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67 3 THE BLACK BODY AS ARCHIVE OF MEMORY If any one aphorism can characterize the experience of black people in this country, it might be that the white-authored national narrative deliberately contradicts the histories our bodies know. —Elizabeth Alexander, “‘Can you be BLACK and Look at This?’” I want my whiteness back! —Jeff Gerber, Watermelon Man THE FINGER I don’t recall the year, but I remember the moment perfectly. My brother sat me down with the promise to show me something that was earth shattering , something that was so racy and daring that I couldn’t even tell Mom and Dad about it. Obviously, he had my complete attention. Brian turned on the television, and I sat there a bit confused as we watched a tall black man in a long leather coat emerge from the subway in New York City’s Times Square. This was back in the days when Times Square was little more than a red-light district, so the scene was already filled with a tension that, while visible and palpable, was beyond my sensibilities to process beyond the most basic reflections. It was the opening scene from Shaft, the 1971 film that is heralded as one of the crowning moments in the short-lived history of early 1970s “blaxploitation ” cinema. As John Shaft, or rather Detective John Shaft, rolled past the illuminated promises of adult entertainment, Isaac Hayes’s funk offered something viscerally exciting. I was too young to understand the 68 / The Black Body as Archive of Memory simultaneous thrill and threat of Hayes’s lyrics when the singer observed that “Shaft is a bad mother” only to be interrupted by his righteous backup singers who tell him to “shut your mouth!” I didn’t get it, but I knew something older than me was going on that I was not allowed to know. It turned out, however, that watching Shaft move through these city streets or listening to the backup singers interrupt Hayes is not what Brian wanted me to see. Instead, he wanted me to see a gesture. Less than one minute into the opening, the camera pans out as Shaft, the master of his surroundings, purposefully strides past one broken promise after another and starts to jaywalk through an intersection. He weaves around a couple of taxis with ease until a car begins to speed past traffic and toward the intersection. The driver slams on the brakes to avoid hitting Shaft. That’s when it happens. Before the driver has an opportunity to curse the jaywalking black man, Detective John Shaft gives the finger to the driver and provides the movie’s first lines: “Up yours!”1 My childhood was innocent enough that I immediately knew that this had to be the moment. Giving the finger was a violation of some sort of social contract—even though I didn’t have the words then to put it that way. What I wasn’t prepared for was my brother’s observation that Shaft’s gesture was important because the public hadn’t ever seen a black man act like that before, especially a black man with a badge. I had to take my brother’s word for it, as he was much more experienced about the racial ways of our world. When I watched the opening sequence in Shaft (my brother didn’t allow me to watch any more than that, concerned, I think, that I might tell our parents that he had introduced me to such fare), I’m not sure if Brian was even aware that the movie was part of a dawning phase in the history of American cinema in which blacks and an ostensibly black world—one that was hypermasculine, violent, laced with drugs, and defined by illgotten gains, corrupt (white) police, and large-breasted women in skimpy outfits—became highly marketable commodities. A few months before Shaft appeared, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles inaugurated this blaxploitation moment when he released his independent art film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Much less concerned than Shaft would be with offending white sensibilities, Van Peebles’s film was, from beginning to end, one extended middle finger to white America. (Some of the film’s promotional material affirmed as much, stating that it was “The film THE MAN doesn’t want you to see!” The movie itself closed with an on-screen warning to white America: “A Baad Assss Nigger Is Coming Back To Collect Some Dues.”) The Black...


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