The Phantom and The Physical: How We Consume and Interpret Black Bodies.

Black. Bodies. Matter.

So often we are fed tropes surrounding the black body. Black men are scary, too big, too menacing. Black women’s shapes are somehow undesirable yet a fetish all in the same breath. Too often are crimes and movements involving black bodies taken and rewired to illustrate a meaning far beyond the physical body. We are no longer speaking of the wounds and the blood, but of what this body and blood signifies. We crucify black bodies on camera for all to see, then sit with our friends and argue over what it “means.” Too often we forget what it means to lose a person, a life.

Photo: Joe Newman, “#DCFerguson,” Flickr.

In Jaffe’s book Necessary Trouble, Jaffe is not afraid to call out white privilege, institutionalized racism, and the ways in which slavery has benefited capitalism. In doing so, she points out how we talk about black bodies. In 2017, the words we use to talk about ourselves and other people has evolved immensely. It seems like everyday new phrases and definitions are being created and included in our vocabularies. While the term is not new, Jaffe describes intersectionality, something we have yet to completely embrace as a society:

“‘Intersectionality’ is a term coined by legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw to explain the way that social inequality has many layers that overlap – intersect – with one another and shape the way different people experience oppression” (8).

In my post A Language of Intersectionality, I wrote that mainstream, or white, feminism screams for women’s rights, like freeing the nipple and closing the wage gap, while ignoring almost all problems women of color experience. For example, a woman of color’s natural hair is still deemed “unprofessional” and they make even less than white women, but we only ever hear “78 cents.” As a black woman, these issues are dire and not seeing them fought for by the feminists who do actually have power, like celebrities and those that were broadcasted nationally at the Women’s March, is a disheartening reminder that intersectionality does still not fully exist for us.

Photo: niXerKG, “Black Lives Matter,” Flickr.

In addition to providing an example of how talk about black bodies, Jaffe points out how, with our words and thoughts, we turn black bodies into ideas rather than physical beings. In my post Echoes of Racism, I discuss chapter five of Necessary Trouble, “Race to the Bottom,” in which Jaffe describes the race-driven reactions to Barack Obama’s presidency in 2008. Barack Obama, despite being the president of the United States, became a metaphor. An assailant, an attacker, an Other that people had to take the country back from. No one was shy about their racism in 2008, just as they aren’t in 2017, but now, through ever-growing social media sites, we are having many more conversations with much more vocabulary, conversations that are echoed in Jaffe’s writing.

As stated in my post Police Triggers and Trigger Warnings, the consumption of police violence and murdered black men and women has become yet another trend. As a society, we have become incredibly desensitized. In this case, black bodies are seen through screens. There are someone else from somewhere else experiencing a racism a lot of people, especially white people, will never experience. In a way, it doesn’t feel real. We aren’t seeing it happen in front of our houses. We aren’t seeing and feeling the blood. We aren’t coming face to face with death. And so, another black body just becomes another hashtag, another metaphor for the racism that seems like it will never, ever leave.

However, within black and brown communities, there are heartbreaking actions being taken. People take to the streets. They march and chant, met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnessing black and brown bodies laying dead in the streets month after month, year after year is traumatizing. While society is being desensitized, black and brown people across the nation are weeping, mourning. We have been forced teach our children how to raise heir hands above their heads, to say “yes sir, no sir,” to make sure their hoods are not over their heads, to make sure they do not come off as “aggressive,” to never reach inside their pockets, to hope and pray that if they are ever stopped by a cop, they will be seen as human beings.

Photo: Jamelle Boule, “End Police Brutality,” Flickr.

Action, especially when it is taken by celebrities, is incredibly powerful. Take for instance, the hashtag “Bring Our Girls Back,” used across the globe to bring awareness to the 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. This hashtag consumed the internet for some time and had been used by celebrities and everyday people alike. However, this hashtag was more than just about the girls. The situation was far too symbolic. This story became one about education. Even Malala Yousafzai, a young woman who survived attacks on her life for fighting for the education of women, spoke out about these girls. Then there was an even louder call for the ending of terrorism. In a strong sense, this movement became much less about black bodies and more about what they symbolized.

Photo: Tim Green, “Bring Back Our Girls,” Flickr.

For other missing bodies, missing bodies in the United States that aren’t wealthy and definitely aren’t the president of the United States, action, peaceful or violent, is pretty much nonexistent. While on Twitter, I saw an imaged shared of a headline reading, “64,000 Black Women Missing in America.” After just simply throwing this title into Google, I found a handful of articles saying the exact same thing from the years 2013 to 2017. 64,000 missing black women. With a number that high, one would assume people would want to talk about how it got that high, how we’ve let that happen. There’s an entire organization, the Black and Missing Foundation Inc. dedicated to missing black people. The fact that I have never heard about this, especially on a larger scale, is painful and shameful. Why do we not care as much when it is just black bodies, no symbolism? Why do we have to attack meaning or pain to someone’s disappearance in order to be driven towards justice?

Plainly, I believe that racist stereotypes and images perpetuated in media, movies, TV shows, and songs all contribute to the lack of enthusiasm when it comes to finding missing black women. Many probably thinking of poverty, prostitution, drug use and welfare all when trying to find reasons a black woman could go missing. Trying to find reasons why black women go missing is not what is important. The most important fact that is that 64,000 human beings and we should all want to #BringThemBack.

This is all not to say that hashtags and slogans are harmful. I actually think they do an amazing job of connecting people across the world and helping us to move forward. However, I think we, as a society, do a terrible job of honoring the black body and the legacy of fallen black bodies. We forget that lungs once filled with air, a heart once circulated blood, a mouth full of teeth once widened with a smile. We forget the physical and focus on the phantom. Black bodies are not metaphors. Black. Bodies. Matter.


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