What We Owe to Each Other

At the beginning of last year, I joined a book group run out of my local library. (Got a whole two meetings in before we had to switch to Zoom, heh.) It’s for classics, which in this case means at least fifty years old. The book we discussed in February was A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the first East African author to publish a novel in English. It takes place in the few days before and the day of Kenya’s official independence, and while I didn’t especially enjoy reading it, it gave me a lot to think about, and it feels like an especially valuable piece of postcolonial literature.

One of the themes my thoughts kept returning to from that book is the idea of justice, and how often pursuing it after the fact is a mug’s game. It feels weird to me even to type that sentence, which suggests that I might have gone for the most inflammatory summary of my thinking, so let’s take the long way to understanding it.

When we’re being socially constructed as citizens, we’re taught that justice is the function of the legal system. We have a whole coequal branch of government dedicated to it, after all. This is fundamentally the purpose of constitutional law, right? (I’m very aware that this is a White fairy tale; as I said, this is how we’re molded into the citizens that society wants us to be, which is White supremacists.) But interestingly, our legal system knows better—and has for something like three quarters of a millennium. The US legal system was originally based on that of Great Britain, particularly English common law (although of course, just like their squirrels and ours evolved differently once the continents separated, so too did our legal systems after independence), and until 1938 maintained a distinction inherited from that common law between law and equity. Simplistically, cases at law involved seeking money (“damages”) and cases in equity involved seeking…basically anything else. That old, old distinction arose in the first place from widespread recognition that the law wasn’t producing equitable outcomes; it was deeply formalist and procedural, and thus largely unconcerned with the justice of the underlying dispute, but also: money is only a substitute for, well, literally everything but other money. Compensating a person is rarely the same as making them whole. There are things you can do to a person, to a group of people, that can’t be taken back or repaired.

This is where Daryl’s double bind comes in: On levels from micro to macro, from interpersonal to global, there are affronts that can only be healed through the grace of the victim. In A Grain of Wheat, that’s refracted through colonial oppression (and war crimes) and the inevitable accompanying issues of collaboration/survival and post-independence retribution. In this section of Kindred, it’s focused pretty sharply through Dana and what she has to forgive Rufus in order to keep to her mission of saving his life (and thus her own) and maybe hopefully if she’s lucky changing his heart some too. It’s not bad enough to have to endure the aggression and insults and humiliations and enslavement; she also has to just eat it all and find a way to keep trying even though she knows there’s more coming. Even worse, he forces her to be complicit in his rape and abuse of Alice, which it hurts her to have to try to reconcile. Thus the double violation: first the injury, then the demand to bear all the burden of healing it.

But of course even with that focus on the interpersonal level, Butler makes sure our eyes are on the bigger picture too. The book takes place in 1976, after all—the Bicentennial. What kind of celebration must that have been for Black Americans, though? The country it was celebrating was the country Rufus summons Dana to: a country explicitly founded on racism and enslavement. Over those 200 years of independence, multiracial democracy on a national level had only existed for 11. (Even when Butler was writing, the Voting Rights Act hadn’t yet turned 15.) We see from Dana and Kevin’s families, and their odious “chocolate and vanilla porn” coworker, that injustice and group trauma live on beyond the time that the aggressor deigns to desist (and remember Frederick Douglass’s admonition: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”—a third burden on the violated). And the costs they impose can’t be recouped.

That’s not to say that healing and change aren’t possible. It’s to say that I’ve come to see the idea of justice as forward-looking, because it can’t change the past. On a personal level, that means we have an inherent obligation to strive not to do these harms in the first place—although the danger there is that the force of that injunction comes from the idea that it’s unjust to impose the costs of my behavior on others, and for some people that asymmetry is called permission. Look at Rufus, and Dana’s understanding of his hideous plan to claim Alice. There’s nothing but Dana’s disapproval and opposition to keep him from it, and that only matters for as long as he lets her opinion hail him and chooses not to exercise his power over her. But in a larger sense, it goes along with Dana’s ruminations about Rufus that Daryl highlights. As he says, her goal is “to make things better for those who … follow her.” That’s where ideas of restorative justice (in the criminal system specifically) and transitional justice (in the context of regimes of human-rights abuse) come into play instead. I’ve already been going on more than long enough, so I’m not going to run through all that, but I do encourage y’all to look them up. The primary point is that rather than look to undo what can’t be undone or limit the repair to settling a dollar amount on the harm inflicted, these approaches understand justice as a transformation of the set of circumstances that produced the injustice. In a meaningful way, they’re about fixing the world rather than settling a score. To put it in terms I learned from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: Justice for Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have meant George Zimmerman in prison and weregild paid to Trayvon’s family. It would have meant Michael Brown being alive. And so on and so on and so on and on and on and on.

And really that’s what I mean too, when I say that pursuing justice after the fact is a mug’s game. What we have to do is seek it in advance, so that things like what Dana and Alice and Isaac and Sarah and so very many others—and more importantly, real people—go through aren’t done to them in the first place. This is the onus Butler is showing us.

3 thoughts on “What We Owe to Each Other

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston March 16, 2021 / 11:08 pm

    Holy wow, Jeff. What a great reflection. I’ve got nothing to add — just really appreciate your clear and stirring articulation of it.

  2. Paul Debraski March 18, 2021 / 2:10 pm

    Thanks, Jeff.
    I guess that’s why when justice is actually served in cases like this it still feels so hollow. Especially when the next crime is right around the corner.

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