Politics / The Reading Room / Vol 3. No. 1

Black Disfigurement and the American Hieroglyphics of Race

Ezperanza Cortes, La Dorada

Image Credit: Ezperanza Cortes, La Dorada, (2017), 60″ x 1,” clay sculpture, gold plated brass beads. Courtesy of the artist.


Mom, I dedicate this to you.

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth into my throat

till I swallowed my blood.

My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my black wet

body slipped and rolled in their hands as they bound me to the


And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from me in limp


And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into my raw flesh,

and I moaned in my agony.

Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of gasoline.

And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling

my limbs.

Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot sides of death.

Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in yellow surprise

at the sun.…1

This is the first installation of an essay in two parts


I have a duty. This project is both a ballad and an elegy: a ballad for those who continue to fight despite erasure and nonrecognition; an elegy for every slain “rabble rouser,” “outsider,” “radical,” “communist,” “uppity negro,” “black racist,” “criminal,” and “superpredator.” You too, reader, have a duty. You will see images of a young teenager, Emmett Louis Till, torn and disfigured, of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling with blood-soaked shirts, fighting erasure and losing. Please, do not avert your gaze.

I wrote the above in 2016, just weeks before submitting my senior project to the Division of Social Studies of Bard College. The senior project—a thesis based on independent research—is required of all Bard students earning their bachelor’s degrees. After submitting it, all students meet with a panel of professors to discuss and defend what they have written. That I did this while incarcerated is not unusual; the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) ensures that students meet the same standards and earn the same degrees that they would outside of prison. However, my senior project panel was unusual in that it was filmed by director Lynn Novick and producer Sarah Botstein for their documentary College Behind Bars. As the filmmakers screened the film around the country, and then once it aired on PBS, I began receiving requests: people wanted to read my project. Many wrote letters and posted tweets asking for a copy of Messianic Black Bodies. Here I offer a condensed version of what is featured in the documentary.

Substantially speaking, very little has changed. In revising this paper for publication, I heard the voice of Professor Berthold, my senior project advisor, encouraging me to really consider my definition of “black bodies.” Do I mean “the black body” or “black bodies”? Here my definition is more precise. The vandalism of Emmett Till’s memorial in Mississippi and then the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and George Floyd forced me to pick up the pen and explode across the page once again.

I sat in a cell, mostly segregated from the ongoings, but I felt the cries of freedom as if they were my own. “My being incarcerated for felony-murder and forced to reside in the amputating category of criminal—and all that that signifies—stirs something within me,” I wrote, “so that I must speak, otherwise I might implode. Perhaps from this unique position, I might offer a new and insightful analysis about the ongoing struggle for recognition, our collective efforts to resist erasure from the American conscience—not simply consciousness, but conscience.” As I said before, this is a duty. Reader, bear witness with me.


In 1951, James Baldwin astutely assessed an ailing nation. As “is the inevitable result of things unsaid,” he wrote, “we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics.”2 The black body bears the marks of this story, of this sickness. America3 is obsessed with the black body, obsessed with killing it, confining it, and, for ease of consumption, commodifying it. Slaveholders considered the black body an object of possession, to be bought, inherited, and bequeathed to posterity. Souvenirs and trophies—pieces of charred flesh and bits of bone torn from the victim(s)—were shared with lynching parties and spectators. Even for the least discerning black youth, strange fruit—the mutilation visible and unambiguous— swinging from poplar trees articulated a clear message: Stay in your place.

In 1955, Emmett Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy from Chicago, went to Money, Mississippi, with his great-uncle Mose Wright and several cousins. He had been staying with his uncle for eight days when two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, forced their way into his uncle’s home with a pistol and kidnapped him. They wanted to teach Till a lesson for allegedly flirting with Roy’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. Days later, Till’s body, naked and disfigured, reemerged from the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River. A jury acquitted both men and, soon after, the civil rights movement began to heat up across the country.

The century has changed, and the story continues. We bore witness to Eric Garner’s slow death as he gasped “I can’t breathe.” Mike Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, and we witnessed the aftermath. On social media, viewers saw Brown’s body lying in the middle of the street for four and half hours. In Cleveland, Ohio, just three months later, we saw Officer Timothy Lowman shoot and kill twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. The police cruiser had not rolled to a complete stop before Rice’s body fell to the ground.4 Sadly, we have had to witness three white men chase down Ahmaud Arbery and, in broad daylight, shoot him to death. And we’ve witnessed this because an accomplice recorded the lynching. We then witnessed another lynching in Minnesota. We heard George Floyd call out to his deceased mother, plead for air. We saw Officer Chauvin kneeling on his neck, hands in his pocket, sunglasses resting atop his head. All of the officers involved that day have been arrested and charged for Floyd’s death. But we know the story, how it begins and how it ends. With few exceptions, prosecutors deem the use of deadly force “justifiable” and “reasonable.”5 We come up with reasons why the slain are not victims; when they were under 21, we made them adults; they were criminals with records and/or drug addicts, and somehow they “brought it on themselves.”

Why does this story persist? Why do many African Americans perceive these events so viscerally, as if they experience each instance as one endless “war on black bodies”?6

The very logic of American self-making depends on disfigurement. I use disfigurement to call attention to the ways in which we elide/misrecognize those human qualities that bind us all in webs of empathy and acknowledgement; to our tendency to amplify aberrations and exaggerate differences—real and/or perceived—in order to confine, segregate, kill, maim, rape, pillage. And to do it all with a seemingly clear conscience. We refuse to see the raised welts of indignity twisting perfectly flawed contours of the individual. This pretense of illegibility provides a sort of plausible deniability when we “misrecognize” pleas for freedom and fair treatment. One might invoke the term “erasure” to describe what I have mentioned thus far. Erasure is a process of eliminating, of concealing. However, American self-making, the process of defining ourselves in a world of contradictions, depends on the highly visible other. Through acts of disfigurement, the other is both made and made visible. The messianic black body serves as both substance and symbol precisely because it is highly visible as an object. Its disfigurement, the raised welts of science, of storytelling, gives it shape. These marks signify. I ask that we consider the carvings, the excising of that supple substance that shapes the unique contours of personhood.

Emmett Till’s disfigured corpse represents a national metaphor for the ongoing violence of disfigurement. His mother’s decision to have an open-casket funeral service to show the world what “I have seen” figures as a seminal moment in the black freedom struggle, thousands across the country rose up. Just months later, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began and, like Till, names such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. became well-known. The images of Till’s mutilated face printed in black publications, such as Jet and Ebony magazines, are iconic. Monuments have been erected to memorialize his sacrifice for the black freedom struggle. Music, elegiac sonnets, and documentaries and theater productions tell the heart-wrenching story of his abduction and murder. No doubt, children’s books about Emmett will keep him alive for generations. For decades scholars have revisited the Till case. His murder, and our attention to it, reveal the relationship between disfigurement and American self-making.

Rather than focus on black bodies as mere flesh and bones that live, experience the full spectrum of pain and pleasure, and eventually die and putrefy, I ask that we consider the persistent resurrection of what I call the messianic black body, an object of incitement, of pain, of rage. The messianic black body “speaks” to the general public through displays of suffering and disfigurement, both of which are integral to black freedom movements and American self-making. What then do African Americans do with these black ruins? I demonstrate African American’s use of staging. Staging black ruins makes visible injustices (both past and present) and attempts to facilitate the restoration of personhood. Finally, I conclude with an open letter to America. I attempt to offer hope, which, as I write this, feels like an impossible task: so many people seem to witness the suffering and the injustice and, yet, do not see. Regrettably, this article considers only the bodies of men and does not examine the unique ways in which the “female” body has been disfigured and mobilized in American self-making. I have chosen to narrow my focus. I hope, ultimately, to spur more conversation and to offer a new lens through which to view the question, What does it mean to be American?

American Hieroglyphics

If America plumbed the depths of black flesh, would it find the thing that makes the very presence of that flesh offensive? We know the answer: black bodies have been explored, torn and marked; black flesh has been stripped from bone and sinew; rough contours of individuality have been leveled; and America has discovered all that it had hoped to find: pure, unadulterated ugliness—deviancy.7 There is no such thing as an “unmarked” black body; it emerged disfigured—black, phlegmatic, lustful, lazy, cunning, careless, criminal, threatening, dysfunctional—from the very soil of this nation. And each of us—immigrant and native born, black and white and every other hue and faith—have tilled the soil.

In mid-nineteenth-century America, learned men added flesh and bone to the already-emerging black body in an effort to justify the enslavement of Africans. The United States, a society valuing freedom and liberty, relied on medical science to identify the functions, emotional states, and axiology of the black body. The well-known and influential Doctor Samuel A. Cartwright, for instance, diagnosed enslaved Africans’ attempts to escape the harsh conditions of the plantation as drapetomania (from the Greek terms flight and insanity). The “silent sabotage” of farm implements, he suggested, was evidence of hebetude, a condition characterized by “laziness or shiftlessness that caused slaves to mishandle their owners’ property.” Notice here that science medicalized captive Africans’ desire for freedom: enslaved people risked their lives to escape not because they yearned for freedom, a desire that we can even recognize in animals, but because they were “insane.” They broke farm implements not because they were resisting subjugation, but because they were “shiftless.” They were ill, men like Cartwright suggested, and prescribed “corporeal punishment or internment in ‘work camps.’”8 Medicalizing and then offering a “cure” to the ravages of captivity constitute disfigurement.

Today, reasons cited for “criminality” and poor social conditions among African Americans often include “the habit” of having children out-of-wedlock, single-parent households, and poor parenting, all of which, to varying degrees, are recitations of “black sexuality.” Signifiers such as innercity youths, thugs, superpredators, (ex-) offenders, and hoodlums exemplify the most obvious elaborations of the negro ruffian and the colored cannibal.

The American imaginary relies on a stipulative vocabulary—data, images, and labels—to “teach” the public about crime, “the black community,” and all of the “social ills that plague” the African American people. Statistics are often racialized. “Black health,” we learn, is abysmal: African American women are “more likely to die from heart disease and stroke before age 75 than white women.”9 We faintly hear the subtext of “black sexuality” when we learn that black people represented forty-seven percent of all reported cases of HIV/AIDS in 2012.10 To translate, black people are hypersexual and irresponsible. Everyone “knows” that black males are more likely to be homicide victims than husbands; that African Americans are less likely than any other social group to graduate from high school; indeed, the achievement gap appears nearly unbridgeable—“we [black people] are … losing generations.”11 We know that black men are more likely to experience incarceration than a semester of college; in fact, “60 percent of [the] nation’s incarcerated is Black”;12 and, because their unemployment rate is consistently double the national average and black children usually grow up in single-parent households, African Americans—as a rule—are less likely to be productive citizens. Television programs and docuseries such as Lockup depict the captive criminal, subdued and forthcoming, reminding viewers “how it is where I come from.” (Of course, Americans already “know” how things go down in the Ghetto.) The criminal’s own words and brief flashes of the “numbers” flit across viewers’ television screens.

The “facts” that make up our “general knowledge” surround us. No matter political persuasion or cultural background, we marshal this “knowledge” to describe what it means to be black in America. The “facts” fit within existing perceptual frameworks, causing minimal, if any, dissonance: the black community is, and always has been, an incubator of irresponsibility, disease, poverty, and criminality.

Out of Site; Not Out of Mind

The devaluation of “black culture” as urban pathology and victims of police brutality as criminals—a form of disfigurement—requires distance. Spatial distance allows details that give contour to a living community of individuals to blur, creating the illusion that a community of people is an indivisible unit. “Hard facts” and the ubiquitous images of “menacing” black youths are “hyper-singularized” and “merge into a unified representation.”<sup?13 In other words, we can take an individual like Michael Brown, a victim of state violence, and turn him into a synecdoche for everything wrong with black boys. Wilson, a Missouri police officer, shot the unarmed eighteen-year-old, who some witnesses say had his hands up. Law enforcement officials released surveillance video of Brown strong-arming a store clerk for a box of cigarillos, an event completely unrelated to his death. Yet, many considered these images and the “hard facts” of his existence as the cause of his death, which effectively shifted the blame onto his actions. That he had committed a strong-armed robbery confirmed our “general knowledge” about black boys in the ghetto. His body, lying in the middle of the street next to the housing projects, registered as black youths’ loss of respect for authority. It raised questions about “the” black family and the culpability of parents who either refuse or neglect to teach their children how to behave; it shifted blame onto those who refuse to take “responsibility” for their actions. It raised concerns about undereducated black youths, who reject education. It accused African Americans who use Standard American English of “acting White.” When BLM protestors descended on Ferguson, few heard a community of people that demanded to be recognized, to be seen. Instead, their pleas for justice were largely misconstrued as simple anti-law enforcement rhetoric, and they too came to represent dysfunctional black America. An emotional distance perhaps accompanies spatial distance and further obscures the individual. Together they make moot and unnecessary critical engagement with the “facts.” They neutralize nuanced discussions about complex social issues such as crime, incarceration, poor health, poverty.

We should not take the existence of the black body for granted. The black body, like whiteness and blackness, is a socio-historical construction. Each crack of the tongue, a well-placed phrase and its supporting facts and figures, forms a new glyph, a fresh welt of indignity. To be sure, it is not the data in and of itself that are significant here, but the ways in which the media compile and package data and broadcast familiar images of “dysfunctional” black people. There are various overlapping systems at work—spatial arrangements of living spaces, which historical figures we memorialize, and how this choice sanitizes history and amplifies the empty spaces marking the spot of America’s “antiheroes,” including America’s Nat Turners and Gabriel Prossers. Science, data and images, racialized spaces and even selective enforcement of our laws—American hieroglyphics—mark dark-complexioned bodies and disfigures personhood.

Black Illegibility

The American self is an extension of the nation and its values—liberty and freedom, justice and equality. These values have been rather loosely defined, yet have served as national aspirations and the raw substance of American self-making. There have always been clear contradictions between our American values and the American experience. In the 1950s, for many white Americans, particularly those living in the south, American self-making included notions of nation (and its values) and Anglo-Saxon purity; they were indivisible. In fact, one might suggest that (white) “purity” was a national value.

Maintaining and policing the boundaries of Anglo-Saxon purity was a central concern. Indeed, southern backlash was swift and fierce when the United States Supreme Court ruled that public schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”14 White supremacist organizations sprang up throughout the south, vowing to protect “white people” and their southern way of life.15 Well-respected white Mississippians organized the White Citizens’ Council in Indianola.16 The Citizens’ Council was “the South’s answer to the mongrelizers” fighting for racial equality. Proud of their “white blood and white heritage,” the Citizens Council vowed to purge American society of Negroes and “restore Americanism.”17 Only days before Till’s arrival in Money, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, a prominent member of the Citizens’ Council, warned white Mississippians that desegregation would be the “death of southern culture and our aspirations as Anglo-Saxon people.”18 Echoing the sentiments of many white Mississippians, J.W. Milam, one of the men who had abducted and killed Emmett, declared that “[Niggers] ain’t gonna go to school with my kids… Me and my folks fought for this country and we have some rights.”19

Americanism, this convoluted and irreconcilable combination of national and racial aspirations, ran up against the lived realities of every U.S. citizen. Men like Milam and Senator Eastland needed only to bear witness to the man or woman about whom no one was quite certain as to what race s/he “belonged” to recognize that no such thing as racial purity existed. Evidence that the nation did not treat everyone justly, that freedom had always been tenuous at best, particularly for African Americans, would also have seemed impossible to avoid. In Leflore County, Mississippi, where Emmett had been kidnapped, the median annual per capita income was $918; just $595 for African Americans who made up 68% of the 51,813 population. The average adult had completed about six years of school; black adults, only four years.

Let us look at this relationship between disfigurement and American self-making. Disfigurement (both the mutilation of the body and the disfigurement of personhood), I argue, represent attempts to carve out these contradictions. Today, few people openly advocate for racial segregation and lynching to teach the “Niggers” a lesson. Disfigurement in the 21st century is subtle. I began with Emmett Louis Till, “Bo,” as loved ones called him. On every level, his disfigurement is a violent representation of black illegibility.

Corpus Delicti Not Established

There’s no escaping the violence of disfigurement. When the state of Mississippi shipped Till’s remains to Chicago, his mother bore witness to both the violence and the gruesome details: An eye had been knocked out of its socket, still attached to the optic nerve; the other was missing. Till’s swollen tongue hung from his mouth. The right ear had been severed in half and a small, dime-sized hole pierced the temple. The top of the head had been split open.20

Milam and Bryant had tortured Emmett to death. Both had stood trial for their involvement. Yet, justice hinged on whether or not he was sufficiently recognizable. Hired experts for the defense testified that no one—not even a mother—could accurately identify the remains.21 In that stifling courtroom, Till’s personhood had been disarticulated, the innards of his personality eviscerated until, indeed, he didn’t exist. Defense witness Dr. L.B. Otkins testified that he could not determine whether the body belonged to a black or white man, implying that if a member of the medical profession could not determine the race, the mother was surely mistaken.22 The fact that Emmett had had light skin and hazel eyes undermined notions of purity, signaling a breach in the racial hierarchy and the “death of southern culture.”23

Presumably, the defense could not conceive of fourteen-year-old Emmett as a child.24 He becomes a man right before our eyes: “Now, what you saw about the condition of that man as to his head, you couldn’t tell whether it was caused before or after his death, could you”?25 “And was he a well developed body?” continued the defense. “And what was the condition of his privates there, when he was turned over…Were they swelled or stiff…and were they well developed privates?”26 Perhaps this preoccupation with the size and condition of Till’s genitalia had been leading to one question: Was it “the body of a young person, or middle age or an old person?”27 Uncertainty about the age of the body supported the defense’s claim that the corpus delicti could not be established. Equally important, however, was the fact that if they raised doubt that this child in fact existed—whether or not an expert could determine the race of the body—then they raised doubt that their clients had brutally murdered him. Mississippi officials had in fact rushed to bury Till’s body and dusted it with lime, perhaps attempting to accelerate decomposition so that, should it ever be excavated, identity would, at the very least, be questionable.

“The Court instructs the Jury for the Defendants,” reads Instruction No. 6, “that the body taken from the Tallahatchie River as testified to in this cause, as a matter of law, is not shown to be that of Emmett Till.”28 As a matter of law, Emmett Louis Till did not exist. Without having established the identity of the body as that of Emmett Till, there was no body, no death, and “no guilt or admission of guilt.”29 One could not speak of murder and thus demand justice, which for an African American in Money, Mississippi, was elusive to begin with. Neither did Emmett’s personhood fare well outside of the courtroom. When Till-Mobley released photos of his battered body to the public, white Americans allegedly misread the deep gashes that had been sewn together for the natural folds and creases of an old man. Indeed, many white southerners “suspected” that the NAACP had simply tossed the body of some man into the Tallahatchie River to rouse the Negroes; that Emmett was actually alive somewhere in Chicago.30

It’s in His Blood

Attempting to cast doubt on Emmett Till’s innocence, Mississippi Senator Eastland leaked his father’s military records to the press. Apparently, twenty-three-year-old Army Private Louis Till had been court martialed and subsequently executed for murdering a white woman and raping two others. This supposed revelation provided the general public, well-versed in the discourse of negrophobia, with a simple explanation that fit perfectly into existing frames of reference and lent further credence to Bo’s already assumed sexual deviancy. That “Negro blood” coursing through Till’s body explained his alleged indiscretion. Till was the offspring of a rapist.31 Milam and Bryant’s defense team had already suggested that Bo had harassed Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, at their grocery store shortly before his abduction. At one point during the trial, Defense Attorney Carlton “wolf whistled” to demonstrate Till’s flirtatious advances toward Carolyn Bryant. The jury—twelve white men—certainly understood the implications. An “uppity northern nigger,” not to mention the offspring of a rapist, daring to make such advances would lead to the rape of white women, the mongrelization of the Anglo-Saxon race, and a potential breach in the racial hierarchy.32 Many whites “thought anything that happened was justifiable” to protect the race.33 This rhetorical manipulation allowed neither room to breathe nor opportunity for escape.

He Wasn’t Raised Right

If by chance, Till’s “Negro blood” proved to be an insufficient justification for the brutal murder, then his inability to conform to southern mores would suffice. The exchange between Till and Milam and Bryant, his abductors, was anything but acquiescing. Instead of using the requisite “yes sir,” Emmett “was saying, ‘Yes’ and ‘Naw’ … and they started cursing him.”34 The ferocious assault on Till’s mouth, a mouth with which he had dared to whistle at a married white woman; with which he had dared to talk back, draws attention to the rage motivating the beating. They had knocked out all but two of his teeth and torn his tongue from his throat. “Well, what else could we do?” said Milam:

He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger… But I just decided it was a few people got put on notice. … when a nigger even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him.… Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know where me and my folks stand.35

Till’s middle-class upbringing and “northern-bred” confidence rubbed against the grain of southern etiquette that sought black subservience and deference.36 Only an “uppity nigger” would have the audacity to display confidence, to violate a simple southern code of black subservience. “We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.”37 And this deficit fell squarely at his mother’s feet, reflecting her moral shortcomings and failures as a mother.38 As a mother, it was her responsibility to teach her son to stay in his place and to curb his aspirations.

Disfigurement ejected Emmett and Till-Mobley from the realm of moral consideration, flinging both mother and son into the crippling confinement of unworthy Others. Till-Mobley was not a grieving mother—she could not be—and Till caused his own death; if he didn’t, she did; if he was indeed dead; if in fact he ever existed. Attempts to reduce Till’s personhood to an illegible, disruptive, foreign thing has everything to do with Americanism. I argue that it represents the anxiety of white supremacists and their preoccupation with maintaining the integrity and safeguarding the boundaries of Americanism—that irreconcilable combination of racial and national aspirations. As Till-Mobley noted, “To Bryant and Milam, [Till] had represented everything they had refused to recognize in black people. He was confident and self-assured, and he carried himself with a certain dignity they felt they had to beat down, beat back, and beat to a bloody pulp.”39 It is this “bloody pulp,” Till’s illegibility, against which men like Bryant and Milam gave shape to their (pure Anglo-Saxon) American selves: They had done their “duty”; they had put a “few people on notice,” put Niggers in “their place,” and protected southern culture.40 And now, declared defense attorney Carlson, it was the duty of every single Anglo-Saxon on the jury to send those boys home to their families.41

There is a disfiguring of the flesh that we now find repugnant. Even white supremacists can convincingly express repulsion at and sympathy for the mutilation of African American children. Public lynching is no longer in vogue. George Floyd’s public lynching—and I call it a lynching because one can call it nothing else—sparked national outrage. Even conservative politicians and political commentators hostile to demands for civil rights and suspicious, to say the least, of social justice activism, decried Minnesota Police Officer Chauvin’s callousness. Few, if any, offered a rationale for his kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Perhaps the black freedom struggle has wrested some degree of recognition from Americans, sufficient enough to require a 21st century pivot. Today, disfigurement is subtle—its palimpsest-like legibility does not necessarily appear on the flesh as a bullet wound or asphyxiation—but twists and disfigures the personhood of entire groups of people nonetheless. What we no longer say about “nigras,” we say openly about the “criminal” with impunity, indeed, with encouragement. Bear witness: Collectively news commentators, legal analysts, talk show radio hosts, and members of law enforcement provided spectators with a familiar narrative to explain the killing of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, the substance of which reads: The black seventeen-year old man (and notice here that the black teen again becomes an “adult” right before our eyes) was armed with a knife (though he appears to have been walking away) and high on PCP. The black man was high and armed with a dangerous weapon; the Chicago Police Department had to kill him. Though McDonald had not harmed anyone, his potential for criminality posed a threat. By the way, Sean Hannity reminded Fox viewers, black people kill each other every day in Chicago.

Bear witness: Mike Brown looked “like a demon,” with his “intense, aggressive face,” Officer Darren Wilson told the grand jury. Defying the human body’s capacity to withstand devastating trauma, it was “like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him,” he said.42 Conservative commentator Ben Stein explained that eighteen-year-old Brown was too “strong” and “scary” to be a victim, much less an unarmed one. “According to what I read in The New York Times,” he continued, “[he was high] on marijuana. [To] call him unarmed is like calling Sonny Liston unarmed or Cassius Clay unarmed… He was armed with his incredibly strong, scary self.”43 Against the advice of the U.S. Justice Department, the FPD released to the media surveillance video of “Brown stealing the cigars and strong-arming a store clerk.”44 Wilson, the FPD informed the nation, was “a gentle, quiet man, [and an] excellent officer.”45 He represents the upstanding citizen serving his community, offering the most sacred sacrifice (his life) every day he dons the uniform. Wilson came to embody the “upstanding citizen” superimposed onto the black backdrop of Brown’s disfigured personhood—big, scary, criminal—from which Americans, like the “gentle” Darren Wilson, need protection. Many white residents of Ferguson clearly “understood” that Wilson had to kill Brown.

Pay particular attention to the amplification of perceived differences, and the subsequent replacement of the figure—that is the personhood—with the black demon-like synecdoche of fear. Notice that Brown and McDonald, like Emmett, are reduced to bodies. Effacing every facial feature, snatching out the hazel eyes, reconfiguring youth and innocence into something wizened and evil—renders blackness legible and highly visible. In the process, the person is made illegible and indistinguishable from the black mass. It is against this black illegibility that “whiteness” is vivified. Disfigured personhood provides the only sufficient contrast against which to play out the fantasy of superiority (and of meritocracy?). Denials of justice, in short, are not shameful, but necessary and logical consequences of American self-making.

Messianic Black Body

—Nat Turner—Denmark Vesey—Emmett Till—Dr. King—Malcolm X—Fred Hampton—Rodney King—Amadou Diallo—Troy Davis—Eric Garner—Michael Brown—Freddie Gray—Trayvon Martin—Rekia Boyd—Tamir Rice—Sandra Bland—Laquan McDonald—Levar Jones—the next one

Why do many perceive these deaths and assaults upon the body so viscerally, as if each instance is an assault upon their own bodies, as if every event of violence represents one endless war against African Americans? What explains vicarious black suffering? Some might argue that activists and African Americans in general tend to conflate events with little regard to the specificity of facts that distinguish one killing from another. For example, the killing of Walter Lamar Scott, whom Officer Michael Slager of North Charleston, South Carolina’s police department shot eight times in the back, had been an exceptional case, heartbreaking and unjustifiable; however, it bears little resemblance, they might say, to the killing of Trayvon Martin.46 After all, they might even say, George Zimmerman killed Martin in self-defense. Though the outcomes are the same, many argue, the circumstances differ, and these differences matter. Such critiques are old and commonplace. And they miss the point.

Examination of the cumulative effects that such (seemingly) isolated events have on the subjectivities of African Americans offers insight as to why many black people feel these (real/perceived) injustices so viscerally. We experience suffering, I argue, that is simultaneously individual-specific and general. The body of any African American—child, man, or woman—has the potential to signify every indignity and transcend the particularity of subjectivities and the specificity of facts. Brown’s body lying in the middle of a street, exposed to the hot Ferguson sun for four and half hours, is Emmett Till’s disfigured body; Till is Brown is Sterling is Castile is Rice, and, as #BLM protestors say, “Ferguson is everywhere.”

Let me be plain: We are our forebears, grappling with the same social logic that legitimated racial injustice and other intractable issues since the founding of the nation. Of course, we no longer see signs posted in shopping centers designating black and white spaces. And lynch mobs do not raid county jails for black bodies. America has changed. But we should be weary of patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, as if we have left all of the injustices behind in some ossified era waiting to be dug up and examined only in our efforts to avoid the perils of the of past as we march on, searching for our “more perfect union.” The past should be understood not in terms of linearity and causality, one event directly following another, progressing to some supposed telos. Such an oversimplified view of the past discounts events and peoples that contradict notions of American Progress, American Exceptionalism, and the American Dream.

Walter Benjamin suggests that we understand the past as a constellation, “a configuration pregnant with tensions,” crystallizing into individual monads.47 Each “monad” represents a part of the constellation, and each contains “a blueprint of the whole. Like a hologram, what appears to be a unique individual pattern is actually a reflection of the total pattern of collected monads.”48 Each pivotal moment represents the totality of the past. To gain an understanding of the entire constellation, the historian, in principle, need only choose one monad—one pivotal moment—and peel back the familiar layers of overlapping and conflicting social tensions that define a particular era. The era of plantation drudgery and “nigger breaking,” for instance, does not hide out in our textbooks awaiting discovery and explication; it lingers in the era of convict leasing and lynching, in the era of mass incarceration and “officer-involved homicides.”

“Just like every generation before us,” writes Benjamin, “[there is] a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim,” which is to say, social conditions that defined the past are resurrected in our now.49 Benjamin‘s use of the phrase “weak messianic power” suggests that the “echoes” we hear bear only a faint resonance to the voices of preceding generations. Perhaps, however, these echoes are merely of a different character. Certain tensions, having lain dormant during previous generations, have burst through the surface, now burn red and command our attention; what was once prominent now simmers. I do not mean to say that the urgency dissipates or that old tensions exist without affecting the scene. I mean to suggest that we tell the same story, albeit with a twist; that each time we hear it, it is a variant. The echo is not faint; it strikes the ear differently. It’s not a new song, it’s a remix. No, Mike Brown’s body had not been mutilated, but, like Till, his personhood had been disfigured, twisted into an “incredibly scary self,” a “demon,” against which white subjectivity shone with all of its unquestionable professionalism. From this perspective, messianic power is quite strong.

All of the tensions—the shooting deaths and church burnings, the removal of Confederate monuments and rebel state flags, the protests and uprisings across the country—are crystallizing into a national defining moment consistent with our constellation of human suffering and social conflict. White supremacist Dylan Roof’s attack on the Emanuel AME church in 2015 represents one of several events defining the millennial era of the black freedom struggle. For African Americans, each church burning signifies the entire history of “racist white vigilantism in the South.” Every “white supremacist terror attack” signifies the long history of resistance to the progress “made by the Black Liberation movement.”50 African Americans cite the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four young black girls in the 1960s. Such events become a “citation.”51 The 21st-century shooting-deaths of unarmed African Americans and the subsequent refusals to indict the killers cites the death of Emmett Till and the refusal to convict Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, which is merely one monad, “crystallized” in the 1950s, resurrected in our now and carrying a secret index.52 Each of these events, though singular, is an unbroken and undifferentiated chain of black suffering “perpetuated by white supremacists.”

Perhaps one might still object to what seems like the collapsing of eras and the motivations for each act of violence. I return our attention to the object of American obsession: the black body. The body of any African American, I argue, is a potential monad—a messianic black body—reflecting the total constellation of anti-black violence. The messianic black body is a “contiguous-self,” which is to say that the particularity of individuals and seemingly isolated events “touch” along a boundary and are “connected throughout in an unbroken sequence.”53 Every single instant of black suffering, of black disfigurement—despite and in spite of the passage of time, the particularity of selves, and the specificity of events—“touches” and invokes the totality. In this way, one might say that the messianic black body “carries a secret index,” a long and ever-expanding catalog of violence and suffering. For activists, every case of police brutality or racial injustice directed at the body represents a link in a chain of oppression, anchored both in the far-distant past (which never feels quite distant enough) and in our immediate present. Each suffering black body represents a link that evokes the entire chain.

When we see Mike Brown lying in the middle of the street, we recall the body of Emmett Till. When we see the killing of George Floyd, we’re reminded of Eric Garner and his desperate pleas for air. The past forces itself upon us; the voices of our forebears breach the gauzy barrier of our dichotomous past-present construct. We observe this contiguity of black suffering in real time on social media platforms. Black Twitter, a virtual space where African Americans can congregate and catalog personal indignities in a series of tweets, linking instances of racial injustice under a hashtag such as #LaughingWhileBlack, #IfTheyShootMe, #TrayvonMartin, #MikeBrown, etc. Indeed, the phrase I don’t want you to become a hashtag has filtered into the black public sphere to replace the equally—and, among African Americans, well-known—disheartening phrase I don’t want you to be a statistic. Images of suffering black bodies often accompany these 140-character commentaries. In this way, the messianic black body takes the form of hashtag. Each hashtag indexes events and cites previous and similar indignities; indeed, each hashtag, like a suffering black body, indexes, as Baldwin puts it, our nation’s “bloody catalog of oppression.” (See the Cambridge debate from the film I Am Not Your Negro).

We bear witness to activists using their bodies to disrupt the peace staging die-ins. In a special 2015 #BlackLivesMatter edition of Essence magazine, a collage of images covers an entire page. In one image, a black man stares into the distant future (and/or the past), a heavy chain wound once around his neck, draping from his shoulders, and wrapped around his wrists like handcuffs (or perhaps coffles). He holds these hands up, demanding that we see. He stands, a monument of flesh, invoking the messianic black body; we hear the echoes of the enslaved reverberating through the streets of a carceral state articulating a clear message: We are still not free; slavery is not a closed chapter in American history that one cannot or must never revisit. Quite the contrary, the messianic black body signifies the entire tome of black suffering and black claims of humanity. In the frame to the immediate right, a man wears a mask. The words I Can’t Breathe scrawled across the front invoke Eric Garner’s death and African Americans’ collective effort to breathe in a society intent on asphyxiating black lives.54

I am not suggesting that all acts of violence against African Americans are causally related, nor do I mean to suggest that we consider every indignity, every social sleight, real or perceived, as an act of racial animosity. I do mean to suggest, however, that America, which has always been preoccupied with race, provides fertile ground for the persistent resurrection of the messianic black body as an object of fear, ugliness, sexual deviancy, disgust; that American self-making and disfiguring are co-constitutive, one depends on the other. Further, I want to suggest a way to understand why most African Americans do not view (recent and past) instances of police brutality, of church burnings, and even the high rates of incarceration as isolated occurrences, but as a collective, ongoing assault.

I am reminded of Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me.” Suddenly the “sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me…” and “the thing” begins to take shape: “a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a cushion of ashes,” “scorched coil of greasy hemp”; a “vacant shoe,” “a pair of trousers stiff with black blood,” “the lingering smell of gasoline,” the empty “eye sockets of a stony skull.…” The narrator does not merely feel the “cold pity” or describe the grisly details of a recent lynching or merely reveal the human capacity to empathize with the victim. The poem draws the reader’s attention to the resurrection of the black body, of “the dry bones [that stir], [rattle], and [lift], melting themselves into my bones… [, of the] grey ashes [that] formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh.” This strange fruit, tarred and feathered, hanged and burned beyond recognition, is messianic: bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh; it arises from the ashes, forms flesh that merges into the body of the unsuspecting black wanderer who “stumbles suddenly upon the thing.” S/he experiences the pain and fear as “a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that my life be/ burned…. And then they had me.”55 The messianic black body is forced upon the unsuspecting wanderer who, after having stumbled upon the thing, fears for his or her own bodily integrity.


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1 Richard Wright, Between the World and Me,” Partisan Review (July 1935), 18-19.2 James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” reprinted in Notes of a Native Son, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1955, 24.

3 “America” in this article refers to the United States of America, not the entire continent.

4 “From Trayvon Martin to Walter Scott: Cases in the Spotlight,” Time, April 20, 2015, 28-29.

5 CNN, October 16, 2015.

6 Patrisse Cullors, “Where Do We Go From Here,” Essence, February 2015, 92.

7 Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid, New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

8 As cited in Washington, 36. Emphasis added.

9 Jenna Wortham, “Black Health Matters,” The New York Times, August 28, 2015, 2.

10 Tiffany Walden, “Good Medicine: News and Ideas for a Healthy Mind, Body and Spirit,” Ebony, December 2015/January 2016, 98.

11 Katie Nodjimbadem, “Ahead of the Class,” Smithsonian, September 2016, 16.

12 Glenn E. Martin, “One in Three,” Ebony, October 2015, 106.

13/sup> Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Translated by Graham Burchell, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 12.

14 Raymond D’Angelo, “Brown and Beyond: Rising Expectations, 1953,” in The American Civil Rights Movement: Readings and Interpretations (United States of America: McGraw-Hill/Dushin, 2001), 223-24. Brown II was an elaboration of the Court’s earlier decision in the May 17, 1954, Brown versus Board. In this initial case, the Court ruled that segregated schools had severe psychological consequences on black students and violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

15 D’Angelo, “Brown and Beyond,” 226.

16 C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 152.

17 Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer, 46.

18 Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence, 155.

19 William Bradford Huie, “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” 46-48, cited in Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 197.

20 Till-Mobley, 136.

21 Till-Mobley, 187.

22 Clenora Hudson-Weems, Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2016) 29.

23 Till-Mobley, 155.

24 Hudson-Weems, 108.

25 Transcripts from the trial, 102.

26 Transcripts, 176. Emphasis added.

27 Transcripts, 82.

28 Hudson-Weems, 182. Emphasis added.

29 Transcripts, 94.

30 Valerie Smith, “Emmett Till’s Ring,” 156.

31 Clenora Hudson-Weems found that it was a common occurrence for African Americans serving abroad to be awakened in the middle of the night, accused of raping a white woman, arrested, and never seen again. Many of the men who worked in the same segregated platoon with Private Till maintained that he was innocent. Neither his innocence nor his guilt concerns us here, however. What is most significant are the ways in which Mississippi officials, such as Eastland, stripped Emmett Till of his personhood to rationalize and justify the murder.

32 Till-Mobley, 186.

33 Hudson-Weems, 226.

34 Hudson-Weems, 131. (Interview with Wheeler Parker)

35 Huie, 46-48, cited in Tyson, 197.

36 James Braxton Peterson, “The Revenge of Emmett Till: Impudent Aesthetics and the Swagger Narrative of Hip Hop Culture,” African American Review 45, no. 4 (2012): 619.

37 Huie, 46-48, cited in Tyson, 197.

38 Ruth Feldstein, “I Wanted the World to See,” 267.

39 Till-Mobley, 199.

40 Huie, “46-48, cited in Tyson, 197.

41 Tyson, 172.

42 Jake Halpern, “The Cop,” 52.

43 Ahiza Garcia, “Ben Stein: Michael Brown Was ‘Armed with His Incredibly Strong, Scary Self,’” Talking Points Memo, August 27, 2014, http: //talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/ben-stein-michael-brown-unarmed., cited in Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016), 44.

44 Ernie Suggs, “Mo. governor declares emergency,” The Atlantic Journal-Constitution, August 17, 2014, 3A. Emphasis added.

45 Suggs, 3A.

46 David Von Drehle, “This Time the Charge is Murder,” Time, April 2015, 24-28.

47 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main 1, no.2 (1974): 1. Emphasis added.

48 Owen Ware, “Dialectic of the Past/Disjuncture of the Future: Derrida and Benjamin on the Concept of Messianism,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 5, no. 2 (2004): 100.

49 Benjamin, 1.

50 Sampson, Michael, “Who is Burning Down Black Churches? http://www.dreamdefenders.org/burningblackchurches.

51 Benjamin, 2.

52 Ware, 100.

53 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. “contiguous.”

54 Donna M. Owens, “Enough is Enough,” Essence, February 2015, 96-97.

55 Wright. Emphasis added

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