D. Marvin Jones
excerpted Wrom: SNBOHMKHJYFMYXOEAIJJPHSCRTNHGSWZIDREXC
Meaning": Race, Metaphor, and the Models of Steven Winter, 67
Brooklyn Law Review 1071-1095, 1080-1095 (Summer 2002)(87 Footnotes)
II. Claims of Knowledge
To understand the shift that is necessary, let me share a few
stories. The stories are drawn from my upcoming book Race, Sex, and
Suspicion. Let us begin with the claim that race is a problem of faulty
thinking or irrationality. On the contrary, I argue the problem has to
do with claims of knowledge. The classic instance is the racial profile.
Let me begin my first story.
A. The Story of Henry Bibb
In 1837, Henry Bibb boldly escaped from a plantation in Kentucky and
crossed the border into Canada. Soon after Bibb returned in disguise--he
put on false whiskers--to get his wife and child. Once back in the
"occupied territory" of slavocratic Kentucky he took work
digging a cellar for "the good Lady where I was stopping." Of
course the whiskers did not hide who he was. In a more recent context,
O.J. Simpson allegedly committed the murders wearing a sailor's watch
cap and a blue blazer with gold buttons. Johnny Cochran, ridiculing the
suggestion that such a costume could conceal O.J. in all his celebrity
exclaimed, "This is no disguise!" An ante-bellum Johnnie
Cochran might have exclaimed the same thing about Henry Bibb's efforts
to mask his own identity. The slave catchers soon "recognized"
Bibb and, treating him like a nineteenth century public enemy number
one, surrounded the house in force and arrested him at gunpoint. In the
story, he poignantly asks his capturers, "What crime had I
committed." His question, which went unanswered, still echoes down
the corridors of history.
Bibb, in asking his question invoked Lockean notions of the natural
rights. Locke postulated that all men are by nature free and enter
society with natural rights. Jefferson's notion that "all men are
endowed by their creator with an inalienable rights to liberty"
imported this natural law thesis into the American scene. The social
contract which emerges from this confers the right to liberty-to freedom
subject to the condition that the individual does not break the law.
Bibb implicitly invoked both Jefferson and Locke, both natural law and
the social contract, in his question to his abductors. If he is a man,
and if all men by nature are free, then he Bibb was also free--unless he
had done something wrong. The issue becomes what is Bibb's crime? He is
innocent not merely of the crime of harming others, he is innocent of
being the native or savage associated with slavery: by the very act of
thinking and writing. Yet despite his radical innocence he is hunted and
chained as a prisoner and criminal.
Bibb claimed his freedom by rhetorically situating himself within the
circle formed by the liberal narrative not merely of the American
Revolution but of the enlightenment itself--a narrative of individual
autonomy and freedom. This story of the enlightenment is eclipsed by an
older story. This was the narrative of racial essences, a narrative
which was given voice by Justice Taney in Dred Scott:
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an
inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race,
either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they
had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the
Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.
He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of
merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This
opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of
the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in
politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to
dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and
habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in
matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness
of this opinion.
As I read Taney's decision, the social contract ran only to those who
were white. Blacks were not only persons without rights to a social
contract; they were not persons at all. Bibb, in invoking the notion of
"innocence," crossed the moral line between subject and
object, self and other. In the mirror of his imagination, Bibb saw
himself as a free man unjustly chained. Bibb simply posited that he was
free. In so doing, in his mind, he tore away the veil of race. But this
subjective image was as distant from objective reality as heaven was
from the terrain of the plantation. The dreamer physically remained
imprisoned behind the iron curtain of the slavery--behind the veil. The
slave was forced to recognize that regardless of what moral
transformation he might achieve, no matter how he came to view himself,
this did not affect his objective status. For the slave, his identity
was defined by how whites saw him. He was both blessed and cursed by
what W.E.B. Dubois calls a "double consciousness."
The Negro is a seventh son born with a veil, and gifted with second
sight in this American world--a world which yields him no true self-
consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of
the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness,
this sense of always . . . measuring one's soul by the tape of a world
that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
Thus, as Sterling Bland writes, "African-Americans are limited
by the exterior manifestations of social response and are thus able to .
. . be seen only through the "revelation of the other world."
The reason Bibb's mask of whiskers does not work is because Bibb's
appearance as a threat was not linked to any set of features which could
be seen--and therefore disguised. Bibb is a criminal because of his
race. Race, in turn, is not something that can be seen.
Race itself has never been seen by the naked eye. Beyond merely
describing morphological characteristics, race refers to an amorphous
concept of difference between human "types." What constitutes
a "type" and what constitutes a difference is contested
territory and for some refers to essences, for others to biology but
always to a set of abstract rules of recognition. These rules of
recognition impose upon perception a kind of grammar, commanding us, at
the deep level of how we see the world, to parse persons we encounter
into different categories. Race is visualized not through actual
observations but through the minds eye, by "seeing" human
populations as naturally, actually parsed into distinctive sub-groups.
The lens through which the meaning of race is seen to be illuminated and
race "as a fact" finally discerned is our sense of who we are.
We actually see race though our I/eye or sense of identity, as an
alternating image of those who are like us, within our circle of
community, and those who are not.
Race is an inference we make based on a variety of criteria ranging
from color to birth records. Race is a faceless prototype of a racial
other. Bibb matched the prototype regardless of how he changed his
features. He fit the profile.
This prototypical image, the image of the racial enemy, however
invisible to the naked eye is nonetheless visible in the reactions of
whites, mirrored in their fear, loathing and obsession with controlling
him. It is this mask, the mask of the racial identity itself, and only
this mask which the slave catchers saw: "The stereotype--the
mask--defined the African American as white Americans chose to see him;
outside the mask he was either invisible or threatening."
What indeed was Bibb's crime? His crime is "who he is."
"Who he is" is established by his appearance. His whiskers
could not hide either his race or his gender. Through the distorting
gaze of slave society the simple fact that Bibb was a black
male--free--established "probable cause." This is not probable
cause based on what an individual has done. This is probable cause
imposed on the basis of what an individual might do.
The notion of the "gaze" is familiar to anyone who has seen
old films. Take the Tarzan series, for example. In the Tarzan films
black savages, with bones through their noses, capture genteel British
explorers, truss and put them in the cooking pot. In the nick of time,
Tarzan, a white man raised by apes comes to the rescue. Leading a herd
of elephants as a surrogate for the cavalry, Tarzan arrives to save the
innocent white people. In portraying the Africans as savage aggressors
and the British as innocents the Tarzan stories turn upside down the
moral reality of colonialism: By portraying the British--and Tarzan--as
a civilizing force in an uncivilized jungle, the films implicitly
justifies colonialism. One's enjoyment of the film depends upon taking
the racial perspective of the colonizer. This racial perspective, and
the mechanisms associated with it that make it seem natural, constitute
the "dominant gaze."
Bibb as a free black male appears to the "dominant gaze" as
dangerous and evil as Tarzan's natives. Bibb is seen as a criminal
because slave society needed psychologically to see him this way: either
in chains or as an enemy of the state.
For the Greeks, the image of otherness was the foreigner who was also
a barbarian, for Foucault the image of the other was the mad person, but
for slave society the quintessential image of the other is the racial
other, particularly the black male. This racial other has always
represented the enemy to be subdued--much like a dangerous animal. As
Vilo Harle recognized, "The point is there are some Others who are
excluded from among us and are actually perceived in less human terms,
below human beings, dangerous animals that can and must be killed."
Only if the racial other is a dangerous animal/criminal could slave
society justify its cruel practices and constant surveillance.
Racism is traditionally understood as irrational. On the contrary, it
is a perverse expression of rationality.
(R)acism is not simply a stupid hatred. It may be based on ignorance
that breeds hatred, but it is every bit as dependant upon a form of
knowledge. That knowledge, sometimes wittingly used, sometimes
unwittingly, operates to reinforce the fear and hatred of others by
providing rationales for hierarchizing differences.
Thus, our dusty old orthodoxy about race holds that stereotypes are
bad. My point is that the fabric of racial identity is itself woven from
This framework helps to explain the failure of our civil rights
discourse. The project of racial integration has proceeded on the
assumption that differences between the races are environmental and that
if blacks could have access to education they could assimilate into the
mainstream. In messianic fashion, the integration strategy assumes that
the burden was on blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and
enter great America. I would argue that our basic images and notions of
race police the border between America and Africans. Let me tell another
B. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Sidney Poitier, the Denzel Washington
of his day, portrays a black male who attempts to break through the
barbed wire of an age old racial taboo: he wishes to marry a white
Sidney is a young black doctor in love with the willful, colorblind
daughter of an old school white businessman (Spencer Tracy). Wearing a
Brooks Brothers suit and a smile as his armor, Sidney comes to the white
family's dinner table both as guest and as would be harbinger of the
modern age of race relations.
The film thematizes not merely the moral anxiety over the sexual
designs of black males. It posed, dramatically, the social and political
question of the place of the black male in the new world order following
the dismantling-- officially at least--of segregation and the racial
ideology on which it rested.
Sidney's black male is affluent, culturally hip, and doomed. Striving
to be American and black, a rugged individualist and a representative of
his race, Sidney lives split between worlds, and split inside himself.
Sidney is, as the black male in the white mind always is, an
abstraction: in this case the embodiment of a modern liberalism. This
liberalism, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of World War II--a
war against Nazism-- dreamed in the colors of the rainbow. This new
liberalism rejected the idea that race in a biological sense determined
who one was. The popular liberal impulse, released by the catharsis of
war, converged with other streams. Anthropologists like Franz Boaz and
Otto Kleinberg began unbuilding the myth that intelligence and other
mental characteristics had anything to do with heredity: "Culture
not racial inheritance was the principle shaping force in determining
mental characteristics of a people." Where classical sociology had
attributed the poverty of blacks to innate laziness and instability, E.
Franklin Frazier, and Charles Johnson, standing on the shoulders of W.
E. B. Dubois began to trace black economic inferiority to environmental
causes involving racism. Of course the most pivotal work here was that
of Gunnar Myrdal, whose post-war bombshell of a book, An American
Dilemma was cited in the Brown v. Board of Education decision itself.
Myrdal argues that the practice of segregation was inconsistent with
America's own creed and in effect was an obstacle in the road of
America's national destiny.
The historical moment of the Harlem renaissance was nourished by and
itself fed into this liberal impulse. As Toni Morrison wrote in Playing
in the Dark, Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe was "the man"
because he had access to language. Man Friday, who lacks access to
language and cannot speak, never becomes fully a person, hence he is
"Man Friday." Through the writers of the Harlem renaissance,
blacks had begun to find their voice, radically transforming the image
of blacks as they transformed themselves through their art.
These streams of liberal thought converge on one point: only culture,
language, and shared values--varying like the colors of the
rainbow--define the boundaries of the American community. These newfound
streams of liberalism fed into a larger river, the legitimating myth of
America as a melting pot.
In a ritual of Americanization, Henry Ford had foreign workers enter
one end of a giant clay pot wearing their national costumes and come out
the other end in American business suits. The talisman of belief in the
American creed--in this case the creed of capitalism symbolized by the
business suit-- had given them a new identity as Americans.
If the black male is always merely a product of the white society's
gaze, Sidney is its product as it looks at the black male through the
lens of the melting pot story. Through this lens the image of Sidney
looks "right." He is well dressed, meticulously pronouncing
all the endings on his words, trying heroically in his behavior to
overawe the degraded image of his phenotype. Sidney is a doctor, who
happens to be a black male. Thus, it was not Sidney's race or gender
that defined him. It was the values he had chosen as reflected by his
Ivy League degrees and his Brooks Brothers suit.
In these terms, Sidney's character personified a social proposition:
race was like a national costume and could be taken off and exchanged
for an American identity. It was axiomatic of cold war liberalism--this
was the essence of the Brown decision, I think--that not only was the
assimilation of blacks possible, but a moral imperative. As Myrdal wrote
in his classic An American Dilemma: "If America in actual practice
could show the world a progressive trend by which the Negro finally
became integrated into modern democracy, all mankind would be given
faith again--it would have reason to believe that peace, progress and
order are feasible." Within this retelling of the melting pot story
the immigrant analogy was implicit: "there are no essential
differences--in relation to the larger society--between the third world
or racial minorities and the European ethnic groups."
It is precisely this story of the melting pot reinvented as a
"table" that animated Dr. King's appeal: "I have a dream
that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and
the sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down at the table of
But there is a split here. Along the axis of race the split is
between what Myrdal referred to as the American belief in equality and
its practice. It flounders simultaneously on the axis of American
identity itself: between two readings of the American story. One is the
story of the America as a great e pluribus unum, out of many one, the
America of Dr. King, of Langston Hughes in his poem "I, Too:"
I, too, sing America/
I am the darker brother/...
I, too, am America.
The other story of America is the one expressed in Dred Scott,
holding that a black man was incapable of becoming an American citizen,
the America of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the America of the World War
II internment of the Japanese. It was this story which Henry Pratt
Fairchild, past president of the American Sociological Association,
expressed in 1926 when he said: "If America is to remain a stable
nation, it must continue a white man's country for an indefinite period
to come." This story of America as a white man's country ironically
coexisted with efforts to expand the American myth to blacks.
The split between these two stories about American identity--America
as the land of the free and America as the land for white
people--signifies a deeper psychological conflict: between modern
liberalism and the needs of whites to claim racial superiority. As
Dubois pointed out in Black Reconstruction, the wages of whiteness
consisted of privileges with respect to jobs, and social status. The
legal and intellectual orthodoxy of blacks as just another ethnic group
floundered on deeply engrained cultural norms that required that white
skin remain a badge of privilege.
Thus through the colorblind lens of the film's orthodoxy, Sidney
comes to dinner as an American: the very fact that he does so is a
living witness that in America all can sit at the family table so long
as they have the right moral credentials. But the orthodoxy of liberal
intellectuals does not dissolve ideology that has been deeply
Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks observed that after the
Italians had overthrown the official apparatus of fascism he discovered
the government was only an outer ditch and that behind it the massive
ideology of fascism was left untouched. There is a similar story to be
told about the overthrow of the regime of segregation in the United
Thus, whites in the South openly, and many whites in the North
covertly, never accepted the premise that blacks were just another
ethnic group. As late as 1991 a New York Times poll found that 66% of
whites were opposed to a relative marrying a black person. The meaning
of segregation as Gunnar pointed out in his post-war classic, was that
while European groups could be assimilated the blacks could not. The
anti-immigrant story of America as a white man's country not only
continued to resonate but also was knotted together with the anti-black
story of "Negro inferiority."
"We Americans seem to have blundered about in our history with
two clumsy contrivances strapped to our backs, unreconciled and weighty:
our democratic traditions and race." The synergy between these two
stories splits Sidney in two. Sidney's project was to transform himself
into an American in order to transform himself into a man: no longer a
black man but simply a man. He sought finally to be whole, no longer
merely a body or a pair of hands. Instead he is split in two. One of him
remains in the world of the colorless individual, one of him does not.
He lives in two worlds. In the world of liberal theory, a world that
extends to court opinions, to official policy, to speeches by
Presidents, to the conscious thoughts of enlightened people, Sidney is
simply an individual, an American.
But, Sidney also lives in a world of private thoughts, a world in
which the majority of white people still do not want their relative to
marry one of "them." In this world America is still
"white man's country." Here Sidney's visual image leads to
visceral reaction both for whites and the black male who seeks to
Look, a Negro!"
Mama, see the Negro! I'm frightened! Frightened!" . . .
I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were
legends, stories, history . . . Then assailed at various points, the
corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema.
. . . I moved toward the other . . . and the evanescent other, hostile
but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea. . . .
I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, my
ancestors. . . .
I discovered my blackness and I was battered down by Tom-toms,
cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetischism, racial defects,
slave-ships, and above all else, above all: "sho good eatin."
From this perspective, Sidney at Spencer Tracy's dinner table,
surrounded by Spencer Tracy's white wife, white daughter, white Irish
Catholic priest, looks "out of place." He is, if not a fly in
the buttermilk, still a stranger in the village, much like James
Baldwin, if we can picture him, when he visited the Alps. He is a
The black male carries his border with him, in his skin. Neither
place of birth, nor acts of Congress change his citizenship. He remains
the central character in a story about how some groups are simply
incapable of being truly American. Jean Paul Sartre provides an analogy
for us. Sartre noted that despite years of residence and significant
economic and cultural achievements, Jews remain "the unassimilated
at the very heart of (French) society":
(The Jew) accepts the society around him, he joins the game and he
conforms to all the ceremonies, dancing with the others the dance of
respectability. Besides, he is nobody's slave; he is a free citizen
under a regime that allows free competition; he is forbidden no social
dignity, no office of the state. He may be decorated with the ribbon of
the Legion of Honor; he may become a great lawyer or a cabinet minister.
But at the very moment when he reaches the summits of legal society,
another society-amorphous, diffused, and omnipresent-appears before him
as if in brief flashes of lightning and refuses to take him in. . . . (H)e
never encounters any particular resistance; people seem, rather, to be
in flight before him; an impalpable chasm widens out, and, above all, an
invisible chemistry devaluates all he touches. . . . Everything is
accessible to him, and yet he possesses nothing; for, he is told, what
one possesses is not to be bought.
As Frantz Fanon has noted the situation of blacks in a white society
is analogous, but worse: "(T)he Jew can be unknown in his
Jewishness . . . . His actions, his behavior is the final determinant.
He is a white man, and . . . can sometimes go unnoticed. (But) I am the
slave not of the 'idea' that others have of me but of my own
appearance." No matter where he is born the black male is an alien.
He is alien not in the language he speaks, perhaps not in the values he
holds in his heart. He is alien in terms of his mythic essence: his
incorrigible sexuality, his propensity for chaos.
Similarly, our prototypical image of race operates as a lens, which
intercepts the person of color precisely at the point at which s/he
seeks to interrogate the dominant discourse. The same racial boundaries,
which demarcated separate railroad cars for blacks and whites, demarcate
separate space for blacks and white scholars to participate in
discourse. Let me explain what I mean again through the agency of a
In 1839, Spanish slavers herd a group of kidnapped Africans aboard
the schooner Amistad, bound from Havana, Cuba to another Cuban Port,
Puerto Principe. Miraculously, the Africans escape their bonds. Led by
the now famous Cinque they steal long bladed sugar cane knives and take
control of the very ship in which they were held as cargo. But why did
Cinque fight? Slavery involved the uprooting of indigenous people from
family, soil, and culture. It was not merely an act of physical
brutality, but a process of systematically erasing the slave as an
African or even a person at all. The hold of the slave ship where
hapless Africans were laid spoon fashion in blood and filth, was the
moral opposite of the womb: from the belly of the slave ship nothing
human emerged. What emerged was received as a slave, who by definition
was stripped of everything that counted as human identity. Henry Louis
Gates tells a story about a slave who was asked about his
"self." The slave replied, "I isn't got no self." As
I see him, Cinque fought to cross back over a line that separated not
only home and alien territory, freedom and oppression, but also the line
between having a name--a sense of who one is--and being nameless. In a
sense Cinque fought to keep not only his body but also his
"self" from being stolen, lost, or erased.
Although the Africans wrest the power over the ship, they lack the
navigational skills to find their way home. Sparing and later trusting a
Spanish navigator named Montes who promptly tricks them by sailing East
by day and North or West by night, zigzagging up the American coast.
Objectively, Cinque's struggle resonated in terms of values Americans
had inscribed in blood into their own story of origins. But eventually
these Patrick Henry-like rebels landed on Montauk Point, Long Island. Of
course, Cinque and thirty-eight surviving Africans were promptly
captured and indicted for murder. Although the indictments were later
dismissed, the Africans were still held to determine whether or not they
were properly denominated as cargo or people.
In the Steven Spielberg film which attempts to retell this story, a
venerable American sage, John Quincy Adams comes to the rescue,--he
rescues not only the Africans but the American legal system from the
indictment of history. Representing the Africans as kidnap victims who
had a right to be free by all necessary means. While the film provides a
storybook ending, with Cinque clothed in white robes of innocence
returning to his native shores, the return home was not quite so simple
a proposition for the Africans. Although they are freed by a Supreme
Court decision--that affirmed dryly only that they were free Negroes and
not slaves --the Africans do not go home for many months. This is where
Spielberg's story trails off. In order to raise money for the voyage
back to what is now Sierra Leone, Cinque and the others must work. He
does this in part by giving speeches in the Mende language, by doing
tricks, and by presenting himself to be gawked at much like an animal in
a menagerie or zoo.
Throughout the story, Cinque's every act is seen through a lens. It
is this lens, which refracts Cinque's quintessentially human act of
rebellion into an act of murder for which he is indicted. Through this
lens Cinque is not and never becomes an individual endowed with
inalienable rights, but appears as a slave who killed his master. Cinque
places himself squarely within the circle of the dominant majority's
stereotypes, doing tricks, performing as and conforming to a reverse
image of him, in order to make money. As Cinque and the other Africans
were placed on display in a church in Farmington by their abolitionist
"friends," "(m)others held tightly to their
babies--making sure they would never become tempting morsels for
tattooed cannibals." In performing as he does, it is an interesting
question whether Cinque trades for money the very quality of identity
that he fought originally to retain. We are free today of the curse of
slavery, but in what sense are the performances of black scholars free
of the curse of Cinque.
What are the implications of Steve Winter being right; that we can
never separate what we perceive from the prototypical images we bring to
the process of perception. How do we expose the trope of identity from
behind the screen of prototypical--and tropological--images of race. How
do we enter discourse, much less challenge power relationships when
before we write, before we stand up to speak, these caricatured images
of racial identity proceed us as much as they proceeded Cinque. Henry
Louis Gates poses the question eloquently: "Can writing, the very
difference it makes and marks, mask the blackness of the face that
addresses the text of Western letters, in a voice that speaks English,
in an idiom that contains an irreducible element of cultural difference
that shall always separate the white voice from the black."
[d1]. Professor of Law, University of Miami.