Marcus De Matos[i]
The short Easter video goes like this: Jesus, played by a black actor, is carrying his cross, surrounded by Roman soldiers. Suddenly, they started lashing him, as predicted in any representation of the Passion of Christ. However, the actors playing the soldiers were too heartily, and went too far: they hurt the actor, until he can take no more. Then, unexpectedly changing the script, Jesus fights back: the black actor turns and kicks the soldiers, in a desperate way, to make them stop. Although it was not possible to trace back the origins of the video, it was widely circulated in Latin America during Easter. The crowds in the video, as well as its audience on WhatsApp groups, were divided about it. Some laughed, some were concerned – either for the actor’s sake or for its impact on the meaning of the Christian festival they watched. I believe their troubled feelings emerged less from the brutally of the scene, than from the representation of a repressed memory.
This video is precisely a double: it has the power to expose two foundational narratives of our so-called Western civilization. First, it brings forth the very centre of Christian theology, reminding us the main features of power in its most brutal and visible expression: injustice, persecution, torture and execution – the essence of crucifixion. Secondly, it reminds us of the most recent foundation of our global order: five centuries of European colonialism. As Lissovsky and I have claimed before, images, tropes, plays such as this, figurative creations, are a testimony of history, of a destination, because their trajectories leave traces in individual and collective memory. To understand the meaning of this double, it is our task to interrogate, to bring these forces into the light, to and to exorcize this heritage.[ii]
There is so much meaning bursting out from the gesture of the black Jesus fighting back. Perhaps it shocks us because it challenges all of our collective memories built on racism iconography. Despite the poor quality of the WhatsApp video, anyone familiar with the Latin American landscape can tell that the actors playing the Roman soldiers were not white. They were, most probably, mixed race. This fact almost immediately reminds us of so many pictures of Paddy rolers. We are used to seeing them as well. They were also part of a colonial strategy to create subjects that would not be able to fully identify themselves with their own image. The aggressor, in many colonial settings, was thoughtfully chosen to be mixed race or the same race as the people he would attack. Never white. Turning native nations against each other was a crucial and decisive way for the European conquest in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The now popular “reverse racism” expression is a perverse development of the colonial strategy to erase memory of a complex system of enslavement and destruction.
“Reverse racism” is a new name for an old project. It has had many faces in the past. White supremacy and “reverse racism” are just the more recent expressions of the same racialized power that has fuelled slavery, colonialism, nazi-fascism and its many creative forms of segregation and genocide. Its neoliberal shapes are usually more acceptable in Western democracies and expressed as brutal social inequality – carefully extracted from racial, class struggle and socialist discourse, where white people could become the target of rage. But memory can be used as means to fight back these ideas, and to aim our efforts against the project that submitted ourselves – as subaltern subjects.
The black Jesus fighting back is precisely such a memory. There is a doubleness in the very image represented. If there is a doublein the nature of sovereign power, perhaps there must be another in resisting it, such as this. In one side, the black Jesus reminds us of the powerful image of the martyr, the innocent victim who suffers brutal injustice without cause. There are many people whose image and life struggle can easily be associated with this archetype: Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi and Sojourner Truth are such leaders. In popular culture, this role is perhaps associated with people like Jackie Robinson, the first black athlete to play in the Major League Baseball in the USA. In 42, there is a supposed dialogue between Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Branch Rickey (a Methodist club manager played by Harrison Ford), who insisted on hiring him. The former explains its motives: “I need a player who can won’t fight back. Like Jesus.”[iii]
However, the doubled archetypes on the other side of the gesture are harder for us to take in. When Jesus fights back, the whole order of the play in suspended. In this gesture we remember those who fought against racism and colonialism, whose example is still troublesome for our racialized societies: Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela, Zumbi dos Palmares. Those figures, who used violence against oppression, are often dismissed. In popular culture, they are sometimes portrayed as villains – such as Magneto, the mutant terrorist who is associated with Malcom X, in the films inspired by Stan Lee’s X-Men comics. Like the Black Jesus in the play, their life example upsets the very order and brings up too many repressed memories. Those are the memories of resistance that were more often than not, repressed and erased in racialized societies. The “reverse racism” discourse is just another attempt to displace and erase these memories.
In following Warburg, Lissovsky and I have suggested that these memories are indestructible: they are impressions that memory carries within itself, latent, but with all its vitality. The repression will never completely erase the memories of oppression. As Freud taught us, what is repressed always returns, sometimes as a surprising apparition. But sometimes what has been repressed resurfaces violently, and the shadow of slavery comes to light, causing outrage and consternation. Such commotion is more or less fleeting, but its images last in the collective memory.[iv] Such as a Black Jesus fighting back. What this video asks of us, is to follow Jesus.
[i] Lecture in Law, Brunel University London. Principal investigator of the Human Rights & Religion project, funded by the Brunel Institutes of Communities and Societies. Honorary member of Institute for Brazilian Lawyers (IAB). Twitter: @mvdematos.
[ii] Lissovsky, M., De Matos, M.V.A.B. The Laws of Image-Nation: Brazilian Racial Tropes and the Shadows of the Slave Quarters. Law Critique 29, 173–200 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10978-018-9222-2
[iv] Lissovsky, M., De Matos, M.V.A.B. (2018)