To give is to appear. The gift inaugurates the presence of what was not there. But where is the gift coming from in this nothingness of blackness? In the era of settler-colonial-apartheid that is the chokehold of blackness, there is no way to look at the act of giving other than from the place where the black artist gives from dispossession. To give, from this perspective, is to make something out of nothing.
The word gift has many dimensions and can be understood in ways that are tangible and intangible. Other than being a donation, bestowal, offering or present, the gift is an extension of the self to another. It presupposes the willingness to freely grant something to another in order to show value and appreciation. To give a gift is to do so without any conditions attached to it. The gift, it seems, cannot be disentangled from generosity.
Give and take. Send and receive. Back and forth. The gift is something that will be handed over, exchanged even. Perhaps to think about the exchange is to enunciate the encounter with the obvious, that there is value at hand, including the value of that exchange. There is mutual recognition if give and take, send and receive, back and forth are thought about in terms of value. This exchange presumes reciprocity and relations. Blackness is outside this project.
Thinking about value presents a paradox when the concept of the gift enters the analytical fold of blackness at the level of ontology and phenomenology. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon unravels the being of the black as that which is denied value. Closer to the situation of the existential misery of settler-colonial-apartheid in South Africa are Steve Biko and his comrades, whose philosophy of Black Consciousness also confronts the reality of black people being denied value. In “Black Aesthetics, Black Value,” Lewis R. Gordon shows that black aesthetics cannot be disentangled from value as they produce value. He writes:
“Black aesthetics of the everyday life. I mean the phenomenological insight that everyday existence is an extraordinary achievement. It involves being able to live in a world of the human production of value, including that of the ‘ordinary.’”
Black aesthetic production has been the rhythm of the everyday life as it is the art that cannot be divorced from reality as it is lived. Black art is about making the ordinary extraordinary. Black art is the anticipatory project that makes life worth living. What is that creation if not black aesthetics itself, the creation of the anticipatory project? Black aesthetics are the work of creation that exceeds its creators. Whether this is realized or not, the anticipatory project continues and shows the importance of the ordinary. To elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary is the work of beauty itself. This is the production of value. This is giving from nothingness.
In settler-colonial-apartheid South Africa, there is arguably no better period to consider the relationship between artistic production and the production of value than the 1960s and its aftermath. This decade marks an era of heightened oppression with black life being devalued without limit. Starting from the 1960s, Black South Africans were subjected to the extreme repression that is the chokehold of the everyday life, from the Sharpeville Massacre to the banning of liberation movements like the Pan-Africanist Congress and the African National Congress, not to mention the avalanche of draconian laws and the effective operation of the Suppression of Communism Act, which preceded the 1960 decade. The purpose of this juridical chokehold is nothing but to create political impotency and the absence of the production of what is valuable to black life. Having legislated the devaluing of black life, the settler-colonial-apartheid apparatus did not entirely succeed in liquidating black existence. Creating while black challenges those who deny black people their humanity, those who would do anything to create the life that is not worth living, the life of no value.
What does it mean to be of no value but also being, at the same time, the producer of value? The question is predicated on the ways in which blackness produces value at the level of aesthetics while being without value both at the level of ontology and phenomenology. The politics that underwrite black aesthetics are reflected in what Nelson Maldonado-Torres in his book Against War: The Underside of Western Modernity calls the “phenomenology of the gift”—the gift that attests to the inherent nature of value where blackness gives from nothing. This does not mean that it is natural that blackness has no value. Rather, blackness has been structurally made not to have value. And yet, the production of value, which often comes in the form of aesthetic value, is existentially embedded in the facticity of blackness. Black aesthetic production has been—relentlessly and tirelessly—about producing and giving value. Being black artists and producing value in the settler-colonial-apartheid apparatus means putting all there is into life in order to give life itself in ways that affirm the Black Consciousness injunction “Black is Beautiful.”
In emphasis, the source of value has to be thought in the analytical fold of dispossession. The facticity of blackness—dispossession qua dispossession—becomes a paradox in terms of imagining how beauty comes into being in a life structured in ugliness. What values did Black artists uphold at the height of settler-colonial-apartheid in order for them to give value? How did it come about that they did not see their blackness as stigma but as rallying point of their subjectivity? What does it mean for blackness to give value in the face of being denied that value? What does it mean to give from nothing? What does it mean to be dispossessed and yet being driven by the ethos of having to give value?
These questions revolve around the ontological fold of blackness and have value as their nucleus. For black artists, to give is not just to give. It is, in fact, to give value from nothingness. For, being dispossessed is the paradox that blackness is in. To give does not mean standing on the position of abundance. To give does not mean that value is accrued to blackness. Worthy of emphasis are the ways in which fugitive markings of black artistic creations are put into use to produce value, to produce possibility in impossibility.
The paradox of the gift is working from limitations, scarcity, and even nothing. By bestowing the gift unto themselves, black artists give the world. But the antiblack world does not transact. It has nothing to give to blacks, who are considered to have no value. Blackness gives value and this value is beautiful. The source of beauty, somehow, remains a mystery as dispossession reigns. Thus, the condition of having being left with nothing after being dispossessed is turned on its head as the bestowing of gifts still continues. The value that comes with giving attest to everything that has to do with the existential demands of blackness. Fanon asked a fundamental question: What does the black want? The answer to this, complex as it maybe from Fanon, contradictory even, says a lot about the insatiable demands of blackness which have everything to do with value. This value, at the level of production, the one that is inherent in the gift, alludes to the importance of, as Gordon states, “the value of those living it.” In dispossession, one thing that the settler-colonial-apartheid apparatus could not touch is the value that black aesthetics attached to its production. It is in this production of value, the production of the everyday life and that of the ordinary (but not banal or mundane) where existential questions lie.
Since it is clear that black artists were politicized by their everyday, there is no way that they could not ask existential questions. They were denied life, while they radically insisted for it to be livable. The inseparability of life from the conditions that inform it animates “fugitive inscriptions” where the writing of life is the paradox of the gift whose effects and significations testify to blackness that announces and pronounces itself, thereby evading capture.
The paradoxical gift of blackness is, first and foremost, that blackness gives itself. The gift lies within blackness, but since blackness is dispossession, everything is a priori expropriated from blackness. Dispossession is, in short, nothingness. Thus, the paradox of the gift is the way it interrogates and explicates what the multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk calls blacknuss. To give beauty in the face of ugliness, to give from nothing and produce value while being devalued is blacknuss—the amplification of blackness as the radical gift, the paradox where value underpins the beauty that blackness is even when arrested by the gaze that deems it ugly. The beauty of blackness, blacknuss that is, signifies the making, remaking and unmaking of aesthetics where the materiality of the object is the intervention and invention of life. It is here where value is creation and also improvisation.
If the gift is not the materiality of the object, the paradoxical insistence has to do with life not as a given, but the fugitive inscription where life is being lived at the limit. That is why the gift is not tangible, or even affective. Rather, the paradox of the gift that is the offering of black artists is the insistence on the intentionality of invention. The work of (un)doing has been the value of black artists. The very act of altering things and keeping them away from the grip of the status quo and its (re)production of decadence is the gift of those who give the paradoxical gift. Black artists are givers who defy, whose fugitive inscriptions attest to the works of art not as innate objects, but as paradoxical gifts that proffer life and meaning beyond what they (re)present.
The fugitive inscriptions of black artists are formed around radical affirmation, which translate into undermining the power of dispossession. The paradoxical gift of the dispossessed in conditions of scarcity means giving life by any means necessary. This paradoxical gift, by all accounts, is a generous gift. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire remarks on “false generosity” and “true generosity.” There cannot be a gift without generosity. It is false generosity, Freire insists, if the gift is given while there is a perpetuation of injustice that keeps death, despair and poverty intact. In this false generosity the gift is bestowed to conceal dispossession. In essence, there is no gift in such a condition. True generosity, for Freire, stems from rejecting the “false charity” that comes with false generosity. False generosity, with its malicious intentions, should be insistently rejected, as it is dispossession itself. If this rejection does not occur, Maldonado-Torres warns, the aspirations of the value of life will collapse and turn out to be that of the oppressor’s ultimate value of life. This is the life that has nothing to do with blackness.
Black artists are givers who reject false charity. In their essay “Mikey the Rebelator,” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten meditate on the rebelator as the figure that thinks and acts from the positionality of “collectivized dispossession.” This mark of fugitivity implies those who are neither in line, nor out of line. At most, the rebelator is “anti-line.” To hold on to the little or nothing that black artists under the settler-colonial-apartheid apparatus have or do not have raises questions of ontology and phenomenology around the gift. What is that paradox of the gift whose value stems from being anti-line?
By the fact of embodying value, black artists as rebelators embody value where the paradox of the gift signifies appearing. Clearly, the terms of engagement are set by blackness whose black aesthetic value, as blacknuss, is the fault-line with the line. To give is to appear, the act of which is tantamount to criminalisation; as Gordon amplifies:
“They commit, in other words, the crime of appearing.”
Black artists in the 1960s and beyond appear in the world while they are not supposed to appear. They are rebelators who refuse to toe the line. This radical refusal, this anti-line, is doing right in the wrong way, the way of doing it, anyway. This is doing it this way, the anti-line; that is, what improvisation is, the making of possibility from what has been deemed impossible, beauty out of ugliness. It is to do things the other way, and to make a way—that way, anyway.