Cognitive Bondage and the Cost of Ownership

I often think about what it means to be free. The contemporary moment engages the topic with superficial discussions of black franchisement and advertisements that nudge the masses to support black businesses. The obstacles that complicate black ability to acquire land underscore autonomy as largely vested in land, institutions, and ownership. But the question remains: can anyone truly own anything if they do not own themselves?

Black franchisement proves a noteworthy goal for our collective; however, the cost of ownership is not to be ignored. My core contention here is failure to own your cognitive state as a black person precludes any ability to truly own anything.

Growing up my father called it psychological slavery. Black psychologist Bobby Wright called it mentacide. Joy Degruy called it post-traumatic-slave-syndrome. I call the mental chains that continue to stymie black progress and affect black behavior, cognitive bondage.

Now, before I get into my discourse, I want to discuss a little about my selected rhetoric. When I employ the phrase “cognitive bondage” I speak to the mental consequence that follows the physical bondage endured by the Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. The physical treatment of the black body was always a means, to quote Hortense Spillers, access the flesh.

Enduring the transatlantic slave trade does not make one a slave; rather, this journey and the institution it birthed constitutes enslavement. Socially inheriting the ramifications of anti-blackness, many of those born in conventional freedom betray a slave status afforded but not necessarily accurately personified by enslaved Africans.

This perspective does not underscore the branding, the chains, the brutal beatings, the rape, the castrations, and the overall dehumanization cast onto the black body. Rather, this rhetoric is to say that the body only encompasses one way to inflict this assault.

This conversation is also particularly important given this present moment as the white media, decorated in dismounted statues and integrated marches, seeks to make a slave out of the black consumer gaze. If the black community consumes the fad that the white world has made of our centuries-long struggle, we become slaves awaiting freedom from those who do not have the power to give us what we can only give ourselves.

Nevertheless, the contemporary ambiance, though painted by individuals, conveys a collective portrait of two notable distinctions: The first is the distinction is between slave and enslaved, and the second is between the owned, or the cogntively bound, and ownership.

I write this piece after having a rather disturbing exchange with a former associate regarding accomplishment in the black community. He contended that ownership supersedes intellectualism, or the quest to know. He pointed to Tyler Perry as embodying an autonomy that blacks should strive to emulate.

This proclamation is a common perspective fed to the black masses by the white media. While Sutton Griggs and Gil Noble are black men who personify autonomy, Tyler Perry is an example an anti-black America wishes for black people to emulate. This is because Perry implements a slave praxis and is therefore a contemporary slave.

I know my words are incendiary, but perhaps if we call a spade a spade, we have a better chance of overcoming the wrath of supremacy. In essence, though I employ the word slave here, this is what the corporate world calls “employee,” what Hollywood calls “celebrities,” and what social media world calls “influencers.” My rhetoric understands the pejorative connotations of this term, however, perhaps if we shed the veil we can cure the disease that functions as asymptotic due to societal veiling of its effects.

To be completely transparent, I hate the word “slave,” and it sends a shiver up my spine every time I say it. Yet I cannot think of a better word to reference those vested in making the white man’s dream come true. After unpacking my feelings, it became obvious that what I despised was/is the slave praxis not the verbal package. Slavery is a founding American praxis socially reproduced to maintain the country’s infrastructure. Thus, I cannot think of a better word to mark the linearity between the horrors of an African in America’s past and its present manifestation.

By “slave” I reference behavior engendered from those cognitively bond to the ways of white supremacy. I reference those hypnotized by white hegemony into a stupor to which every step is a step toward white supremacy. I want to be clear and state that my contentions are not to employ the word slave colloquially. To do so would be careless and unacceptable. I also implement my word use to engender intra-cultural examination, not as a bridge for the African-adjacent to label a culture that engulfs us all in varying degrees. Particularly, as members of a capitalistic society, the country thrives if the majority of the world remains a slave to money and attention. As long as money and attention remain pillars in national values, white supremacy attains status as master in creating slaves that believe they’re free. For black people, this sadistic logic is far more detrimental, as the hegemonic hypnosis that holds most hostage relies on our bodily itemization to render its wrath.

Dressed like a woman whose large frame and bluntness mirrors the cantankerous mammy, Perry is a slave to caricatures whites invented as fictive presentations of black truth. These images socially dictated a reality that was only real in the minds of the fictively superior. Thus, Perry’s films and plays are not a re-presentation of black life, they are a re-presentation of the white imaginary. He who places white re-presentation at the crux of his craft is not free. Thus, the studio that Perry owns is synonymous with giving a slave a plantation; this is not freedom, it is insurance that he or she will cultivate a slave culture that although has a black “owner,” remains owned by white nationalism.

For the enslaved, bondage is a physical condition, for a slave, bondage is mental captivity that if not broken engenders a life bound to socially reproduce the cognitive bondage that chains them.

I say this to say, Tyler Perry embodies one of the forms of the slavery the world always places in the past; a slavery the world keeps insisting ended. Additionally, the content that he produces functions to espouse the black collective to cognitive bondage. To put this bluntly, Perry’s content functions to create slaves. The caricatures he resurrected and employed to catapult himself into fame proved fruitful because his content lures the black collective into a systemic stupor. Not only does he provide a platform for blacks to find humor in hegemony, or comedy in caricature, Perry provides an outlet for whites to laugh at black people under the guise that we are laughing together, or that we are in this together.

I say this to say that yes, Perry can physically own his studio, because he cannot and does not own himself. Similarly, Oprah, ironically the “owner” of the “OWN” network, attains this “feat” following a career spent humanizing white people.

Though evidenced in celebrity culture, the white hegemonic espousal to making slaves is certainly not limited to Hollywood. Every western institution exists to socially reproduce a slave culture, so whether the shows we watch, the schools we attend, the books we are encouraged to read, the people we are told to admire, and the music we listen to, the attributes that compose culture in America function to socially reproduce what Frantz Fanon called the master-slave dynamic.

It is this master-slave dynamic, or the social reproduction of cognitive bondage, that complicates these discussions. Particularly, discussions of humor and hegemony often engender class anxieties, another symptom of cognitive bondage that employs systemic smokescreens to ensure white supremacy divides and conquers despite physical absence. Having this discussion with my former associate resulted in accusations that compartmentalized my rhetoric and perspective as elitist. Ironically, elitism is also a symptom of cognitive bondage. Elitists, in addition to their espousal to white accolades to define their self-worth, often conceptualize caricatures as truths that “make the culture look bad.” So while they appear to be culture critics, elitists—chained to white re-presentation as truth, the black elitist often fails to direct their cruelty to the deserving source.

The ivory tower also exists to make slaves under the guise of intellect. The educated black person is not to inspire cultural nationalism, they are to become a critic of their culture and uphold white nationalism behind a black veil. The letters that come with degrees function synonymously with the iron brandings burned into the enslaved’s body—symbolizing their physical status as property. In this particular instance, the letters of achievement often illuminate cognitive bondage. This conventional training plants and grows seeds under a low ceiling—while growth can occur, most growth occurs within bondage and colors within the lines of white comfort. Thus, the Derrick Bells, the Francis Cress Welsings, and Bobby Wrights embody an exception, those who employ the ways of white supremacy to find their way out of a racial labyrinth and inspire others to do the same. They embody self-ownership as paramount in black liberation.

To contemplate the distinction between ownership and the cognitively bound forces one to remember that once upon a time blacks sought to purchase their freedom. Freedom, is, of course, something that you cannot buy. It is not a physical place, but those physical places inside ourselves that bear the markings of a cognitive branding. It is perhaps easier to engage cognitive bondage on a superficial level. Here, I specifically speak to physical behavior like interracial marriage or blonde hair that easily engender many to consider a fractured relationship between an African and his or hers origins. Contrastly, measuring a child’s love for their parents on hegomically declared holidays or blindly celebrating the western holidays is another means in which the human becomes a slave that jumps when their oppressors say jump, or perhaps better put, who spends when the oppressor says spend. Equating hard-work and personal value to an eight- hour work day or percieving certain accolades as consummating success also reveals the cognitive bondage that continues to obliterate the plight to own ourselves as black people.

I say this not to cast stones against my collective. Rather, I make these statements to highlight our disruption as a pivotal and socially reproduced catastrophe that will continue to assassinate if not acknowledged. We must definitely own land, establish our own institutions, and seek to find our way from beneath the white nationalist grasp, but this is an endeavor that must start and end within.

Furthermore, these cognitive chains preclude the black collective from holding hands with one another; instead, these chains to continue to the chime the national anthem as black abjection continues to assemble and enable the anti-black forces that exist to collectively ambush and obliberate the African-descended.

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