Cassandra Jackson. Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body.
If you had an uneasy feeling in 2003 when you first encountered the CD cover for 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' album--the sneaking suspicion that you should be making intricate connections between the rap artist's oiled musculature, depicted as if through a bullet hole of shattered glass, and nineteenth-century images of whip-scarred slaves--then Cassandra Jackson's Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body is for you. In the tradition of some of the most influential and often taught works by cultural critics like Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, Jackson asks and answers difficult questions about the politics of looking, the dangers of seeing (and not seeing), and the ways in which we can only understand contemporary visual culture depicting black male bodies through informed readings of nineteenth-century historical and social contexts. Her book brings out the best of interdisciplinary scholarship, drawing on visual culture, trauma studies, cultural studies, disability studies, narrative theory, and work on gender and black masculinity.
Jackson begins with what is arguably the quintessential photographic image from the nineteenth century: The Scourged Back (1863). The image is of a black man, unclothed from the waist up, whose back appears to be almost completely covered with thick scars that the word keloid barely begins to describe. Yet Jackson notes that this image is not in keeping with other photography of the period depicting wounded bodies, such as Civil War medical photography. Unlike the clinical, brusque quality of medical photographs, Jackson deftly explains The Scourged Back as a carefully crafted image operating at the nexus of sentimentality and realism. In the same way that Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin became an archetypal abolitionist text causing readers to weep for (and with) enslaved characters like Uncle Tom, who experienced horrible physical and mental atrocities, so did The Scourged Back become an iconic image that allowed white viewers to imagine, lament, and ultimately, Jackson reminds us, appropriate the pain experienced by the man in the photograph (12). Both works appealed to whites' humanity by making slavery relatable, but Jackson is right to point out that there are issues seemingly inherent in the medium of photography that sentimental fiction does not present. Often assumed to be an accurate, objective "picture" of life, photography brings the subject's past agony into the present of the viewer's optical experience (15). Building from work by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Jackson uses the phrase "sentimental aesthetic" to explain the contradictory operations of The Scourged Back: even as encountering the black subject invites an empathetic, almost physical response, the white viewer is simultaneously reassured that s/he is neither enslaved nor brutalized like the subject (16). Accordingly, the very point of human connection is also the point of great social distance. This paradox is one of Jackson's strongest insights; indeed, she argues that the sense of sympathetic identification in the midst of difference is heightened by the composition of The Scourged Back, suggesting that the visual codes of race invoked through the positioning of the slave in the image would not have been lost on the nineteenth-century viewer. Although his skin is dark, Jackson argues that the slave's profile subtly reminds the viewer of an ideal--that is, white--human type, referencing the Apollo figure at the top of J. C. Nott and George R. Gliddon's terrifying taxonomy, Types of Mankind (1854). In Jackson's words, "the sitter's resemblance to common standards of beauty invested with notions of high culture would have signified intelligence and nobility, while his mutilated back would have been equally indicative of his status as a slave" (20).
Jackson concludes her first chapter with two major points that are foundational to the entire book: first, that reading the wounded body may be dangerous because we always run the risk of becoming participants in the original act(s) of wounding, both in our positioning vis-a-vis the victim depicted and because we may minimize, devalue, or too easily appropriate the painful experience of that victim; and second, that the reproduction, sale, and distribution of images of black men (what Jackson calls "a new sort of auction block," 21) may prove to have unnerving ramifications in terms of the relationship between consumption and desire. Specifically, Jackson invokes the truism of the relationship where the viewer has power over the viewed, a characteristic of the male gaze that she recognizes as a hallmark of feminist criticism. Yet, in Jackson's view, this relationship is dynamic rather than static, in part because of the nature of wounding. As she explains in chapter two regarding contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems, "the meaning of the wound is not fixed, and... images of bodily difference can both sustain and disrupt the conquering gaze at once" (34). Whether through artistic recasting of historical photographs (as Weems does) or through depictions of pain and its wounds in hip hop culture or advertising, Jackson's analysis suggests that the wounded black body bears visible marks, reminding the viewer that this body has already been penetrated, which seems to invite the penetration of the gaze as if following the same wound track as the initial whip or bullet. Yet artists who produce and recast these images also push viewers to move beyond the simplistic desire to view--and thereby master or eroticize--suffering and scarred black male bodies.
For example, in her print Black and Tanned, Weems calls attention to the process of meaning making by taking another (untitled) image of the same whip-scarred man depicted in The Scourged Back, framing it like a family portrait, and superimposing words over it that compel the viewer to consider the circumstances that led to the production of the original photograph as well as the continuing violent impact of slavery over time. Indeed, Jackson notes that this juxtaposition of past and present is reminiscent of "the primary mechanism of trauma, its invasive recurring memories that know no distinctions of time" (32). Like Toni Morrison's Beloved--Jackson invokes main character Sethe's usage of the term "rememory"--Weems's art dismantles the very notion of history as linear (38). More importantly for Jackson, such art suggests that cultural narratives are also not linear, allowing her to align more recent critical theories with readings of past sensibilities. Employing Rosemarie Garland Thomson and Bertolt Brecht, Jackson again shows that nineteenth-century notions of abolitionist empathy toward brutalized black slaves rested on unsettling foundational assumptions about blackness. In contextualizing the 1863 photograph used in Black and Tanned: "While the nonnormate body requires explanation, the blackness of this body is the explanation: this body was mutilated because it is black. At the same time, we understand that this black body is only the subject of a photograph because it has been mutilated" (33). By figuring disability in this way, Jackson offers an important insight reminiscent of science fiction writer Octavia Butler's assertion that Dana, the protagonist in her novel Kindred, could not time travel back to slavery and "come back whole"; Dana lost her arm. That is, Jackson's study reminds us that both corporeal and psychic wounding are narrative acts, and that depictions of embodiment have both significant symbolic and real-world consequences.
Despite her provocative statements about the relationship between visual culture and narrative in the first two chapters, however, Jackson does not devote as much space to combining visual analysis with narrative theory as her readers might hope. In chapter three, Jackson's readings of CD covers (Nas, 50 Cent, and DMX) show that the stereotypically virulent, powerful, overly sexualized black male body is packaged and commodified in ways that allow it to be controlled and enjoyed by the consumer. For instance, Jackson reads the cover image of DMX's Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood (1998) as simultaneously sexy (baring it all) and as a kind of vivisection where red liquid gives the illusion of his skin being stripped and/or dripping from his body. To Jackson, "these images of DMX are expressions of the mythic sexuality of black men and the viewer's ability to master that sexuality as well" (53). But Jackson's strongest reading comes at the end of the chapter where she takes into account not just visual iconography and pervasive cultural narratives such as Uncle Tom/black Jesus (think the 2006 Rolling Stone cover featuring Kanye West sporting a crown of thorns), but rather delves into the specificities of the lyrics within one particular rap song and the layers of meaning added through its music video: 50 Cent's "Many Men" (2003). Here Jackson very effectively returns to her argument about traumatic memory, grounding her previous notion of art's bearing witness to the traumatic slave past (the art of Carrie Mae Weems) in 50 Cent's artistic choice to make a music video dramatizing the shooting that left so many scars on his body. As Jackson says, "he extends the meaning of his own personal trauma to signify a collective traumatic memory" (60). This may be the most forceful declaration of the gravitas of popular culture in the entire book.
In fact, readers may wish that Jackson spent more time on the lyrics and narratives of the songs within the albums whose covers she so adroitly deconstructs. For instance, how to make sense of the fetishization and wounding of the black male body in 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' without some deeper acknowledgement of the exploitation of black female bodies via songs like "P.I.M.P." in the very same album? Critics like T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting in Pimps Up, Ho's Down have reminded us that "black women's bodies continue to be the primary free-floating signifier of sex showcased in hip hop for multiracial and transnational consumption." Yet perhaps these juxtapositions--reading 50 Cent's "P.I.M.R" next to "Many Men"--are the next steps for another critic. Nevertheless, Jackson does for rappers 50 Cent and DMX what Patricia Hill Collins did for Destiny's Child and Jennifer Lopez in Black Sexual Politics, establishing a longer collective memory in order to understand contemporary cultural representations. As Collins writes, only then can we negotiate the "ever-changing yet distinctive constellation of sexual stereotypes in which Sarah Bartmann's past frames J-Lo's present," or where the whip-scarred slave frames the embodiment of rap artists.
Jackson wrestles with the meaning of collective memory most directly in chapter five, "The Appropriation of Lynching Photography." First, Jackson interprets museum exhibits from "Witness" at New York City's Roth Horowitz Gallery to "Without Sanctuary" exhibits at the New York Historical Society, Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum, and the Martin Luther King Center (in association with Emory University in Atlanta). She seems to question whether or not it is possible to create, or experience, a museum exhibit featuring lynching photography in a responsible, historically informative, or even sacred manner, given the demanding and difficult nature of viewing images of lynching. May we look? How should we look? What are the circumstances of viewing? And, "how can we bear to look at this?" (78). Jackson directs her readers to ask questions about audience based on the organizing themes and implicit messages of the exhibits, from the atmosphere of reverence created by the King Center exhibit to the performative, interactive nature of parts of the Warhol exhibit: "The comment book, daily dialogues, video diary booth, and 'Postcards for Tolerance' all offered structures through which patrons could create a counter frame for the images" (82). From the outset, Jackson acknowledges that any display or reproduction of lynching photography may be in danger of damaging interpretations (e.g., underscoring racist assumptions or appearing to support white violence). But Jackson seems both intrigued by the nigh-redemptive possibilities of creative and responsible exhibits, and wary of the power in the hands of the viewer when encountering such images through an online exhibit like withoutsanctuary.org, where online "patrons" can peruse numerous photographs of lynching with little framework and for their own purposes.
Turning from museum exhibits to specific contemporary artists, Jackson again proves that effective art causes us to see anew when artists take familiar images and make them strange. Reinterpreting a 1937 photograph from Life magazine, Pat Ward Williams's Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock (1986) "transforms the image by compelling the viewer to see the narrative of torture, rather than its end result, the corpse" (91). Similarly, Kerry James Marshall's Heirlooms and Accessories (2002) teaches the viewer how to read a well-known image by causing her to concentrate on the faces of female spectators in the crowd rather than the bodies of the two young black men, Abe Smith and Thomas Shipp, hanging from a tree nearby. Marshall reproduces the same lynching photograph in three frames, printing the image each time in such a way that it appears bleached-out, a mere background for the focal point of each frame: the face of a young white woman made hyper-visible because the artist surrounded each face with an oval, jewel-studded frame. The effect is like a cameo on a necklace. Jackson notes, "Marshall's piece seems to put some pressure on white-identified viewers, forcing a kind of recognition of these women .... Any one of [them] could be a mother, a favorite aunt, or the self, staring back at the viewer" (97). Finally, Shawn Michelle Smith's series In the Crowd also asks the viewer to foreground white women who attended lynchings by reproducing these women's figures as blank, white silhouettes (the tortured corpses of lynching victims are noticeably absent). Jackson concludes, "Circling questions about guilt, responsibility, and power, Smith's art suggests that the failure to acknowledge this history of involvement in lynching does not erase it and that the repressed returns to us like these ghostly apparitions" (99).
Jackson's book is saturated with figures that haunt American culture: the lynched, crucified, scarred, weakened, and wounded black man. Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body is a book that calls for interaction; it is contemporary and topical. Yet it is no accident that the book begins and ends with the context of the nineteenth century. Jackson's final chapter, "Seeing without Looking: Lynching in Charles W. Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition," explores Chesnutt's historical fiction. Jackson examines scenes of "looking" throughout the novel, from the misadventures of Sandy; a loyal-but-hapless black servant who did not commit, but is nevertheless accused of, the murder of a wealthy white woman named Polly Ochiltree ("the act of Sandy allegedly viewing the body of Ochiltree in this case implies rape, a violation of the cultural codes that dictate who is allowed to gaze upon whom" ) to the many preparations described in the novel for the spectacle that a town lynching provides ("Only through repetitive acts of looking can the crowd be satisfied" ). Given that her argument rests on the significance of seeing and not seeing in Chesnutt's novel, those familiar with the plot may wonder why Jackson does not discuss the doubling effects of the characters Mrs. Olivia Carteret (white) and her doppelg"inger, a just-a-shade-darker half-sister, the black-descended Mrs. Janet Miller. Though Jackson does not go into the visual codes of color and race for these women, she does discuss the white brigand Tom Delamere's impersonation of Sandy. Building on the work of Sandra Gunning and Nancy Bentley, Jackson explains, "both lynching and minstrelsy operated as part of the larger visual landscape of racialized performance spectacles intended not only to promote the power of the white onlooker's gaze, but to also diminish the notion of black advancement by enacting carnivalesque stagings" (108).
Ultimately, Jackson helps scholars and students alike to make sense of the significance of history and the complex "genealogies" of visual culture. By teaching her readers to look with new eyes, Jackson gives us the tools to confront emerging artifacts of material culture that cannot be understood without her frameworks. In June of 2012, when Adidas prepared to introduce--and then summarily withdrew--the JS Roundhouse Mid sneakers designed by Jeremy Scott (a purple, white and grey hi-top with a Velcro strap over black laces and yellow ankle cuffs connected to the shoe via a plastic chain, aptly dubbed "shackle" sneakers by the public), I found myself returning to Jackson's fourth chapter, "Branding Black Men: Hank Willis Thomas's B[R]anded Series." How else to make sense of a sneaker that potentially evokes the fetters of slavery than to consider Thomas's work, which "establishes a genealogical link between the exploitation of the black male body in the past, particularly under slavery, and the contemporary exploitation of the black male body in the world of advertising" (Jackson 62)? Thomas's juxtaposition of the image of the whip-scarred man from The Scourged Back underneath a familiar credit-card logo (The Chase MasterCard, 2004); Thomas's critique of the NBA and Nike advertisements as a kind of slave trade (Basketball and Chain, 2003; Hang Time (Circa 1923), 2008); and Thomas's re-vision of popular MasterCard commercials via plumbing the depths of his family's own grief after his cousin's death, leading to the unexpected tagline: "Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless" (Priceless # 1, 2004)--are aft productively examined by Jackson, who reminds us that, "In the end, Thomas's work is about bearing witness, making the wounds of capitalism visible" (76). The recent Adidas "shackle" sneakers are an important reminder of just how significant Jackson's work really is. By teaching us how to read images as complex cultural constructs with dynamic histories, Jackson moves us beyond identity politics and asks us to consider what we can do with such images.
Reviewed by Jennifer McFarlane-Harris, Messiah College
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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