On the heels of the installation of No Accident, 2013 at Temple Contemporary for the next couple of months (thanks, Stephanie Rogers!) as one of several answers to the question “What are the changing values of wealth?”, my friend John and I chatted about ‘Black bodies’ vs. ‘Black people’. No Accident exists at the crux of Temple’s question and John’s thought exercise in that the speaker in No Accident (me, obviously) performs race and class through accent in ways that are meant to mitigate the way her body is read in larger society but that also frustrate her relationships within her community. Our exchange:
John: So Mr. Coates is doing a book signing here tomorrow at CAAM and I got to thinking of a question I’d possibly be interested in asking… I haven’t read his text, but have checked his articles and reviews and such and throughout he’s always referencing the Black Body. Over time, I’ve been interested in the way that people adopt this particular phrasing as a way of sort of identifying themselves within a certain discourse of Black Contemporaneity without perhaps questioning the clinical distance and dis embodiment such terms are meant to discredit and lay bare. Does this make sense? In other words, I think of Black people, Black folks– minds, souls, hearts, etc attached. I wonder if the clinical distance that seems to be present doesn’t ultimately reinforce a sort of dehumanizing effect. Can you think of when you first noticed this shift in language?
Allison: I think that the ‘body’ is an agent in the outer world, not the person in community. More often than not, my encounters in the outer world are ‘body’ experiences, but once I’ve… marinated in a situation, I become a person – until someone or something reverts me back to ‘body’. The language… Deborah Willis used it to talk about the history of Black female body in photography. The title Invisible Man suggests it – the narrator isn’t visible as a man, rather, he’s visible as a body. What’s interesting is that in Toni Morrison’s novels, the Black community is central to the worlds she creates, so the ‘switch’ rarely takes place. At the beginning of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, there’s this line: “These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human.” 1937. So, I think, within the community, there’s been that body/person split – an understanding of it; a theory of what it is, where it comes from, how it’s handled – for a long time.
J: I know it’s been a big part of Deb’s work and her series of books. It’s interesting that you place it in the framework of what I’ve heard from Physicists when they talk about The Observer. The world isn’t made until there’s someone to observe it…
A: Yes, but some observers observations have privilege over the observations of other observers. You know? Zora also writes: “Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide.” You have to see right. I look at myself and my body isn’t separate from my self. It’s why I take care of my skin and hair and all the rest the way I do. Even if the impulse in the hive mind is to belittle me by way of a body it perceives as separate from me as a person, I see how wonderful I am, I embody that – in my own way – and it is undeniable. That can’t be taken away from me. But. I’m also not a Black man.
I am like Shadrack in Sula, comforted only when I see my Black reflection. My skin is the history of everyone who came before me and an experience shared with myriad distant kinfolk – even those not of African origin. I like how Ta-Nehisi talks about becoming a people under those circumstances.
J: Right, I know the concept has been present for a long time, but it seems to come out of the 90s critical discourse kind of stuff tho, no? Even in the Civil Rights Era language was framed in terms of things like “Black people are being brutalized”…Black men, Black women, and Black children were lines of Malcolm’s rhetoric. Martin’s were often in terms of “The Negro,” but also along the lines of men, women, and children. When I think of talk about Black Bodies it makes me think of something a plantation owner would be saying – which is perhaps the point, but I’ve just been thinking about this more and more I guess over the years, especially at conferences and such and with Ta-Nehisi’s national success it’s kind of entered into another level…
A: Yeah, except, now the brutality has moved out of the community and we understand it as happening to people who are not Black people but who have bodies that code them as Black – even if they are Latino or Asian. I see what you’re saying, though. It makes a lot of sense. If we don’t talk like there’s parity between people… Got it.
J: Right! I guess as I’ve gotten older I’m more leaning toward things that work toward practicing things the way I’d like them to be. While this sounds EXCEEDINGLY naive, it’s not without knowledge of the way these other things work, but working to create and manifest something that should be so when it comes to pass it will be a matter of course rather than some aberration.
A: I talk about body, though, as the form, the symbol of human and use my own body as the representation of ‘person’ in my work, and there’s power in that, too. Did you see Thomas Chatterton Williams’ review of Coates’ book? It’s good. I see the conversation about body, though, as foundational, like it’s getting to the most basic thing that people – all people – in this country should reasonably expect: physical security. And people whose bodies are on the darker end of the spectrum cannot expect that at all.
J: No I get it, he was on Warren Olney’s show the other day talking about reparations and was so plain about it it was ridiculous. So that basic level of security that you mentioned, most people can look at things in terms of basics, so it makes for a compelling case that most people get, which is also how he spoke of reparations.
A: Yes. But what I also like about what Coates has done – and not just him, a bunch of other Black men writers (like Wesley Morris on film and Teju Cole on photography), in fact – is push the conversation in the right direction (and there is a right direction) with lots of space for nuance.