“Look, A Negro! My body was returned spread eagled, disjointed, re-done, in mourning on this white winter’s day.” –Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
By Sikivu Hutchinson
The black body has always been an object of deep and abiding obsession in the American imagination. Be it cavorting in “funky” abandon on a dance floor, vaulting off a basketball court in dunk mode, suckling apple-cheeked white babies, trotted out in a police line-up, or greased down, poked, prodded and staged on a slave auction block, the black body occupies that mystical place between corporeality and supernaturalism. Recently, American Atheists, a predominantly white group with a largely white leadership, slapped up a billboard in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania neighborhood featuring a picture of a shackled naked black slave and a bible quote that said “slaves obey your masters.” The ad was intended to protest Pennsylvania’s boneheaded declaration of 2012 as the so-called “Year of the Bible.” Much to the “astonishment” of AA reps, the billboard was reviled, defaced, and labeled a hate crime by some in the African American community. Apparently offended black folk just weren’t intelligent enough to grasp the sage lesson that American Atheists, prominent champion of anti-racist social justice, was trying to teach them. Instead, some “misconstrued” the message as racist, concluding that, in a country where white nationalists have issued a clarion call to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.
In the 2002 documentary Race—The Power of an Illusion, Harvard science historian Evelynn Hammonds discusses how much of 19th century scientific inquiry on racial difference revolved around black bodies: “If we just take African Americans as an example, there’s not a single body part that hasn’t been subjected to this kind of analysis. You’ll find articles in the medical literature about the Negro ear, and the Negro nose, and the Negro leg, and the Negro heart, and the Negro eye, and the Negro foot – and it’s every single body part. And they’re constantly looking for some organ that might be so fundamentally different in size and character that you can say this is something specific to the Negro versus whites and other groups. Scientists are part of their social context. Their ideas about what race is are not simply scientific ones, are not simply driven by the data that they are working with. That it’s also informed by the societies in which they live.”
Hammonds underscores the political “invention” of the black body through the lens of scientific objectivity. The legacies of slavery and scientific research dovetailed with the popular display of black bodies as the ultimate site of racial otherness. These legacies shape the experience of walking, driving and breathing while black. They inform the terror of being a carefree teenager out for a casual stroll in the kind of private gated community where 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed recently by a white neighborhood watch captain in Orlando, Florida. The case made national headlines due to the “curious” fact that three weeks after the murder, the shooter (who claimed he was acting in self-defense) has not been charged and is still walking around free. According to Martin’s family Trayvon was found with candy and ice tea on his body. Continue reading “Slaves like Us: American Atheists on the Plantation”