Black Face, White Gaze: Encoding Bodies and De-humanizing the Face

Like a voice crying out in the wilderness, Frederick Douglass speaks both eloquently and powerfully to the brutality and injustice of chattel slavery. For example, in his 1852 oration, “The Internal Slave Trade,” Douglass offers his own analysis and stringent condemnation of America’s participation in the trafficking of human beings for economic gain. He begins by drawing our attention to “the practical operation” of America’s slave industry, an industry “sustained by American politics and American religion! Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market.”[1] Driven around the country like mere animals, these men, women, and children are beaten, prod, and whipped, as they process in dirge-like fashion toward the New Orleans slave market. Douglass then zeros in on a few of these infelicitous, iron-clad souls—an elderly, gray headed man, a young mother with sun-scorched back and teary eyes carrying her infant child, a teen-aged girl mourning the violent separation from her mother. Tired and exhausted from hours of exposure to the blistering sun, the young mother begins to lag behind. Then you hear it—“a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul.”[2] What was this awful sound, followed by a high-pitched, piercing scream? The sound was a whip striking the young mother’s bare shoulder; the scream needs no explanation. As the slave traders drive this human herd to the auction block, where the males will be “examined like horses” and the women ”exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers,” Douglass implores us not to forget “the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude.”[3]

This is simply one among many scenes depicting the hardships African American slaves endured on a daily basis as a result of the institution of chattel slavery. Enslaved by the love of money, the master’s vision becomes distorted. Not only does he see human beings as things, but the sounds of suffering fail to reach his muted ears. Deafened to the wailing of mothers torn from their children and children torn from their mothers, he transposes the dissonance of clanking chains into golden keys, which like the dual cut of a double-edged sword open the door to his future and secure the bonds of his brother.

To add to their humiliation and degraded status as mere property of the white man, slaves were subjected to public auctions where they were ordered to stand, often naked or nearly so, allowing the potential buyers to examine their bodies to ensure their suitability for long-term servitude. If a slave’s body showed signs of illness, disease, or possible weaknesses, they were passed over as bad investments, unprofitable for the master’s business. Scar tissue on a slave’s back—the number of scars, whether a scar was old or relatively fresh—became the subject of a mythology employed to determine a slave’s character. Too many scars indicated a rebellious spirit, whereas having few scars meant the slave possessed a docile, obedient spirit. “As they worked their way from inflicted scars to essential character, buyers fixed slaves in a typology of character according to the frequency, intensity, and chronology of the whipping apparent on their backs.”[4] While the slaves stood humiliated, exposed and wondering what kind of master might purchase them on that particular day, the slave buyers paraded themselves before the crowds as augurs who “could read slaves’ backs as encodings of their histories.”[5] The slave’s face, however, with its expressive capacities spanning the spectrum of human emotions—from compassion to agony, ecstasy to alarm—the face as the display case crafted to exhibit the eyes is of no interest to the slave buyers. Provided that it is free of work-hindering defects, the slave’s face is utterly insignificant to the purchase. “It was the instrumental value of these bodies that mattered to the buyer, their size and shape, the color and the ages, the comparability of parts and durability of attributes—not the faces.”[6]

[1] Douglass, “The Internal Slave Trade,” 436.

[2] Ibid., 437.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Johnson, Soul by Soul, 145.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 142–3.

2 thoughts on “Black Face, White Gaze: Encoding Bodies and De-humanizing the Face”

  1. Cynthia,

    A sad but gripping post. I appreciate you bringing to mind the dire effects of judging humans based on their bodies and their work outputs as opposed to their faces. Your phrase “iron-clad soul” is particularly provocative as it points to exactly what the slave owners were missing – these were humans with souls. Looking into someone’s eyes and at the face is often a sign of looking into the soul. By avoiding their faces, the owners were avoiding their souls. This post not only causes me to grieve at the sins of the past, but also to be vigilant in my own life. I know the tendency to judge humans based on their bodies and disregard their faces (souls) is still common as we see in the objectification of women, child slavery, sex trafficking and much more. Thanks for sharing and keeping these kinds of thoughts before us.


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