Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology.
AUTHOR: MICHELLE M. WRIGHT
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS, 2015
REVIEWER: KEVIN B. THOMPSON, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON
Within her TED talk, "The Danger of a Single Story", novelist Chimamanda Adichie says that single stories rob people of dignity (Adichie, 2009). During the presentation, she recalls several instances within her adolescence and her adulthood where "a single story" influences her perception of others and vice versa, stating that single stories empower us to create stereotypes--which she refers to as "nothing more than incomplete narratives" (Adichie, 2009). In the same manner, Michelle Wright's Physics of Blackness warns against the exclusive usage of the Middle Passage as the litmus test for comprehending, confirming, and situating one's Blackness. Contextual knowledge of Dr. Wright's academic background--which is comparative literature--is essential in understanding her theoretical approach in countering academia's current "linear progress narrative" concerning Blackness (Wright 2015). Writers often use exposition (introduction), rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement (resolution) to structure and develop their plot. Subsequently, a careful reading of each chapter is necessary for proper comprehension since Wright strategically employs these elements to articulate her thesis. In turn, I will use these elements to review and assess the book.
Within the exposition, Dr. Wright sets the proverbial stage by giving readers a contextual snapshot of historical (mis)interpretations of Blackness, writing that past and present definitions/interpretations of the construct display "unnerving qualities of a mirage," appearing clear and logical from a distance--yet hazy and incoherent upon closer analysis (Wright 2015, p. 2). She attributes this to an "unequal representation of Black collectives in discourses of Blackness," where certain narratives effortlessly validate their attribution of Blackness while other narratives struggle to prove theirs--in particular, narratives situating Blackness within controversial intersections of culture (Wright 2015, p. 3). According to Wright, abandoning traditional, linear perceptions of Blackness is necessary within any attempt to view the construct spatiotemporally, or in "spacetime"--the term she uses interchangeably with the adverb--in what she refers to as "Epiphenomenal" time, or the "now" (Wright, 2015, p.4).
The rising action of the manuscript occurs in Chapter 1 where Dr. Wright exposes the flaw(s) in employing a linear progress narrative and a Middle Passage epistemology to locate Blackness. She establishes Middle Passage epistemology as a "compelling narrative," useful in situating ancestry (Wright, 2015, p. 43). While Wright admits that collectively identifying Blackness is practical, she advises that its primary usage in locating Blackness is exclusionary to narratives outside of the Middle Passage (p. 43). She suggests that a separation of all linear progress narratives would serve as a means of inclusion--thereby allowing all narratives associated with Blackness to spatiotemporally "intersect" in Epiphenomenal time (Wright, 2015, p.45).
The climax happens in Chapter 2 where Wright pivots from her critical analysis of Middle Passage epistemology and launches an investigation into the linear progress narrative's inability to reverse course (Wright, 2015). Additionally, she questions its use within diasporic research. She posits "...in its most basic form, a linear progress narrative struggles to be diasporic because the notion of return suggests a reversal of the progressive direction from the narrative's origin to the present day/era (Wright, 2015, p.73), essentially challenging typical academic interpellations of Blackness that deem a connection to the Middle Passage as a prerequisite for Blackness. Using physics, she argues that "traveling back through time" in a linear fashion is "inherently limited" (Wright, 2015, p. 77)--thereby countering intellectual positions which situate Blackness within a fixed trajectory.
Wright supports this critique within Chapter 3, in which she establishes falling action--the place within the plot where the writer gives clues for comprehension. She uses the famed writer James Baldwin as a muse and example of the multidimensionality of Blackness. She notes that within his writings, he interpellates--a philosophical term referring to the ideology or methodology used to give identity to an individual, thought, theory, or construct--his Blackness in multiple ways, countering the cogency of a linear narrative. Finally, Wright resolves the conflict surrounding the interpellation of Blackness within Chapter 4 when she argues that the establishment of vertical hierarchies within the Black experience "qualitatively collapse...meaningful, layered, rich, and nuanced interpellations" into a linear explanation of the concept (Wright 2015, 142).
Overall, Physics of Blackness is a comprehensive observation on the dangers of single narratives within the Black experience. My primary assessment of the work centers on the concepts of Blackness and intersubjectivity--a philosophical term loosely referring to the shared governance of meaning-making between people. One's willingness or unwillingness to disclose information relevant to the meaning-making process can positively or negatively impact this development. While Wright provides thoughtful commentary about Blackness, her refusal to define the concept complicates attempts at locating her intellectual position on the subject. She suggests that attempts in establishing a definition (or definitions) for the term is nothing more than a search for the "lowest common denominator," adding that the concept "...is simply too many things to be anything but everything" (Wright 2015, p. 3).
While her attempts in maintaining objectivity are noble, her nebulous interpretation of the concept facilitates a logical limbo, leaving much of what she articulates susceptible to misinterpretation. A key example of this vulnerability is her usage of comparative literature in explaining a highly complex mathematical model. In order for readers to make "meaning" of the book, they must be (or become) familiar with the concept of spacetime, be (or become) familiar with comparative literature and the literary works she uses within the book, and finally, agree with her interpretations of the former. Any dissonance on these matters leads to contention with Wright's thesis--eliminating any chance for intersubjectivity. Consequently, her refusal to disclose her definition of Blackness and her biting critique of linear interpellations combine to create a highbrow/lowbrow binary opposition within present discourses on the subject, negating any attempt at objectivity.
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|Author:||Thompson, Kevin B.|
|Publication:||The Western Journal of Black Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2018|
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