Guest Post by C. I. Aki: When the Color of Black is Invisible

This is guest post by filmmaker, writer, and cultural critic, C. I. Aki. Aki describes his “literary upbringing” as “an unconventional one that featured an odd mélange of street and letters.” Aki writes passionately about the ways in which we engage, (mis)understand, and participate (as well as fail to participate) with others. Aki’s work—via film and pen—seeks to challenge our cultural categories, in particular those that objectify and present themselves as having neatly summed up what this or that group is and what individuals and groups have the potential to be (and not to be). In his post, Aki gives us a taste of his latest film, The Runner, in which he takes up and translates into the medium of film everything from Homi Bhabha’s discussions on the  “ideology of sight” to Toni Morrison’s insights on the metaphor of race in Playing in the Dark to Graham Ward’s musings on difference. Enjoy and be sure to share your thought with Aki!


“Whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?”—Moby Dick.

“Since the beginning of the nation,” wrote Ralph Ellison, “white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the ‘outsider’.” Before the election of president Barack Obama,[1] the topic of racial prejudice was fast becoming a topic people considered undesirable to bring up, somewhere in between extraneous and spurious, and at worst knotty and entangling. But with the historic election of Barack Obama four years ago, the nation seemed to have given a collective sigh of relief regarding the matter of racial prejudice, eager to hurriedly close the book on the matter and proclaim, “class dismissed”—Saved by the bell Barack. This breathless declaration of the matter as resolved was so pervasive that even some blacks—primarily those who occupied positions in mainstream America (e.g. Terry Ellis, assistant professor at Columbia University)—went on the record to declare the happy days of Post-Racial America. Proclamations of Obama’s election as the premier sign signifying a new Post-racial America served to solidify the myth of a so-called Age of Obama. Meanwhile, back in the trenches of culture, we find many everyday blacks, those burdened and beaten down, having become significantly poorer during this recession. For these individuals, daily reality race confronts them, offering not platitudes on high, but the simple truth that race still matters, prejudice still remains, and the discussion is still relevant.

It was Toni Morrison who observed in her essay, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination that, “Race has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological ‘race’ ever was. […] It seems that it has a utility far beyond economy, beyond the sequestering of classes from one another, and has assumed a metaphorical life so completely embedded in daily discourse that it is perhaps more necessary and more on display than ever before.”

My upcoming short film, The Runner, deals with many of the themes Morrison so eloquently brings to our attention—all of which lead to the major theme: our need for real bodies of community. One subtext that emerges in the film is our cultural indifference to difference. For example, in the film, race as reduced difference and distance functions as a metaphor of tension and uncertainty. We sense this in the opening scene with the juxtaposition of the lead female, Grace, who is white, and the titular character, the runner, who is black.  Here in this first scene, we begin with a subtle form of inaccessibility and disconnect between the runner and Grace. By happenstance they come into and occupy the same social space and spatial location. The closer the two come toward each other (reducing the literal distance between them), the more tension the scene is designed to produce. We see in the runner’s face, a subtle awareness that he is unwelcome within this space—a sense of being unwelcome that is communicated via Grace’s discomfort, disinterest, and a tinge of distrust.

As the film progresses, the narrative feeds our racialized cultural assumptions. A few scenes after the opening scene, the tension heightens with the revelation of the dead white girl coupled with occasional takeaway shots throughout the film of the runner sprinting desperately down a desolate road, isolated from everyone else in order to underscore his assumed outsiderness. As the story develops, we find out that the runner is not the antagonist. In fact, at one-point he is the victim, who rises to the challenge and ends up becoming the victor—a victor whom Grace at first viewed as a distrusted outsider. As it turns out, the real antagonist is the eccentric yet mad Robert Franks, whom Grace imprudently trusts. Interestingly, she describes Franks as being “so unlike [different than] anyone else.” This is, curiously, a different kind of difference: a “difference” within a familiar domain; Franks is white, and thus a difference that doesn’t divide or deter, but in fact generates great curiosity, cachet and delight (as difference is indeed designed to do). Because in the domain from whence it comes—white, this difference is given élan rather than exclusion). As the film ends, a weeping, traumatized Grace, who has buried her face and body in the arms of the runner, looks to thank him for saving her life. We see his black body, the so-called opposite color of Grace’s white body, carrying the cuts and scars of his sacrifice for her, and we see Grace discover that the runner is not an outsider to her, but in fact, her hero. The image of Grace inside of him, his black body wrapped around her white body, symbolizes a union of the two, as one body, both alive, both different, yet both as one. As he walks off into the night, Grace recalls that he was the same fellow in the beginning of the film that she saw and anticipated for a moment as different; but, as is revealed to the viewer at the end of the film, she found a general interest in him approaching tender curiosity. Although he never “saw” (via the gaze or “ideology of sight”) her yet still saved her, she “saw” him.  At the end of the film, as he walks away now her hero, Grace realizes that the grandeur of her salvation and his heroism is that in their embrace they were one and had always been one, members in communion of the true and real community body: a body of life, and of life more abundantly.

Grace found in the runner, not only the physical salvation of her life from the hands of the deranged Robert Franks, but also an expanded understanding of the human experience and a greater self-clarity and self-understanding by the expanded experience of the humanity (and community body) to which she belonged. In essence, Grace discovered in the runner’s so-called difference a transfiguration of her being and ontological possibilities of which no amount of self-affirmation via homogeneity can provide. This is why our cultural indifference to difference robs and stultifies our human experience. As theologian Graham Ward writes, “There is no pure difference. Difference qua difference is an abstraction no one could recognize. Difference is relative, and distance spatializes that relativity.” So-called “difference” in our American imagination exists insofar as it is made to be negative. That is, difference is used to divide, to privatize space (place over space), to sub-ject one person for the purpose of protecting/securing/propping-up another, and to make the case for holding power and then distributing the adjudications of that power along particular fixed and discriminatory lines. The myth of pure difference is at odds with the idea of a real society; a rejection of what it means to be members of a body. In this scandal lies the refuge of cultural cowards, the insulation of “faux-hemians”, the artillery of bigots, and the barriers to the uniquely beautiful. Its maintenance—the mythos of intractable difference—is necessary for those who are comfortable with their security in the present “order of things,” no matter how superficial and unfair the arrangement is or how estranging it is to others. Thus, their security is to lie to themselves, like a short man forcing those around him to drop to their knees to validate his claim that he is taller than them. This is the tendency of how we view identities and “being.” We do not participate in a true economy of bodies and souls, and as a result we often fail to produce truly penetrating lives (penetrating for the whole human race). As Graham Ward observes: in “an economy of response, [there is] a structured dialectic between self and other, in which difference and affinity, distance and proximity is negotiated in a sensuous move from sight to touch” (and, I would add, to psychic penetration). This is how we must engage our fellow brothers and sisters, not as others, but as another, another member of the same body. As W. Somerset Maugm wrote, “the essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.”

 As we tried to illustrate in The Runner, difference (metaphorically represented by race) should not cause division but discovery, we showed how a selfless humanity, one that is courageous and heroic saves our humanity. This was in contrast to a few of the other characters in the film, who chose to save themselves because it was convenient and did not cost as much; yet in the end, theirs was a fleeting gain, a false salvation, a superficial one that paled in comparison to the real salvation, the real humanity that shined no matter how bloodied and disparaged. The runner does not only represent black people, and Grace does not only represent white people, they both represent the whole of human race, individual members of the real community body.

Given this real community that unites us, in closing I want to briefly point out some of the heroic people who are white but not insulated within white America. To speak for myself (and certainly I speak for many other blacks), there are many non-blacks, and specifically white Americans who make up my social circle. Some of these people did not appreciate me until the “second remove,”[2] when, after their initial decision of indifference, they came to eventually discover what I had to offer (as I saw the same desire for discovery in them), and not as a matter of marketplace profit, but human profit and cultural expansion. Some of these people are my closest of friends (one is my best-friend), some are colleagues, and some are acquaintances, many are members of our production team. They have impacted my life, and I hope I have theirs. They have made the human race a more heroic one, and thus a more real one by not beholding what is unfamiliar with an ideology of difference, but by an earnest participation in all that the human experience has to offer. I will write more about this “second remove” and the other factors that go into this sub-economy of response at a later date. But for now, it is important again for us to recognize that we do have a narrative of difference in our culture, and we must overcome our cowardice, our selfishness, our squareness, our bigotry, and our insulation to be heroic humans, to effect a heroic human race. This is what we must do; this is what we can do. Who are you running for?


[1] This essay was written before the re-election of president Obama. I plan to comment at a later date on why the re-election of Barack Obama offers real hope that we will one day live in a post-racial America.

[2] Here I borrow the wording of Clement Greenberg (second remove), when he writes that kitsch art is decided/consumed on the first look. Indeed, it is made for that. The true art is not so obvious, and requires disinterested contemplation that may not reveal its true beauty until, say, the second remove. But the need to engage it deeply, thoughtfully, and impartially is the essence of its truth and beauty. Some people haven’t gotten to truthfully behold me until they were able to take the time to learn me, participate in me, and see what I had to offer. This is what I mean by the “second remove”.

Ato Sekyi-Otu on Fanon’s Antidialectial Moments or Speaking from the Lived Experienced of the Colonized

As Sekyi-Otu explains, Fanon begins his monumental work, The Wretched of the Earth, by challenging Marx’s and Engels’s dismissal of a conquest theory of social transformation in favor of their now famous dialectical materialist interpretation of history.[1]  As he narrates the tragic drama not of human history in the abstract, but of the colonized world, Fanon takes up this “discarded object of historical knowledge” and thus places conquest at the center of his account. “Fanon’s text dramatically assigns causal primacy to the political event, in the shape of violent conquest, in the constitution of social reality.”[2] Fanon zeros in on the colonized world, the world as experienced by the colonized; the world “raped into existence” by the colons (colonizers), whose identity becomes co-constitutive with that of the colonzied.  “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.  The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.”[3] As experienced or lived, the creation of one’s world does not occur via a predictable developmental process; rather, “the kind of temporality that defines historical change in this universe will be more like the abruptness that, as Foucault would have it, characterizes certain transformations in regimes of discourse and forms of knowledge.”[4] One day you live among your people in relative peace, practicing your cherished customs and speaking to one another in your native tongue. Then the next day your peace turns to war, your customs are condemned, and your language is banned.  You must now embrace the script of your captors. Every aspect of this strange, suffocating world—from the spatial restrictions and confinements to the unjust legal codes and governmentally sanctioned brutality—reinforces this script and serves as a daily reminder of your alleged inferior identity. Given the physical and psychological violence required to create and maintain this colonized world and to produce fully formed colonized subjects (that is, those who have internalized the colonizers’ narrative of the natives’ intellectual, moral, and cultural inferiority), is it all that surprising that Fanon would underscores the violence and pain required to topple this world and to decolonize its subjects?  Following Sekyi-Otu, who offers a sophisticated dramatological interpretation of Fanon’s work, I see no reason to conclude that Fanon is promoting a mere glorification of violence. Rather, Fanon likened the violence required for the survival, healing, and restoration of the colonized to the violence of surgery forced upon an individual when disease has taken over his body and threatens his very existence.  In other words, given the systematic, entrenched injustice upon which the colonial world is founded and maintained, decolonization will require violence in some form or fashion. However, one should not interpret Fanon in a woodenly literal manner, as he regularly employs irony, parody, and metaphor for rhetorical and dramatic purposes.[5]

When decolonization dismantles “worlds,” it calls for a re-scripting of subjectivities. Previous social identities and imposed roles are undone. What was stipulated as natural and necessary is shown to be unnatural and contingent. Decolonization reconfigures social reality, or to use Fanon’s words, it “fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a non-essential state into a privileged actor.”[6] Decolonization must erase the imposed whitewashed script so that a new human subject may emerge. Thus, Fanon states that at the outset of any decolonization process, we must begin with a “kind of tabula rasa.” This tabula rasa stands for the colonized themselves, who must re-narrate and thus reconstitute their subjectivities and collective history. Of course, given the co-constitutive relation between colonized and colonizer, the latter as well as the former undergo identity re-formations. That such a reordering and refashioning of social identities and of the colonial world itself is possible highlights the historical and contingent nature of both. Stated otherwise, decolonization unmasks the unnatural and non-necessary character of the colonial ordering of the world as well as the colonizer’s illegitimate claims of intellectual, moral, and cultural superiority. The white narrative is revealed as false narrative, and the revelation of this truth brings about an identity crisis for the colonizer. Here we have a second erasure, but this time the newly found blank slate status has not been intentionally willed; rather, it has been, as it were, violently imposed via the decolonization process. Improvising on Fanon’s earlier claim, we might say that the colonist’s “wealth”—that is, wealth broadly construed to include social identity and social capital—has been invalidated.[7]

As Seyki-Otu observes, the race-based colonized world as experienced by the colonized does not conform strictly speaking to a Hegelian dialectic; rather, as lived it is experienced as a compartmentalized Manichean world of unharmonizable absolutes.  There is the black world and the white world. A synthesis for the purpose of a higher unity does not exist, nor is it possible. Fanon was acutely aware of the “absolute differences” confronting the black subject daily when forced to live in the white man’s world. In light of this, we should read the opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, not as a reactionary response birthed in the ressentiment of a Nietzschean slave and unable to break free from the master’s conceptual framework, but as Fanon’s re-presentation of the lived experience of the colonized. In other words, Fanon’s text is polyphonic and employs multiple voices, perspectives, and rhetorical strategies. Consequently, we must listen carefully to its various inflections, modalities, and key changes. In particular, our ears must be tuned to Fanon’s strategic use of a dramatico-narrative antidialectual key—a key which allows the dissonance of the lived experience of the black person to sound forth in its fullness. For those who have ears to hear, Fanon is simply presenting the obvious. How else would the colonized experience the racialized world of colonial domination but as a confining, “compartmentalized world,” a “world divided in two”?[8]


[1] Regarding Marx’s and Engels’s consideration and subsequent rejection of a conquest theory as a possible candidate for their theory of history, see, Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 82–85.

[2] Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, 49.

[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 2.

[4] Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, 49.

[5] Several scholars have contested interpretations of Fanon as an apostle of violence. See, for example, David Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography (New York: Picador, 2002), 475; see also, Nigel Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003), esp. 103–26.

[6] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 3.

The Ring of Gyges and Whiteness or Making Invisibility Rings Visible

In Plato’s famous work, The Republic, Glaucon, Socrates’ spirited, energetic, philosophically erotic dialogue partner, challenges Socrates to give an adequate definition of justice and to convince him as to why a just life is superior to an unjust life. As part of Glaucon’s argumentative strategy, he offers a thought experiment, the story of the Ring of Gyges (359d-360d), in which the unjust life is presented as the best life. Socrates’ job is then, on the one hand, to show how Glaucon’s account is flawed, and on the other hand, to answer the questions mentioned above (e.g. “what is justice?” and “why is justice superior to injustice?”). The view of justice presented in the Ring of Gyges myth does not represent Glaucon’s own position; rather, he articulates the sophist Thrasymachus’s position, which in some closely related variation is also shared by the “many” (i.e. the hoi polloi) yet is amended in order to make it as persuasive as possible. As the story goes, Gyges, a lowly shepherd finds a magical ring that makes him invisible. He uses it to engage in acts that would normally be socially unacceptable and, in some cases, quite illegal but which allow him to act on whatever desire he may have and to “get away with it” (e.g. he sleeps with the queen; he kills the king and takes over his kingdom). So the lowly shepherd becomes in effect a despotic tyrant.

So what is Glaucon’s point? His point is the following: if any of us possessed such a ring, we’d do the same thing.  Why? Because, so the story goes, we really want to perform unjust acts, and if we could do them and not be punished for them via the law etc., then we most certainly would. Stated otherwise, if you could engage in unjust acts to fulfill your desires and you could do so with absolutely no negative consequences, what reason would you have for engaging in just acts?

Although there are several dialogical directions one might take in discussing Glaucon’s myth, I want to engage in a similar thought experiment, altering Glaucon’s storyline in order to address contemporary concerns of justice in my own socio-political context, the U. S. A.  What if, instead of the lowly shepherd, Gyges, sporting the treasured ring of invisibility, an entire group of individuals are clad with invisibility rings, affording them privileges and freedoms denied to other groups in their society. Let’s assume (for the sake of the story) that the ring-wearing people have no idea that they possess these magical rings. They enter department stores and are not followed by security guards. They are not frisked or interrogated regularly in public spaces by the police as are their ring-less counterparts. When their crimes rates are the same as the non-ringed people, they are significantly less likely to spend time in prison. When they decide to move into a particular neighborhood or housing community, they do not worry as to whether their “kind” will be seen as a threat or as a “sign” that the neighborhood is in decline. Then let’s suppose that one day, the gods decide to reveal to one of the ring-bearers—a man named Edward—the magical properties of his ring. Thus, Edward’s ring is removed, and he is treated like the other ring-less people. In order to process his newly found knowledge, Edward decides to talk an evening walk. A young ring-clad female sees him walking toward her. Edward notices that she seems nervous, as she began looking around to see if there were any other ring clad people nearby. Then suddenly she crosses to the other side of the street. “Is she afraid of me?” Edward wondered. Acting as if he were still a ringed-one, he decides to cross the street in order to explain to the woman that he had been made aware of the invisibility powers of his ring—powers which grant his people unjust social, cultural, and economic privileges—and he was now trying to figure out what, if anything, he could do to make these truths known and to effect change more broadly—i.e., institutionally, legally, socio-politically, etc. However, Edward never had the chance to discuss these issues with the young woman. She panicked, began to scream, and ran to the nearest house. The owner of the house, George, had been watching the scene unfold through his living room window. George didn’t like ring-less people, and he was quite vocal in his community about his views. “These people are lazy. They don’t work, they do drugs, and they live off the welfare system—and hard-working people like me have to pay for their hospital bills when they overdose.” When George saw Edward crossing the street and moving toward the young woman, he ran to his bedroom to get his handgun. There’s no need to spell out the details of this story’s ending; it is all-too-familiar these days. Suffice it to say, Edward died that night from a gunshot wound to the chest.

In her book, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, philosopher Shannon Sullivan builds upon insights from W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey concerning conscious and unconscious habits and applies these to race and white privilege. Sullivan understands “habit” as “an organism’s subconscious predisposition to transact with its physical, social, political, and natural worlds in particular ways. Habit is equivalent to neither routine nor a ‘bad habit,’ as the term is often used. Habits instead are that which constitute the self” (23).  Habits can be formed consciously or unconsciously, and quite often they are formed unconsciously. Our habits constitute our “style” understood phenomenologically (see Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception); they are “manners of being and acting that constitute an organism’s ongoing character” (ibid.). Although habits stabilize and have a “steadiness” and regularity about them, they needn’t be understood as necessarily fixed or unalterable.  Moreover, habits affect both our mental and our physical being. We see instances of physical habit in the way that women in a sexist society carry their bodies—notice the difference in how women pose for pictures versus how men pose. Similarly with respect to race, we find both conscious and unconscious mental and physical habits, which can either limit or make possible one’s ability to act. As Sullivan explains,

“to be a white person means that one tends to assume that all cultural and social spaces are potentially available for one to inhabit. The habit of ontological expansiveness enables white people to maximize the extent of the world in which they transact. But as an instance of white solipsism, it also severely limits their ability to treat others in respectful ways. Instead of acknowledging others’ particular interests, needs, and projects, white people who are ontologically expansive tend to recognize only their own, and their expansiveness is at the same time a limitation” (25).

People are often asked to “own” their actions and to “break” their habits. So how might one work toward owning his or her white privilege? Of course the answer will differ from person to person, context to context, and so forth. Likewise, habits of this sort are not simply individual habits but are also social and require large-scale socio-political structural changes. However, in agreement with Sullivan, I believe that human agents can act to re-shape their “style,” re-constitute themselves, and strive “to transform their habits of white privilege to ones of resistance” (197). Thus, with Sullivan, I am committed to an ongoing self-interrogation, considering how I might “go ring-less” in my various spheres of influence.

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.

Frederick Douglass: Between the Scylla of Structural Racism and the Charybdis of Entrenched Patriarchy

In his essay, “Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass’s ‘The Heroic Slave’,” Richard Yarborough highlights how 19th century, white bourgeois constructions of masculinity and “manhood” influenced early African American writers. We see evidence of the influence of socially constructed notions of gender in Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches. For example, commenting on his fight with the reputed slave-breaker, Mr. Covey, Douglass describes the victory as having reawakened in him a sense of his own manhood.[1] As is true today, notions of masculinity and femininity, like notions of “blackness,” are shaped socially and culturally, shifting over time as a result of various changes in legal, religious, political and other practices and discourses. Douglass—as is the case with every other human being—is not immune to social forces. In fact, in many ways he accepts the (white) hegemonic view of what it means to be a successful, autonomous, self-made male.[2]  However, Douglass is acutely aware of what his white audience can hear and what they refuse to hear. In other words, as I shall argue, while Douglass succumbs to dominant (white) constructions of masculinity he also employs gender essentialist and gender subversive narratives in a rhetorico-rebellious key. To be clear, none of what follows should be taken as making excuses for Douglass’s participation in promoting a patriarchal social order or for overt affirmations of gender essentialism; however, it is to claim that advances in social progress—especially in oppressive contexts such as 19th century America—typically require for a temporary period a special deployment of the dominant cultural tropes for the purpose of reshaping cultural consciousness. The danger lies, of course, in allowing the strategic discourses—essentialist or otherwise—to sediment; instead, they too must be interrogated once the oppressed group’s political aims have been sufficiently achieved.

Yarborough enumerates several characteristic traits or features encountered in 19th century white narratives of masculinity. Among these “masculine” traits mediated through the white hegemonic narrative of Douglass’s day, we find: courage, self-control, rational excellence, nobility, verbal mastery, and autonomy.[3] Aware of such dominant tropes and realizing that they had to work against entrenched negative notions of blackness, Douglass and other black writers such as William Wells Brown crafted their autobiographies and their fictionalized black protagonists with white discourses of masculinity in mind.[4] Thus, we find in Brown’s novel, Clotel, depictions of black male heroic slaves as “hardly distinguishable from bourgeois whites” in speech, behavior, and appearance.[5]

On the one hand, African American writers were constrained by white narratives, whose influence affected the creative freedom and extent to which black writers could develop their plots and construct their heroes and villains. On the other hand, Douglass and others used the pre-formed white-masculinst tropes in creative and subversive ways to challenge prevailing views of black inferiority. Given that the white conceptions of ideal masculinity in Douglass’s day portrayed males as independent, courageous, powerful, self-reliant, reason-bearing individuals, who through perseverance and strength forge their own destinies, it is not surprising that Douglass describes his physical struggle with Covey as having restored his sense of manhood. Would his narrative have had the impact that it did among white (male) readers if he would have employed culturally “feminine” tropes? The most likely answer is an emphatic “no.” In short, black male writers were faced with a difficult balancing act in their attempts to create “successful” black male characters. That is, given both white views of ideal manhood and the negative depictions of black males as unreasoning “savages,” black authors had to justify incessantly every move their black protagonists made.

In his 1853 novella, “The Heroic Slave,” a fictionalized retelling of Madison Washington’s lead role in a slave revolt aboard the American ship, Creole, we find Douglass’s attempts to strike this impossible balance. For example, similar to his description of his own restrained use of physical force qua self-defense against Covey, Douglass depicts Washington as having exercised reasoned restraint in his heroic lead role in the slave insurrection. No doubt Douglass chooses to work within these white-formed literary limitations; however, in so doing he plays an active role in re-forming the white imaginary with respect to their false construal of blackness. Continuing his subversive rhetorical strategies, Douglass draws a parallel between the slave revolt aboard the Creole and the American Revolution.  As his drama unfolds and the revolt gains steam, Washington proclaims to his white antagonists (and here white readers are implicated): “We have struck for our freedom, and if a true man’s heart be in you, you will honor us for the deed. We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they.”[6] In other words, Douglass appeals to socially approved (white) male acts of violence—the violence enacted by the white revolutionary “fathers” in their struggle for freedom—to justify the violence of Madison Washington and the other slaves in their quest for freedom.[7]

Again, none of the above is meant to promote a status quo position with respect to gender or race. Feminist and womanist theorists, as well as other critics concerned with gender equality are right to highlight the tensions in Douglass’s various freedom narratives—in particular, his failure to challenge the patriarchy of his day and his embrace of white masculinist ideals. Granting these tensions, Douglass’s imperfect attempts nonetheless challenged the white imaginary both to rethink their views of blackness and to confront the contradictions of their own violent, irrational practices. Douglass’s literary battles, both his victories and his defeats, mirror his struggles to break free from white constraint not only in the form of slavery but likewise in his relations with white abolitionists, in particular, his complex relationship with William Lloyd Garrison. As Eric J. Sundquist observes, Douglass’s ongoing identity formation was constituted in relation to a series of both white and black father figures. Douglass’s revisions to his autobiographies is in part motivated by his struggle to grapple with not only his present/absent white master/father (Aaron Anthony) but with the black rebel Nat Turner, the black hero Madison Washington, the white Founding Fathers, and white abolitionists such as Garrison. Through creating his own version of Madison Washington and his multiple versions of himself, Douglass engages in an act of self-fathering. In this stage of his life, Douglass refuses his role as Garrison’s “text” and creates a new, living, ever-revising “self-text,” or as Sundquist puts it, a “self-fathered figure combining black and white ideals.”[8]

Through his mastery of “the codes of Anglo-American bourgeois white masculinity,” Douglass sought to create a black male hero “who would both win white converts to the antislavery struggle and firmly establish the reality of black manhood.”[9] By choosing to birth his black male characters through white masculinist “codes,” Douglass’s successes on one front become failures on other. Nevertheless, given his context of oppressive structural racism and entrenched patriarchy, it is difficult to imagine how he could have navigated an error-free path. Perhaps an all-out frontal attack on both racism and patriarchy would have resulted in alienating those (males) possessing the political power and cultural capital necessary to bring about significant social change. Such is the complexity of our human condition and the difficulty of outmaneuvering both Scylla and Charybdis.


[1] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 65.

[2] For a helpful analysis of how 19th century black males (and the majority of black females) accepted and helped to promote a patriarchal social order, see hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 87–118. Hooks also argues that 19th century black male social activists “supported the efforts of women to gain political rights but they did not support social equality between the sexes” (ibid., 91).

[3] Yarborough, “Race, Violence, Manhood,” 168.

[4] For a discussion of the various instantiations of William Wells Brown’s novels, Clotel and Clotelle, see Yarborough, esp. 169–179.

[5] Ibid., 170.

[6] Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” in Three Classic African American Novels, 66. See also, Wilson, “On Native Ground: Transnationalism, Frederick Douglass, and “The Heroic Slave.” In addition to highlighting Douglass’s strategic use of the Declaration of Independence and the principles of 1776 to win over his white audience, Wilson foregrounds the irony of the novella’s ending, viz., the slaves do not find a home in theUnited States but remain inNassau.

[7] See also, Sundquist, “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, 120–132. In addition to his fascinating discussion of Douglass’s self-fathering through various rebellious literary acts, Sundquist presents a compelling case for understanding Douglass’s novella, “The Heroic Slave,” as an important hermeneutical link between his first and second autobiographies.

[8] Sundquist, “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, 124.

[9] Yarborough, “Race, Violence, and Manhood,” 179.

Resistance Through Re-narration Available Online at African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society

For those interested, my essay, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of  Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363-85. DOI:  10.1080/14725843.2011.61441o, is now available for online viewing


Frantz Fanon offers a lucid account of his entrance into the white world where the weightiness of the ‘white gaze’ nearly crushed him. In chapter five of Black Skins, White Masks, he develops his historico-racial and epidermal racial schemata as correctives to Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema. Experientially aware of the reality of socially constructed (racialized) subjectivities, Fanon uses his schemata to explain the creation, maintenance, and eventual rigidification of white-scripted ‘blackness’. Through a re-telling of his own experiences of racism, Fanon is able to show how a black person in a racialized context eventually internalizes the ‘white gaze’. In this essay I bring Fanon’s insights into conversation with Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Although the internalization of the white narrative creates a situation in which external constraints are no longer needed, Fanon highlights both the historical contingency of ‘blackness’ and the ways in which the oppressed can re-narrate their subjectivities. Lastly, I discuss Fanon’s historically attuned ‘new humanism’, once again engaging Fanon and Foucault as dialogue partners.