Disclaimer: this blog post is based on my rather sloppy notes from a talk we attended, some direct quotes, some my own mid-talk ramblings in my head. I take full responsibility for any misrepresentations of the speaker’s intent / content, and must point out that to truly understand him, that you read his work.
We attended a talk last night, “Apartheid’s corps morcele” by Derek Hook, from Birbek. It was intriguing and stimulating in all the right ways, and left me thinking about a possible paper for publication. At root of his talk was the question of the “racist bodily imaginary.” Specifically he was speaking last night about images of black bodies in states of destruction and mangling in South Africa (though he did also touch on, for instance, the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of Kevin Carter). And while this kind of imagery is not limited to apartheid culture, he points out that the same does not hold for white bodies – the desecration of black bodies does not, he asserts, invoke the same outrage by whites that we see, for instance, in the ban on images of even the caskets of dead U.S. soldiers (see Judith Butler for an excellent discussion of this). There is a kind of “global vulnerability of the black body.” But even after apartheid, there is, what he calls “an uncanny persistence” of this particular form of visualizing atrocities.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon asserts that the exaggerations are an expertise of reading white fantasies – striking just under white fantasy that may be surprising if it comes too close to him. For Fanon, many caricatures contain admirable qualities that are morphed into vice. Hook has been working with the Apartheid Archive Project, and brought up a quote from an interview with a white male about his experiences with racism. Within his own understanding of these moments – the interviewee invokes the imaginary of the hardy, sturdy black male – impervious to damage, enduring, less psychologically damaged by violence, yielding to “an inability to identify with a black suffering body.” So it is that the black body, then is both strong and broken, simultaneously – it is both a symbol of strength in its own right and of white power. Thus, the image of what he calls the “broken” or “destroyed black body” is both of physical perfection and destruction.
There is in these images, then, a kind of confluence (as i understood Hook to explain) of hyper-sexuality / excess corporality, where fantasy see-saws between castration and a scene which protects against such notions. There is a dehumanization of the body, no respect for the dead. Yet, in referencing a two-page spread in Rapport on a suicide bomber of a limpet mine in South Africa [my notes read: Kamakazi Bom (Selfmoord Terro's)], he points to this commemorative treatment (what other news gets a two page spread with large pictures? royal weddings, jubilees, etc. – and now this, with images of a “black body in pieces”) which functions not to inform but to underline an event, a statement of history – the dehumanization acts to affirm it and to endow it with permanence and importance.
In his concluding remarks, Hook asks, “Did the outrage reflect the anger that the image was so gruesome, or that it took the images too far?” Did it render too clearly the body in pain? Fantasy works best when it is just under-stated and not too obvious. Pointing to Judith Butler’s use of Susan Sontag’s “let the atrocious images haunt us”, he asks further, how do we adapt? To simply be haunted by these images is not enough, as this implies a resolution where in fact there is (or ought to be?) a historical persistence of the haunting.
I was left with two rather nagging thoughts:
1. In all of this, there is an absence of an explicitly stated audience. There is a presumed whiteness to the audience, i think one that perhaps in some ways then re-inscribes the notion of powerlessness of blacks, particularly in South Africa. This is not a critique of his work, so much as a question, a sort of wonderment about how these thoughts travel beyond the confines of an intellectual pursuit of the psychoanalysis of race and racism. To his credit, Hook was remarkably self reflexive in his own draw to this subject and took responsibility for the fact that it may well be just a re-inscription of a white fascination with “broken black bodies” – a self-responsibilization that i wholly appreciated, but which did not, in the end, help to clarify the question of the audience of the photos. I bring this up because:
2. The first uprisings against the U.S. Occupation in Haiti were caco uprisings, peasant uprisings, led by a rather charismatic elite, Charlemagne Peralte. Whether he retired from the military before the Occupation, chose to retire up on the Occupation, or was forced by the U.S. forces is still a bit up for debate (must get back into the Archives for a closer inspection of the communiques). At that time, the US had sent in Southern military personnel, thinking they, better than anyone, would know “how to handle the negro Haitians” (direct quote from a 1965 declassified report on constabulary operations) – a major misstep and misunderstanding that has had reverberating effects on the USM’s understanding of a responsibility to understand a culture before “winning hearts and minds.” Regardless… my point is that the original uprising was mostly peasant, the elite still holding out hope that the US administrators would understand the long history of race and class politics in Haiti. Peralte was assassinated on October 31, 1919. On November 1, a photo of his body propped up on a door, the Haitian flag draped around his head, was circulated in the hopes of disheartening the anti-Occupation movement.
Perhaps it was because of the practice of circulating pictures of lynchings in the US south that someone got this idea? I can’t know… but the outcome was entirely different than expected. Rather than a petering out of the uprising, there was a marked shift created by the outrage of this photo (by some accounts, because of his “crucifix-like pose, creating a kind of martyr of him in his Jesus-likeness – but i’d be curious to find the original source of this – was this just a white imaginary of the turn? or is this a truly Haitian reading of the image?) – a shift toward a deeply intellectualized crisis of national identity. It was no longer a peasant uprising – the barbarity of the treatment of a Haitian instigated a new understanding of the Haitian self which was reflected in the numerous political newspapers, the literature, and speeches that emerged in the aftermath, which eventually led to the strikes that ballooned into a general strike in 1930, which prompted the Hoover Commission and the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
There is, then, an intensely important question of not only the white gaze on images of black death, but also their effects on the Black Consciousness – a question that is intimately tied to place (why, hello, Geography!). All deaths are not read all the time and in all places and by all people in the same way.
The talk last night was timely. I have been writing about Peralte this past week, and the supposed a-politicalness of Haitians at the time of the Occupation. I found the original photograph in the National Archives this summer and took a scan of it, wondering if i would ever use it. I have struggled with this question because, frankly, i’m not sure showing the picture is appropriate. It is peppered all over the web, it is printed in almost every book about Haiti, but in truth – what is the purpose of showing the picture? I don’t know that it serves anything more than a morbid fascination with death and particularly the death of a black man. I had already decided to not use the picture, either in a blog post or in my final dissertation, but the talk last night helped to solidify this choice. But what i still struggle with is my privilege in being able to make that choice. And so the question comes around again – who is my audience and what is it that i hope to illicit in them?