Tuesday, May 25, 2021

To See Yourself as You are Seen, As We See You


Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, Marion, Indiana[1]


“’Make America great again . . .’ there [is] a blind spot in this idea of the America that once

was great or this place deep in the historical past where America was great. [. . .]

. . . we only feed into the erasure of the actual history of America and the actual history of

my ancestors by deciding that we would rather not see their images.”

Barry Jenkins[2]


On Friday, May 14 Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaption of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, began streaming on Amazon Prime.  The series, four years in the making, debuts at a pivotal moment in our shared history: just shy of one month after Derek Chauvin’s conviction in the murder of George Floyd, ten days shy of the one-year anniversary of that murder and just two weeks shy of the centennial of the Greenwood Massacre.[3]  If the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice, this ground breaking visual narrative of our nation’s racial legacy may be understood as yet another point on that trajectory. 

Like Whitehead’s original novel, Barry Jenkins’ series offers another contribution, in powerful visual language, to contemporary neo-slave narrative.  Neo-slave narrative challenges the past in the light of the present while simultaneously challenging our vision of the present by remembering the past; in so doing these narratives reconstruct United States history from the bottom up and through a Black gaze.   His visual neo-slave narrative, also like Whitehead’s novel, intersects with speculative fiction – specifically the New Weird -- and irrealism.  Of the two narrative genres I’ve just named “speculative fiction” is perhaps the most familiar; think fantasy or science fiction. These are works in which the setting is other than the “real” world, involving supernatural, futuristic or other imagined elements and written as commentary on contemporary society.   The “New Weird” emerges from fantasy to overturn cliché and twist the tradition; it has been described as a genre that subverts the fantasy conventions in order to unsettle rather than console the reader as it critiques our current moment.  Which brings us to “irrealism,” that is, fiction inclined toward realism yet engaged with the unknowable, indefinable or unimaginable – think Kafka’s Gregor Samsa who awakes one morning from troubled dreams to find he has been transformed into a giant cockroach.

In the first episode of the series, Jenkins plunges us into a horrific plantation scene: a fugitive Black man – Big Anthony -- has been recaptured and returned to the plantation; as an example to other enslaved people who might contemplate escape he is whipped, hung up by his arms, set on fire and burned alive.  The scene unfolds in the presence of a lunch party at which the plantation owner’s guests eat, drink and are entertained by this spectacle of black pain.  There is something both familiar – sickeningly familiar – and yet uncanny, irreal about this scene. 

These are familiar images from our not-too-distant past: photographs of lynched Black men, women and children transformed into keepsakes or souvenirs in the form of postcards.   The illustration at the top of the page is taken from one such memento -- the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930.  I have cropped the image to direct the viewers eye away from the bodies of Shipp and Smith and instead to the onlookers in the crowd.  The photograph offers but a sampling of those in attendance – some ten to fifteen thousand whites were involved in the lynching – a young couple who appear to be on a date, an excited child, an older man who gazes directly into the camera pointing proudly at the two bodies hanging above the crowd.

Jenkins’ tragically familiar scene becomes uncanny, indeed irreal, because the director forces a change in the viewers’ perspectives.  Rather than the white gaze of the guests directed at the spectacle of black pain, after the fashion of the souvenir postcard, we see the crowd of guests through the Black gaze, through Big Anthony’s eyes.  More than that, in this agonizing moment Jenkins gives Big Anthony a voice: he says to the other enslaved people forced to witness his murder “no more masters, no more slaves,” then to his brutalizer, “God damn you, God damns you.”[4] As we the viewers are compelled  to look through this Black man’s eyes, the critical gaze shifts from the racial object – the non-white Other – to what has been, conventionally, the racial subject, the white self.  Object becomes subject and subject, object.

The Underground Railroad has been in production for four years and in it Barry Jenkins anticipates, replicates and reinforces one of the most remarkable events of this last pandemic year.  I refer to the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.  Former police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine and a half minutes, an agonizing spectacle captured through a Black gaze on the smart phone of a courageous young Black girl.  The video, as is by now typical, went viral but reaction to it was far from typical: it sparked a racial uprising across the United States and the globe; a hitherto unprecedented diversity of people in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps in the millions, rose up to demand racial justice, an end to police brutality.  Videos of Black men, women, and children brutalized or murdered by the police have become commonplace; scarcely a week goes by without news of yet another such recording uploaded to social media – what made this video different?  I suggest that the difference lies, as with Jenkins’ depiction of a Black man’s lynching, in a forced shift of perspective.  We do not see George Floyd’s murder through police body cams, through the white gaze.  We see him die through the eyes of a teen-aged Black girl.  We see Derek Chauvin as he, like so many others have been, is seen, through a Black gaze.  For some of us this was tragically familiar, we know and recognize it; for others it was uncanny, irreal . . . something unknowable or unimaginable.

The uncanny takes that which is familiar, makes it strange and thereby enables critique.  The irreal engages with the unknowable, indefinable or unimaginable and thereby empowers us to imagine it, define it, recognize it.  W.E.B. DuBois with The Souls of Black Folk was said to have drawn away the veil concealing Black experience from the white gaze.  In his reimagining of Colson Whitehead’s novel Barry Jenkins does something equally revelatory: he draws away the veil concealing whiteness and the function of white supremacy from white people.  Just as the video of George Floyd’s murder enabled white viewers to see and to recognize what has long been familiar to Black folk in this country, Barry Jenkins, “virtuosic landscape artist” as he is named in the New Yorker, allows us to see ourselves and our country for what and who we are.    We are a country created and recreated by immigrants.  We are a country that tells immigrants to go back where they came from; a country that says that to anyone who isn’t white, even if their ancestors came here hundreds of years ago or were here before Columbus. We are a country whose citizens have the right to freely assemble and to protest.  We are also a country where there is “no excuse for the destruction of property” but a seemingly infinite series of excuses for the killing of unarmed Black men, women, and children – we call it qualified immunity.  But this is not all that we are, neither is it who we have to be.  If we are to change, to move towards a just and peaceful community we must see ourselves whole.  We must be willing not only to be seen but to see ourselves as we are seen.  Why is this?

While the arc of the moral universe may well bend towards justice that destination is far from inevitable.  Most of us associate this phrase with Dr. Martin Luther King jr.  But King was in fact paraphrasing part of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.  In that sermon Parker says, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe.  The arc is a long one.  My eye reaches but little ways.  I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight.  I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[5]  I quote him here at length as his words convey an uncertainty that Dr. King’s do not.  He tells us that he doesn’t so much understand the moral universe but envision it through the prism of his faith. It is through his own conscience and his own actions that justice may be achieved.  Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, like the novel it reimagines and so many other works gifted us by Black artists over the generations, offers us a different lens, a different mirror.  Not the mirror of Erised in which we are mesmerized by the deepest and most desperate of our desires but rather the picture of Dorian Gray in which we see the degradation of the soul and the dangerous consequences of sin and excess.

If you are committed to social justice, I recommend the series to you.  It is brutal, beautiful, and offers us a glimpse of the sublime – a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation, that which is unknowable, indefinable or unimaginable – empowers us to know it and moves us to action.




[1] Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, Cornell University Library https:digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:1508533, Creative Commons, May 17, 2021

[2] Terry Gross, “Underground Railroad Director Barry Jenkins Sees Film as An ‘Empathy Machine.’” Fresh Air. May 10, 2021 https://www.npr.org/transcripts/994616279

[3] Also known as Tulsa Race Massacre – May 31 to June 1, 1921 – when white mobs, many of whom were deputized and given weapons by city officials attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the single worst incident of anti-black violence in American history, the attacks destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district, leaving some 10,000 Black people homeless and resulting in property damage in excess of $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.25 million in 2019).  Some 800 people were hospitalized while some 6,000 displaced Black residents were interned in large facilities. 

[4] Terry Gross, op. cit.

[5] Melissa Block, “Theodore Parker and The ‘Moral Universe’.” All Things Considered. NPR (Sept 2, 2010). For a complete account of Parker’s sermon, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” originally published in Ten Sermons of Religion (1853); the Elibron Classics (2001) edition is a facsimile reprint of that 1853 edition as published by John Chapman, London.

Michelle Collins-Sibley is Professor of English & Director of the Africana Studies Program at the University of Mount Union.  She currently serves on the board of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and the ACN steering committee.

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