The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to continue an ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice. You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed. In this post, Christen Smith generously responds to interview questions about her book, Afro-paradise.
Sameena Mulla: Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about your book and the work you did in Brazil with React or Die! and Choque Cultural. You make a strong case for the role of theater and street performance as a form of disruption of white supremacy and anti-black policing practice. At the same time, Afro-paradise shows us how the spectacle and consumption of the black body and black culture are not at odds with the state’s killing of black bodies. In your words, “Afro-paradise is a choreographed, theatrical performance between the state’s celebration of black culture and the state’s routine killing of the black body” ( Smith 3). To begin with a big question, what does Afro-paradise teach us about mobilizing against racialized police brutality?
Christen Smith: Afro-paradise reminds us that the fight against racialized police brutality is neither civil rights issue (a question of prosecution, body cams or due process) nor a democracy issue (the extent to which we have access to citizenship rights within a liberal democratic political system). Rather it is a trans-temporal (genealogical), trans-spatial (exceeds the boundaries of our modern nation-states) question that fundamentally has to do with the extent to which blackness is imagined to be a human attribute within the American (and here and beyond I use this term to refer to all of the Americas) nation-states. Afro-Paradise reveals that anti-black police brutality is not about a few bad apples failing to do their jobs. Rather, it is a fundamental aspect of the way that the American nation-state functions in relationship to blackness both within discreet national borders in the Americas and across time and space. Anti-black police brutality—which we may more adequately call anti-black police lethality because we are indeed talking about killing or the intent to kill—is a fundamental mechanism of the American nation state that sustains the democracies that we so passionately live by. Black people are and always have been (at least since the dawn of the trans-Atlantic slave trade) the fodder with which the American nation-state has been built quite literally and figuratively. We are the fuel that is worked to death and burned. We are the life energy that the state much destroy in order to system itself because the state is by design and by structure built on the fundamentals of white heterosexist capitalist imperialist patriarchal supremacy.
Sameena Mulla: As someone whose research is in the U.S., I am so tempted to ask you how appreciating the Brazilian context opens us to assessing the U.S. context differently and productively?
Christen Smith: I think that taking serious look at anti-black policing and state violence in Brazil pushes us to reject the hyper nationalism that typically defines our discussions of anti-black policing in the U.S. In general, we tend to think of this as a national political issue – one that has to do with the nature of policing in our country, the legacies of Jim Crow segregation and U.S. slavery or the result of urban policy over the past 50 years. But the case of Brazil forces us to realize that this is simply not true—the problem of lethal anti-black policing is not a issue of our national culture. Here we have two nations, that are purportedly very different from each other in terms of racial culture, that have grossly resonant practices of anti-black police lethality that mirror one another. According to official Brazilian statistics[i] Brazilian police killed 3320 people in 2015, contributing to the 17,688 people that the police killed between 2009 and 2015. These numbers are simply mind astonishing when you think about them, especially given the fact that like the United States, police departments in Brazil do not keep consistent records of police killings and often omit, underreport or simply fail to report such information (See the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety’s 10th Annual Yearbook). Furthermore we know race determines who is more likely to be the victim of police violence in Brazil. Although we do not have comprehensive national statistics on race and police lethality, we do know that in São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil and the 8th largest city in the world, (negros, classified as pretos and pardos on the census) constitute six out of ten people killed by the police (60%). This parallels national homicide rates: this roughly matches up with the percentages for national homicide rates. Black Brazilians constitute 70% of all homicide victims in Brazil, while they constitute 51% of the overall population.
Although the U.S. has a much smaller black population (12%) and relatively fewer police killings per year in comparison with Brazil, we do have striking similarities. Residents of the United States are more likely to be killed by the police than any other Western nation (Robinson 2014). According to the FBI, police kill 400-500 people year in the United States (Robinson 2014). However, many of the major government funded sources of data on police killings, like the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report and the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, “are often censored of critical information (like the names of the officers involved), lack unbiased evaluation of the justification for the shooting, and are selectively published” (Ross 2014, Smith 2016). A more realistic estimate of police killings in the United States is approximately 1000 per year (Robinson 2014) – less than Brazil but still mind boggling. And roughly 42% of all police killings are of Black men (Krieger et al. 2015)—a gross disproportionality considering the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population.
These statistics tell us that there is something going on here that is not a simple matter of national culture. There is a logic of anti-blackness that is informing the way that policing functions as an exercise to maintain the social contract of the nation-state in our hemisphere. In other words what Charles Mills tells us is true: our social contract is truly a racial contract. The rules of our democracy are fundamentally built on the logics of patriarchal white supremacy and these rules and logics are transnational because of the fundamentally transnational nature of anti-blackness/white supremacy and its rootedness in the structure of everyday life in our hemisphere – a hemisphere that has been defined by its inborn ties to colonialism/slavery/conquest.
Sameena Mulla: I want to give you an opportunity to comment on my question. For example, why would I want to begin from a comparativist approach? Is there something in me that can’t appreciate that black lives matter in Brazil without tying that to black lives in the U.S.? Could that come from a habit of thinking like an empire or is it something else?
Christen Smith: HAHA. Of course it comes from our naturalized habits of empire. We are, by fault of living and residing in the U.S. constantly, imperial in our approach to the world – U.S. imperialism is, of course, hegemonic, and we are, of course, part of the society that is influenced by this hegemony. I laugh, but your point is well taken and I am glad that you acknowledge it. It is almost impossible for us to engage in a discussion of the socio-political struggles of folk elsewhere without harkening back to ourselves. Empathy – which Saidiya Hartman aptly defines as a form of violence (Hartman 1997)—is the medium we use to determine the “relevance” of other people’s suffering. What is fascinating to me is how entrenched this is into our discussions of #BlackLivesMatter. Despite the fact that we constantly reference the global relevance of the movement and its transnational dimensions, relatively little attention is paid to the ways that the very systems of anti-blackness and oppression that we are fighting against here are fundamentally intertwined with processes of anti-black policing and surveillance elsewhere. Take for example the references I make to Choque Cultural’s play “Stop to Think” in the book, and the ways that they tie the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the police war on poor and black communities in Salvador. Or the direct connections between the police death squads that dismember, torture and kill black people in Salvador and the death squads we find in Ecuador or, again, Iraq. The similarities in torture techniques and practices are not accidental. We can trace them all the way back to the School of the Americas, for example, as I do in the book. But also, more interestingly, we can make a genealogical connection between the U.S. use of torture in the War on Terror (for example) and the history of extrajudicial police torture of Black people in the U.S. – like what we discovered on Homan Square in 2015. For instance we know that one of the key torturers at that Chicago black site, police officer Richard Zuley, was also a military reserve guard that helped to torture inmates at Guatanamo (Afro-Paradise, 190). The connections are not simply conjectural—literally the very people responsible for torturing and incarcerating black people in the U.S. have also been responsible for torturing people incarcerated in the War on Terror. Yet, our imperialist myopia leads us to believe that anti-black policing is a local, or just national issue. As I mentioned before, it most certainly is not. In order to correct this myopia we must move away from the need to interpret what happens outside of the U.S. as an XYZ version of what happens in the U.S. and instead see this violence in terms of patterns, connections, flows and conversations.
Sameena Mulla: Thinking about ethnography and its transformative potential, I have always maintained that fieldwork done right is transformative. At a minimum, it transforms the anthropologist. How has fieldwork changed you (as a teacher, an anthropologist, a woman, a black woman, a mother)?
Christen Smith: Fieldwork for me was a humbling experience. It forced me to question everything I knew prior to it and after it. It also forced me to reconcile with the fact that the world is very layered and much more complex then they teach us in graduate school. I came into field world wanting to “do for” and “help.” I was quickly put in my place by a cadre or militantes who taught me and continue to teach me that folk are not sitting around waiting for saviors and/or people to interpret their worlds. What folks need in the struggle for survival are allies who can check their egos and do what needs to be done in order to further the struggle, regardless of whether or not it’s glitzy and glamorous. How many times have I gone to Salvador and found myself cleaning, sleeping on floors, translating on the spot, editing documents, chauffeuring, or just being silent and waiting to be called on. I have learned the beauty and pain of revolutionary patience. The ups and downs of being in the spotlight one minute and being on the run the next. I have learned volumes. So I guess it’s changed me by changing my approach to the world. I literally have spent the past 15 years of my life working closely with the community of militantes that I worked with for the book, particularly React or Die!. Everything about these past 15 years has shaped me…
Sameena Mulla: As a text to teach with Afro-paradise pulls me in so many productive directions. Beyond anthropology, I think it would be a text that is at home in classes on social movements, Latin American Studies, Black Studies, and Performance Studies. To that end, I have been thinking about pairings or companion pieces that have graced this syllabus. There are many potential matches, but one that really strikes me is Aimee Cox’s Shapeshifters. In particular, I think the way you think about public space and the black body and black citizen within public spaces grapples with a similar set of issues as Cox’s, albeit in a very different way. The way you use performance also intersects with and departs from Cox’s “choreography.” If you recommend any one book to read alongside Afro-paradise, what would it be?
Christen Smith: First of all, let me say that it is a privilege to be put in a category with Aimee Cox. She is, without a doubt, one of the foremost anthropologists of our time. That said, I am going to cheat on this question, because I can think of so many books that compliment this one for different reasons: Keisha-Khan Perry’s Black Women Against the Land Grab (2014) is an essential read. Her book fundamentally disrupts the traditional ways that Salvador, Bahia has been defined in anthropological literature over the years by centering the political experiences of black women and disrupting the hegemonic notion of Bahia as an exotic paradise. To me, our books compliment one another in productive ways, particularly for classes on Brazil. In terms of studies of violence, I think that Deborah Thomas’s Exceptional Violence dialogues with my book from outside of Brazilian studies, highlighting similar questions from the perspective of Jamaica—and important site that also exemplifies Afro-Paradise. Philosophically and theoretically, I think that both Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and A Dying Colonialism are important theoretical foundations for Afro-Paradise, and provide the kind of conceptual framing necessary to take a step back and think about the broader implications of the book and its consequences.
Sameena Mulla: Thank you for teaching us so much more about Afro-paradise. I want to encourage anyone who has not yet done so to read the book, watch the companion videos of Choque Cultural’s performances and read more about how you have situated this work and what it has meant to do it in this present moment.
Christen Smith: Thank you so very much for inviting me to participate in this important and timely project. It is an honor to be included in this series.
The Berlin Wall and Terrorism
Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
—. 1965. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press
Hartman, Saidiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteeth Century American. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mills, Charles. 2014. The Racial Contract. New York: Cornell University Press.
Perry, Keisha-Khan. 2013. Black Women Against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Smith, Christen. 2015. Afro-paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil. Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Thomas, Deborah. 2011. Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica. Durham: Duke University Press.
Christen Smith is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora and Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. She researches engendered anti-Black state violence and Black community responses to it in Brazil and the Americas. Her work primarily focuses on transnational anti-Black police violence, Black liberation struggles, the paradox of Black citizenship in the Americas, and the dialectic between the enjoyment of Black culture and the killing of Black people. Her book, Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil uses the lens of performance to examine the immediate and long-term impact of police violence on the Black population of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil and the grassroots movement to denounce and end this violence. Her more recent, comparative work examines the lingering, deadly impact of police violence on black women in Brazil and the U.S.