- The Repeating Body: Slavery’s Visual Resonance in the Contemporary by Kimberly Juanita Brown
Kimberly Juanita Brown embarks upon a journey to historicize contemporary visual iterations of the black female slave body in her book The Repeating Body. She writes to address how black women have been neglected as significant subjects in narratives about slavery and its aftermath, and she assigns several purposes to this project. One of them is to “make legible the multiple enactments of hypervisibility black women cannot escape, and to highlight artistic attempts at using opacity, framing, fragmentation, and repetitions of the visual to illustrate a desire for black subjectivity that includes black women within it” (7). Brown examines the various ways in which the black woman’s body has been represented across several mediums and attends to what these representations might suggest for how slavery is imagined and re-imagined in places such as the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean. She offers an interdisciplinary work grounded in black feminist and critical race theories, visual studies, and literary criticism.
To orient readers towards how she will approach what she terms as black women’s “repeating bodies,” she provides in her introduction an impressive close reading of Audre Lorde’s poem on Emmett Till’s murder, titled “Aftermath.” Brown contends that the poem [End Page 120] expresses the way meaning is constructed out of witnessing images of traumatic experiences that hold in tension the objectification of black bodies and their subjectivity. She reflects on what the experience of witnessing means to those who create new narratives out of their visual experiences. In particular, Brown argues that a type of collective imaging occurs in viewers who see themselves in the narratives suggested by black bodies. The crux of her argument lies in her use of afterimage to theoretically frame readings of “repeating bodies,” which is to say, (after)images of black women imagined, re-seen, and constructed to shape new narratives about black women’s subjectivity. Brown draws insight from Katherine McKittrick, Toni Morrison, and Mary Ann Doane to make this point and states that her work aims to provide “a totality of vision—the image and the afterimage—in order to grapple with all of the ways in which black women fail to be seen with any clarity or insight” (3). In the chapters that follow, Brown takes as themes contemporary iterations of female bodies in pain or altered due to violence, the maternal black body, and bodies that signify the corporeality of spirits or the dead as they return. She weaves within her analysis a consideration of works of art and novels, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Gayl Jones’ Corregidora (1975), treating “images” as entities that are both overtly visual and literary in nature.
In fact, Brown lends special attention to Morrison’s Beloved, seeing the novel as a “threading text” because of its “uncanny mutating abilities” and its way of “painfully lay[ing] bare the reiterative qualities of slavery’s burdens” (13). A particularly striking example of Brown’s analysis of certain visual images can be found in the second chapter. She interprets the use of fragmentation by artists such as María Magdalena Campos-Pons as expressing ways of viewing the black maternal body within and after slavery. Beginning the chapter with a reflection on Morrison’s Beloved, Brown argues that Campos-Pons’ When I Am Not Here/Estoy Allá employs fragmentation to show the maternal body as not only a vessel of the transatlantic slave trade but also as an entity yearning for a type of motherhood denied. Campos-Pons’ imagery “conjures up the notion of a constantly migrating maternity,” argues Brown, “[one that is] always filled with loss and longing, and ever producing milk” (70). Image and afterimage enter this analysis: the anonymity suggested in the faceless body represents millions of mothers during slavery (i.e., image); and the specificity of continued reverberations of slavery’s [End Page 121] effect (i.e., afterimage) represents the significance of...