Notes on Yancy, G. (2008). Black Bodies, White Gazes. The Continuing Significance of Race. Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (E-book) [no page numbers]

Chapter 5. Exposing the Serious World of Whiteness through Frederick Douglasss's Autobiographical Reflections

Dave Harris

[see this file for Chapter 1 on microaggressions]

[Actually a Foucauldian account of discourses and the contributions of both practices and theoretical/philosophical ideas. Very good account of the flaws of European philosophy. Interesting tension between 'ontological' roots and socio-historical contexts of racism specifically. Yancy wants to deny the former as leading to false universalism and seriousness, but is he ready to see racism as a specific feature of capitalism? There is the 'episteme' of Whiteness -- does that have a socio-historical context -- same problem with the whole of Foucualt really?]

Douglass wrote three autobiographical narratives on his experiences as a former slave who escaped and how he was subject to disciplinary control to make him docile, in the interests of making the slave system productive. This was accompanied by 'various "authoritative" voices (philosophical and scientific) that functioned to discipline the Black body even further' [no page numbers]. Together they sustained a 'serious' world of Whiteness [one that claimed an abstract, disinterested, scientific and universal orientation?]. This work was seen as necessary, and racist values 'ahistorically given'.

There are similarities with what de Beauvoir describes as men's discursive practices to construct women — she also talks about a serious man, where men understand their world as unconditioned, nothing to do with agency and brooking no alternatives: Black people and women can only exist as things. Beauvoir was influenced by a Black novelist, Richard Wright, and they can be read intertextually — so can Beauvoir and Douglass. Wright moved Beauvoir from metaphysics to concrete politics and theories of racial oppression and liberation which she applied to radical feminism. In particular, he made her think about double consciousness to oppose simple reductionism and to provide a basis for liberation.

She also describes 'epistemic violence' where women come to know themselves as inferior, and again referenced Wright — Black people know that large parts of the world are just forbidden to them, and so do girls, and this alterity gets essentialised.

Turning to a more specific context, African bodies were disciplined during the Middle Passage of slavery, especially by being brutalised by being confined into tight spaces [agreeing with Foucault], being marked, tortured, subject to various rituals and so on. They became transformed into 'subhuman animals and hyper-sexual savages'. Their representation in various discursive fields or regimes of truth followed on. This included a notion of Africa as a land of no culture or history.

There was no particular ontological difference coined between Africans and Europeans, no deep ontological conflict between self and other, between rival solipsisms. There is a constant fear or suspicion of others, but this implies 'some type of differential social grouping such that one inhabits a (non-solipsistic) social space from within which another, who properly does not have a social standing within that same social group, is "seen as other"'. There are differentiations and differences even within the same social group, but these do not always turn into mutual attempts to other, or to reciprocally other. This means that the otherness between Black and White people is 'socio-historically contingent in its origin', and Black bodies have to become a site of evil, as a result of material forces and exclusionary tactics which carry to extremes the very legitimacy of Black people and threaten Black subjectivity itself. This exceeds a mere self-other conflict, or even a master slave dialectic — it is more intense because Black people are '"stained", [and] lacking interiority '[square brackets original]. The same goes with skin colour, which was never stigmatised until historical values were conferred. Likewise with other racial differences — these are disguised as natural, but as really reactive, grasped as objective criteria, independent, outside anyone's responsibility, but 'in reality [part of] a phantasmatically constructed African body, a fantasised object'. Fantasy is objectified so responsibility could be denied — but the White oppressor '"needs the victim to create truth, objectifying fantasy in the discourse of the other"'

The Middle Passage was a liminal space, identity was suspended, culture un-made, destiny unknown so that subjectivity and culture was thrown into disarray. The intention was to 'create a cultureless thing'. The very technology of shipping and stowage helps create obedient docile bodies in contrast to the active slavers who could mark, define, discipline, even name, eventually [hail them] in White law and science. Slaves were not to be killed but transformed into things that could be put to work to accumulate wealth, and this meant that the African body had to be returned to itself [after savage role stripping]. Even gender differentiation was redefined 'in terms of quantity and speciality'. The Zong episode shows that children were reduced to quantifiable elements, 'children drowned for profit'. Individuals are packed into very tight spaces. Often they were brutalised and mocked, or raped. Conditions were appalling. Foucault reminds us that power produces reality, in this case, 'non-discursive confinement' producing the required Black subject as chattel.

On arrival, Black people were treated as chattel or animals, subject to an objectifying gaze, another 'part of the overall function of the White episteme' [so episteme here seems to be the organising framework that holds together these various practices and discourses]. The gaze of course involves 'an invisible/imperceptible construction', more than an extrapolation, but to do with the whole business of the auction, the commodity exchange, the physical manipulation of the bodies, the power relations involved, the separation of parents and children, the way in which White people are seen as all seeing and all knowing — the 'larger unthematised socio-visual epistemology'. This is sometimes embodied in particular rituals like inspecting naked bodies, and marking them, with White people posing as knowing subjects, the whole business as an objective process even though it probably involved projected 'fears, desires and fantasies without the agony of guilt'. This is another example of oppression becoming something objective, just dealing with external facts, a projection, a 'movement into the objective'. This reduces both parties to ghosts, argues Yancy.

Racist biology produces further ways to discourse about and produce Black bodies. An early fascination was with the 'alleged large and "exotic" genitalia of Black people', part of their confirmation as apelike. These are presented as scientific discoveries, nothing to do with the 'powerful White imaginary infused with a complex of sexual desires and sexual repressions' and actual sexual molestation of Black females. They helped produce the myth of the Black rapist, heightened with the emergence of anonymised members of the KKK.

Negro males had racial instincts that led them to '"sexual madness and excess"', moral uncleanliness, apelike behaviour. This was supported by physiognomy, and phrenology also emphasised the primitive nature of African people [an amazing early French physician is quoted describing all sorts of differences including enlarged glands as well as large penises]. Diseases were rife. Sexual activity was held to be formed by natural selection and was thus unalterable.

Darwin condemned the pain inflicted by Whites upon Black bodies, but still likened Hottentots to chimpanzees as 'intermediaries' between human and ape doomed to extinction. A Darwinian blamed the stagnation and ignorance of Africa, although he had to except Egypt. Physicians in 1840 measured the sizes of the brains of different races, with Caucasian at the top and Negro at the bottom. An early American social scientist claimed in 1899 that '"the liability of an American Negro to commit crime is several times as great as the liability of the Whites"'. Again these findings and constructions are 'a function of the White gaze and the procrustean episteme that informed it'.

European philosophers and intellectuals added to these discourses. Levinas has apparently argued that Western philosophy, including Hume, Kant and Hegel, first posited an other doomed to lose its alterity  [only a false kind of otherness is available then, one that accommodates to the same, not a genuine otherness?]. Specifically:

Hume [Of National Characters] said he would suspect Negroes and other species of men '"to be naturally inferior to the Whites"' no other nonWhite civilisation has ever produced suitable manufactures arts or science, but only' "slender accomplishments , like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly"'. There was a natural distinction between breeds of men. As Yancy points out, this is hardly empirical, nor consistent with an account of causality 'as constant conjunction', in this case of Blackness with rationality. He was also quite dogmatic in rejecting any views that challenged his own views of White superiority. Nor was this simple ignorance, because one of his contemporaries had already argued that the empires in Peru and Mexico had already shown the ingenuity of nonWhites, as had the Africans and Native Americans. This was an empirical challenge, but Hume responded only by modifying his earlier view, admitting that he was wrong to claim that no nonWhite civilisation had ever produced sophisticated products, and substituting it instead with the phrase '"scarcely ever"'.

Kant claims that Hume checked his 'dogmatic slumber', including on the issue of Whiteness, but in his own Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, he wrote that the Negroes of Africa 'have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling' and cites Hume's challenge to produce a single example of nonWhite sophistication. He thought there was a fundamental difference between two races in terms of mental capacities. He discussed fetishism and idolatry as trifling. He described Black people as 'very vain… And so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashing'. When presented with good advice provided by a Negro carpenter, he agreed that there might be something that deserve to be considered, but decided that because the carpenter was 'Black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid'.

Yancy argues that this term 'proof' shows that it was not just an uncritical acceptance of culture of the time guiding Kant, but 'a claim based upon reasoning'. He was also aware that he was basing his opinions on pretty 'faulty' travel literature and information about non-European people, and indeed acknowledged that equally plausible reports could justify their equal potential. What was importan t were natural distinctions, hereditary arguments, and the notion of race, the priority of rational control rather than the pursuit of pleasure which is deemed to be 'the true and proper embodiment of "the values of existence itself"'. Kant thoughts that there was an original human form, a first race that was '"very blond (Northern Europe)"', with the current White race pretty close to it, and other races including Native Americans, Blacks and Indians more deviant: he did think that Indians and Native Americans were lower than Blacks.

Locke also let his racism triumph 'over his philosophy of natural rights and liberalism', even though Douglasss cited him to assert his self ownership. Locke was also an investor in the Atlantic slave trade and helped draft the Carolina Constitution which enshrined hereditaries slavery [although he seems to have had second thoughts in the Second Treatise].

Jefferson owned slaves and believed in the superiority of Whiteness despite stating that all men were created equal. He believed that they could not feel genuine love, and were 'more predisposed to sensation and reflection', which explained their natural sleepiness, just like animals. A local Black astronomer and mathematician sent his copy of an almanac to counter these views, and Jefferson was enthusiastic in public, but belittled the work in private.

Hegel also thought that Negroes were '"a race of children who remain immersed in their state of uninterested naïveté"'. They let themselves be sold without worrying about rights and wrongs, they did not strive for culture, they did not develop human personality and they made no progress in their own surroundings in Africa. Thus 'Africa is a site devoid of any Geist'. At the same time, Africa was seen as a land of gold, Treasure Island and Terra Nulla, a '"direct conjunction/intersection of the philosophical and the political and economic interests in the European denigration and exploitation of Africans'" [citing Chukwudi Eze].

Another philosopher, Meiners, saw a connection between beauty and intelligence. A British surgeon, White [sic], saw White women as aesthetically superior because they could blush. This led to physical anthropology stressing the '"universal" dimensions of White beauty [including Linnaeus ,deGobineau and others]. This also provided the link between White people and the Caucasus, allegedly the location of particularly beautiful people.

All these differentiations were seen to be natural and unconditional, awaiting discovery. People who made them were some of the best minds in Europe, and were operating in a disinterested and objective way. What they were describing, however is a Black body which had been produced by a White imaginary, something that became 'impure, savage, immoral, stupid, dull, lacking imagination, ugly, the White man's burden, evil, simian, childlike, and naturally fit to serve Whites' [it also shows the classic limits of philosophy as in Marxism, that mere ideas can never shake social realities].

Douglass by contrast drew on experience, but not experience that just reproduced his conditions, but which went beyond them, were more than just linguistic effects or representations. They contained 'interpretive dimensions'. This serves to subvert the common current ploy that degrades the voices of Black and other subaltern voices by citing the death of the subject, the metaphysics of presence, and the rejection of self authorship and self voicing based on [mere] lived experience.

Douglass showed that Black people could have a perspective, and that American slavery depended on a distorted view of the Black body, and a process that introduced subjection and docility, and caricatures. He began with this history of the Middle Passage rather than the abstract subject. He saw the need to write his own history, literally, to reveal the pain of other Black people, to demonstrate his humanity and revealed White hypocrisy by exposing the mechanisms used to oppress Black people and convince them that they deserved it — 'the epistemic regime of Whiteness', where many Blacks equated Whiteness with 'great souls and great minds', just as women were persuaded that only men had these forms of greatness. A sense of universality and unconditionedness is preserved by anonymity, absent authority, no acknowledgement of the 'specificity of the dominant culture', as well as the exclusion of other groups. 'Universality and absolute presence'provides a foundation, although there is also an necessary 'ressentiment directed towards the Black as other' [I don't see why — envy of the Black body?].

White ideology has 'Procrustean tendencies' [? — Operates with logically-implied binaries?] African people must be trapped and alienated, isolated from the civilised world, mere things of nature, and this is a convenient camouflage. Douglass was born into this social reality. As a slave, he did not even know his birthday, and to ask was '"impudent curiosity"'. Parents could be 'torn away'. Family history was destroyed, as was normal family life — Black mothers were there only to produce more slaves, quite unlike White mothers who gained status as a subject. Black people had the same status as a horse or other domestic animals, and invited to identify as beasts of burden. Any sense of historical movement even at the personal level was denied, a version of the eternal feminine, something unchangeable. Of course there were contradictions, for example mixed-race 'mulattos', who might appear White but were treated as Black, as a result of the [elaborately defended] one-drop rule.

Black women were available for sex, but this must have seemed like zoophilia if they were beasts, and their offspring similarly dehumanised. Black women were distorted, particularly subject to the projections of Whites — Jezebels, insatiable vaginas, available to honourable White men, functioning to preserve the modesty of White women, and reduce sexual demands on them. Again there is a connection with the need to reproduce slaves when transportation was abolished in 1808. Attractive Black women were sometimes deliberately mutilated. Black male bodies were lynched in a 'serious' ritual even if it was sadistic and frenzied, homoerotic and perversely erotic. Inhumanity and brutality was covered by an ideological framework which granted moral agency to Whites as the reverse of the degeneracy of Blacks, although actual behaviour was quite different.

Again there are similarities with Beauvoir, on the necessary 'profound dishonesty' of covering real values with a cloak of universality and naturalism. Beauvoir returns to the 'serious man' claiming to represent objectivity unconditionally, performing necessary sacrifices of mere lives to the greater purpose of civilisation, in a fanaticism '"as formidable as the fanaticism of passion"'.

Douglass also experienced a contradiction upon meeting his mother briefly and realising that he was indeed somebody's child and was loved and valued, that someone actually admired his dark body, and would offer it fellowship, even at the risk of death, 'a form of existential resistance'. She was still cruelly treated and neglected when she was dying, and he was badly treated by his different masters, starved and neglected, having to compete with the domestic dogs for food, deliberately sent off to be tamed. However, 'many Whites were convinced that Blacks were happy in their state of servitude. They sought they wanted to see: genuine "happy darkies"'.

Douglass's experience challenged that in the form of transcendence [based on Sartre — '"the for – itself goes beyond or surpasses the given in pursuing its project"'. Douglass showed that Blacks were not just simply there, 'beings whose essence proceeded their existence' unable to conceive of their own ends and aims and thus a stranger to existential freedom gained by distancing a for-itself from its own being. For Sartre, human nothingness was supported by being but was realised by the for-itself contrasting itself to the fullness of Being. In Yancy's words 'to ex-ist… Which is a mode of Ekstasis, means to stand out,  to be distant from one's being… To take a stand regarding one's being, its direction and destiny'. This happens before any definition of oneself and contrasts with thingness, '"pure facticity"'. Black people were not literally regarded as things but they were treated as thing-like, 'reduced to their corporeality'.

There were physical disciplinary techniques as well, on the surface of bodies, such as lashing or execution, physical punishment, violent assault. Many Blacks must've suffered from PTSD. Public punishment would terrorise the others. It was seen by Whites as simply training animals how to behave, which help them excuse their own brutality, '"annihilate his subjectivity"' and preserve their seriousness. This is actually a state of flight requiring 'complex distortions' and blindness in order to escape moral responsibility.

There are 'larger racially embedded socio-historical practices of intelligibility'. There are also counter positions, so there was no simple determinism of white racism, no 'fixity of a racist axiological framework', some freedom to challenge, some autonomy. Whiteness is not 'an essential category of identity and mode of being', even though Whites 'are interpellated within a racist social structure': there is still the possibility of reflective apprehension, freedom and realisation, the possibility of choice, even at the expense of 'a profound sense of anguish'.

The wife of one of his owners, for example, defied her husband initially by teaching Douglass to read. As a serious racist, the husband should have had nothing to fear since Douglass was by nature inferior — he was showing bad faith by hiding behind the law or tradition, and really acknowledging that there was a level of choice and performance. Douglass realised this — if blacks were animals, why should they be so heavily prevented from reading, when, after all, farm animals were not? Douglass began to realise that he could become a man, that he had been assigned to being comparable to an animal.

The same occurred to him when he was assigned to a particular slave owner whose 'job was to break so-called recalcitrant Negroes'. This owner [Covey]  was particularly alert, 'always on the prowl', 'the faceless gaze', a personified panopticon, intending to get slaves to discipline their own bodies. Combined with brutal treatment, this was 'epistemic violence. Douglass 'suffered both in body and in spirit. He became the victim of the constant defeating thought' that he was a slave for life. He finally rebelled by fighting back on being beaten, and then running back to his former master, who offered no sympathy [why wasn't he killed?]. He was sent back, but initially reprieved because it was Sunday! When punished the next day, he fought back again and in the process came to see his tormentor as just another man, somebody equal, forgetting his claimed superiority, becoming conscious of his own body. He saw this is kind of freedom despite the fact that he was still officially a slave. He thought it was worth it, even though he now risked death, and that he must now go on to claim his own freedom and his own future. In this way, his 'lived epistemic standpoint' had broken through and 'rendered visible the ideology of whiteness'

The whole episode shows the power of white 'epistemic structure', in constructing White masters and Black slaves in complementary ways. Masters could claim to be really merciful, even righteous, with the divine right in disciplining brutal hateful slaves — but they had made slaves brutal and hateful in the first place. Beating slaves became a necessity. Constructing fantasised Black bodies was the same as 'the act of constructing (and investing in) fantasised White bodies'.

Douglass could see the contradiction between White masters and White priests and missionaries, who were often the same person.

Note 22 says choosing death over enslavement is itself 'a profound instance of self-consciousness and human agency. After all animals do not kill themselves'.

Note 70 says that Jefferson actually attacked slavery but blamed the English for it and omitted antislavery language from the final version of the Constitution because of slave owners' opposition. He was a slave owner himself, however, 'with racist ideas', including the view that black people were ugly and mentally inferior. He did have a relationship with one of his female slaves who bore him seven children [which he sold?]

Note 161 says Douglass taught himself to read as well, for example asking young white playmates to help him spell, referring to Websters spelling book, and rewarding them with bread.

Note 193 says a few Black families also owned slaves, those who belonged to the elite or the middle classes. However, they 'would have rejected the myths regarding the natural inferiority of African bodies', even though they often had light skin themselves, and there was colourism even among black abolitionists.

Wikipedia has an account of the life of Frederick Douglass. He assumed the surname after he escaped in 1838. Apparently, after he fought Covey, he was not punished — he was never beaten again. He eventually escaped dressed as a free black seaman and just boarded a train to the north ending up at Philadelphia and a safe house, and then New York.