Having recently viewed Jordan Peele’s award-winning Get Out (2017), political theorist Derefe Kimarley Chevannes was prompted to discuss the film with philosopher Lewis Gordon, whose writings include discussions of race in horror films and literature.
DEREFE KIMARLEY CHEVANNES: Lewis, it’s a pleasure to have this discussion with you. As I begin, I want to first consider the title of the film, Get Out. A seemingly trivial affair at first glance but perhaps not. This title is not merely a recommendation; it’s a command. What are the benefits of such a title? Or, better yet, why “Get Out” and not, say, “The Sunken Place”—referring, of course, to the imprisoning of Black consciousness? This allows me to consider the question: To what extent can Blacks permanently “Get Out” of white brutalization? And, lastly, does “Get Out” suggest that black escape, or more charitably, black freedom, is entirely reliant on black action absent white accountability?
LEWIS GORDON: You’re asking a lot, Derefe. First, it’s a delight to discuss this film with you. It’s such a philosophically and politically rich film that I could write an entire essay on any single scene. To your question, however, much is already there in the opening credits and the end. You should check out Michael Abels’s amazing score. It’s actually scarier than the movie, though it’s there throughout. Without the visuals, without what is seen, it is so haunting as one simply listens. And listening is much of what the film is about, despite what is seen. Notice the moving images of pine and brush as though on the run as Abels’s haunting song “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” (2017) is the initial leitmotif. The title is in Kiswahili. It means, “Listen to your Ancestors.” And that’s the point. The ancestors suffered. Heed their warning. They eventually whisper, “run!” Yes, get out. Much is already stated in the fact that Chris, the protagonist, is a photographer. He works with his eyes, but his vulnerability is in what he fails to hear, which is in effect to listen. The theme of listening is crucial here. As anyone who has seen the film knows, part of what he had to learn was also what not to hear, to close his ears from what obscures his focus, which in effect is his ability to listen. “The sunken place,” into which he is thrown and immobilized, is the stratification of trauma. He associates it with his mother’s death from a car accident, of which he was first reminded when the female deer was hit by his girlfriend Rose Armitage’s car en route to her parents’ home. At their house, which is obviously “the Big House” of slave narratives, he finds his counterpart in the buck on the mantle. The buck, of course, refers to the old term for enslaved black males, and we already know the villains of the film are on the hunt for bucks, though, as we also see in the character Georgina/Grandma, there is the occasional doe.
The voices of the film are the ancestors, which is why “Get Out” is the appropriate title. And we should bear in mind those are Andre’s words when he is momentarily released from the grip of white consciousness through the flash of light from the smart phone. Ancestors come before us. They offer knowledge. They offer history. The choice of Kiswahili as their voice is to point to Africa, though Kiswahili is a creolized language of the East African Kingozi with Arabic and Persian elements. That there was an Arab and Persian trade in the enslavement of Africans brings to the fore the African American story of creolization from enslavement. Yet the basilect, the often-suppressed African voice, speaks. That voice, in a way, gets out.
With regard to your other question, I think the charitable part would be the escape. Freedom is a perpetual, not completed, journey. The question of “permanently getting out” offers paradox. Do you mean get out “as black” or get out of the ensnarement of a world dependent on a particular construction of blackness? The first would require a different kind of black than those premised on white agency and black passivity. That black, however, would be something radically different and possibly unrecognizable to anyone locked in the currency of blackness as a negative term. That would be a redemptive historical development, no? I’m not sure what you mean by “absent white accountability,” since, as a political matter, no one is left without accountability when it comes to racism. But if you mean without dependency on whites, the truth of the matter is that white dependency is something cultivated by whites. If black people depended on whites, we would have been wiped out a long time ago. Any theoretician of dialectics, from Hegel to Marx to He-Yin Zhen to Sartre to Fanon, would reveal the obvious. The dependency is the other way around.
My next question alludes to Fanonian discourse. The antagonist, Missy Armitage, the mother of the white girlfriend uses a form of hypnosis to entrap her black victims and sends them into what’s famously known as the “Sunken Place.” As the audience knows well, once there, such a place seems inescapable—though, there are moments of momentary relief. But it seems to be exactly that, “moments of escape” and not necessarily freedom proper. I wonder, then, about Fanon’s discussion of the zone of nonbeing. What parallels, if any, are there between the Sunken Place and Fanon’s zone of nonbeing? Or perhaps, more controversially, have Black conservatives (or the Black bourgeoisie) fallen into the Sunken Place?
Missy Armitage, Rose’s mother, imposes hypnosis. The “sunken place” is a great metaphor of the experience of oppression. It’s what Michael Tillotson, in his book Invisible Jim Crow (2011), calls making us “resistant to resistance.” Where one is resistant to resistance, one is not what Frantz Fanon calls “actional.” It means one no longer affects the world. What one “does” is turned inward. Inward directed, one’s energy is at first on one’s body but then sinks into oneself. In my writings on oppression, I call this “implosion.” Eventually one disappears from the world in a continued suffering as an imprisoned observer on reality.
The zone of nonbeing requires unpacking. It is at first simply not being. To be is to be there or, basically, somewhere. Not being entails, then, being nowhere. We should bear in mind, however, that existence is not identical with being. To exist, after all, is to stand out. It is thus the human condition. Much of what has become known as “western culture” is premised on the notion of being. To be, however, suppresses existence. There are times we just want to be. But we eventually realize that’s not living. To live, we must move beyond being. Where being becomes the standard, however, actually living becomes enmeshed in an elusive goal. Thus, there is the experience of constantly being measured by not only what one is not but also what one could never be. What is tricky here, however, is the direction in which one is not being. Where outward, it is actional and existence. Pushed inward, it is immobilization, being sunken, locked in a form of stasis. So, paradoxically, the zone of nonbeing is the experience of the transition from human being into thingness. As a thing, one is an instrument. One is reduced to a consciousness that can only look but not act. It is what existentialists call being-in-itself.
With regard to black conservatives and the black bourgeoisie, the first thing to remember is that they are not identical. Conservatism is a response to crisis in which one turns to the past not as a source from which to learn but a place to which to return. That is why “tradition” is always a feature of conservatism. The problem with conservatism is always about which past it is to which one wishes to return. Many black conservatives don’t see a past beyond the one constructed by white conservatism. White conservatism has an imagined past of perfect white rule. One of the reasons conservatives turn to the past is because they see it as a world of order and security. Thus, implicit in perfect white rule is the notion of a world of order and security only achievable with whites ruling. The path for black conservatives who subscribe to that is clearly, then, the sunken place. Another formulation of that place is political nihilism.
Other kinds of people who identify as black conservatives are not interested in a world of white rule. They are interested in capital accumulation of wealth. For them, capitalism is the end of history. Their conservatism is premised on what they could individually acquire since the logic of capitalism is one in which inequalities are radicalized. For them, the world comes down to haves and have-nots. Though they retreat to themselves, they are not “sunken” since they are actional. They’re just not invested in others. Their goal is getting and having.
There is debate over whether there is properly a black bourgeoisie. Some, such as E. Franklin Frazier and Frantz Fanon, have argued there is in effect a black “lumpen” bourgeoisie. This is because most black wealth isn’t linked to material capital. White capital has materially affected the lives of white people. We see today that Chinese capital does the same. There are individually rich black people with their capital having more of a symbolic effect on black people than a material transformation of the conditions under which black people live. That needn’t be a permanent condition. It is, however, a real one.
There is, as well, the African American expression “bougie,” which refers to pretending to be of a higher class than what one is. It generally pertains to what in class analysis would be petit bourgeois. The problem in black communities is that there are people with working-class incomes pretending to be even that. They end up enmeshed in the web of debt to appear as what they are not. This phenomenon goes beyond African America, as it is now an issue across the African continent, the Caribbean, and pretty much the entire African diaspora. The sunken place there, then, would be an economic one.
There are other forms of black conservatism such as those in churches, mosques, and synagogues. An unfortunate feature of much contemporary discourse on conservatism, liberalism, leftism, and notions of the right is that they lack nuance. An excellent recent analysis of this issue is an article by Greg Thomas, “Afro-Blue Notes: The Death of Afro-Pessimism (2.0)?” (2018). Thomas shows how a form of conservatism rests beneath certain kinds of avowed leftism.
These analyses ultimately depend on the important question of what Antonio Gramsci would call an organic relationship to a set of interests. A black bourgeoisie linked to the status quo is conservative. Those invested in the transformation of a people are otherwise. Friedrich Engels, we should remember, was a factory owner. There are black publishers such as Haki R. Madhubuti, co-founder of Third World Press, the largest independent-owned black press in the United States, Kassahun Checole, founder of Africa World Press and Red Sea Press, and Firoze Manji, founder of Daraja Press. These are viable economic enterprises organically linked to black communities. I could offer a long list from people in the tech to the food industries. Those people are formally members of the bourgeoisie but it’s not clear to me that, given their commitments, they identify as such and they are certainly not conservative.
One thing is certain. People who reject notions of a perfect past face the recourse of building a better future.
As I watched the movie, there’s a scene that stood out as peculiar and interesting at the very least. It is where Rod, the close and wise friend of the protagonist, Chris, who, after suggesting some form of foul play by the white family, visits the cops and tells them the crimes he believes transpired. Their instinctive, if not “reasonable,” response is literally to laugh in his face! All these cops, two males, and one female lead detective, laugh at the hilarity of the position of white occupation of black bodies. Is this a nuanced critique of black disbelief in the face of white colonization? Or, is this only a critique of law enforcement and its trivialization of black brutalization in white generic spaces?
I recall their laughter was specifically at his talking about sexual slavery of black men. The disbelief there is manifold. From the police point of view, if one desires black men, money would be a good lure, no? What is important in the scene is that it is a conversation among people of color. There are many layers to that scene. Rod is, after all, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer. There is also condescension, since the police are also in effect saying, “Leave this to the professionals.” And the professional assessment is that his story is ridiculous. There is, however, an allegory here. After all, black people are constantly presented as ridiculous. Expressions such as “feeling of discrimination” and “perceived racism” undermine the validity of fact through subjectivizing them. How is racial discrimination a “feeling” when there is so much data and history out there? How is it so when antiblack policies are enacted with public avowal of their targets?
We should remember, however, that Rod is a TSA agent. His job is to monitor migration. He is a mythic character, a gatekeeper. He manages transgressions, pathways. Rod is in effect doing his job when he attempts to rescue blacks from whites illegally migrating into their bodies. Why “illegal”? Clearly being kidnapped and having a piece or pieces of another person’s brain placed into one’s own is illegal. What is “invisible” to the law is the movement of one consciousness into another’s in the movement of those portions of the brain. This leads us into issues of philosophy of mind, but at this point I’m getting off track from your main point, which is political.
Here is something to consider. There are two endings of Get Out. There is the official released cut. Rod shows up and drives Chris away from the carnage. Let me say something about names here. “Rod,” as in a lightening rod, is a conduit. As I’ve already mentioned, he negotiates passages. When he shows up and drives Chris away, he is similar to mythic guides such as Aker in ancient Kmt/Egypt or Virgil, who guides Dante’s protagonist in The Inferno out of the depths of hell at dawn into life’s possibilities. “Chris” means “messiah,” which in turn means to be “anointed.” Messiah is also savior. Who does Chris save?
In the original ending, it’s the police who show up. The scene shifts to black. Then the closing scene is Rod visiting Chris in prison. Rod offers to use his detective skills to exonerate Chris, but Chris discourages him. He simply says, “Rod. I’m good. I stopped them. I stopped them.” As he walks away, accompanied by a white guard down a white hall, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” returns as white bars slide shut behind him.
In the released version, Chris saves himself and indirectly those to come. Perhaps he has also saved those whose parasites no longer have a hypnotist to help them suppress their host. In the original, now alternative, ending his words, “I stopped them,” makes Chris a messiah. It also makes Rod someone who knows the truth but is no longer a guide. In one version he is Akar or Virgil. In the alternative ending, however, as knowing the truth and seeking order, balance, and justice, he is the African Kmt/Egyptian god Ma’at.
Chris’s words, “I’m good,” signify his having accomplished what he was supposed to do. This is another feature of myth. The one who gets others out doesn’t himself get out. Think of the biblical story of Moshe or Moses. Such heroes don’t enter the Promised Land.
Lastly, “Get Out” focuses our attention on the capture of black bodies for white predatory ends. Chris, the main character, asks, “Why black people?” and the response given by one white predator is: “black is in fashion!” This black-is-fashionable viewpoint is hardly new. It reminds me of the white fetishization of the African woman, Sarah Baartman, known by Europeans as “Hottentot Venus,” whose big butt entranced the white imagination. Like Chris, and other black victims in the film, black bodies are fetishized, either for their big eyes, big lips, big ass or dare I say, big penis. My question is this: Have we confused the “Black is Beautiful” emancipatory motif with this rank sexualization of black peoples? And, has white liberalism fallen into the trap of this confusion?
I’m not a fan of the formulation “the white imagination.” Neither “the black imagination.” Those are abstractions that elide the varieties of ways people are and how they think. I think you are specifically referring to whites who exoticize black people. Exoticism is as old as exploitation. The focus on body parts to which you refer is a key feature of fetishism. For some of the best discussions of fetishism today, I recommend consulting Rosalind C. Morris and Daniel H. Leonard’s The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de rosses and the Afterlives of an Idea (2017). I think a more insightful element of the film is that many public claims of hating how black people look and smell may be for show. If freed from the pressures of a society premised on antiblack hatred, what would white people—and also many black, brown, red, and yellow people—“see” when they actually look at black people. They may see the beauty of many black people. They could see our positive qualities. They may also admit what Jean-Paul Rocchi calls in his forthcoming book Desiring Modes of Being Black (2018): many black people, like variations of all other peoples, are beautiful. This is also an issue explored by Paul Taylor in his discussion of what he calls “somatic aesthetics” in his book Black Is Beautiful (2016). I don’t say all black people because that would be exoticism. Finding every member of a group beautiful would be downright weird. It would manifest a failure to see each individual in her or his specificity. That is a feature of racial exoticism, which is a form of racism.
We’ve arrived at a thesis I’m exploring in my forthcoming book Fear of a Black Consciousness. There is much talk about hatred of “black bodies.” It’s as though black people no longer exist. We should bear in mind, however, that one could desire black bodies but hate black people. In the film, the thought of a white consciousness in a black body turned on, to the point of near salivation, the Coagula cult. Those antagonists are the white and East Asian people kidnapping black people and marketing the process of coagulation or seizing black bodies with white and, as we see, East Asian consciousness. The status of East Asian requires analysis here, since it may be that at least the East Asian and whites in the film regard their consciousnesses as the same—a form of Eurasian consciousness. The political reality of China and Japan is that those countries reveal no interest in being linked to the global south. Theirs may very well be a new kind of white supremacy in the making, if not already made. It is, after all, very good to be white in East Asia. (See, e.g., César Ross’s “The Role of Africa in the Foreign Policy of China,” in Geopolitics and Decolonization, 2018)
Returning to the point about desire, we should consider this: What if the fear isn’t of black bodies but instead of black consciousness? This brings us back to your question about black conservatives. There are some, after all, who can move through the white world so long as they offer themselves as black bodies with white consciousnesses. They even become “desirable.” This question raises a host of other considerations. Given there being fear of black consciousness, would it be so in a white body?
The problem with black consciousness in a white society is that it is fundamentally political. Since politics makes no sense without power, fear of black power is what impedes many people’s willingness to look at the humanity black people embody. My colleague Noël Cazenave addresses this fear of black political advancement in his book Killing African Americans (2018).
It’s clear Get Out raises as many questions as it addresses. I’m delighted that Jordan Peele received the well-deserved Oscar and many other accolades for his screenplay. His directing is also spectacular. I could write an entire essay on the opening credits of the film alone. Many others have devoted much attention to every detail of the film. That it is worthy of such attention is a testament to its philosophical value and also its clearly earned place, at its release, as a classic.
Derefe Kimarley Chevannes is completing his doctorate in the fields of political theory and public law in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Chevannes’s interests center on issues of racial liberation, questions of freedom and unfreedom. His doctoral research focuses particularly on a renewed conception of political speech and how the communicative practices of black subjects contribute to an enriched understanding of the nature of speech, politics, political subjectivity, and political agency. His writings include his recently published article, “Creolizing Political Speech: Toward Black Existential Articulations,” in The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 40, no. 1 (2018): 5–15.
Lewis Gordon is editor of Black Issues in Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; the 2018–2019 Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, Portugal; and chair of the Awards Committee for the Caribbean Philosophical Association.