- Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body by Cassandra Jackson
On June 26, 2011, (likely as copies of Cassandra Jackson's Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body were being distributed), the murder of James Craig Anderson, a middle-aged black man, was being caught on tape by surveillance cameras at a hotel parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi. Less than a week later, that video was presented in various media formats both on television and online. Scores of viewers watched as the video showed a group of young white men beat and then proceed to run over Anderson in a Ford F-250 pickup truck.
The confluence of the public witnessing of this act and the publication of Cassandra Jackson's work illustrates the imprint of racial terror on American culture, which is the very foundation of Jackson's scholarly project. The imagery of the racially motivated killing of James Craig Anderson (which allows for public viewing in multiple contexts and at multiple times) calls up a gruesome chapter in American history where viewers engaged in the witnessing of public lynching and in some cases produced "commemorative" imagery of the events through photographs and other visual forms. Taken together, the range of these events signals the various entanglements of public participation in racial terror.
Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body explores the impact that imagery of the wounded black male body has had on American culture. Jackson considers how these images represent a "locus of overlapping cultural desires, psychic needs, traumatic memories, and commercial interests" (3). She is also concerned with how an examination of these images of wounding and the act of witnessing these images offers insight into the "complex intersections between patriarchy and race" (8). Using theoretical frameworks from cultural, literary, and disability studies, Jackson looks at various kinds of historical and contemporary imagery as she examines how contemporary artists are re-presenting images of lynching and black male wounding in order to produce a different kind of "seeing," one that is cognizant of the historical and social implications of the image being viewed.
The opening chapters of Jackson's work center around the 1863 photograph The Scourged Back. The image captures a former slave (referred to primarily as "Gordon") whose back has been severely scarred from a beating by his former master. In chapter 1, "Early Photography and the Cultural Work of Wounds," Jackson examines the nineteenth-century [End Page 207] cultural fields that collaborate with this image and how those fields participate in forwarding ideas relating to sentimentalism, the abolitionist cause, and the eroticizing of the black male body. Jackson includes responses from Union Army medical professionals who used the image to illustrate the abuses of slavery. By doing this, she suggests that the commentary on the image creates a kind of "sentimental wounding" which is designed to provoke a connection between the slave subject and the audience (15). Jackson then explores the multiple ways that the black male slave's body is used for purposes of projection arguing that the subject of the photograph is not depicted in terms of his personhood but rather the photograph is used as a medium through which "truth, sentiment, and erotic desire are invented" (28). In chapter 2, "Photography and the Disabled Black Subject in the Art of Carrie Mae Weems," Jackson includes an alternate lens through which to view The Scourged Back by analyzing how photographer and artist Carrie Mae Weems uses the image in order to prompt the audience toward critical explorations of the legacy of slavery. Carrie Mae Weems's 1995 Black and Tanned is the primary subject matter of this chapter. Jackson discusses how Weems's interpretation of The Scourged Back collapses time frames with its contemporary presentation in order to bear witness to the collective trauma of slavery (32). In doing so, Weems has to navigate the complexity of reproducing the photograph without reinscribing it. It is through Weems's work that Jackson integrates theoretical discussions on trauma and disability. Jackson argues that the representation of disability has been ideologically linked...