Quantum Black History: A Review of ‘Physics of Blackness’

by Stephen Kearse

What are the fundamental forces of blackness? A review of Michelle Wright's 'Physics of Blackness' and a discussion of how it challenges the paradigms by which black history is discussed

The trajectory of blackness is always forward, up, away. On and on, on to the next, next 15 one coming, we shall overcome, move bitch, I’m not gon’ stop, I’m not gon’ give up, ain’t no mountain high enough, I’mma touch the sky— blackness doesn’t just orient itself toward the future, it accelerates toward it, fast and furious. Almost instinctively, blackness wills itself into an eternal procession toward inevitably better days, progress incarnate.

Confronting this will, in Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology Michelle Wright traces the trajectory of blackness to its point of origin, profoundly transforming blackness in the process. Written as a critique of the metanarrative of blackness, and its tendency to privilege straight, American black men, the book is necessarily confrontational. Wright begins by immediately sidestepping the question of what blackness is. Wright takes the nebulousness of blackness as a given. For her, the question isn’t what is blackness: the question is what makes blackness? What holds it together so that it doesn’t seem so nebulous despite stretching out across nations and centuries and peoples? What are its fundamental forces?

Using physics as a grand metaphor, Wright pinpoints space and time as the forces underlying blackness, arguing that  the geography and temporality of the Middle Passage fundamentally define blackness. For Wright, the Middle Passage is treated as the Big Bang of blackness, the sole point from which blackness expands outward, forming the beautiful nebulas of blackness that we recognize today.

This cosmology of blackness – Wright dubs it the “Middle Passage epistemology,” following Annette Henry –  is firmly accepted within black studies and at large, but Wright isn’t a stargazer. In her eyes, the blackness that stems from the Middle Passage is destructive. Rather than linking black people, it creates hierarchies that tend to privilege straight black men.

The book’s first two chapters confront the Middle Passage epistemology head-on, using Newtonian physics to explain how and why the Middle Passage orients blackness by anchoring it to a single event. Newton’s laws of motions, Wright shows, are loaded with assumptions about time and space, namely that time always moves forward, linearly, and that this forward motion is inherently good, progressive. The notion that time is progressive preexisted Newton, Wright notes, but the laws of motion naturalized this assumption, making it fact rather than worldview. Wright highlights how this worldview of constant progress works for blackness, noting that it threads a compelling linear narrative that moves “from slavery to rebellions to civil disobedience”  in a way that “underscores Black achievement and drive” and “allows us to cogently and compellingly graph the antiprogressive thrust of white Western politics and practices, all the while documenting a history of defiance and collective uplift.” In other words, “Murder to Excellence” is a damn good story.

But is it a story that we should continue to tell? According to Wright, the answer is no. Though the Middle Passage epistemology is deeply uplifting and encouraging, if it is taken as fact, it has three troubling consequences.

First, it undermines the work of struggle by making success inevitable rather than bitterly fought for, flattening the uphill and toiling battle of procuring (and losing) rights into a treadmill of fated, easy victories.

Second, if the Middle Passage is the origin of blackness, then from its birth blackness has never been determined by black people; it is just an ongoing series of chain reactions to white racism. The lack of agency in such a narrative is condescending at best.

Finally, and most important for Wright, because the Middle Passage tends to prioritize the experiences  of straight black men (e.g., Amistad, 12 Years a Slave, Roots), if it is used as the defining event of blackness, the experiences of black women, LGBTQ black people, and black people from outside the Americas and the Caribbean are never mentioned. In other words, there are entire constellations of blackness between murder and excellence, but when seen through the rigid telescope of the Middle Passage, they can only be faint blips, trifling cosmic dust.

To counter the Middle Passage epistemology, Wright turns to quantum physics, which unites space and time as spacetime and allows spacetime to curve, bend and stretch in multiple directions. Quantum physics holds promise for Wright because blackness can become multidimensional, arcing along multiple timelines instead of one. The solution that emerges from this turn to quantum physics is “epiphenomenal spacetime,” a way of thinking about space and time in the moment that moves beyond rigid cause and effect and considers causes and effects, probabilities and possibilities, blackness as multitude rather than singularity.

The centerpiece of this quantum blackness is the chapter “Quantum Baldwin,” in which Wright critiques James Baldwin’s essay “Encounter on the Seine.” In Baldwin’s essay, he roams Paris, coming across the Eiffel Tower and reflecting on what France variously represents for black Americans, African immigrants, and white Americans. Rather than finding common ground with African immigrants, Baldwin sees a 300-year gulf between black Americans and Africans and shirks away, lonely. The black American experience is uniquely alienating, he concludes.

Wright challenges Baldwin, criticizing him for using black American men as a stand-in for all black people, and arguing that the gulf between Africans and black Americans only exists if you follow the logic of a timeline that allows just one narrative of blackness. If Baldwin had actually spoken with some French African immigrants in epiphenomenal spacetime, outside of a timeline in which Africans and black Americans are distant relatives, he could have discovered – or created – other points of proximity: shared education, shared occupation, shared sexuality (Baldwin was gay), shared alienation from home. After all, how did he know he was staring across a 300-year gulf? The French African could have been a second-generation immigrant to France, or a worker from a Caribbean colony, or even an American tourist from Louisiana. None of these alternatives are implausible and each could have complicated Baldwin’s encounter on the Seine. But Baldwin could never know because he stuck to what he knew, blackness from one source, one dimension, one trajectory.

Wright concludes the book by detailing some of the black experiences that have been lost because of  the dominance of the Middle Passage epistemology. Slaves that were traded across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, black soldiers who fought for the German army in World War II, African women who were displaced by battles in Africa during World War II, and African immigrants to Europe and Asia are just a few of the vast collectives of black people who aren’t accounted for by the Middle Passage epistemology. Many of these groups might not even identify as black, but perhaps they don’t identify as black because they haven’t been given a chance, because their stories are seen as deviations from the timeline rather than enrichments, footnotes rather than headers.

There are clear benefits to sticking to the familiar, chanting “We gon’ be alright” and marching forward, a million strong, propelled by the jet fuel potential that is blackness – forged under pressure, distilled, refined, flammable, hurtling along. The past and the present often seem to justify this breakneck speed. Slavery, Jim Crow, new slaves, the New Jim Crow, the Scottsboro Nine, Emmitt Till, the Jena Six , Trayvon Martin— life tends to feel frustratingly cyclical for blackness. Accordingly, the speeding straight arrow of the future holds particular promise, offering a chance to slash through the cycles of misery like Alexander through the Gordian knot. Perhaps Kanye West puts it most concisely: “from the bottom so the top’s the only place to go now.”

But what if blackness can be more than a million black men? Physics of Blackness takes the inherent collectivity of blackness seriously, embracing a multiverse of black experiences that includes the descendents of the Middle Passage and all other routes. This view of blackness transforms it into a relation among people rather just than a relation to a fixed point. The trajectory of blackness can still be forward, up, and away, but now it is also across, down, between, through: murder to excellence to beyond and back.

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Published by Stephen Kearse
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