes a world without end, and even has a supernatural quality that stretches back to the Curse of Ham.
The 1619 Project, which contains essays as well as poetry and fiction, offers a ‘new origin story’ for the US, one that begins with the arrival of a ship in the British colony of Virginia with a cargo of twenty enslaved African people. The book itself is the culmination of a project by the New York Times Magazine, marking four hundred years since that first slave ship arrived in America. It attempted to show that ‘the inheritance of 1619 reaches into every part of contemporary American society, from politics, music, diet, traffic and citizenship, to capitalism, religion and our democracy itself.’ Though 1619 is an unconventional year in which to begin the national story, the project’s aim – to expose ‘the roots of so much of what makes the country unique’ – places it firmly within the conventional narrative of American exceptionalism.
The phrase ‘the afterlife of slavery’ is often used in conjunction with ‘antiblackness’, a term that is also rarely interrogated, as if its meaning is obvious. The word has spread beyond academia in the last decade, helped by its lack of historical specificity. It can be seen everywhere on social media and in the mainstream press; it crops up in headlines in Forbes Magazine, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Its usefulness, however, is limited. Racialised exclusivity and national particularity (‘antiblackness’ nearly always pertains to African Americans) means relinquishing the possibility of forming alliances with other oppressed communities.
Academics in marginalised fields have made limited progress in establishing departments, programmes and centres for the study of ethnic, racialised and gendered histories. We have seen only modest increases in the number of Black, brown and gender non-conforming people among teaching staff. For the most part our intellectual existence remains siloed, with each field of knowledge having its own vocabulary and organised into a discrete ontological formation. In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), Michel-Rolph Trouillot insisted that ‘history is the fruit of power but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.’ University administrations boast of diversity, equity and inclusion, while behind the scenes they hold tightly to power, continuing to privilege the Eurocentric, settler colonial forms of knowledge that secure the marginalisation of certain areas of study. Our fields are kept in constant competition for resources; as we scramble for scraps of funding, we fail to engage with, let alone expose, the roots of power. This leads me to conclude that the disciplinary borders and exclusionary concepts of contemporary academia have not only created new forms of silencing but are a betrayal of the roots of these disciplines: insurgent social movements which did not want to be incorporated into the academy as it then existed, but sought its radical transformation.
Exterminate All the Brutes, Raoul Peck’s four-part film, situates the emergence of the land that would become the United States within an account of the global ambitions of European imperialism, using its ideologies and praxis of domination to organise the narrative: civilisation, colonisation and extermination. Peck takes his bearings from three works: Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes (1996) and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. The film has been described as essayistic, but it would be more precise to say that it enacts these authors’ historical analyses: their arguments are so deeply embedded in the film that it becomes an intellectual collaboration, an alternative to the intellectually segregated university departments that currently disseminate knowledge about race, ethnicities and indigeneity.
The film breaks with conventional documentary-making in its use of scripted fictional scenes and animation, drawing on a rich visual, musical, literary and scientific vocabulary taken from a vast number of sources – everything from archival anthropological and scientific material to Hollywood films and Peck’s own family archive. It bears witness to acts of brutality characteristic of Western European forms of conquest and Christian missionary zeal in Africa, the Americas and Europe, and traces the beliefs, dressed up as science, that produced and attempted to justify this brutality, right of conquest and dispossession. This means moving from the Crusades to the many genocidal wars against Indigenous peoples, from atrocities committed in the name of manifest destiny and the Monroe Doctrine to the rabidly anti-migrant movements of our own times. The film does not limit its examination to extremist movements or leaders, although it features Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The idea that US supremacy is seen as being ordained by divine providence is underlined by an episode showing American presidents speaking the words ‘So help me God’ when reciting the Oath of Office, immediately followed by an account of the entanglement of the US arms industry with the executive branch of government.
The longue durée of what Dunbar-Ortiz calls the ‘inherently genocidal’ impulse of settler colonialism is difficult to watch. Exterminate makes its audience witness many forms of colonial brutality: from the intimacies of bodily dismemberment to the technologies that allow death and war to happen at a distance. Peck refuses to conform to narrative linearity, rejecting the idea that the current resurgence of white supremacist and state violence can be traced back to a single origin. Instead, we move across time and place, between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. The film is as restless as the images of huge ocean waves that occasionally mark its transitions.
On 1 June 2020, a gathering of Black Lives Matter supporters in Lafayette Square, north of the White House, was attacked by heavily armed security forces from various federal agencies, including the US Park Police, the Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Teams and National Guardsmen. While dispersing the peaceful crowd to clear the way for a presidential photo opportunity, they committed human rights violations, including firing flash-bang shells, tear gas and rubber bullets. Seven months later, on 6 January 2021, TV stations and social media broadcast a very different police response. Rioters carrying stun guns, knives, chemical sprays, baseball bats and flagpoles easily overwhelmed a sparse contingent of Capitol police and stormed the building. The police had been told to hold back and not to use their most powerful methods of crowd control.
Amnesty International documented 125 separate incidents of state violence against peaceful protesters in forty states, plus the District of Columbia, between 26 May and 5 June 2020. These acts were committed by members of state and local police departments, as well as by National Guard troops and security personnel from several federal agencies. Among the abuses recorded are beatings, the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray and the inappropriate and, at times, indiscriminate firing of sponge rounds and rubber bullets. In November 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights called on the Justice Department to investigate the treatment by law enforcement agencies of peaceful protesters against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation (Peck includes footage of this in Exterminate). They used armoured vehicles, automatic rifles, acoustic weapons, water cannon, concussion grenades, attack dogs, pepper spray and beanbag bullets.
Other rights are also being suppressed. In 2013, the US Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder removed two of the most powerful provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which addressed entrenched racial discrimination in voting: Section 5 required certain states to obtain federal clearance before changing their voting rules, and Section 4b determined which states had to do this. The Supreme Court ruled that the government was using an outdated process to decide which states had to get their rules approved. Since the judgment there has been a wave of voting measures aimed at limiting the rights of minority voters. The Brennan Centre for Justice reported that in 2021 alone legislators in 49 states drafted more than 440 restrictive voting bills, while 19 states enacted 34 laws that made voting more difficult, for instance by introducing requirements for proof of citizenship or repealing the provision of postal votes. The Spirit Lake Nation (Mni Wakan Oyate) and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa recently filed a federal lawsuit challenging North Dakota’s new legislative map, which, by means of redistricting, dilutes Native American voting power.
In addition to this suppression of the Black and Indigenous vote and of the right to protest is a national crusade to control historical knowledge. In state legislatures and on town school boards (consisting of locally elected officials) politicians and interest groups are advocating and legislating for the banning of books and of teaching that engages with racialised and gendered injustice. The advocacy group Truth in Education claims that children need to be ‘protected’ from the discussion of sexual and gender identities and from ‘critical race theory’ (CRT), a misnomer for any initiatives in state schools or state-run institutions that address past and present inequities or introduce anti-racist policies. Citizens for Renewing America offers an eight-page DIY guide to ‘school board language’ which promises to help those who would sanction – and potentially sack – teachers for violating these rules. No Left Turn in Education provides sample letters and petitions. This is a campaign of fear, targeted at teachers and administrators in public institutions. One group in particular is being called to arms: white parents of school-age children.
Mary Beeman, the campaign manager for the Truth in Education school board candidates in my town (all of them Republicans), summarised the threat: ‘Helping kids of colour to feel they belong has a negative effect on white, Christian or conservative kids.’ Our local branch of No Left Turn in Education warns parents about euphemisms for CRT that show their children are being indoctrinated. These include ‘equity, social justice initiative, systemic racism, critical race pedagogy, diversity, anti-racist, culturally responsive teaching and whiteness’. One of its goals is to ‘expose CRT as an evil, divisive, Marxist, anti-American, ideology that calls for dismantling and replacing all of our cherished American institutions including our constitution, our government, our legal system, capitalism, the nuclear family, religion, education, law enforcement, private property and individualism’. Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank, launched a particularly vehement attack on the Art Institute of Chicago, accusing it of abandoning its mission as a guardian of Western art and deriding its director for stating that the museum’s building is ‘located on the traditional unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi Nations’.
The criticism that might be made of statements like this, which have become common in parts of the academy, including my own university, is that they are rarely written in collaboration with the elders of Indigenous communities, and rarely make reference to the continued existence of these communities; instead, they relegate indigeneity to an eternal past while avoiding the pressing issue of Indigenous sovereignty in the present. They obscure, rather than promote, attempts to expand our intellectual, cultural and geographical horizons, and to challenge our allegiances to home, department, academic discipline and nation.
History is written by the victors, but diligent and continual silencing is required to maintain its claims on the present and future. It is a mistake to believe that white supremacy is something nurtured and reproduced by extremist organisations and ‘bad apples’ in the armed forces and police. White supremacy is ubiquitous in the US. It operates in the most mundane aspects of daily life; in the economic order that decides who has what and how they get it; in the historical amnesia that makes some stories disappear; in the language we use to speak and name the past. Central here is the uncritical regurgitation of the mythologies of European settlement, the origin stories of the nation that are institutionalised at all levels of local, state and federal history and cultural memory.
In Exterminate All the Brutes, Peck discusses his own refusal to affect the pose of the ‘restrained, moderate, balanced, judicious and neutral’ filmmaker. I too have broken with the conventions of intellectual neutrality in my work. His film prompted me to ask, not for the first time, how I, as a Black intellectual, could think about the terms ‘civilisation’, ‘colonisation’ and ‘extermination’ and use them to confront the many layers of silence in the place from which I write.
I live on the Northeastern coast of the US in an Anglophile shoreline town. It is an excellent place from which to consider the ways in which a settlement with colonialism can reproduce the injustice and violations of white supremacy. The atmosphere in the town is one of preserved time; too content and self-satisfied with its sense of liberality, it denies the history of New England while seeming to embrace it. It seeks to draw visitors into a cocoon of English colonial history, memorialising the arrival and settlement in 1639 of a band of Puritans under the leadership of the Reverend Henry Whitfield. State and local authorities have legislated for the preservation of numerous buildings, four districts and the town green: there are five museums in historic houses; an energetic preservation alliance; and societies and foundations run by generations of residents dedicated to the stewardship of a very particular vision of the past.
In June 2014, the town installed a 24-foot-long, 6-foot-wide, 14-inch-thick pink granite slab into which is carved a replica of the covenant signed by the 25 male settlers on the St John, which was carrying them to what they thought of as a ‘new world’. In stark contrast, a recent initiative by volunteers to memorialise what is known about the historical presence of enslaved people in the town has resulted in the installation of four-inch concrete cubes, each bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name given to an enslaved person by their owner or trader. The cubes are embedded in the sidewalks next to the few buildings where enslaved people are known to have lived and worked. Most people pass by without noticing these weathered, discoloured, dirt-encrusted and increasingly unreadable markers.
There is no town memorial to Indigenous peoples, no mention of the displaced Menunkatuck, Quinnipiac, Hammonasset, Niantic, Mohegan and Wangunk who lived in the town from the mid-18th century until at least the mid-19th. There is no reference to the many groups of Algonquian peoples who inhabited this part of the Atlantic coast and its interior for thousands of years before the European invasion and colonisation of the Kwinitekw river valley, or to their descendants who still live here. The only mark of Indigenous existence in the town is a plaque on a gravestone under which lie the remains of a young male with a spinal injury, ‘age 30-34 years’, who lived between five hundred and a thousand years ago. The partial skeleton was uncovered on a construction site but remained in private hands until it was surrendered to the town, examined by the state archaeologist and students at Southern Connecticut State University, and reinterred in a corner of the Alder Brook cemetery in 2009.
Visitors to the town, which describes itself as ‘the highlight of Connecticut tourism’, can create their own itinerary, delivered to their electronic devices as they browse the town’s website. The promise that they will be charmed by a ‘quaint New England village’ is, apparently, fulfilled. ‘Charming’ and ‘quaint’ are words I often overhear on the Town Green or in front of the historic houses or near the displays of colonial artefacts. The meagre paragraphs on Indigenous peoples on the website make it sound as if they were essentially wiped out by disease before the arrival of English settler colonists. Only a perfunctory reference is made to the Menunkatuck, the small group of the Quinnipiac peoples whose homeland this was, and it’s a reference that lends a patina of contractual legality to the English settlement: a deed, signed by Shaumpishuh, the Menunkatuck sachem, or leader, conveyed ‘the use’ of the land to the town’s ‘founding fathers’. The website does not include any reference to the Pequot, the most influential and powerful Indigenous community in the region until they were massacred by the English (a massacre so brutal that it must have influenced the decision of the Quinnipiac peoples to permit the use of their coastal territory).
The word ‘quaint’ suggests a comforting and comfortable relation to the past; it keeps at bay any of the anxiety or misgivings that could – that should – arise from the history of this land. What is experienced by tourists and residents as ‘historic’ is an assemblage of heritage for consumption, and what is meant by ‘quaint’ is the reassuring knowledge that there will be no confrontation with the violence and brutality of European colonisation or its consequences for Indigenous peoples.
As Andrew Lipman writes in The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (2017), the ‘duelling nations of foreigners did not settle [the Atlantic shore]: they unsettled it’, transforming a thriving place into what Lipman calls ‘a nightmarish landscape of death’. In 1637, two forces of English soldiers, one led by Captain John Mason and drawn from settlements in what is now Connecticut, and the other from the Massachusetts Bay Colony under Captain John Underhill, surrounded and fired on a stockaded Pequot village on the Mystic River, while their Narragansett and Mohegan auxiliaries stood at a distance. Each force entered through one of the two gates in a palisado protecting many closely pitched homes. Mason later claimed that his original intent was to ‘destroy by the Sword and save the Plunder’ – soldiers depended financially on the spoils of war – but, frustrated at meeting fierce resistance from Pequot warriors firing arrows through loopholes, decided that ‘We should never kill them after that manner … We must burn them.’ He took a log from the campfire and started to set the houses ablaze. His soldiers did the same, while Captain Underhill set a fire with a trail powder at the other end of the village. The two fires met and became a conflagration.
On 29 December 1890, three hundred Lakota people were massacred by the US army near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. There are photographs. At first light on 26 May 1637, around seven hundred Pequot were massacred by English troops; 150 of them were warriors sent by their sachem, Sassacus, from the village of Weinshauks, to intercept the English; most of the others were women and children. Hundreds were burned alive. English troops encircled the perimeter and shot or impaled anyone who ran from the flames. Seven Pequot escaped; seven were taken prisoner. Two Englishmen were killed and twenty wounded. Mason considered the incineration and butchering of the Pequot an act mandated by God. Underhill wrote that ‘sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish.’ There are no photographs.
The massacre demoralised the Pequot, and sent a shock wave through all the Indigenous communities in the region. The Pequot War of 1636-38 saw the English engage in total war. Their actions went beyond the murder and imprisonment of Indigenous peoples to the destruction of the environment that sustained them: habitations, stores of food, fields of corn. Some of the sachems sought refuge for their people with other Indigenous communities. Weinshauks was abandoned. Sassacus led the villagers west along the Mishimayagat shoreline pathway towards Quinnipiac, hoping to regroup and take a stand against the English there. Reinforced by a contingent of 120 troops from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Connecticut force set off in pursuit. The walk I take each day follows the route of the Mishimayagat, although there are no visible signs of the complex network of pathways used by the Algonquian peoples for centuries, routes that contemporary roads retrace. Stragglers from the group travelling with Sassacus were captured and killed as they crossed the Kwinitekw, although two sachems were spared on condition that they help the English locate the remaining Pequot.
The name of the southernmost tip of my town, Sachem’s Head, should give one pause for thought. A promontory with beautiful coves and inlets jutting into Long Island Sound, it has become the exclusive preserve of wealthy families in large houses, governed by its own association and charter, with a members-only yacht club and stringent parking regulations that effectively deny public access to uninvited visitors. The association’s website has nothing to say about a letter written by Captain Richard Davenport on 17 July 1637, describing his interrogation of Pequot prisoners whom ‘we put to death that night and called the place Sacheme head’. Instead, any historical curiosity about the name of the area is deflected by a photograph of a very different event, the performance at a local hotel in 1915 by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Touring Company, shown smiling in full costume representing ‘Indianness’.
Black and Indigenous histories are closely entangled in this story. The English troops caught up with the Pequot at Sasqua, a swamp east of Quinnipiac, and surrounded them. Some escaped, but two hundred were taken prisoner. Fifty women and children were shipped to John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts, with a note from Stoughton, the militia captain, listing the female captives he and his men wanted to enslave in their households. Those who were not domestically enslaved, including children, were taken to the West Indies under Captain Peirce on the Salem ship Desire. The ship left from Providence Island on its return voyage on 26 February 1638, loaded with ‘cotton and tobacco and negroes’. In the Bahamas, the enslaved Pequots were fungible bodies exchanged for enslaved Africans, who were shipped to what has become known as New England.
The English declared the right to settle the land they called Connecticut ‘by right of conquest’. Their pursuit of the Pequots by water and along the Mishimayagat path led directly to the colonisation of Quinnipiac and the shoreline to the east. Theophilus Eaton, the Reverend John Davenport and five hundred English Puritans sailed from Boston with pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, horses and oxen, landing at Quinnipiac, later renamed New Haven, on 24 April 1638, determined to establish a settlement. Henry Whitfield’s band of settler-colonists arrived in Quinnipiac before exploring the coastline to its east. They declared their right to establish the Plantation of Menunkatuck in 1639, formally named Guilford in 1643. My town.
One Indigenous response to the unsettling of the ‘saltwater frontier’ by English colonisers is recorded. The Narragansett sachem Miantonomo delivered a speech to the Montauks in 1642 arguing that
For so are we all Indians as the English are, and say brother to one another; so must we be one as they are, otherwise we shall all be gone shortly, for you know our fathers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, and of turkies, and our coves full of fish and fowl. But these English, having gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall be all starved. Therefore it is best for you to do as we, for we are all the Sachems from east to west, both Moquakues and Mohauks joining with us, and we are all resolved to fall on them all, at one appointed day.
Miantonomo was captured by the Mohegan leader Uncas. The Colonial Court condemned him for attempting to forge alliances against the English and asked Uncas to kill him. The Treaty of Hartford, agreed by the English, the Mohegan and the Narragansett in 1638, had declared that the Pequots could no longer speak their language, live in their former territory or even call themselves Pequots. Despite this attempt at annihilation, some Pequots survived and fought to retain their land and autonomy. Black and Indigenous histories mixed together, as they did in other Southern New England tribes.
The Black Seminole populations of Florida and Oklahoma had a similarly mixed heritage. The Second Seminole War, conducted by the US government between 1835 and 1842 under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, attempted to return the Black Seminole to enslavement and to remove the Seminole Indians from their land. Exterminate All the Brutes begins with a re-enactment of one of the battles in this conflict. The camera zooms in slowly on a headshot of Osceola, a male warrior of the Seminole Nation, played in the film by a woman. We are told that ‘her story reaches deep into the history of this continent.’ The portrait is intercut with two brief glimpses of the future, in which Osceola is shot and scalped while fighting alongside her Black allies. Osceola’s face dissolves into that of Peck’s mother, Gisèle, as a young woman in Haiti, an intertwining of resemblance and difference that tells a global story of the greed and destruction of European imperialism and a particular story of Black and Indigenous solidarity.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.