And the Last Shall be First: On the (Im)possibility of Revenge

Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all. –Dutty Boukman, quoted in C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins

In 2017 I took a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. I went as a part of a working group of academics and artists thinking about how critical theory had been transformed on the African continent. Unlike at other conferences, we had long breaks and lots of free time to wander.

On our second day in Johannesburg, a few of us decided to visit the Apartheid Museum. When the tickets were distributed, some of us were given a “native” pass and others were given a “white” pass, and, for the first few meters in the museum, those with the “native” pass could not see anything due to a barrier wall, and those with “white” passes could see everything. This was an attempt, on the part of the museum, to have people “feel” and “experience” life under apartheid, without any thought given to how deeply violent the mere suggestion of analogy might be. It was less of an exhibit, more of an aggressive propagandization of liberal humanist notions of apology, with a healthy dose of ‘”both sides”-ism for added texture. Grotesque is not an adequate word for the curation of that particular section of the museum.

What happened next as we arrived in another section of the museum is the thing I remember most from that day. We arrived at a video installation that played loops of footage from the failed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): wailing Black mothers, stoic statesmen. They also showed videos from another portion of the TRC that isn’t discussed as often, where former members of the apartheid government, particularly those that had ordered killings of freedom fighters, visited the families to ask forgiveness. This part of the TRC was a disturbing attempt at pre-empting revenge and consisted of a violent series of white confessions. The clip began, and the white administrator who had ordered the killing of a young man sits opposite his mother and family and says “Mama, I have come to ask your forgiveness, you see—”: suddenly the camera goes out of focus and you hear a large crash. The brother of the murdered freedom fighter had taken a vase and smashed it over the head of the white colonial administrator. The mostly white patrons let out a horrified gasp. My Black colleagues and I turned and smiled at one another. We left the museum.

In the car ride back to our hotel, we discussed how the clip betrayed the museum’s assumptions regarding who would have access to the museum and its impressive narrative gymnastics (or rather, disavowal). Its intended purpose (to write against the idea of revenge) was leveled by the smile we shared after that scene. In writing against revenge, the museum ensured my Black colleagues and I (and I would assume, other Black patrons) were enchanted by its appearance. We left that space more convinced than ever of the value of revenge. One colleague remarked that it was the only thing in the entire museum that truly made sense.


Revenge Capitalism

In his book, Revenge Capitalism, Max Haiven writes that “when you live in someone else’s utopia, all you have is revenge.” And yet revenge is usually weaponized against working, poor, marginalized people, in other words, those that should be seeking it first and foremost. Haiven continues, writing that “this vengeance emerges as capitalism responds, directly and indirectly, to constant resistance to its rule.” We see that, according to Haiven, in the “whitelash” that accompanied the 2008 financial meltdown and in the current global reactionary turn that many call “populism.” In this way, capitalism has become a revenge economy, breeding revenge politics among those harmed, who tend to then punch down in an equally vengeful manner. He then asks what it would mean to avenge what has been done to people and the planet?

Haiven offers us an avenging imaginary that dreams of the abolition of the systemic source of injury and the creation of new economies of peace and justice. And yet, I want to return to the feeling of witnessing the white murderer having a glass vase smashed over his head and the deep satisfaction I felt in that moment. As I move through this paradigmatic intervention about revenge, I also wonder: is revenge even possible for those who have been dispossessed by five hundred years of settler colonialism and racial slavery? What about the relationship between revenge and beginnings, or rather, revenge as a break or interruption of a particular system, rather than as a kind of feedback loop? What is the relationship between dreams and revenge? In other words, Haiven has done the important work of considering how revenge is wielded by capitalist machinations. I now want to think from the position of the young man sitting across from his brother’s murderer, and, who in that moment, decided to act.

Anticolonial Revenge

My first example comes from Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, in which he quotes from Aimé Cesaire’s play, And the Dogs Were Silent:

We were running like lunatics; fiery shots broke out. . . . We were striking. Sweat and blood cooled us off. We were striking amidst the screams and the screams became more strident and a great clamor rose toward the east, the outbuildings were burning and the flames sweetly splashed our cheeks.

Then came the attack on the master’s house. They were shooting from the windows. We forced the doors. The master’s bedroom was wide open. The master’s bedroom was

brilliantly lit, and the master was there, very calm . . . . and all of us stopped . . . he was the master. . . . I entered. It’s you, he said, very calmly. . . . It was me, it was indeed me, I told him, the good slave, the faithful slave, the slave slave, and suddenly my eyes were two cock­ roaches frightened on a rainy day. . . . I struck, the blood spurted: it is the only baptism that today I remember.

While capitalism manipulates the direction in which revenge is situated, often forcing people to aim their revanchist energies in ways that affirm power asymmetries, this passage prompts us to ask what happens when revenge is aimed in the direction of revolt? In the direction of insurrection? What happens when revenge is itself not a complete project, or a bad infinity, but a break, an opening onto something else, be it terrifying or wonderful or both? Or, to use Haiven’s intervention, I will ask, what if revenge is itself the concealed nucleus of an avenging imaginary, if it is in fact aimed in such a direction?

Indeed, in that video installation at the museum, the violence of the brother of the deceased was a needed interruption of the liberal disavowal of the violence upon which the South African settler state was and is constituted. A break in which we felt like we could do something other than sit in silence.

There is also another question that emerges when the colonized seek revenge: what exactly is being addressed or redressed? Here I find it useful to describe the violence outright, then proceed to consider what revenge might look like. I of course must draw on C. L. R. James’s Black Jacobins, and the descriptions of slave revolt, in which he writes:

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labor on them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From heir masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. . . and yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of property and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased.  . . compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred n by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

For C. L. R. James, this initial desire for revenge is the aperture for sustained armed struggle, and the enslaved move from this initial activation of revenge towards a project of total transformation. The move from revenge to total transformation was, in my estimation, not due to its a priori presence as an infinite cycle, but because it was simply impossible; they could never truly return it in kind. Revenge was deployed and then eclipsed by the breach offered by revolution.

Revenge, for C. L. R. James, when aimed in the opposing direction is a break historically, and we can see how it might be a fundamental, albeit temporary (to borrow from James) component of an avenging imaginary. We certainly cannot begin to consider any genealogy of an avenging imaginary without Janjak Dessalines’s proclamation that, in the dual revolution against slavery and colonial domination, he had “avenged America.” The Haitian revolution teaches us that revenge, when wielded by the colonized, is a breach in the momentum of colonial domination. When wielded by the French to extract “reparations,” it descends into its bad infinity status. Revenge assumes the face of the one that wields it.


Revenge and the Dreamscape

This brings me to the question of the relationship between dreams and revenge. Most people dream of revenge before carrying it out, and Haiven points out in his book that revenge fantasies are often unreliable. But what about revenge dreams? Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, writes the following:

Hence the dreams of the colonial subject are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing, I am leaping across a river and chased by a pack of cars that never catches up with me. During colonization the colonized subject frees himself night after night between nine in the evening and six in the morning.

We can see that the dreams of the colonized incubates the imaginary that encourages them to act, so that the last shall become the first, as he says.

In his play Dream on Monkey Mountain (which is essentially an extended meditation on dreams), Derek Walcott offers us a scene in which two prisoners stab the prison guard and make their escape. The prison guard reacts in the following way, as he is bleeding:

Times change, don’t they? And people change. Even Black people, even slaves. He made his point, you might say. But this is only what they dream of. And before things grow clearer, nearer to their dream of revenge, I must play another part. There’s nothing quite so exciting as putting down the natives. Especially after reason and law have failed. So I let them escape. Let them run ahead. Then I’ll have good reason for shooting them down. Sharpeville? Attempting to escape. Attempting to escape. Attempting to escape the prison of their lives. That’s the most dangerous crime. It brings about revolution.

Growing clearer, and nearer to the dream of revenge is what activates their attempt to escape, and escape, as the guard admits, is what leads to revolution. Times change, don’t they?


Cover image: Solange Jolicoeur, Bois Cayman

Bedour Alagraa

Bedour Alagraa is assistant professor of political and social thought in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interested in Black political thought, especially Caribbean political thought, African anti-colonial thought, and Black Marxism(s). Bedour is co-editor, alongside Anthony Bogues, of the Black Critique book series at Pluto Press and has written extensively on the works of Sylvia Wynter. Her book manuscript is entitled "The Interminable Catastrophe: Fatal Liberalisms, Plantation Logics, and Black Political Life in the Wake of Disaster."