Thinking About Bodies, Violence, and Community

April 27, 2010

Ron Resenbaum’s recent piece in Slate articulates well what I find so deeply troubling and unsettling about what passes for political dialogue in the U.S.  The historical amnesia and victimization in most heated political rhetoric minimalizes the expansive and institutionalized realities of historical inequality and polarizes the electorate. 

And, as a recent essay on Emmett Till by Myissha Priest in American Quarterly so powerfully demonstrates, the pain and violence inflicted upon black bodies has historically been used as a site for the articulation of whiteness and an inspiration for anti-racist activism.  I suspect that the victimization which is so central to whiteness is an articulation of whiteness’s need for attention and its need for the denial of black identities. 

As a white man who teaches African-American and comparative Ethnic studies, I am constantly aware of the ways my social location and my body can frustrate and stimulate student engagement and dialogue within the classroom.  To put it simply, my physical presence can intimidate and frustrate students who are understandably suspicious of whiteness.  But, if I am able to demonstrate my compassion and command of the material without co-opting identities which are not my own I can empower my students to engage critically and productively the knowledges attached to identity. 

It is with all of this in mind that I cautiously and pointedly bring my students face-to-face with the histories of American racial violence.  Although I run the risk of fetishizing violence or traumatizing students, I see a great value in having students confront the stark physical and emotional histories of racism.  For example, one of my classes is currently wrapping up a unit in which we considered the violence of the Jim Crow era primarily by looking at images and reading first hand accounts of lynching, racialized sexual assault, and the daily humiliations of Jim Crow.  Among many goals, this unit is designed to have students confront the past and to consider its lasting impact and resonances and, ideally, thereby counter the toxic rhetorics that structure so much political discourse. 

One of the challenges I face in teaching this material is that students tend to view American racial violence as an African-American issue which is only incidentally significant to American history.  Obviously, I incorporate into this unit a discussion of the privileges afforded to whiteness because of racial violence.  And, I guide to students to see the ways violence has historically led to outrage and activism which, ultimately, leads to positive change.  I try to draw students’ attention to the ways lynching and other forms of Jim Crow violence influenced and hastened the African-American freedom struggle.

Perhaps the most productive approach, though, is to adopt a truly comparative ethnic studies orientation and place violence enacted upon African-American bodies in dialogue with other forms of violence and, thereby, situate the victims of lynching alongside other victims of American capitalist violence.  To show students that Jim Crow violence was linked to U.S. expansion into the Southwest, American imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba, and the organized violence of strike-breaking and the daily violences of sharecropping and American industrialism. 

This is a difficult orientation to adopt, especially when students are accustomed to learning history piecemeal and are encouraged to see identities as fixed and isolated constructions.  And, to be frank, it was not until a chance sequence of events brought me face to face with the victims of American neoliberalism that I completely understood the liberating empowerment that comes from understanding the intimate yet obscured unity of violence of the United States.

In March, 2009 I had to leave town for a job interview.  I set up in-class activities and film-screenings for my students to complete in my absence.  My upper-level course, which was then considering institutionalized racism and the effects of poverty and residential segregation, watched the first two hours of Spike Lee’s When the Levee’s Broke in my absence.  That section ends with a ten-minute montage of abandoned bodies that littered New Orleans. 

And, so, I left with the knowledge that my students were facing raw pain and I wended my way through the airport with the images the dead left behind in the wake of Katrina, men and women simply left to suffer as we turned our backs on New Orleans, men and women who died not because of an overt act of violence but because of the more insidious violences of decades of neglect.  When we reached cruising altitude the captain mentioned that a member of the armed services was returning from Iraq aboard our flight and that out of respect he requested that we wait until this person was off the plane before disembarking in St. Louis.  At first I presumed he meant the uniformed naval officer I had seen escorted onto the plane with the flight crew; but as he explained the situation, it became apparent that the service member in question was a deceased sailor or marine whose body was in a coffin in the cargo hold of our plane.  As luck would have it, my window seat was immediately above the cargo hold doors and when we reached the gate I watched closely as members of the ground crew removed the coffin from the plane.  The coffin was stored in a cardboard box printed to look like an American flag and many of my fellow passengers ignored the captain’s request and hurried off of the plane.

I sat back dizzied by the mental juxtaposition of the exposed, ignored black bodies and the cloaked yet half-heartedly celebrated body of an anonymous soldier thrust into a neo-colonialist endeavor.  It was only at this moment that I could see the union between the victims of neoliberal governance in New Orleans and the victims of neoliberal invasion in Iraq.  Though the conditions of their death and the treatment of their bodies made clear the stark differences in citizenship, they remained victims of the same historical movements, the same historical forces. 

If our nation is to have a constructive political discourse and remain committed to its democratic ideals we need to identify and elucidate the ways our history is a history of shared pains and shared burdens and not the contest of victimization and cooption that has been a defining feature of our culture.  Our work, then, should be designed to push students to moments at which these interconnections and moments of interethnic unity are most clear.

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One Response to “Thinking About Bodies, Violence, and Community”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Education. Education said: Thinking About Bodies, Violence, and Community: Ron Resenbaum’s recent piece in Slate articulates well what I find… http://bit.ly/9C9cQY […]


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