Guantanamo Diary and #blacklivesmatter

“…it’s not the first time you have kidnapped Africans and enslaved them.”

“Are you ready to work with us?  Otherwise your situation is gonna be very bad,” the [US interrogator] continued.

“You know that I know that you know that I have done nothing.”  I said.  “You’re holding me because your country is strong enough to be unjust.  And it’s not the first time you have kidnapped Africans and enslaved them.”

“African tribes sold their people to us,” he replied.

“I wouldn’t defend slavery, if I were in your shoes,” I said.

I’m about halfway through Guantanamo Diary, a book which was published this past year as a transcription of a hand-written manuscript composed while Mahamedou Ould Slahi was imprisoned, without charge, in Guantanamo.  He still is imprisoned as of 2015, and there still have been no charges (at least no convictions).  The book is edited, with footnotes, by a journalist named Larry Siems.  It also reproduces, in mind-numbing arbitrariness, all the redaction the US government insisted upon – there are pages of black bars, random single word black-bars, and places where the context makes it clear that what is being redacted is exceedingly obvious.

Speaking at the most fundamental, human level, reading the book is a complete and total outrage.

This man has been locked away for almost 15 years, is rarely allowed to speak to anyone other than guards and interrogators, and he has been locked away by the United States government, the same one that is governed by the constitution, the bill of rights, and all the other laws that we claim such allegiance to.  It’s hard not to just go on in sarcastic indignation, so I will just leave it here: if you read the first few pages of this book, and you are not, at some deep level, fundamentally ashamed to be a citizen, or even a resident, of the United States, you’re missing something profound and human.

Sure, there are all sorts of odd rationalizations (like the one the interrogator uses in the passage above – “African tribes sold their people to us”) about the “war on terror,” largely based on false premises, psychological, political and moral, and then there are claims like “he’s probably just lying” but at some level, screw those arguments.  Anyway, I’m not really out to write about them right now.

I think at some level there is a large section of the American center-left, left (and libertarian right) world that basically accepts that the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay should never have been brought there, and should be released.  But to read the first-hand account of one of those prisoners is to reach a whole different level of consciousness about that problem, one that is severely convicting, one that tempts otherwise intelligent, morally serious people to go for some of the above-referenced rationalizations, just so they can live with the knowledge that is unavoidably true: WE REALLY ARE THAT BAD.

But when I read the passage about slavery, for the first time since all the different news stories that have coalesced around #blacklivesmatter began, I felt like I had something to say.  As a relatively privileged white male, I really didn’t think I had much to add to the debate, so what I’ve generally done is to re-share pieces written by people of color, like Charles Blow, Ta-Nahisi Coates and James Baldwin and others.  Because that seemed more constructive.

Still, the experience of reading this particular book is so jarring that even if what I have to say has been said by a million other white people, I’m saying it.  This is an outrage.  This is an instance of the same outrage that people of color live with and have lived with for hundreds of years in this country, and it is one that large sections of the white population just refuse to countenance, that they explain away with rationalizations – rationalizations about history, human nature, distracting debates about the facts of individual cases, rationalizations about how “black people are racist too,” and many more I haven’t just named.

What’s more important to me is not to refute each of those rationalizations, because that’s almost not the point: the point isn’t whether they’re true, it’s the psychological function they play for their speakers.  They allow white people to sidestep terrible feelings (guilt, shame, outrage, embarrassment, awkwardness) they’d rather not confront.

This is a book about Guantanamo, not about the police shooting an unarmed black person, and so it’s not the same issue.  And I do not mean to conflate them, just to acknowledge some common elements.  I imagine reading this book, for me, probably feels the same way that reading Frederick Douglass’ Autobiography would have once felt for a northern white abolitionist audience: they were against slavery in principle; they probably did not know that it was as bad as he describes it, from the opening pages of that book, where he tells of himself as a young child hiding in a closet while he watches his aunt get mercilessly beaten.  And it’s the same for me reading Guantanamo Diary: I’ve long since firmed up my belief that the detention center never should have been used as it has been, but even to read accounts of it is still horrifying, and seems to command further action.

Here’s just one passage among many I could have picked:

…I was deprived of my comfort items, except for a thin iso-mat and a very thin, small, worn-out blanket.  I was deprived of my books, which I owned, I was deprived of my Koran, I was deprived of my soap.  I was deprived of my toothpaste and of the roll of toilet paper I had.  The cell–better, the box–was cooled down to the point that I was shaking most of the time.  I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day; every once in a  while they gave me a rec-time at night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees.  I was living literally in terror.  For the next seventy days I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping: interrogation 24 hours a day, three and sometimes four shifts a day.  I rarely got a day off.  I don’t remember sleeping one night quietly.  “If you start to cooperate you’ll have some sleep and hot meals” [redacted] used to tell me repeatedly (218).

This is not vastly different from many of the passages in Douglass’ Autobiography.  It is also of a piece, mutatis mutandis, with each of the police videos which have made the rounds on the internet over the last year.  Even if you know these things are happening, to encounter them in first-person narrative or explicit video footage is different, and important.

The passage with which I began, in which Slahi rhetorically jabs at the interrogator about slavery, brought me back to one of Douglass’ most memorable, from the chapter where he describes learning to read:

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.

There are a whole host of rationalizations we tell ourselves about the role of slavery in United States history, but there it is, reduced to its simplest terms: “a band of successful robbers, who had… stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”   The passage has a biblical resonance – it makes the words of Exodus begin to sound literally true.

This also brought me to one of James Baldwin’s most memorable passages, from a letter to his nephew, published in the Progressive in 1962:

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

There is something fundamentally rotten IN US WHITE PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES that allows outrages like slavery, police brutality, and detention-without-charge at Guantanamo, to occur regularly in the history of our country.  And here too, there are a host of rationalizations that white interlocutors love to throw out: “that’s just how the world is,” “we’re better than most” etc. etc. etc.  I don’t know if any of those are true, but again, I know that they’re not being stated because the speaker believes them, or has thought very deeply about them at all, but because they are easier than saying, quite simply, “yes, that is awful and we need to work to end it.”

Baldwin’s letter speaks to this later on:

Many of them [white people] indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

It’s oddly prescient in that it describes exactly the dynamic that arises in arguments about #blacklivesmatter vs. #alllivesmatter, arguments about Barack Obama’s citizenship or his alleged religious beliefs, arguments about Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and all the rest of those names we don’t ever hear.  Baldwin understood well the dynamics of what we’ve come to call “white privilege,” and knew exactly why it would be just so difficult to disarm.

Baldwin offers a solution to his nephew:

You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.

I honestly don’t know what that means for white people.  That’s not who Baldwin was talking to, but it’s who I am.  For me, an absolutely essential starting point is acknowledgement – I must demand that I and others like me to “cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

One great starting point would be reading Guantanamo Diary.

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3 Responses to Guantanamo Diary and #blacklivesmatter

  1. Nates says:

    Thanks for this, Josh.

    I’ll add a point that I think complements some of the above. Too often we find ourselves confronted with policy choices where one of the choices is just horrifically harmful and ill-conceived, but popular enough that it needs to be addressed. I don’t know how to have these conversations, as it’s difficult to find any common ground for debate. The divide seems to go all the way down.

    I’ll add that I don’t remember it being like this in Canada. There was plenty of disagreement there, but genuine debate seemed possible. (I hope it’s still that way there, although I fear it’s become a little more American.)

    Anyway, I often find myself wondering why it’s so different here–what is it about the American experience that has created this poisoned political climate. Slavery and racism is surely central, as you note in the post. But I suspect religion plays an important role too. Baldwin had some things to say about Christianity, which I should probably read…

  2. Josh says:

    Yes, the “two sides to every story” reflex within the American media (not sure how much it is in Canada) definitely plays a big role.

    Regarding religion – Christianity is a big theme for both Baldwin and Douglass. For Baldwin, the essay sometimes titled “The Fire Next Time” (and sometimes “Letter from a Region of My Mind”) is an in-depth look at the Nation of Islam and also the pentacostal-ish Christian church of Baldwin’s own childhood. His father was a pastor and that experience is never far from any of his writing. I would say in general he works to re-appropriate Biblical narratives to support racial justice, and that’s something that generally means he offers criticisms and then circles back to the more justice-oriented truths that had earlier been buried.

    With Douglass, a huge theme in the autobiography is the hypocrisy of slaveholders’ Christianity and his own re-envisioning of the possibilities. He ends the book with a parody poem, one which is far more didactic than the rest of the book, but which certainly makes his thesis about Christianity clear:

    “I conclude these remarks by copying the following portrait of the religion of the south, (which is, by communion and fellowship, the religion of the north,) which I soberly affirm is ‘true to the life,’ and without caricature or the slightest exaggeration. It is said to have been drawn, several years before the present anti-slavery agitation began, by a northern Methodist preacher, who, while residing at the south, had an opportunity to see slaveholding morals, manners, and piety, with his own eyes. ‘Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’


    ‘Come, saints and sinners, hear me tell
    How pious priests whip Jack and Nell,
    And women buy and children sell,
    And preach all sinners down to hell,
    And sing of heavenly union.

    ‘They’ll bleat and baa, dona like goats,
    Gorge down black sheep, and strain at motes,
    Array their backs in fine black coats,
    Then seize their negroes by their throats,
    And choke, for heavenly union.

    ‘They’ll church you if you sip a dram,
    And damn you if you steal a lamb;
    Yet rob old Tony, Doll, and Sam,
    Of human rights, and bread and ham;
    Kidnapper’s heavenly union.

    ‘They’ll loudly talk of Christ’s reward,
    And bind his image with a cord,
    And scold, and swing the lash abhorred,
    And sell their brother in the Lord
    To handcuffed heavenly union.

    ‘They’ll read and sing a sacred song,
    And make a prayer both loud and long,
    And teach the right and do the wrong,
    Hailing the brother, sister throng,
    With words of heavenly union.

    ‘We wonder how such saints can sing,
    Or praise the Lord upon the wing,
    Who roar, and scold, and whip, and sting,
    And to their slaves and mammon cling,
    In guilty conscience union.

    ‘They’ll raise tobacco, corn, and rye,
    And drive, and thieve, and cheat, and lie,
    And lay up treasures in the sky,
    By making switch and cowskin fly,
    In hope of heavenly union.

    ‘They’ll crack old Tony on the skull,
    And preach and roar like Bashan bull,
    Or braying ass, of mischief full,
    Then seize old Jacob by the wool,
    And pull for heavenly union.

    ‘A roaring, ranting, sleek man-thief,
    Who lived on mutton, veal, and beef,
    Yet never would afford relief
    To needy, sable sons of grief,
    Was big with heavenly union.

    ”Love not the world,’ the preacher said,
    And winked his eye, and shook his head;
    He seized on Tom, and Dick, and Ned,
    Cut short their meat, and clothes, and bread,
    Yet still loved heavenly union.

    ‘Another preacher whining spoke
    Of One whose heart for sinners broke:
    He tied old Nanny to an oak,
    And drew the blood at every stroke,
    And prayed for heavenly union.

    ‘Two others oped their iron jaws,
    And waved their children-stealing paws;
    There sat their children in gewgaws;
    By stinting negroes’ backs and maws,
    They kept up heavenly union.

    ‘All good from Jack another takes,
    And entertains their flirts and rakes,
    Who dress as sleek as glossy snakes,
    And cram their mouths with sweetened cakes;
    And this goes down for union.’

    Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause,—I subscribe myself,
    LYNN, Mass., April 28, 1845.
    THE END”

  3. Nates says:

    Wow, that poem is remarkable.

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