- Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body by Cassandra Jackson
If you had an uneasy feeling in 2003 when you first encountered the CD cover for 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ album—the sneaking suspicion that you [End Page 480] should be making intricate connections between the rap artist’s oiled musculature, depicted as if through a bullet hole of shattered glass, and nineteenth-century images of whip-scarred slaves—then Cassandra Jackson’s Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body is for you. In the tradition of some of the most influential and often taught works by cultural critics like Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, Jackson asks and answers difficult questions about the politics of looking, the dangers of seeing (and not seeing), and the ways in which we can only understand contemporary visual culture depicting black male bodies through informed readings of nineteenth-century historical and social contexts. Her book brings out the best of interdisciplinary scholarship, drawing on visual culture, trauma studies, cultural studies, disability studies, narrative theory, and work on gender and black masculinity.
Jackson begins with what is arguably the quintessential photographic image from the nineteenth century: The Scourged Back (1863). The image is of a black man, unclothed from the waist up, whose back appears to be almost completely covered with thick scars that the word keloid barely begins to describe. Yet Jackson notes that this image is not in keeping with other photography of the period depicting wounded bodies, such as Civil War medical photography. Unlike the clinical, brusque quality of medical photographs, Jackson deftly explains The Scourged Back as a carefully crafted image operating at the nexus of sentimentality and realism. In the same way that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an archetypal abolitionist text causing readers to weep for (and with) enslaved characters like Uncle Tom, who experienced horrible physical and mental atrocities, so did The Scourged Back become an iconic image that allowed white viewers to imagine, lament, and ultimately, Jackson reminds us, appropriate the pain experienced by the man in the photograph (12). Both works appealed to whites’ humanity by making slavery relatable, but Jackson is right to point out that there are issues seemingly inherent in the medium of photography that sentimental fiction does not present. Often assumed to be an accurate, objective “picture” of life, photography brings the subject’s past agony into the present of the viewer’s optical experience (15). Building from work by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Jackson uses the phrase “sentimental aesthetic” to explain the contradictory operations of The Scourged Back: even as encountering the black subject invites an empathetic, almost physical response, the white viewer is simultaneously reassured that s/he is neither enslaved nor brutalized like the subject (16). Accordingly, the very point of human connection is also the point of great social distance. This paradox is one of Jackson’s strongest insights; indeed, she argues that the sense of sympathetic identification in the midst of difference is heightened by the composition of The Scourged Back, suggesting that the visual codes of race invoked through the positioning of the slave in the image would not have been lost on the nineteenth-century viewer. Although his skin is dark, Jackson argues that the slave’s profile subtly reminds the viewer of an ideal—that is, white—human type, referencing the Apollo figure at the top of J. C. Nott and George R. Gliddon’s terrifying taxonomy, Types of Mankind (1854). In Jackson’s words, “the sitter’s resemblance to common standards of beauty invested with notions of high culture would have signified intelligence and nobility, while his mutilated back would have been equally indicative of his status as a slave” (20).
Jackson concludes her first chapter with two major points that are foundational to the entire book: first, that reading the wounded body may be dangerous because we always run the risk of becoming participants in the original act(s) of wounding, both in our...