“A Typical Negro” is the title of a 1962 newspaper article narrating the story of an enslaved man, Gordon, and his escape from slavery to freedom. Gordon was presented to the readers of Harper’s Weekly on the anniversary of American independence, 4 July 1863, as the “typical negro” and the archetypal figure of suffering–the talisman of the white abolitionist movement. The narrative relates Gordon’s story of violence, escape, struggle, redemption and freedom, and presents his body as a viscerally emotive set of images: “Gordon as he entered our lines,” “Gordon under medical inspection,” and “Gordon in his uniform as a U.S. soldier.”
Soon after its publication, a photo studio, McAllister & Brothers of Philadelphia, immediately produced and distributed the photographic illustration of Gordon’s half-naked, scarred body–an image which formed the centerpiece to a second Harper’s Weekly article. They disseminated his image as carte de visite “among abolitionists in the North as a vivid and compelling propaganda image.”1 Photo studios throughout the North duplicated and sold prints of “The Scourged Back.”
While Gordon became free through acts of resistance, “his history remains powerfully shackled within iconographic images testifying to his status as commodified spectacle.”2 The enduring representation of Gordon became his back, an “object of scarred, bleeding, suffering humanity.”3 He became both a reified object of propaganda and an object that was commercialized and profited from.
Gordon’s body was used as a trope to manufacture moral outrage among his white audience. The emotional provocation was triggered by the spectacle of black victimization. Gordon’s personal history became atabula rasa on which white abolitionists and profiteers imposed and recreated suitable narratives that shocked, but never quite shook the foundations of an oppressive racial society.
Gordon’s facial features photographed in profile and dimly lit ensured that the audiences knew nothing of Gordon’s everyday life. Instead, we experience his suffering viscerally and singularly through his scars. We know very little of his life in the plantation, of the men who inflicted such brutality, or how such “acceptable” brutalities were sustained. The way Gordon was made to pose represented a visual genealogy going back and forward in time.
In 1850 seven South Carolina slaves were photographed at the request of the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz to provide evidence of the supposed biological inferiority of Africans. The photographs depict five men and two women photographed by J.T. Zealy who posed and arranged his subjects in similar fashion–naked or stripped to the waist; full frontal and in profile, exposed, and examined as scientific specimens. These men and women are given names–Delia, Drana, George, Jem, Jack, Darna, Fassna and Renty–but we learn nothing about them. The only trace we have of their lives exists entirely in the notations left behind in the name of science.
Presented as anthropological investigation, these men and women are given over as spectacles of consumption for a white audience. They were not depicted as representing people living within the American Nation, but as specimens of “otherness.” Jump forward eighty years. Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion were lynched in Indiana in 1930. Local photographer Lawrence Beitler capitalized on the spectacle of lynching photographing the lifeless tortured bodies and grotesquely happy crowds. Lynching photos were made into postcards, with Beritler’s “Photographic Studios” name printed in the corner. The photo sold thousands of copies which Beitler stayed up for ten days and nights printing. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, more than five thousand African Americans were killed by lynch mobs throughout America. In many white communities lynching was a public event, to be witnessed, recorded, made available by means of photographs and circulated as personal memorabilia. Here the photographs aided ritualized killing, by dehumanizing the men and women brutalized by violence while simultaneously normalizing and domesticating terror. They did not document or implicate an act of pre-meditated killing. Instead they became personal mementos of a macabre carnival.
Recurring themes of Black victimization, not only strip bare the basic human dignity of an entire race of people, it robs them of historicity and agency. Mainstream iconography and canonization of the black image has produced a haunting spectacle of the black body as a physical and symbolic site of suffering, but one that is always within the acceptable white political framework.
Repertoires of representation about black bodies and black narratives remain largely unchanged in contemporary depictions. A hundred years after Gordon’s scarred back was photographed and circulated, the civil rights movement is remembered through dramatic photographs of protesters attacked with police dogs and fire hoses, firebombs and shotguns, and tear gas.4 Art historian Martin Berger argues that the most famous images of the era show black activists victimized by violent Southern whites.5 In his analysis of the thirteen photographs of the Birmingham campaign published in Life magazine on May 1963, he writes:
With great consistency, those photographs that most effectively stirred the consciences of northern whites routinely cast blacks as the passive and hapless victims of active and violent whites…It was not that photographs depicting “active” blacks did not exist, but that they held little allure for liberal whites…The appeal of civil rights photographs to whites rested largely on their success in focusing white attention on acts of violence and away from historically rooted inequities in public accommodation, voting rights, housing policies and labor practices.6
These gruesome acts of violence against blacks were framed as spectacles that generated discomfort and outrage among the white population, while offering a socially acceptable way of depicting racism. “Spectacle is a form of camouflage. It does not conceal anything; it simply renders it unrecognizable.”7 The historicity of men and women of Black America, their everyday struggle, resistance and heroism remains camouflaged and their narratives have become subsumed into a generic denunciation of the mass suffering.
Photographs that depict white cops inflicting hurt on the black population, aids the narrative that identifies black bodies as victims. These images while potent as forms of representation that create uproar always mask the structural injustices and inequalities that have benefited white societies. It also successfully positions the “problem” of race, as the problem of “violence”, performed by “bad” white actors on “innocent” black victims. When representations of black passivity and victimhood are the norm, images that adhere to this norm reinforce and aid the maintenance of racial systems of domination.
Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant was killed in front of his Bronx apartment building. He was shot at 41 times in a matter of seconds. Nineteen bullets struck him directly. Fifty rounds fired by NYPD officers killed Sean Bell. Mike Brown’s bullet-ridden body remained lying in the street for four hours in the summer heat before it was collected and taken to the morgue. Eric Garner died after a chokehold. While lying facedown on the sidewalk surrounded by four officers, Garner was heard repeating “I can’t breathe” eleven times. Officers in each case were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The men who killed Mike Brown, Eric Garner, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice and a thousand others before are not heinous villains, bad whites or the “exceptions.” We should not dismiss police violence solely as the misdeeds of a few officers. These and countless other killings do not represent some unfortunate circumstances or the indiscriminate violence of a few “bad apples.” Rather, these homicides expose the institutional racism and the white privilege that animates police power.
Police impunity and violence are not aberration; police officers act as petty sovereigns of a system that constantly reproduces injustice and oppression across the United States, and which remains tacitly supported by many millions today. Put differently, the act of killing allows policing as a symbolic institution to reaffirm and sustain itself. The actions of police and public are entwined and inseparable. Police power function in the service of the social order that authorizes it.
A vast majority of this country has a stake in a racially oppressive system; but the human casualties of this oppressive system do not affect them. It is here that even the most brutal and banal violence is disavowed, depoliticized and normalized in the name of “justifiable homicide,” even in cases where the evidence is too daunting to deny. To reject police violence and state killing is then a rejection of existing social arrangements. That rejection must begin by capturing the injustice that does not implicate a society that largely sees itself as humane, liberal and progressive. We cannot transform, disrupt or bring change without challenging belief systems that are not only taken for granted as humanist but are seen as the beacon of freedom. It is upon us to demand and make images, words and arguments that disrupt the underlying racial values which have allowed social inequalities and even violence to become widely malignant.
1. Collins, Kathleen. “The scourged back.” History of Photography 9.1 (1985):43-45.
2. Bernier, Celeste-Marie. “A ‘Typical Negro’or a ‘Work of Art’? The ‘Inner’ via the ‘Outer Man’in Frederick Douglass’s Manuscripts and Daguerreotypes.” Slavery & Abolition 33.2 (2012): 287-303.
4. Berger, Martin A. “Fixing Images: Civil Rights Photography and the Struggle Over Representation.” RIHA JOURNAL (2010).
7. Martinot, Steve, and Jared Sexton. “The avant-garde of white supremacy.” Social Identities 9.2 (2003): 169-181.