The Walking Dead and the uncanny returns of race
by Tavia Nyongo — NYU
March 09, 2012 – 00:00
It’s easier to imagine the end of the world, it’s been said, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. It also seems easier to imagine such an end than a society without racism’s taint. So at least for The Walking Dead, which follows a multiracial group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Even in the face of human extinction, racism returns inexorably with the undead hordes.
In an early episode, a racist white man beats a black man brutally, underscoring that the collapse of civilization will afford atavistic rivalries to burst out. Tellingly, the policeman hero intervenes, embodying the state even in the wake of its implosion. A noble cowboy proves racism’s only match, perpetuating the drama of racial liberalism as a series of white male doublings. That “rednecks” are revealed as humanity’s internal enemy — racists and wife beaters too — is a post-apocalyptic supplement to the myth of post-racial America, where racism exists only as individual, never structural, bias.
The zombie holds more than these racial truisms in its belly. Increasingly termed a neoliberal figure, the zombie indexes a longer history of Atlantic capitalism. Its origins in African religion — explicit when zombies first appeared in U.S. popular culture in the wake of the 1915-34 occupation of Haiti — have been silenced over time. The Walking Dead pilot registers this silenced history through the pairing of the white Rick and black Morgan. Despite their shared love of home and family, Rick is positioned to go off in search of his family, while Morgan hunkers down at home with his son, unable to either abandon or kill his zombiefied wife wandering outside.
Morgan’s agony, played for universalist sympathy, holds some specifically racial residues when set against the backdrop of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which pathologized its racialized and classed victims as undeserving of the shelter they sought. Morgan’s reluctance to abandon his home in the face of society’s collapse augurs such histories: of segregation, redlining, restrictive covenants.
In this holding pattern, Morgan is joined by his undead wife — the only zombie in the first season still directed by her former life. She keeps returning to the front porch to try the doorknob. Black social life, and its “broken claims to connection,” survives even death.