What Does it Mean to be a Weapon of War?: Settler Colonialism and Black Labor

What does it mean to be a tool? This is a question that comes up in Afrofuturist conversations on the regular via discussions of AI, robots, their humanity, and exploitation. The question is rooted in the knowledge that under chattel slavery, stolen Africans were legally and socially rendered as objects, a process I call chattelment. Orlando Patterson alternatively called this objectification ‘social death’. As it would be taken up in afro-pessimist theory, social death creates an ontological divide between humans and non-humans, the non-humans of course being Black folks. Our history under chattel slavery amounted to us being used like cattle, lawnmowers, or shovels to till the land and produce profits and resources for our slaveowners. As a scholar interested in the intersections between Turtle Island Indigeneity and Blackness I wanted to think about this idea of “Blackness-as-technology” in the context of US settler colonialism and it brought me to a very interesting, and to be honest, disturbing question which is: what does it meant to be a weapon of war?

This question came to me through two observations. The first observation is the common saying from Black folks that “we built this country.” Its obvious that when people say this that the are referencing all the labor our ancestors did that created the infrastructure, food systems, and buildings that make up the United States today. This fact also feeds into many of the calls of reparations for hundreds of years of unpaid labor we did on this land. I have critiques of our claim to citizenship and reparations through the logic of labor, but suffice to say I think it’s important to talk about who did the labor that built this nation. It provides in some ways a moral argument for why Black people should be valued at all in this society. Also I think it ironically makes some Black people feel powerful to know that we had the ability to do all of this in the first place. Its a way of coping with our position in this society using the concepts and ideologies avaiable to us. 

The other observation I made is how Black people rarely ask what exactly is ‘this country’ that we built when discussing Black labor in the making of America. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz in her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States sought to “…tell the story of the United States as a colonialist settler-state, one that, like colonialist European states, crushed and subjugated the original civilizations in the territories it now rules.” Patrick Wolfe further argued that settler colonialism is derived by a logic that seeks to “destroy to replace.” And as anyone who looks into US history will see, the replacement of indigenous societies with the United States was achieved through genocidal violence and warfare. As I argued in a tweet some time ago:

So taking that history into account, when we go back to consider what “this country” is and what we were building during our enslavement, it’s clear that we were part of a war effort, and a crucial part at that. When we consider the population of slaves versus settlers for most of colonial history and the diversity of labor we were put to do across the colonies, one thing becomes clear: European invaders would have never achieved conquering the continent or likely survived at all without the institution of slavery. One of the things that drove the transatlantic slave trade was the fact that enslaved people could be put to use doing things that free whites, free Africans, and indentured servants couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Without chattel slavery who would till the plantations, breastfeed white children, transport produce to market, dig irrigation, build houses (including the big white one) all without taking up any of the social or physical spaces they are bringing into being? Nobody. Without those tools, figurative and literal, White settler invasion attempts would not have been as successful and in some cases might have failed all together like it should have.

The pattern of our labor and bodies being used to carry out genocide carries on even in the present day. Consider all the willing and coercive contributions that Black people make to the US economy and its culture. We gifted the US with Hip Hop, Jazz, and other music genres that are now global industries. Mass incarceration from the era of peonage till today has provided the state and its corporate allies with cheap and free labor. African American Vernacular English ensured that American English language culture would grow to be much more flexible and malleable than what the British left them with. Our food culture similarly has had profound effects on how Americans eat. And even in politics, the Black folks who joined the state apparatus, such as Obama, ensured that the nation wouldn’t come apart at the seams after while men got done looting the place for personal profit. In all those ways and more our labor, given, paid for, and stolen ensured the survival of America and its sociocultural relevance. Black people have always been the supply lines, ration distributers, infirmary, and often cannon fodder for their genocidal war effort. Yes, we built this country, but for every bit that we gave white settlers’ stranglehold over this continent and us increased and that’s not a pleasant thing to come to terms with. 

I can discuss the sociological aspects of Black people’s relationship to white settler invasion all day, but I wanted to instead focus on how one deals with this structural relationship emotionally. Like many other African descendent people who spend time studying African diasporic history, I see our people as survivors of a horrific set of institutions and that we fought hard to keep as much of our humanity as possible in the face of white slaveowners’ attempts to extinguish our humanity. This is all still true, but is complicated by the consideration that our labor and presence was used in an attempt to wipe out a whole hemisphere worth of civilizations. I think about Robert Oppenheimer’s lament “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, except that unlike him we never chose to come to or be part of this hellscape. That’s a heavy burden to carry even if we all know that it’s not our fault but squarely that of white settlers. In a practical sense it forces me to think about people like the Buffalo Soldiers who through economic coercion, ended up being the vanguard of the settler invasion of the west. The indigenous people they killed certainly didn’t deserve to die, but they also didn’t deserve to be put into the position to even commit those kind of acts. I am left with an unsettling sense of unfairness when thinking about these relationships and histories. Thinking about things like the Buffalo Soldiers challenges what we mean by concepts such as decolonization and liberation.

If liberation is at its base about freeing oneself from an oppressive system, then our knowledge of our relationship to white settler colonialism needs to be taking into account. I think for many people, liberation is primarily articulated in relationship to your community specifically. For Black people on Turtle Island liberation means something more than simply freeing ourselves from the grasps of our slaveowners. Because we are important parts of the genocidal war machine, our liberation also impacts indigenous peoples and their struggle against the same system. For example, the struggles we have with Black liberals who want a place within the settler system has added meaning in that their need for inclusion not only fucks us but also means continuing to contribute to the settler project. Solidarity between Black and Indigenous peoples in this context is not a matter of convenience or “we are all suffering”, but a matter of our oppression upholding theirs and vice versa. Its not a matter of non-Black people demands for our labor, but coming to terms with the true weight that our labor holds over this whole system beyond just our relationship to whiteness, and how refusing to do labor is an even more revolutionary act that we often give it credit for.

There is no delinking the structural relationship between Blackness and Indigeneity as I see it. That relationship make me personally want to see this system burn even more. Not only did you kidnap my ancestors and tried to destroy our humanity, you forced us to help you commit heinous crimes against other colonized people, and even today everything we produce for our own survival is appropriated and consumed by you vulture so you can continue your reign of terror. Fuck that. What does it mean to be a weapon of war? It mean that if I deny you my body and my labor, I’ll get to see your ill concieved effort rot like it should have all those years ago and that’s a liberating thought indeed.