Trauma and Anti-Black Policing in the United States: Part II

Hypertext: An Opportunity

I want to end this blog series on an optimistic note. I insist that all is not bleak, despite this era of Trump where we appear to be moving further away from critical and compassionate race consciousness. Progressive movements with the goal of establishing equitable treatment are possible even in times of political impasse. With this in mind, I believe that hypertext presents a unique opportunity for black Americans to bear witness on the traumatic effects of racial profiling, police brutality, and police killings in the United States. When I speak of hypertext, I am referring specifically to the computer hypertext document. Hypertext would allow for black Americans to tell their own stories and set their own agenda for change, without relying on government leadership or waiting indefinitely for a more compassionate and race-conscious public discourse to emerge. There are two models that were most useful for me in envisioning this hypertext project: The first was Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the second was Wikipedia.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was organized by the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which settled the class action suit brought on by survivors of Canada’s residential school system (Truth and Reconciliation Commission v). The Commission concluded that from the 1870s to 1996, the residential school system operated to separate some 150,000 Indigenous children from their families with the intention of weakening family ties and cultural linkages, and indoctrinating Indigenous children into the majority Euro-Christian Canadian culture. For six years, the Commission traveled throughout Canada to hear testimony from more than 6000 witnesses (Truth and Reconciliation Commission v).  One major theme was the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse children suffered in residential schools and the impact these traumas have had on Indigenous communities. The Final Report, which is published on trc.ca, is a summary and discussion of the Commission’s findings, with chapters on the history of the residential school system, the legacy of residential schools, the challenge of reconciliation, and calls to action.

In many ways, I believe that a report on anti-black policing in the United States could parallel the Truth and Reconciliation Report. The primary objective of the project would be to collect testimony from black Americans—individuals, families, and communities—who have been affected by police violence and brutality. Witnessing could take the form of written, transcribed, and recorded personal histories, interviews, and panel discussions. Most important are the political dimensions of the project—that from a multilinear, multivocal, and dynamic hypertext could eventually emerge a static document with an agenda containing detailed recommendations and prescriptions that can be communicated and lobbied to government at the local, state, and federal levels.

Just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada organized the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the hypertext report I describe would require an organizing body. This is where Wikipedia comes to mind. Wikipedia (a massive hypertext encyclopedia) is owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit with all the standard functions of a charitable organization—legal, accounting, fundraising, communications, technical, and executive directorship. Up until 2010, the Wikimedia Foundation had only 35 employees (Ayers et al. 448). If such a mammoth project can be executed with a relatively small staff, then the much smaller hypertext I conceive of could also have a very streamlined organizing body. The hypertext project can begin with a call to action for participants across diverse Internet and social media platforms, as well as more traditional media outlets.

There are some important features of hypertext that explain why it presents a unique opportunity for black Americans to take control of their trauma and codify it on their own terms: First, the hypertext would be a large-scale co-authored document, making it polyphonic and multivocal.  It would provide an opportunity for people to bear witness on racist police violence who have normally been denied authorial authority. A range of different perspectives and experiences is necessary to obtain a truly reflective account of shared trauma in the African American community. The hypertext would be part of a much larger process to end racial oppression and promote racial equality in the United States. These objectives are vital to democracy, so it makes perfect sense to adopt a democratized form of writing like hypertext.

Second, according to George Landow, hypertext as an information medium assumes hypermedia (3), which means the text is expanded beyond written text to include many different presentational content forms. Examples are visual images like graphics, diagrams, and maps, as well as audio recordings, video recordings, and computer animations (Landow 3).  Compounded with a hyperlinking system that links to external resources such as academic publications, qualitative and quantitative studies, historical documents, and government data, these presentational content forms will likely engage many readers and encourage active, rather than passive readership.

Audio and video recordings are of particular significance because they present an opportunity for greater inclusiveness and collaboration in the hypertext.  For instance, older generations may have difficulty in publishing their personal accounts in the computer hypertext document, but they could be recorded, by audio or video. This would also be a good way to include economically disenfranchised people who have had limited access to education and reduced access to textual discourse as a result. Moreover, group and panel discussions, which are usually fascinating but also protracted, might be more effective for an audience when recorded rather than just transcribed into text. Ultimately, most of us are very familiar with hypermedia within the huge hypertext that is the Internet; if hypermedia can also provide more avenues for accessibility, accommodation, and inclusiveness, then that is a distinct and important benefit.

In conclusion, I believe that changing the pattern of anti-black police violence in the United States requires that black Americans control the discourse surrounding its traumatic effects on their lives. A long, detailed, and inclusive hypertext document recording the history and effects of racist policing on the black American community would serve as another avenue for black Americans to tell their stories, own their stories and set their own agenda. The hope is that having reference to such an important document will help to shift the racist social and political culture that surrounds policing and mass incarceration in the United States.

Sources

Ayers, Phoebe, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2008. Print.

Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. [Winnipeg]: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.

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Trauma and Anti-Black Policing in the United States: Part I

I wanted to centre these final posts on anti-black police violence in the United States for a variety of reasons. First, I feel that it is very topical; second, racist police violence has been at the forefront of my mind these past couple of years, as we have been inundated with reports and images of extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men. Researching racialized police violence in the United States helped me to think through some of these events and situate my feelings around them.

In this post, I will be analyzing anti-black police violence through the lens of critical race theory. Critical race theory is a theoretical framework centred on the application of critical theory to the intersection of race, law, and power (Aymer 368). My perspective is strongly influenced by the work of Michelle Alexander, who situates racialized police violence within the larger context of mass incarceration, a racial caste system in the United States that parallels American slavery and Jim Crow.

Intergenerational Trauma and Police Violence

When thinking about the complex issue of American trauma and racialized policing, the first thing to understand is that “policing and racism have been mutually constitutive” (Cooper 1189) throughout all of United States history. Police violence has been a powerful tool of social control targeting black Americans with the purpose of entrenching racial hierarchies and bolstering white supremacy (Alexander). Slave patrols, whereby property-owning white men organized to prevent slave rebellions and escapes, were actually the first state-sponsored police forces in the United States (Cooper 1189). During the Reconstruction era, police violently enforced the restrictive Black Codes, which were a precursor to the Jim Crow laws that implemented racial segregation throughout the Southern United States. And since the 1980s, the War on Drugs has escalated alongside the prison–industrial complex, which has intensified the racial and ethnic disparities in drug-related arrests (Cooper 1189). Taking into account the history of anti-black police violence in the United States, there can be little doubt that racialized policing is a source of intergenerational trauma in the African American community.

M. Gerard Fromm eloquently describes the manifestation of intergenerational trauma in the following quotation: “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency” (xvi). When interacting with police, black Americans often experience sensations of fear, anxiety, and hyper-arousal (Staggers-Hakim 392-397). These are symptoms of chronic re-traumatization, resulting from centuries of state-sanctioned violence. However, intergenerational trauma in the black American community has been met with apathy from the broader American public (Staggers-Hakim 391). Far from recognizing and addressing the realities of community psychic trauma, policing of black neighbourhoods and communities has only become more militarized and aggressive since the War on Drugs, as the discretion and powers of law enforcement have increased exponentially.

Lateral Trauma and Police Violence

Black Americans are also subject to lateral trauma because of state violence. According to Laura brown, trauma is spread laterally throughout an oppressed group “when membership in that group means a constant lifetime risk of exposure to certain trauma” (108). For black Americans, trauma is a way of life—for instance, racial profiling in the form of pedestrian and vehicular stops is a daily reality for many, and a daily risk for all. These stops become “a routine and pernicious form of harassment” (Cooper 1191) tantamount to psychological violence. Often, they escalate to physical violence and, as we have seen, even death. Moreover, many black Americans have been traumatized by nationalized cases of extrajudicial killings: Raja Staggers-Hakim asserts that “extrajudicial killings in African American communities by police aggravate excess mortality rates and further advance dismal physical and psychological health outcomes as well as hopelessness” (391). In her study, which uses focus group methodology, Staggers-Hakim found that black American boys, especially those removed from community violence, are traumatized by police violence and police killings (397). One participant’s contribution aptly captures the experience of lateral trauma as it manifests itself on the individual and community levels: The young man says, “‘I am fearful for my life. If I walk by a policeman or someone with authority, being a black man in this country in general is just a threat by itself…there’s always this fear that I could be killed or beaten down’” (Staggers-Hakim 394).

bell hooks writes that “No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women…When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women” (7). Unfortunately, the erasure of black American women in socio-political discourse extends to most critical discussions of anti-black police violence. Therefore, it is important for me to acknowledge that black American women are also subject to lateral trauma.

First, black women are themselves victims of racialized police violence. In 2015, “at least 15 black women were killed directly by police” (Smith). Furthermore, Christen Smith argues that black women are suffering from “slow death” due to anti-black police violence, particularly extrajudicial killings. She writes,

We know from the stories of black mothers who have lost their children to state violence that the lingering anguish of living in the aftermath of police violence kills black women gradually. Depression, suicide, PTSD, heart attacks, strokes and other debilitating mental and physical illnesses are just some of the diseases black women develop as they try to put their lives back together after they lose a child.

Because black American women play such integral roles in their families, their immense and too often unrecognized trauma reaches very far into their communities. The only way to combat and heal from anti-black police violence is to understand all the “cumulative aftereffects of state violence on black communities” (Smith), and gender needs to factor into these analyses.

Sources

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.

Aymer, Samuel R. “‘I Can’t Breathe’: A Case-study—Helping Black Men Cope with Race-related Trauma Stemming from Police Killing and Brutality.” Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment 26:3-4 (2016): 367-376. Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.

Cooper, Hannah LF. “War on Drugs Policing and Brutality.” Substance Use & Misuse 50: 8-9 (2015): 1188-1194.Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

Fromm, M. Gerard. “Introduction.” Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Ed. M Gerard Fromm. London: Karmac Books, 2012. xvxxi. Print.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Smith, Christen. “Slow death: Is the Trauma of Police Violence Killing Black Women?” The Daily Cardinal. 12 Jul. 2016. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

Staggers-Hakim, Raja. “The Nation’s Unprotected Children and the Ghost of Mike Brown, or the Impact of National Police Killings on the Health and Social Development of African American Boys.” Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment 26:3-4 (2016): 390-399. Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

The Problem of Nostalgia in Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother

In this post, I will be exploring how Saidiya Hartman expresses nostalgia in her book, Lose Your Mother, with a focus on the first chapter, “Afrotopia.” In writing about nostalgia, I refer specifically to the ideas of Svetlana Boym. In her introduction to The Future of Nostalgia, Boym writes a thought-provoking passage on nostalgia, belonging, and identity:

Nostalgia…is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed…Nostalgia is paradoxical in the sense that longing can make us more empathetic toward fellow humans, yet the moment we try to repair longing with belonging, the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity, we often part ways and put an end to mutual understanding. Algia—longing—is what we share, yet nostos—the return home—is what divides us…The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. (xv-xvi)

Reading this excerpt on nostalgia immediately brought Hartman to mind. Nostalgia serves as an explanation for Hartman’s problematic representation of Ghanaians in Lose Your Mother.

Throughout the past few months I have been writing about trauma, both intergenerational and lateral, and the many ways in which shared trauma can bond members of oppressed groups. Before encountering Lose Your Mother, I was aware of Hartman’s reputation as a lauded scholar of black American history and literature, and I eagerly anticipated reading her meditations on history, memory and the effects of slavery on the African diaspora through generations. I assumed that Hartman’s background would allow her to write with a level of knowledge, understanding, and empathy often lacking in scholarship pertaining to Africa.

Quite contrary to my expectations, Hartman’s depiction of Ghana and Ghanaians was very disappointing. It appeared that for Hartman, the powerful effects of nostalgia overcame any type of identification through shared trauma with African people. I believe the crushing feeling of being regarded as obruni (a stranger) in Ghana after years of longing and idealization disrupted Hartman’s ability to understand Ghanaians as people and Ghana as a nation. Of Accra and its inhabitants she writes,

…The landscape of anticolonialism was everywhere indicated by roundabouts named after freedom fighters and slain martyrs and boulevards endowed with the totemic power of ideals like liberation, independence, and autonomy. The city propped up thwarted and grand schemes of an Africa for Africans at home and abroad. I had been living in Accra for a month before I realized that few ever called the streets by these grand names. They were hollow ideals to most people… In getting around this city, few were mindful of the signs of slavery or independence. (Hartman 24)

This passage, one amongst others, shows that Hartman has little understanding of who Ghanaians are, what they think, or what they value. It is unjust—dehumanizing even—to assume that people do not value their liberty, independence, and autonomy because they go about their daily lives in ostensibly unreflective ways. After all, I would argue that almost everyone in the world goes about their daily lives in ostensibly unreflective ways, Americans included. In her nostalgic desire for “the Eden of Ghana” (Hartman 37), Hartman may have forgotten that Ghanaians are as complicated and ordinary as any other people; they are not and never were static symbols of postcolonial struggle.

Throughout “Afrotopia,” Hartman prefers to have outsiders speak for Ghanaians rather than let Ghanaians speak for themselves. The native Ghanaians Hartman encounters have almost no direct speech pertaining to Ghanaian politics and culture. Those Ghanaians Hartman does mention, such as the housekeeper Stella and the cab drivers in Accra, appear to share her low opinion of the country. Hartman expends much more effort in exploring the perspectives of her friends Mary Ellen and John Ray, a black American couple in Ghana who seem wholly incapable of accepting that they are, in fact, immigrants. Mary Ellen disparages the country for its inefficiency and corruption while John Ray cautions Hartman that Ghanaians target black Americans for scams and that Accra is full of “mercenaries, thieves, refugees, prostitutes, broke soldiers, corrupt policemen and the desperate hard-pressed…” (Hartman 27). Every observation they make of Ghana and its people is coloured with pessimism. Hartman is able to identify with Mary Ellen and John Ray because she understands “the pain and isolation of their exile” (43), as they do not feel accepted as true Africans. While Hartman’s nostalgia helps to foster a strong bond with Mary Ellen and John Ray, it also divides her from Ghanaians and prevents her from appreciating their full humanity.

That Hartman’s depiction of Ghanaians has not affected the overwhelmingly positive reception of her book is a testament to her American privilege. While I do not typically rely on hypotheticals to bolster my arguments, I feel that a hypothetical has its place here: Suppose an African scholar were to travel to the United States in order to conduct research for a book about the African diaspora and the legacy of slavery. Now imagine this scholar has little understanding of American politics and history, especially as they relate to race and social inequality. Suppose also that she were to take up residence in the overwhelmingly black and impoverished areas of Chicago, Illinois, and Baltimore, Maryland. If this African academic were then to write about how black Americans—even with all the advantages of inhabiting the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world—have fallen incredibly short of the glorious promise of Civil Rights and the Black Power movement while languishing in crime and poverty, she would rightfully be lambasted for her surface analysis and offensive implications. I see no reason why Saidiya Hartman is deserving of different treatment for her depiction of Ghana and Ghanaians in Lose Your Mother.

Sources

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.

The Power of Empathy in Lynn Nottage’s Ruined

Ruined, a 2009 play by Lynn Nottage, is set in a small mining town in the province of Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The play centres on Mama Nadi, a determined survivor of the Ituri Conflict and the First and Second Congo Wars, as well as the shrewd owner of a local bar and brothel. We meet Sophie, Salima, and Josephine, three young women who have endured unspeakable violence and loss in the conflict and now work for Mama Nadi. In 2004 and 2005, Nottage travelled to Uganda to conduct interviews with Congolese women who had crossed the border to escape the violence in the DRC. In their determination to go on record, these survivors courageously shared with Nottage their “raw and ugly tales of sexual violence and torture at the hands of both Rebel and Government militias” (Nottage). The women’s painful testimony inspired Ruined and its characters.

Ruined is a call to action as much as it is a beautiful and haunting work of drama. Nottage seeks to move her audience to help Congolese women in any way they can—whether it be by donating directly to the charities and human rights groups operating in the DRC or by raising more awareness about the war being waged on Congolese women’s bodies. Nottage’s effectiveness lies in the empathetic construction of her characters. She has a commitment to accuracy rooted in her compassion for the women she interviewed. Nottage allows her characters the space to testify to their traumas without constructing them merely as the sum of these traumas. Instead, her characters carry the living spirits of the women she has interviewed—women with whom the audience can now connect themselves.

I have no doubt that Nottage’s identity as an African American woman helped her to depict the survivors accurately and responsibly. Globally, black women are capable of sharing an emotional proximity, a depth of feeling that can transcend class, nationality, and even ethnicity. There is a bond there that outsiders simply cannot understand. And this bond need not be understood, but simply appreciated, because it is clearly and undeniably a beautiful thing.

Source

Nottage, Lynn. Ruined. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009. Print.

Thoughts on Trauma in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

From the outset of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman humanizes his father, Vladek Spiegelman by emphasizing the minutiae of their everyday interactions. These interactions between father and son help to demonstrate the extent of Vladek’s trauma and the strain it has caused him and his family. They also bring Vladek to life as a full human being – he emerges as equal parts frustrating, amusing, and sympathetic. For instance, Vladek’s compulsive need to save every dollar is clearly rooted in his experience of the Holocaust; while Vladek acknowledges the source of his tightfistedness, he stubbornly refuses to change even when it threatens the stability of his marriage to Mala and his improved relationship with his son. With the use of dialogue and the comics medium, Spiegelman shifts from his parents’ trials in the Holocaust to his present-day confrontations with his father’s idiosyncrasies. These temporal shifts, which also encompass sharp changes in tone and atmosphere, make Maus a transformative text. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Spiegelman’s graphic novel is able to help “demythologize” the Holocaust. In her chapter, “Reading the Literature of Trauma” in Worlds of Hurt, Kalí Tal describes mythologization as a cultural coping strategy for trauma. It works by “reducing a traumatic event to a set of standardized narratives (twice – and thrice – told tales that come to represent ‘the story’ of the trauma), turning it from frightening and uncontrollable event into a contained and predictable narrative” (Tal 6). Far from contained and predictable, the temporal shifts of Maus make the narrative both emotionally engaging and emotionally dislocating. In each return to the present, Spiegelman shows the reverberations of trauma in everyday life. This is an approach that is remarkably different from what Kal refers to as the “archetypal Holocaust novel” (6).

Near the end of Spiegelman’s Maus II: And Here my Troubles Began, there is an interesting exchange that especially piqued my interest. Art and Françoise are driving Vladek back to his bungalow in the Catskills after a hilarious and cringe-inducing (yet unexpectedly successful) attempt by Vladek to procure a refund for Mala’s half-eaten groceries. On the way, Françoise stops the car to pick up a black hitch-hiker, who is illustrated as a dog, in keeping with the representations of Americans throughout the comic. Vladek becomes uneasy and cries, “A hitch-hiker? And – Oy – It’s a coloured guy, a shvartser! Push quick on the gas!” (emphasis in original). Francoise does not oblige Vladek and instead drives the affable stranger to his cousin’s abode. All the while Vladek mutters under his breath in Polish, in complete disbelief that a “shvartser” (Yiddish for a black male) is sitting in his car. After the hitch-hiker disembarks, Vladek comments that he had been watching the man carefully, to ensure he stole no groceries. Françoise quickly admonishes her father-in-law: “‘That’s outrageous! How can you, of all people, be such a racist! You talk about blacks the way the Nazis talked about the Jews!’” (259). To this Vladek replies, “‘Ach!…I thought you are more smart than this, Françoise…It’s not even to compare the shvartsers and the Jews!’” (259, emphasis in original).

I am sure that I am not the only reader to find this exchange jarring. After developing a strong familiarity, even an identification, with Vladek through Spiegelman’s attentive and consistent representation of his personality, habits, and mannerisms, this identification was dealt a serious blow by the revelation of his bigotry. Nevertheless, it is a credit to Spiegelman that he remained faithful in his attempt at an honest rendering of his father, with all of his faults and foibles. Curiously enough, Vladek’s racism becomes yet another humanizing element for his character; he is a victim and a survivor, as well as a flawed man capable of committing his own racist transgressions.

On closer attention, the passage brought to mind again Kali Tal’s introductory chapter in Worlds of Hurt. I wondered what could be lying beneath the surface of this racist episode. Of course, the pervasive racism and antipathy in American society towards black people is the simplest explanation for Vladek’s bigoted views. However, there appears to be more at work in this lack of solidarity between victims of oppression, between members of traumatized groups. Because while the hitch-hiker is not necessarily a victim of trauma, and almost certainly not in a similar way to Vladek, there is no doubt that African Americans as a group have suffered immense trauma throughout their history. Tal writes that

If survivors retain control of their trauma, they can sometimes force a shift in the social and political structure. If the dominant culture manages to appropriate the trauma and can codify it in its own terms, the status quo will remain unchanged. On a social as well as an individual psychological level, the penalty for repression is repetition. (7)

Drawing on Tal, I argue that in the United States, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust have been able to retain control of their trauma, largely influencing its eventual codification by the general public so that the Holocaust has become a symbol of both human evil and human suffering at their zenith. Black Americans have not controlled the codification of the traumas stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and Jim Crow to the same extent. Because of the unceasing and systematic economic, social, and political oppression of black Americans throughout the history of the United States, their trauma has a different cultural stature than that of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Another reason for the privileging of Jewish trauma is that that the dominant culture in the United States takes substantial credit for defeating Nazi Germany and hence bringing the Holocaust to an end, but it has a much more complicated, far less admirable relationship to the suffering of black Americans. Therefore, there are complicated reasons for the lack of solidarity or identification between black Americans and Jews. When Vladek insists that there is no comparison between the two groups, he is also denying a comparable experience of trauma, a denial that is rooted in the wider American culture.

Sources

Tal, Kalí. “Reading the Literature of Trauma.” Worlds Of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,   1996. 1-22. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.

Trauma, Race, and Gender in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs tells the story of her life as a slave and her struggle to gain freedom for herself and for her children. Jacobs is the only black woman author to publish an autobiographical book-length fugitive slave narrative (Mullen 254). Her story is a significant departure from the conventional masculine slave narrative because she focuses on the experiences of the black female slave. Bringing the enslaved black woman to the centre enables Jacobs to explore the meanings and nuances of psychic trauma, one of the most devastating effects of rape and sexual abuse. The central aim of her narrative is to bolster the abolitionist movement and encourage antislavery sentiment. One of the main strategies she uses in her autobiography to engender sympathetic identification from her audience is to deconstruct the most pernicious myths about the institution of slavery, particularly as they relate to black female slaves. By deconstructing the damaging myth of the Jezebel, Jacobs reduces the social, moral, and emotional space between herself and her primarily northern female audience. As a result, she awakens their sympathies towards all slaves, especially enslaved black women.

Myth of the Jezebel

Much of the first half of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is dedicated to deconstructing the Jezebel myth. The Jezebel myth holds that enslaved black women are wanton and lascivious creatures with insatiable sexual appetites (Hopkins 6). Accordingly, black female slaves use sexual temptation to ensnare white men and precipitate their moral degradation. In Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks writes that during slavery, the myth of black female promiscuity justified their rape by white men. So long as the white slave-owner could label enslaved black women prostitutes and whores, he could absolve himself of all responsibility for his sexual violence (hooks 25), while increasing his property and terrorizing his black female slaves into “allegiance and obedience to the white imperialistic order” (hooks 27). Jacobs is well aware of the Jezebel myth and the antipathy it creates in white men and women. With white Northern women being her primary audience, she works from many angles to deconstruct the myth. I am interested in the way Jacobs centers on trauma in order to humanize the black female slave and redeem her as a victim of sexual violence and persecution.

Trauma and Silence

The suffering Jacobs endures as a result of Dr. Flint’s overpowering sexual threats amounts to a repetitive and continuous trauma. She writes, “My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there.” This passage indicates the manifestation of psychic trauma. Jacobs appears to experience “heightened physiological arousal” (Brown 100): she is hyper-vigilant and has a distracted mind, envisioning her sadistic master everywhere she goes. In other passages she refers to disturbed sleep and involuntary physical responses at the sound of his voice or his footsteps (Jacobs 48). The reader cannot help but sympathize with Jacobs, as she shows that both her body and mind are thoroughly vulnerable to Dr. Flint’s brutal impulses.

Trauma and silence have an important connection in the text. Patricia Hopkins ponders the role that silence and bearing witness play in Jacobs’ narrative. She writes that silence pervades Jacobs’ narrative and makes reference to three significant silences in the text: First, Jacobs waits until her daughter, Ellen’s adolescence to tell her about her sexual persecution by Dr. Flint. Second, Jacobs is evasive about the details of her relationship with Mr. Sands (a white Northern businessman and the father of her children), especially during the period between Benny’s and Ellen’s births. And third, the extent of Ellen’s sexual victimization is somewhat ambiguous, insofar as the reader is left unsure whether Mr. Thorne’s sexual depravity went even further than the “vile language” he poured in her ears (Hopkins 18).

After referring to these silences, Hopkins asks the following rhetorical questions: “‘What is Brent not saying? What does she not say about both Flint and Sands? Is it this silence which allows the cycle of generational sexual abuse to continue unchecked?’” (18). Similarly, in remarking on black female slave narratives, hooks writes that “Few slave parents warned their daughters about the possibility of rape or helped them to prepare for such situations. The slave parents’ unwillingness to openly concern themselves with the reality of sexual exploitation reflects the general colonial American attitude regarding sexuality” (25). Like, Hopkins, hooks shifts the responsibility for silence onto the victim without taking into account the peculiarities of trauma. To add to these analyses of silence, I argue that the silence pervading the topic of sexual violence and exploitation in the text reflects more than deep-rooted shame and nineteenth century American conventions of modesty. Drawing on articles by Cathy Caruth and Geoffrey H. Hartman, I assert that the silences in Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl are the most significant reflections of the complex inner workings of trauma within the entire text.

Because Jacobs has demonstrated great empowerment in her ability to take control of her trauma and integrate it into knowledge for the sake of testimony, it is easy for the reader to assume she has somehow transcended the unspeakability of trauma. Nonetheless, the reader should remember that Jacobs was completely powerless when Dr. Flint and Mr. Sands sexually exploited her. The immediacy of those traumatic events meant she did not experience them as they occurred; instead they “bypassed perception and consciousness and fell directly into her psyche” (Hartman 537). As Caruth writes, “Central to the very immediacy of [the traumatic] experience…is a gap that carries the force of the event and does so precisely at the expense of simple knowledge and memory” (7). As Jacobs transforms the trauma into a narrative that an audience can read and understand, there will inevitably be fractures, gaps, breaks, and silences because traumatic knowledge, by its very nature, cannot be made entirely conscious (Caruth 10). It follows, then, that Jacobs would have considerable difficulty in relaying both her abuse by Mr. Flint to her daughter, as well as her sexual manipulation by Mr. Sands to the readers. These are traumas she herself continues to work through, and they will likely always remain partly inaccessible. And so, Jacobs’ silence in the face of sexual persecution does not make her complicit in the cycle of generational sexual abuse. Quite the opposite, her verbal and textual silences only reinforce her position as a victim and deserving recipient of her readers’ compassion.

Sources

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.    3-12. Print.

Hartman, Geoffrey, H. “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies.” New Literary History 26.3 (1995): 537-563. JSTOR. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Hopkins, Patricia D. “Seduction or Rape: Deconstructing the Black Female body in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Making Connections 13.1 (2011): 4-20. ProQuest. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Eds. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 9-156. Print.

Mullen, Harryette. “Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Eds. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 253-278. Print.

Trauma and Empowerment in Tina McElroy Ansa’s Ugly Ways

Ugly Ways by Tina McElroy Ansa is a 1993 novel that follows the three Lovejoy sisters, Betty, Emily, and Annie Ruth, as they reunite in their hometown of Mulberry, Georgia for their mother’s funeral. Set contemporaneously, most of the novel is narrated in third person omniscient, which allows us readers insight into the daughters’ complicated relationships with their late mother, Esther “Mudear” Lovejoy. Ansa also uses a rare and effective narrative technique in writing occasional chapters from the first-person perspective of Esther, who observes her family from her coffin and refuses to let them have the final word about her.

The witty, self-centred, and vulnerable spirit of Esther Lovejoy grounds the entire novel. Much of the narrative centres on her journey towards freedom and self-definition, or “the change,” as her family refers to it. Esther’s change occurred early in her daughters’ childhoods; she withdrew from family life and the Mulberry community and committed her life to fulfilling her desires and enjoying her leisure. Betty aptly summarizes Esther’s “trifling” behaviour when she reflects that her late mother was a woman

who spent most of her days lying in her throne of a bed or in a reclining chair or lounging on a chaise longue dressed in pretty nightclothes or a pastel housecoat. Doing nothing with her time but looking at television, directing the running of her household, making sure her girls did all the work to her specifications. Then, if she felt like it, some gardening at night. (Ansa 13)

Conversely, Esther views herself as “a woman in [her] own shoes” (Ansa 39). She has no regrets about the way she chose to live her life and firmly believes that her lack of nurturing and “cuddling,” along with her critical eye and exacting personality, are what made her daughters the accomplished, resilient, and independent women they turned out to be.

From Betty, Esther, and Esther’s husband Ernest we learn about the state of the Lovejoys’ marriage before the change. Ernest abused Esther physically, verbally, and emotionally throughout the first twelve years of their marriage, while Esther remained timid and subservient and acquiesced to his every demand. Esther hints at the particular event that precipitated her self-imposed physical and emotional isolation, referring at times to “that cold, no-heat-and-no-lights-in-that-freezing-assed-house day” (Ansa 39), but it is Ernest’s painful admission to Annie Ruth that reveals the details of the event. In the Lovejoys’ twelfth year of marriage, Ernest received his first promotion, which came with a bonus of $250. In a moment of pride and boastfulness, he agreed to lend the money to a member of Esther’s family, against her advice. When the winter came and Ernest still hadn’t been repaid, he realized his mistake. The family’s gas and electricity were cut off and Emily and Annie Ruth almost died from whooping cough and meningitis. Esther saved her family when she managed to pay the bill with the spare change she had been collecting over several years (Ansa 171-73).

I interpret Esther’s change as an act of empowerment. Paying the gas bill during the cold winter was an emancipatory move; in that moment Esther realized she had agency and needed no longer tolerate her husband’s abuse and disregard. When Ernest returns home drunk and belligerent one night after the incident, she tells him that “I didn’t give a damn what he did as long as I could live my life the way I wanted to and not have to clean up that house or cook dinner myself or stop taking care of my flowers” (Ansa 106). With these words, Esther frees herself from the roles of dutiful wife and nurturing mother, which she had never found rewarding. She ceases to leave her house, finally enjoying her space fully rather than waiting in trepidation for Ernest’s next outburst. She finds her passion and joy in gardening, where her efforts are always rewarded. For his part, Ernest shrinks at the sight of her empowerment and becomes a meek, silent shell of himself.

Psychic trauma is another explanation for Esther’s change. The cold winter is a traumatic event for her: her marriage breaks down, she is plunged into financial insecurity, and two of her children nearly die. She never fully recovers from these experiences. Her insistence on leisure and material comforts are a form of emotional avoidance, a symptom of trauma where a person acts to prevent an uncomfortable emotion from reoccurring (Brown 100). Esther does everything she can to avoid feeling the fear she associates with poverty and scarcity. Furthermore, Esther carries obvious marks of emotional numbing. Her perspective reveals that she is proud of her daughters and is concerned for their welfare, yet she remains emotionally detached from them and finds it almost impossible to express any emotion towards them, positive or negative.

There is a preponderance of evidence that Esther suffers from trauma due to the events in her marriage leading up to that cold day. And yet, it is this trauma that sets her free to live life exactly as she wishes. There appears, then, to be a compelling connection between the empowerment and trauma interpretations; far from being competing, they are actually complementary. It is trauma that enables Esther to live the life of her choosing, a life of ease, agency, and spiritual freedom. This freedom is typically denied African American female characters and African American women, who are conventionally depicted as strong in all circumstances.

Melissa Harris-Perry writes that black women created the image of the strong black woman to counter negative stereotypes of the Jezebel, Sapphire, and Mammy, and celebrate black women as “motivated, hardworking breadwinners who suppress their emotional needs while anticipating those of others” (184). Black women drew encouragement from an icon who persevered over the great obstacles of “oppression, poverty, and rejection” (184). The suprahuman (or superwoman) archetype in African American literature is based on this idealized strong black woman construction (Harris; Harris-Perry 184). In her book, Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Black Women in African American Literature, Trudier Harris writes,

These suprahuman women have been denied the ‘luxuries’ of failure, nervous breakdowns, leisured existences, or anything that would suggest that they are complex, multidimensional characters. They must swallow their pain, gird their loins against trouble (the masculine image coincides with the denial of traditional femininity to them), and persist in spite of adversity. (12)

In Esther Lovejoy, Ansa creates a character that contravenes almost every convention of the black superwoman: Esther basks unabashedly in her middle-class leisure. While at times she acknowledges her shortcomings as a mother, she takes them in stride, never haranguing herself over her failures. She experiences deep emotional pain and far from swallowing it, changes her entire life to relieve it. And a close look at her past and inner-life reveals a deeply complex character whose motivations are varied and sometimes even contradictory.

It is very important that Ansa acknowledges the the full humanity of her African American female characters, and that she explores how quotidian events can indeed be traumatizing in the lives of African American women. Demonstrating that black American women, too, have emotional and mental limits, challenges a society that burdens black women with unrealistic expectations of invulnerability (Harris-Perry 185). While Esther is an extreme example, her character is right to insist that black women have the right to practice self-care. And the practice of self-care on a population level requires economic and political resources to which black American women as a group do not have access (Harris-Perry 189). Inequality in both in the private and public spheres—and the immense suffering it causes—should not be accepted as a fact of life for African American women, but challenged at every turn.

Sources

Ansa, Tina McElroy. Ugly Ways. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993. Print.

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.

Harris, Trudier. Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Print.

A New Chapter: Race, Gender, and Trauma

Recently, I decided to enter into a new phase of this blog. It was a decision that came partly out of necessity. I began a new graduate course and with it came a new blog assignment. This assignment presented me the opportunity to explore some of my primary intellectual interests with a more focused approach than in the past. I boiled these interests down to the broad topics of race, gender, politics, and literature. Looking at my past blog entries, these topics were most prominent. I also wanted to explore my interests in the context of contemporary theory, which is the subject of my course. Trauma theory stood out to me as having the most thought-provoking intersections with race and gender, so that is where I decided to start.

But I couldn’t start. Once I decided on the themes of my next blog posts, I began to experience some powerful writer’s block. How could I do these topics justice? What important contribution could I really make? On reading an essay by Toril Moi entitled “Meaning What We Say: The ‘Politics of Theory’ and the Responsibility of Intellectuals,” I decided to look more closely at my writing and the motivations behind it. Throughout her essay, Moi considers the relationship between politics and intellectual work. First, she writes about how leftist intellectuals justify their writing politically in order to defend the intrinsic value of intellectual work and assuage the guilt that derives from their privileged place in society (140). The danger in this tendency, according to Moi, is that it lends itself to absolutism—the fantasy that one particular theory or work can and must be omnipotent in its ethical and political import. The reality is that intellectual work never has absolute value and “we cannot predict the political effects of our writing” (Moi 159).

Like many writers, I strive to create politically effective work. I seek to bring about change with my writing, and more specifically cultural and socio-political change for the empowerment of disenfranchised people. Reading Moi made me realize that these goals, while respectable, are also paralyzing. If I were to wait to write something guaranteed to be politically significant, I would be waiting to write forever. While my work may never be politically effective, I will continue to be politically committed. My interests in politics and social change are rooted in my identity and history as a black Canadian woman of African descent.

According to Moi, the politically committed intellectual is ultimately appealing to the freedom of her audience; all she can do is mean what she says and take responsibility for her words (146). In a memorable passage Moi writes, “What matters is whether the text shows the reader some aspect of the world that she or he can respond to. To respond to a text the reader does not have to identify with it or recognize herself in it, or feel represented by it; she needs to feel stirred, moved, challenged by its appeal” (158). In this series of blog posts I want to investigate the meaning of trauma in the lives of black people, and especially black women. I am writing for people who, like me, are interested in cultural criticism and the study of social inequality. And I hope to inspire empathy, as I am a firm believer that empathy is the root of all progressive social and political change.

My first blog post in this chapter will focus on Tina McElroy Ansa’s novel, Ugly Ways and the intersections between trauma theory and black feminist theory. Following that will be an analysis of psychic trauma in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The third post introduces the graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman to discuss the codification of trauma in American society and its effects on different subjugated groups. Next comes a post on Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined and the sympathetic identification that can bond black women around the globe. Following that is a critique of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother and a discussion of the power of nostalgia. Finally, I have a two-part post on trauma and anti-black police violence in the United States, with a piece on the potential for a hypertext Truth and Reconciliation document.

I rely on literature and theory to move from a micro-level investigation of race, gender, and trauma to a macro-level analysis, emphasizing the effects of psychic trauma on both individuals and communities. The literary works I engage with throughout this blog series have been fundamental to my learning process and I hope they provide an interesting way into some of my ideas.

Source

Moi, Toril. “Meaning What We Say: The ‘Politics of Theory’ and the Responsibility of Intellectuals.” The Legacy of Simone Beauvoir. Ed. Emily R. Grosholz. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. Print.

“a” or “A” for Apartheid?

Beyond the Holocaust

Up until I reached my mid twenties, I was always under the impression that the word “apartheid”, a term which is so integral to both South African history  and the world’s understanding of racial oppression, was written with a capital “A”. For me, it made sense to think of the term in this way.  As we learned during  childhood, when we encountered language and its intricacies for its first time, a capital letter carries with it a certain sense of personal, social and political prestige. It’s used to emphasize importance, magnitude, identity and belonging. We cannot, in essence, speak about an event such as the Holocaust without the presence of the capital “H”, an emphasis which goes beyond the necessity of grammar rules to draw our attention to the gravity of the Holocaust and its impact within public consciousness. Some literary critics have identified a non capitalized version of this…

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#LoveSerenaHateRacism A Discourse On Western Attitudes Towards Serena Williams

Media Diversified

It was a tough crowd out there … the story of my life. ~ Serena Williams

I once said that I am the most underestimated Grand Slam winner. Every article says “she overpowered her opponent.” It is a lot more than I never get credit for mental and it is kind of frustrating. ~ Serena Williams

When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I am locked into the infernal circle. ~ Frantz Fanon

She is Frank Bruno with lipstick. Bigger arms than Frank too. ~ Online comment

by Ahmed Olayinka Sule 

“I could not believe what came out of his mouth…he said some awful things… and as an African-American I’m not going to stand for it”, she said as she approached the umpire pointing in…

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