On Black Existential Absurdity

In his first book, Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone uses the concept of existential absurdity to explain his theological interpretation of Black Power. Cone defines existential absurdity as “the absolute contradiction between what is and what ought to be” and explains that, for black people, this “[a]bsurdity arises as [blacks] seek to understand [our] place in the white world.” I’m thinking about black existential absurdity a lot right now; both because I’m teaching Black Theology this semester and because the concept accurately describes the pain and anger I feel as I hold yet more police killings of black people – the most recent victims being Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott – in my head and heart. This morning, as I sat with and tried to resist and rebuke my own existential absurdity, a story from my youth came to me:

One summer afternoon when I was in junior high, I was walking with friends down an alley; we were on our way to the “Milk Jug,” one of the “corner stores” in what I now know to be the food desert we called home. We possessed nothing but youthful exuberance granted by the joy of summers away from school and the couple of dollars we intended to spend on candy, chips, and juice. As we made our way down the alley, an unmarked police car came to a screeching halt in what had been our free and joyous path. The officers jumped out of the car, drew guns, and ordered us to put our hands and bodies against the garages that lined the alley and the unmarked police car that had come to block our way. We were frisked, questioned, and allowed to leave.
I remember sharing nervous but relieved laughter with my friends as we continued our trip to the Milk Jug. I remember not being afraid. Already, in junior high, random police stops were normal parts of what we watched those around us experience. The only thing that was new was that our bodies were now stoppable. To us, our being stopped was not evidence of “systemic injustice,” “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” or “the New Jim Crow.” To us, being stopped by the cops simply meant we were getting older.

After sitting with this memory, I eventually made my way to my bathroom to start getting ready for my day. I stood facing myself in the bathroom mirror struck by the ease with which the black body staring back at me could be killed if I happened to be pulled over today – I have errands to run, and I plan on driving my car. What if I’m stopped by an officer having a bad day? What if my compliance isn’t acceptable to him/her? What if, despite my best efforts I cannot deescalate the situation? What if they kill me? What would they (the media) write about me? How would they encroach upon my private life, sifting through personal details in an attempt to mischaracterize my ended life in the name of protecting the imagined integrity of the police? Again it emerged: black existential absurdity.

As I sit in my office at the relatively progressive seminary where I am blessed to teach, I am struck by the existential absurdity that emerges from remembering my youthful reasoning. My friends and I were nervous when we were stopped, but the encounter also (already, in junior high) felt almost expected, normal to us. We had spent much of our childhood watching black bodies be violently policed. For us, this was reality: the police could stop and frisk us whenever they wanted. We had even heard stories (which we believed) about cops planting drugs on black men in our neighborhood who weren’t that much older than us. In the midst of all of this, I began to remember Trayvon Martin; he was killed before he could get back home with his snacks.

To stand in the mirror and stare oneself in the eyes and feel – in one’s heart, soul, and mind – the absurd gap between how one ought to be treated as a creature of God and how one’s body might be treated during any given traffic stop, is to understand (or begin to fathom) the existential absurdity that can give way to retaliatory violence and the destruction of public and private property. Black existential absurdity emerges from the reality that, for those of us born in black bodies, there really is no such thing as compliance because any act taken by a black body that is not completely controlled by whiteness can be deemed as threatening and therefore worthy of violent and/or lethal force.

The realities that give rise to black existential absurdity – the gaps between what ought to be for black life and what is in a white racist society – are further evidenced in the fact that black protest, in any form, is always problematic to mainstream America. Black folk can’t riot because while the violence undertaken to establish and maintain the United States is justified as part of manifesting the divine (white supremacist) destiny of the United States, when blacks riot, we are simply “making things worse.” We can’t kneel during the national anthem as a silent symbol of our belief that this country does not love us because we will be accused of abusing or being ungrateful for the freedom this country grants us? We can’t insist that black lives ought to matter in such a way that the police are not allowed to kill us whenever they get scared because, well, all lives ought to matter. That blacks are criticized and even killed when we attempt to comply and when we get tired of complying (because cops might shoot us either way) creates black existential absurdity.

To my friends and others who don’t know what this existential absurdity feels like; to those who don’t know what it is like to have your daily existence threatened by violence that may emerge simply because you are black: what do you think you would do if your world were circumscribed in this way? What would you do if death at the hands of law enforcement were an ever-present possibility? And what would you say to those who, without sharing in the absurd experience that is your existence, insisted that forms of patience, prayer, and forgiveness that do nothing to address your immediate pain are the best option?

Ben Sanders, III

About Ben Sanders, III

Ben Sanders, III is Assistant Professor of Theology & Ethics at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program of Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School Theology where his dissertation, Traditioning Blackness: a Theo-Ethical Analysis of Black Identity in Black Theology, examines the perpetually transforming nature and role of black identity in black theology. Ben is a member of the American Academy of Religion’s Black Theology Steering Committee and has also served the AAR’s Transformative Pedagogy Consultation and its Graduate Student Committee.

Ben Sanders, III

Ben Sanders, III

Ben Sanders, III is Assistant Professor of Theology & Ethics at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program of Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School Theology where his dissertation, Traditioning Blackness: a Theo-Ethical Analysis of Black Identity in Black Theology, examines the perpetually transforming nature and role of black identity in black theology. Ben is a member of the American Academy of Religion’s Black Theology Steering Committee and has also served the AAR’s Transformative Pedagogy Consultation and its Graduate Student Committee.

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