How to Read the Black Body

Peter Simpson 

The politics of representation within the discipline of Africana Studies is well documented. In many instances, Blackness is viewed through the lens of a white audience or as an act of resistance against the hegemony of whiteness. This binary however, is insufficient to explain the diversity, breadth and depth of Black communities, both within the United States and abroad. This blog aims to highlight the various ways in which Black bodies can be “read,” or interpreted, framed and judged. It will draw on research done by leading scholars, Dixa Ramírez and Kevin Quashie, paying particular attention to the influences of context, geographic location and popular imagery, on the perceptions assigned to Black people. It will similarly draw on the recent killings of unarmed Black Americans, and in particular, Black women. In so doing, this blog endeavors to historicize the portrayal of Black life in popular media, speak to the agency of Black bodies and situate their lives independent of dominant, prevailing stereotypes. 

Ramírez’s seminal excerpt entitled “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archive of Dominican Subjects,” asserts that the unwavering gaze of free Black subjects unsettled many of these visitors.”[1] In this instance, the term visitors refers to white American tourists. More contemporarily, this feeling of unrest by white Americans is embodied best through the #SayHerName started by The African American Policy Forum (AAPF). Although occurring in two different contexts, histories of racial violence undergird American and Dominican society alike. AAPF recently reflected on the tragic killing of Atatiana Jefferson by  white police officer Aaron Dean, on October 11th. Forth Worth, Texas police claim Officer Dean perceived a threat as he approached Jefferson’s window. It is important to note however, that this occurrence, as well as the assumed violence of Black people, was not singular or uncommon. Police officers routinely kill Black women, often times in intimate settings such as their homes and vehicles. 

Evidently, Dean carried racist signifiers of Blackness, which often position Black women as superhuman in strength, in need of discipline, and not worthy of being recognized as full humans. To readers, Jefferson’s murder should also speak to the ways in which the criminal justice system and individual actors within the carceral state, view Black women as a collective as deserving of such cruel treatment, versus as individual women with their own agency. This loss of agency is furthered through the limited air and print coverage given to Black women killed by police, reducing them to what Ramírez says as anything but “an individual with a name.”[2] This stands in stark contrast to the well-known names of murdered African-American boys and men such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, who are frequently remembered in discourses relating to police misconduct and brutality. 

It is likewise imperative to hone in on the privacy of the spaces in which women such as Jefferson are murdered-their homes. Jefferson, at the time of her death, was playing video games with her nephew. This humanizing, and familiar activity should encourage us to (re)-think Black culture vis-a-vis popular expressions of Black women as loud, dramatic and enraged. The act of playing video games and babysitting are similarly, acts of human individuality, that often occur in the quiet confines of one’s home. Actions such as these resist what Quashie calls “the imperative to represent,” in his seminal text The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture.[3] Quashie argues that the case for quiet is an argument against the limits of Blackness as a concept and questions the boundaries of racial identity, opposing the singularity of race, in so doing.[4]

The use of quiet as a lens to view the daily interactions of Black women allows for the greater understanding of their desires, vulnerabilities, fears and ambitions. More significantly, it requires us to shift the ways we read and look at Black women and change the expectations historically imposes on their bodies. There is sovereignty in this! This sovereignty opens up a space to expose the lives of Black people not being solely determined by narratives of the wider social, white world. Similarly to Quashie, this blog encourages readers to do a close viewing of the circumstances under which Black Americans are murdered, the way media sources depict their killings and the legacies they leave behind.

Atatiana Jefferson was an aunt and daughter, had aspirations to go to medical school and is remembered for her caring and loving nature. Taken together, these memories provide Jefferson with dignity and agency, despite her unfortunate death. There is power and influence in these moments of quiet interiority, despite the public nature of Black killing and the subsequent visible demands for justice in Jefferson’s name. Ramírez and Quashie prompt us to consider an alternative present and future for Black life- one not readily legible to wider America and simultaneously, not for public consumption or viewing. Jefferson’s life exemplified both of these facets, chiefly through the power of the everyday, intimate moments such as relaxing, playing video games and taking care of your younger relatives. The ability for her to do so however, was unrecognizable to Officer Dean.

[1] Dixa. Ramírez, “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects,” in Colonial Phantoms Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present. Dixa. Ramírez (New York, New York: New York University Press, 2018), 148.

[2] Ibid. 153.

[3] Kevin. Quashie, “Introduction & Publicness, Silence, and the Sovereignty of the Interior,” in The Sovereignty of Quiet. Kevin. Quashie (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 4.

[4] Ibid.6.

One thought on “How to Read the Black Body”

  1. Hi Peter! You have provided an extremely powerful analysis of Atatiana Jefferson’s case and its representation. I found using Professor Quashie’s ‘quiet’ was a beautiful way of highlighting the humanness and dignity of Jefferson that can often be lost in the media. I also appreciate your mention of legacy and memory as well. At the Kimberle Crenshaw talk on Nov. 4, she spoke about AAPF, #sayhername, Jefferson, and the other women lost to police violence. So I have personally encountered your blog in a larger conversation with additional perspectives on interiority. The only small suggestion I would offer would be on the blog’s conclusion. I would love to have it end on Jefferson rather than ending on the officer. Even if the last two sentences were switched I feel it would fit the mood and centering of your blog better. Overall great job!

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