snakes

by ibull

Harriet Tubman, according to Lydia Maria Child, once said:

“God won’t let Master Lincoln beat the South until he does right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I’m a poor Negro but this Negro can tell Master Lincoln how to save money and young men. He can do it by setting the Negroes free. Suppose there was an awful big snake down there on the floor. He bites you. Folks all scared, because you may die. You send for doctor to cut the bite; but the snake rolled up there, and while doctor is doing it, he bites you again. The doctor cuts out that bite; but while he’s doing it, the snake springs up and bites you again, and so he keeps doing it, till you kill him. That’s what Master Lincoln ought to know.”

In this analogy, we can imagine that Tubman thinks of slavery like a snake, or perhaps an enslaved creature as the snake itself. In either case, it is the conditions of slavery that motivate the biting. But neither slavery, nor people subject to it, operate like creatures, like the snake. Which is not to criticize the choice of creature that Tubman identifies, but simply to account for the reason the body and snake are in relation in the first place. This metaphor, while trying to punctuate the stakes of abolition, takes for granted the necessity of the body’s (the United States’) continued existence. It takes for granted the need, will, or want to live, and perhaps consequently, to reproduce. Such a premise is central to the colonization of the Americas, and it serves as a precondition for settlers to enslave anyone in the first place. It is through property relations that the politics of reproduction are brought to bear on the backs of black folk, and it explains a central premise in black liberation politics: the right to be included in the project of setter colonization. The fight between you and the snake, what characterizes your relationship to each other, is competition over the right to live and reproduce. So while the snake in Tubman’s metaphor might represent an oppressed person, we might also see its constitution – as locked into this competitive dynamic with a man – as representative of colonial politics or coloniality, writ large. If we do, we must be mindful of the ironic limitation to imagining settler colonialism in this way: if it were so simple to contain colonialism into a body, perhaps it might be slain. But colonialism is not a body; it is an act. It is a universe of possibilities and of laws, of priorities and values. And to really know colonialism is to be outside it; to be so completely alienated by it that your existence constantly teeters on the brink of violent erasure. In other words, to be so far removed from any power within the system, that the idea of ever living away from it is impossible for some people to ever accept.