In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explored some questions about the ever-evolving technology of photography and what it does to us, particularly when it’s used to capture moments that would normally make us avert our eyes. “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order,” Sontag wrote, “are those who could do something to alleviate it—say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken—or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Sontag spends much of the book discussing war photography; scant pages mention images and cruelties closer to home.
In the modern American context, there remains perhaps no more insidious cruelty than the belief—constantly manipulated and reinforced—that race is a natural and constant thing, something that should have any bearing on how we choose to organize our society and our lives. And though the convergence of racism and the photographic impulse isn’t new, the recent pictures and videos of killings by police officers have given renewed life to the questions that Sontag explored—and those she didn’t. Indeed, these images raise fewer questions about the act of looking at them than about the ways in which we view ourselves.
To modern eyes, the photographic portraits of Frederick Douglass are not so remarkable. Douglass was almost always photographed seated, wearing a dark suit, alternately staring directly into the camera and looking off to one side. As he abided by the portrait conventions of the era, only his skin color would have made these portraits remarkable in Douglass’s own time. The real joy of Picturing Frederick Douglass (2015)—a collection of 60 portraits, taken between 1841 and 1895; his four speeches on his theory of photography; and a critical essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr.—is to study his constancy. The changes in Douglass’s facial expressions across all of the portraits are mostly imperceptible: He looks serious, defiant, and proud.
The final portrait of Douglass was taken on February 21, 1895. He’d died the day before. That image shows him lying on his bed in Washington, DC. It is mostly a spectral gray-white. His hair and beard, his clothes, the bed linens, and the wall in the background all appear to be about the same color. There’s a faint outline of his profile, and with his hands crossed over his abdomen, he looks as dignified as ever.
The photographers can be forgiven for what time has done to their work—milkiness where there might have been clarity, yellows and browns where whites and blacks might have once revealed more. But looking through the portraits, you could well begin to think that Douglass was more an artist than any of the photographers who pointed the camera at him.
His portraits are, in effect, the emblems of his more than 50 years of performance art. Photography was a tool that Douglass used in his abolitionist efforts to counteract images of inferiority and magnify the presence of a dignified, well-dressed, intelligent Negro. In total, the editors of Picturing Frederick Douglass have identified 160 distinct portraits of the former slave, abolitionist, writer, and orator. There are more photographic portraits of Douglass than there are of Abraham Lincoln, George Custer, Red Cloud, or Walt Whitman. Moreover, Douglass was deliberate about disseminating them. He gave them as gifts; he printed them in newspapers, including his own, The North Star; he used them to promote abolitionist and civil-rights organizations.
In 1849, Douglass found an unauthorized engraving of himself that pictured him with a smile. The image angered him. In The North Star, he wrote that it had “a much more kindly and amiable expression than is generally thought to characterize the face of a fugitive slave.” By then, Douglass had not been a fugitive slave for three years, but something in his psyche remained trapped. Paintings and engravings, he continued, were too dependent on the artist’s predilections to figure into Douglass’s mission:
Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. And the reason is obvious. Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy.
Thus, Douglass preferred the burgeoning technology of photography—which faithfully rendered the appearance of its subject—and a few trusted engravers. In “Pictures and Progress,” a speech he gave sometime between November 1864 and March 1865, he more fully articulated his theory of photography and its potential to inspire social change. In reference to photographs in general, he said that “by looking upon this picture and upon that [one],” we are able to compare, “to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.” More specifically, he viewed his own pictures as signs of perfection, in contrast to the defects of the more common images of Negroes during his lifetime.
Objectivity is part of what Douglass liked best about photography, and so Douglass, with his exercise in constancy, manipulated what he set in front of the camera. He performed his vision of perfection, which he sought to use as a basis for antislavery and civil-rights advocacy. But as much as Douglass worked for and achieved progress in the abolitionist movement, he knew the limits of human endeavor. “All subjective ideas become more distinct, palpable and strong by the habit of rendering them objective,” he said in an 1862 speech. “By its exercise it is easy to become bigoted and fanatic, or liberal and enlightened.” Photographs merely represented both the technology and the form that, he believed, gave him the best chance at reaching the latter.
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Nowadays, it’s become popular, again, to note that white supremacy is a harmful ideology. By insisting on that fact tirelessly, Black Lives Matter has brought about the slogan for a countervailing ideology and become the vessel for activist energy and potential change. That BLM has focused national attention on police injustice is a commendable achievement. However, for all its dynamism and appeals to moral goodness, the movement shares a foundational belief with Douglass: the ideology of race as a natural fact.
Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality, a 2012 book by the scholars (and sisters) Karen and Barbara Fields, should be more widely read than it is—no matter its current reach. In it, the authors achieve an intelligence and agility that is rare in discussions of identity, racism, and inequality. They start by asserting distinctions between two common words. Race is “the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits”; racism is “an action and a rationale for action, or both at once,” which “always takes for granted the objective reality of race.” To describe the “mental terrain” on which race and racism operate, the Fieldses coined the term racecraft, which defines “what goes with what and whom (sumptuary codes), how different people must deal with each other (rituals of deference and dominance), where human kinship begins and ends (blood), and how Americans look at themselves and each other (the gaze).” The term takes its provenance from “witchcraft,” which, the authors argue, is a useful way to understand the fiction’s dominance over our minds.
In “Pictures and Progress,” Douglass spoke pointedly about the limits to his insistence on objectivity. Pictures, he said, “are of the earth and speak to us in a known tongue. They are neither angels nor demons, but in their possibilities both. We see in them not only men and women, but ourselves.” But the fiction of race, the authors of Racecraft remind us, thrives in that uncertain balance between the angelic and the demonic. They take a different stance: “No operation performed on the fiction can ever make headway against the crime” of racism.
The rhetoric and thinking common to Black Lives Matter and its supporters reaffirm that same fiction. To assert and maintain its antagonistic political goals, the organization must accept the “objective” reality of race. Douglass’s pictures make a similar case: Negroes are the same as white folks. The deeper truth, which perhaps is impossible for a photograph to say—or perhaps impossible for our eyes to see—is that there’s no such thing as a Negro and no such thing as a white person.
Our writers and political activists, however, possess tools that are more attuned to nuance. Recently, in The New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones walked through a series of questions that she asked after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers on consecutive days in early July. She began:
How do you explain the visceral and personal pain caused by the killing of a black person you did not even know to people who did not grow up with, as their legacy, the hushed stories of black bodies hung from trees by a lynching mob populated with sheriff’s deputies?
The reader, here, is assumed to share a belief in the tenets of racecraft: that race is genetic, that one can know how another might think and behave based on the presumption of race, and that the order of our society is fixed. Hannah-Jones continued:
How do you explain—how can you make those who are not black feel—the consuming sense of dread and despair, when one sees the smiling faces, captured in photos, of Mr. Castile and Mr. Sterling, and knows that but for the grace of God, it could have been your uncle, your brother, your child, you?
To begin to undo the work of racecraft is to insist on the subjective—on one’s own individuality, and that of all others. After all, racism’s most insidious wounds are not of policy, economics, or even life and limb, though those do of course hurt, but of the psyche. The classifications that we claim to derive from nature and then ascribe to people and groups are confining to any human spirit: We are all injured by racism. So in that way, calling for the end of white supremacy necessitates calling for the end of whiteness itself, which, thankfully, might be well understood nowadays. In the fullness of time, we may also come to understand, in a life-giving manner, that the end of whiteness must also mean the end of blackness, brownness, and any other colorness.
Hannah-Jones seems to get that. Concluding her sequence of questions, she makes a rhetorical shift and tells us something, rather than asking: “How do you explain that awful understanding that each of these deaths confirms for black citizens, that if stopped by the police, we may be stripped down to our most basic of elements, that one part of us that is a complete fiction: our race. And that fiction—the American crime of blackness—can turn a broken taillight into a death sentence.” Notably, Hannah-Jones refers to “black citizens” and not to “black people” or some such; she’s right to confine blackness to the civic realm. But it isn’t enough to try to manipulate the meaning of such an old and cancerous word. An individual might be compelled to contend that it’s her individual choice to identify as black, or that being black is a matter of culture, not race—but those are just different, perhaps more consoling, points of entry into the same trap. An individual who proclaims an identity based on diffuse general terms begins the work of erasing herself.
Hannah-Jones’s questions, and their implied answer (“You can’t”), affirm that, for many, the fusion of a racial identity and one’s own is nearly absolute: Not only are they difficult to separate, but it can also seem like there’s no going back. We’ve lived with racecraft for so long that the mere thought of abdicating one’s colorness can feel like being asked, in a duel, to lower your gun first.
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In some respects, Without Sanctuary, a collection of photographs and postcards of public lynchings published in 1999, shows how much—or how little—Douglass’s mission in photographs worked. During the early 20th century, public lynchings were often memorialized with photographs. Without Sanctuary compiles nearly 100 of them, with texts by Hilton Als, Congressman John Lewis, Leon F. Litwack, and James Allen.
Writing from a principled yet uncontroversial position, Lewis asserts, “We must prevent anything like this from ever happening again.” Als goes in a different direction, writing with more emotion. He wonders what looking at the photographs does to him. He wonders why he should even look in the first place:
I want to bow out of this nigger feeling. I resent these pictures for making me feel anything at all. For a long time, I avoided being the black guy, that is, being black-identified. Back then, I felt that adopting black nationalism limited my world, my world view. Now I know from experience that the world has been limited for me by people who see me as a nigger, very much in the way the dead eyes and flashbulb smiles in these photographs say: See what we do to the niggers! They are the fear and hatred in ourselves, murdered! Killed! All of this is painful and American.
What are the images of police killings of black citizens doing to and for Americans? We’re not only looking, as Als did, but many of us are asking to see more—at least to be able to see more. The belief that photographic evidence might deter violence by law-enforcement officers, and the resultant desire for more of it, has not proved true. Watching a person die might make us all feel like voyeurs, but, following Sontag’s construction, we are at once surgeon and patient. We can’t possibly learn to set ourselves free from racecraft, within which the spectacles of police killings occur, by continuing to use it for political aims—no matter how benevolent they may be.
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Douglass, having been a slave and through his rebellion against racism, could hardly escape an intellectual and psychic life dominated by racecraft. And it wasn’t just him. Nor was it just the lynch mobs of the 20th century or the leaders of the civil-rights movement. Neither have we healed from racism’s trauma; neither have we awoken from racecraft’s spell. The mixture of anger, shame, and resentment that Als articulated is real, and many people, like Hannah-Jones, express that same churn of emotions each time a killing by a police officer is captured and passed around the Internet. Much of black nationalism’s spirit now lives online, and there we are able to see how, as something of an extension of Douglass, race remains an everyday performance.
But “performance” ought not trivialize the stakes of this discussion. The public nature of our grief and anguish amounts to a display of which side we’re on; it’s a performance, if not for others, than for our individual selves. Whereas the lynch mobs used photographs of their victims as trophies, as something to define and validate their identities as white—or more precisely, as not-black—disseminating photographs and videos of victims of police violence turns the images into totems by which we redraw the boundaries of blackness and approximate our identities. They validate the feelings of moral rightness and prideful resistance that come along with identifying as black, or as not-white. We shouldn’t blame Douglass, or any of our forebears, any less than we should forgive ourselves.
Of course, in the face of what often feels like a siege against all of the people who identify and are identified as your kind, self-preservation is a powerful impulse. Getting behind the Black Lives Matter banner can feel good and right and urgent and necessary, as though there isn’t any other choice. Yet self-preservation alone cannot lead us to a more equal society, because self-preservation would never let you put the gun down. As those selves have been extended to create a collective identity, passed on from parents to children, there’s always been someone next in line to pick it up, to target who’s for and who’s against.
However, there is a choice. Racism is, and always has been, a thing done that depends on belief in a fiction. Trying to remedy the thing done with the idea itself is like trying to extinguish a fire by striking another match. The fiction must be unbelieved, the fire stamped out. Any responsible attempt at eradicating racism (the root of American inequality) must address its foundational fiction.
Progress in the realm of politics and policy comes and goes: Reconstruction unraveled, and the victories of the civil-rights era are being dismantled. Nothing of what may come out of the current agitation will stand on sure feet. In addition to fighting for justice now, Black Lives Matter and its supporters must be willing to define themselves, and everyone else, outside the confines of racecraft—on terms other than race—in order to gain lasting progress. While, in a material sense, white citizens hold much of the power in America, racecraft operates on an intellectual and spiritual plane, where those who are victimized hold the greatest power of all: to opt out of the confines of racialized identities.
As of late, debates about racism in America typically fixate on whether or not it exists anymore. That we’ve achieved a postracial society is something of a silly proposition, and yet it persists. Its proponents seek consolation at all costs, including an earnest attempt to understand the histories, impulses, and effects embedded in their argument. On the other hand, its critics’ main counterargument is to point to all of the instances of injustice and inequality that endure. How can we be postracial amid localized and generational poverty, when the systemic unfairness of the justice system seems to run on overdrive, when the desire for private gain outweighs any efforts to earn public good, when so many politicians abide it all? Critics of postracialism argue that it’s a flimsy banner that prematurely proclaims victory. But too often in the course of debate, postracialism’s critics miss what the Fieldses state succinctly: “Post-racial turns out to be—simply—racial; which is to say, racist.”
To abandon race is not to advocate for postracialism. The notion of postracialism asks us not to think at all. An antirace posture toward the world, instead, necessitates agile, tenacious thinking and difficult sacrifice. Why should I have to give up my blackness, my whiteness, my brownness? So that you and I might have a real chance of ending racism. So that you and I might be able to define ourselves by individual and ever-expansive terms.