D. Marvin Jones
excerpted from: Race, Metaphor, and the Models of Steven Winter, 67 Brooklyn Law Review 1071-1095, 1080-1095 (Summer 2002)(87 Footnotes)
II. Claims of Knowledge
To understand the shift that is necessary, let me share a few stories. The stories are drawn from my upcoming book Race, Sex, and Suspicion. Let us begin with the claim that race is a problem of faulty thinking or irrationality. On the contrary, I argue the problem has to do with claims of knowledge. The classic instance is the racial profile. Let me begin my first story.
A. The Story of Henry Bibb
In 1837, Henry Bibb boldly escaped from a plantation in Kentucky and crossed the border into Canada. Soon after Bibb returned in disguise--he put on false whiskers--to get his wife and child. Once back in the "occupied territory" of slavocratic Kentucky he took work digging a cellar for "the good Lady where I was stopping." Of course the whiskers did not hide who he was. In a more recent context, O.J. Simpson allegedly committed the murders wearing a sailor's watch cap and a blue blazer with gold buttons. Johnny Cochran, ridiculing the suggestion that such a costume could conceal O.J. in all his celebrity exclaimed, "This is no disguise!" An ante-bellum Johnnie Cochran might have exclaimed the same thing about Henry Bibb's efforts to mask his own identity. The slave catchers soon "recognized" Bibb and, treating him like a nineteenth century public enemy number one, surrounded the house in force and arrested him at gunpoint. In the story, he poignantly asks his capturers, "What crime had I committed." His question, which went unanswered, still echoes down the corridors of history.
Bibb, in asking his question invoked Lockean notions of the natural rights. Locke postulated that all men are by nature free and enter society with natural rights. Jefferson's notion that "all men are endowed by their creator with an inalienable rights to liberty" imported this natural law thesis into the American scene. The social contract which emerges from this confers the right to liberty-to freedom subject to the condition that the individual does not break the law. Bibb implicitly invoked both Jefferson and Locke, both natural law and the social contract, in his question to his abductors. If he is a man, and if all men by nature are free, then he Bibb was also free--unless he had done something wrong. The issue becomes what is Bibb's crime? He is innocent not merely of the crime of harming others, he is innocent of being the native or savage associated with slavery: by the very act of thinking and writing. Yet despite his radical innocence he is hunted and chained as a prisoner and criminal.
Bibb claimed his freedom by rhetorically situating himself within the circle formed by the liberal narrative not merely of the American Revolution but of the enlightenment itself--a narrative of individual autonomy and freedom. This story of the enlightenment is eclipsed by an older story. This was the narrative of racial essences, a narrative which was given voice by Justice Taney in Dred Scott:
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.
As I read Taney's decision, the social contract ran only to those who were white. Blacks were not only persons without rights to a social contract; they were not persons at all. Bibb, in invoking the notion of "innocence," crossed the moral line between subject and object, self and other. In the mirror of his imagination, Bibb saw himself as a free man unjustly chained. Bibb simply posited that he was free. In so doing, in his mind, he tore away the veil of race. But this subjective image was as distant from objective reality as heaven was from the terrain of the plantation. The dreamer physically remained imprisoned behind the iron curtain of the slavery--behind the veil. The slave was forced to recognize that regardless of what moral transformation he might achieve, no matter how he came to view himself, this did not affect his objective status. For the slave, his identity was defined by how whites saw him. He was both blessed and cursed by what W.E.B. Dubois calls a "double consciousness."
The Negro is a seventh son born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world--a world which yields him no true self- consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always . . . measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
Thus, as Sterling Bland writes, "African-Americans are limited by the exterior manifestations of social response and are thus able to . . . be seen only through the "revelation of the other world."
The reason Bibb's mask of whiskers does not work is because Bibb's appearance as a threat was not linked to any set of features which could be seen--and therefore disguised. Bibb is a criminal because of his race. Race, in turn, is not something that can be seen.
Race itself has never been seen by the naked eye. Beyond merely describing morphological characteristics, race refers to an amorphous concept of difference between human "types." What constitutes a "type" and what constitutes a difference is contested territory and for some refers to essences, for others to biology but always to a set of abstract rules of recognition. These rules of recognition impose upon perception a kind of grammar, commanding us, at the deep level of how we see the world, to parse persons we encounter into different categories. Race is visualized not through actual observations but through the minds eye, by "seeing" human populations as naturally, actually parsed into distinctive sub-groups. The lens through which the meaning of race is seen to be illuminated and race "as a fact" finally discerned is our sense of who we are. We actually see race though our I/eye or sense of identity, as an alternating image of those who are like us, within our circle of community, and those who are not.
Race is an inference we make based on a variety of criteria ranging from color to birth records. Race is a faceless prototype of a racial other. Bibb matched the prototype regardless of how he changed his features. He fit the profile.
This prototypical image, the image of the racial enemy, however invisible to the naked eye is nonetheless visible in the reactions of whites, mirrored in their fear, loathing and obsession with controlling him. It is this mask, the mask of the racial identity itself, and only this mask which the slave catchers saw: "The stereotype--the mask--defined the African American as white Americans chose to see him; outside the mask he was either invisible or threatening."
What indeed was Bibb's crime? His crime is "who he is." "Who he is" is established by his appearance. His whiskers could not hide either his race or his gender. Through the distorting gaze of slave society the simple fact that Bibb was a black male--free--established "probable cause." This is not probable cause based on what an individual has done. This is probable cause imposed on the basis of what an individual might do.
The notion of the "gaze" is familiar to anyone who has seen old films. Take the Tarzan series, for example. In the Tarzan films black savages, with bones through their noses, capture genteel British explorers, truss and put them in the cooking pot. In the nick of time, Tarzan, a white man raised by apes comes to the rescue. Leading a herd of elephants as a surrogate for the cavalry, Tarzan arrives to save the innocent white people. In portraying the Africans as savage aggressors and the British as innocents the Tarzan stories turn upside down the moral reality of colonialism: By portraying the British--and Tarzan--as a civilizing force in an uncivilized jungle, the films implicitly justifies colonialism. One's enjoyment of the film depends upon taking the racial perspective of the colonizer. This racial perspective, and the mechanisms associated with it that make it seem natural, constitute the "dominant gaze."
Bibb as a free black male appears to the "dominant gaze" as dangerous and evil as Tarzan's natives. Bibb is seen as a criminal because slave society needed psychologically to see him this way: either in chains or as an enemy of the state.
For the Greeks, the image of otherness was the foreigner who was also a barbarian, for Foucault the image of the other was the mad person, but for slave society the quintessential image of the other is the racial other, particularly the black male. This racial other has always represented the enemy to be subdued--much like a dangerous animal. As Vilo Harle recognized, "The point is there are some Others who are excluded from among us and are actually perceived in less human terms, below human beings, dangerous animals that can and must be killed." Only if the racial other is a dangerous animal/criminal could slave society justify its cruel practices and constant surveillance.
Racism is traditionally understood as irrational. On the contrary, it is a perverse expression of rationality.
(R)acism is not simply a stupid hatred. It may be based on ignorance that breeds hatred, but it is every bit as dependant upon a form of knowledge. That knowledge, sometimes wittingly used, sometimes unwittingly, operates to reinforce the fear and hatred of others by providing rationales for hierarchizing differences.
Thus, our dusty old orthodoxy about race holds that stereotypes are bad. My point is that the fabric of racial identity is itself woven from stereotypical images.
This framework helps to explain the failure of our civil rights discourse. The project of racial integration has proceeded on the assumption that differences between the races are environmental and that if blacks could have access to education they could assimilate into the mainstream. In messianic fashion, the integration strategy assumes that the burden was on blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and enter great America. I would argue that our basic images and notions of race police the border between America and Africans. Let me tell another story.
B. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Sidney Poitier, the Denzel Washington of his day, portrays a black male who attempts to break through the barbed wire of an age old racial taboo: he wishes to marry a white woman.
Sidney is a young black doctor in love with the willful, colorblind daughter of an old school white businessman (Spencer Tracy). Wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and a smile as his armor, Sidney comes to the white family's dinner table both as guest and as would be harbinger of the modern age of race relations.
The film thematizes not merely the moral anxiety over the sexual designs of black males. It posed, dramatically, the social and political question of the place of the black male in the new world order following the dismantling-- officially at least--of segregation and the racial ideology on which it rested.
Sidney's black male is affluent, culturally hip, and doomed. Striving to be American and black, a rugged individualist and a representative of his race, Sidney lives split between worlds, and split inside himself.
Sidney is, as the black male in the white mind always is, an abstraction: in this case the embodiment of a modern liberalism. This liberalism, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of World War II--a war against Nazism-- dreamed in the colors of the rainbow. This new liberalism rejected the idea that race in a biological sense determined who one was. The popular liberal impulse, released by the catharsis of war, converged with other streams. Anthropologists like Franz Boaz and Otto Kleinberg began unbuilding the myth that intelligence and other mental characteristics had anything to do with heredity: "Culture not racial inheritance was the principle shaping force in determining mental characteristics of a people." Where classical sociology had attributed the poverty of blacks to innate laziness and instability, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles Johnson, standing on the shoulders of W. E. B. Dubois began to trace black economic inferiority to environmental causes involving racism. Of course the most pivotal work here was that of Gunnar Myrdal, whose post-war bombshell of a book, An American Dilemma was cited in the Brown v. Board of Education decision itself. Myrdal argues that the practice of segregation was inconsistent with America's own creed and in effect was an obstacle in the road of America's national destiny.
The historical moment of the Harlem renaissance was nourished by and itself fed into this liberal impulse. As Toni Morrison wrote in Playing in the Dark, Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe was "the man" because he had access to language. Man Friday, who lacks access to language and cannot speak, never becomes fully a person, hence he is "Man Friday." Through the writers of the Harlem renaissance, blacks had begun to find their voice, radically transforming the image of blacks as they transformed themselves through their art.
These streams of liberal thought converge on one point: only culture, language, and shared values--varying like the colors of the rainbow--define the boundaries of the American community. These newfound streams of liberalism fed into a larger river, the legitimating myth of America as a melting pot.
In a ritual of Americanization, Henry Ford had foreign workers enter one end of a giant clay pot wearing their national costumes and come out the other end in American business suits. The talisman of belief in the American creed--in this case the creed of capitalism symbolized by the business suit-- had given them a new identity as Americans.
If the black male is always merely a product of the white society's gaze, Sidney is its product as it looks at the black male through the lens of the melting pot story. Through this lens the image of Sidney looks "right." He is well dressed, meticulously pronouncing all the endings on his words, trying heroically in his behavior to overawe the degraded image of his phenotype. Sidney is a doctor, who happens to be a black male. Thus, it was not Sidney's race or gender that defined him. It was the values he had chosen as reflected by his Ivy League degrees and his Brooks Brothers suit.
In these terms, Sidney's character personified a social proposition: race was like a national costume and could be taken off and exchanged for an American identity. It was axiomatic of cold war liberalism--this was the essence of the Brown decision, I think--that not only was the assimilation of blacks possible, but a moral imperative. As Myrdal wrote in his classic An American Dilemma: "If America in actual practice could show the world a progressive trend by which the Negro finally became integrated into modern democracy, all mankind would be given faith again--it would have reason to believe that peace, progress and order are feasible." Within this retelling of the melting pot story the immigrant analogy was implicit: "there are no essential differences--in relation to the larger society--between the third world or racial minorities and the European ethnic groups."
It is precisely this story of the melting pot reinvented as a "table" that animated Dr. King's appeal: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood."
But there is a split here. Along the axis of race the split is between what Myrdal referred to as the American belief in equality and its practice. It flounders simultaneously on the axis of American identity itself: between two readings of the American story. One is the story of the America as a great e pluribus unum, out of many one, the America of Dr. King, of Langston Hughes in his poem "I, Too:"
I, too, sing America/
I am the darker brother/...
I, too, am America.
The other story of America is the one expressed in Dred Scott, holding that a black man was incapable of becoming an American citizen, the America of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the America of the World War II internment of the Japanese. It was this story which Henry Pratt Fairchild, past president of the American Sociological Association, expressed in 1926 when he said: "If America is to remain a stable nation, it must continue a white man's country for an indefinite period to come." This story of America as a white man's country ironically coexisted with efforts to expand the American myth to blacks.
The split between these two stories about American identity--America as the land of the free and America as the land for white people--signifies a deeper psychological conflict: between modern liberalism and the needs of whites to claim racial superiority. As Dubois pointed out in Black Reconstruction, the wages of whiteness consisted of privileges with respect to jobs, and social status. The legal and intellectual orthodoxy of blacks as just another ethnic group floundered on deeply engrained cultural norms that required that white skin remain a badge of privilege.
Thus through the colorblind lens of the film's orthodoxy, Sidney comes to dinner as an American: the very fact that he does so is a living witness that in America all can sit at the family table so long as they have the right moral credentials. But the orthodoxy of liberal intellectuals does not dissolve ideology that has been deeply entrenched.
Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks observed that after the Italians had overthrown the official apparatus of fascism he discovered the government was only an outer ditch and that behind it the massive ideology of fascism was left untouched. There is a similar story to be told about the overthrow of the regime of segregation in the United States.
Thus, whites in the South openly, and many whites in the North covertly, never accepted the premise that blacks were just another ethnic group. As late as 1991 a New York Times poll found that 66% of whites were opposed to a relative marrying a black person. The meaning of segregation as Gunnar pointed out in his post-war classic, was that while European groups could be assimilated the blacks could not. The anti-immigrant story of America as a white man's country not only continued to resonate but also was knotted together with the anti-black story of "Negro inferiority."
"We Americans seem to have blundered about in our history with two clumsy contrivances strapped to our backs, unreconciled and weighty: our democratic traditions and race." The synergy between these two stories splits Sidney in two. Sidney's project was to transform himself into an American in order to transform himself into a man: no longer a black man but simply a man. He sought finally to be whole, no longer merely a body or a pair of hands. Instead he is split in two. One of him remains in the world of the colorless individual, one of him does not. He lives in two worlds. In the world of liberal theory, a world that extends to court opinions, to official policy, to speeches by Presidents, to the conscious thoughts of enlightened people, Sidney is simply an individual, an American.
But, Sidney also lives in a world of private thoughts, a world in which the majority of white people still do not want their relative to marry one of "them." In this world America is still "white man's country." Here Sidney's visual image leads to visceral reaction both for whites and the black male who seeks to "pass":
Look, a Negro!"
Mama, see the Negro! I'm frightened! Frightened!" . . .
I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were legends, stories, history . . . Then assailed at various points, the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema. . . . I moved toward the other . . . and the evanescent other, hostile but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea. . . .
I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, my ancestors. . . .
I discovered my blackness and I was battered down by Tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetischism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: "sho good eatin."
From this perspective, Sidney at Spencer Tracy's dinner table, surrounded by Spencer Tracy's white wife, white daughter, white Irish Catholic priest, looks "out of place." He is, if not a fly in the buttermilk, still a stranger in the village, much like James Baldwin, if we can picture him, when he visited the Alps. He is a foreigner.
The black male carries his border with him, in his skin. Neither place of birth, nor acts of Congress change his citizenship. He remains the central character in a story about how some groups are simply incapable of being truly American. Jean Paul Sartre provides an analogy for us. Sartre noted that despite years of residence and significant economic and cultural achievements, Jews remain "the unassimilated at the very heart of (French) society":
(The Jew) accepts the society around him, he joins the game and he conforms to all the ceremonies, dancing with the others the dance of respectability. Besides, he is nobody's slave; he is a free citizen under a regime that allows free competition; he is forbidden no social dignity, no office of the state. He may be decorated with the ribbon of the Legion of Honor; he may become a great lawyer or a cabinet minister. But at the very moment when he reaches the summits of legal society, another society-amorphous, diffused, and omnipresent-appears before him as if in brief flashes of lightning and refuses to take him in. . . . (H)e never encounters any particular resistance; people seem, rather, to be in flight before him; an impalpable chasm widens out, and, above all, an invisible chemistry devaluates all he touches. . . . Everything is accessible to him, and yet he possesses nothing; for, he is told, what one possesses is not to be bought.
As Frantz Fanon has noted the situation of blacks in a white society is analogous, but worse: "(T)he Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness . . . . His actions, his behavior is the final determinant. He is a white man, and . . . can sometimes go unnoticed. (But) I am the slave not of the 'idea' that others have of me but of my own appearance." No matter where he is born the black male is an alien. He is alien not in the language he speaks, perhaps not in the values he holds in his heart. He is alien in terms of his mythic essence: his incorrigible sexuality, his propensity for chaos.
Similarly, our prototypical image of race operates as a lens, which intercepts the person of color precisely at the point at which s/he seeks to interrogate the dominant discourse. The same racial boundaries, which demarcated separate railroad cars for blacks and whites, demarcate separate space for blacks and white scholars to participate in discourse. Let me explain what I mean again through the agency of a story.
In 1839, Spanish slavers herd a group of kidnapped Africans aboard the schooner Amistad, bound from Havana, Cuba to another Cuban Port, Puerto Principe. Miraculously, the Africans escape their bonds. Led by the now famous Cinque they steal long bladed sugar cane knives and take control of the very ship in which they were held as cargo. But why did Cinque fight? Slavery involved the uprooting of indigenous people from family, soil, and culture. It was not merely an act of physical brutality, but a process of systematically erasing the slave as an African or even a person at all. The hold of the slave ship where hapless Africans were laid spoon fashion in blood and filth, was the moral opposite of the womb: from the belly of the slave ship nothing human emerged. What emerged was received as a slave, who by definition was stripped of everything that counted as human identity. Henry Louis Gates tells a story about a slave who was asked about his "self." The slave replied, "I isn't got no self." As I see him, Cinque fought to cross back over a line that separated not only home and alien territory, freedom and oppression, but also the line between having a name--a sense of who one is--and being nameless. In a sense Cinque fought to keep not only his body but also his "self" from being stolen, lost, or erased.
Although the Africans wrest the power over the ship, they lack the navigational skills to find their way home. Sparing and later trusting a Spanish navigator named Montes who promptly tricks them by sailing East by day and North or West by night, zigzagging up the American coast.
Objectively, Cinque's struggle resonated in terms of values Americans had inscribed in blood into their own story of origins. But eventually these Patrick Henry-like rebels landed on Montauk Point, Long Island. Of course, Cinque and thirty-eight surviving Africans were promptly captured and indicted for murder. Although the indictments were later dismissed, the Africans were still held to determine whether or not they were properly denominated as cargo or people.
In the Steven Spielberg film which attempts to retell this story, a venerable American sage, John Quincy Adams comes to the rescue,--he rescues not only the Africans but the American legal system from the indictment of history. Representing the Africans as kidnap victims who had a right to be free by all necessary means. While the film provides a storybook ending, with Cinque clothed in white robes of innocence returning to his native shores, the return home was not quite so simple a proposition for the Africans. Although they are freed by a Supreme Court decision--that affirmed dryly only that they were free Negroes and not slaves --the Africans do not go home for many months. This is where Spielberg's story trails off. In order to raise money for the voyage back to what is now Sierra Leone, Cinque and the others must work. He does this in part by giving speeches in the Mende language, by doing tricks, and by presenting himself to be gawked at much like an animal in a menagerie or zoo.
Throughout the story, Cinque's every act is seen through a lens. It is this lens, which refracts Cinque's quintessentially human act of rebellion into an act of murder for which he is indicted. Through this lens Cinque is not and never becomes an individual endowed with inalienable rights, but appears as a slave who killed his master. Cinque places himself squarely within the circle of the dominant majority's stereotypes, doing tricks, performing as and conforming to a reverse image of him, in order to make money. As Cinque and the other Africans were placed on display in a church in Farmington by their abolitionist "friends," "(m)others held tightly to their babies--making sure they would never become tempting morsels for tattooed cannibals." In performing as he does, it is an interesting question whether Cinque trades for money the very quality of identity that he fought originally to retain. We are free today of the curse of slavery, but in what sense are the performances of black scholars free of the curse of Cinque.
What are the implications of Steve Winter being right; that we can never separate what we perceive from the prototypical images we bring to the process of perception. How do we expose the trope of identity from behind the screen of prototypical--and tropological--images of race. How do we enter discourse, much less challenge power relationships when before we write, before we stand up to speak, these caricatured images of racial identity proceed us as much as they proceeded Cinque. Henry Louis Gates poses the question eloquently: "Can writing, the very difference it makes and marks, mask the blackness of the face that addresses the text of Western letters, in a voice that speaks English, in an idiom that contains an irreducible element of cultural difference that shall always separate the white voice from the black."