- Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death by Courtney R. Baker
America’s culture and social history are inextricably tied to the black body. Whether wounded, disfigured, disremembered, or scarred, the black body is narrative made flesh—it has the ability to tell stories vividly, powerfully, and meaningfully. As a walking text, this body makes evident those things past telling. It epitomizes the paradox of America’s saga of national belonging, and directs attention to an American citizenry built on difference—the markings of the flesh, the language of power, written in black and white. Yet these markings—this wounding— goes beyond the surface of the flesh. It finds mimetic currency in the crevices of the mind and spirit of humanity, seeping into the racial and social memory of our society in ways both awe-inspiring and devastating—both hopeful and resilient.
Courtney Baker, in her provocative study, Humane Insight, reminds us of the intimacy of this relationship. Grounding her theoretical voice in a rearticulation of the “gaze” that does not fix its subject in the many “isms” that debilitate one’s agency, Baker finds more flexible ground in theories of looking and seeing. Utilizing the concepts of vision and sight as tools, and the humanity of one’s visual encounter with death and suffering as a launching site, Baker frames the act of looking at such images as an educational one. That is, unsettling images acquaint one with one’s self, collapsing back onto that self into the reality of the Other. It is in the uncomfortable foray into this abyss that word and image meet in a mediated encounter that is founded on hubris and vulnerability. The value of such encounters is that the very act of looking itself makes the humanity of the wounded, the dehumanized, legible.
But such encounters do not come without a cost. According to Baker, there are several stages of being or awareness associated with “witnessing” acts of cruelty and inhumaneness from a distance or in person. Initially, one asks oneself whether one has permission, as an individual, to look upon another’s pain; and yet again, what does one do with that pain once one has seen it, absorbed it—acknowledged it. These encounters can move one to act on behalf of the offended so that such acts do not occur again. For some, this latter action attenuates the feelings of helplessness at seeing cruelty done to another, while others move with a quickness to stand hand-in-hand with the wounded and work in the trenches with them in the struggle for self-affirmation, social justice, and equity. There are those who are too horrified to look, and so they turn away, paralyzed by knowing another’s pain, too shocked to do anything—their minds their own sites of captivity as they become silent witnesses to the horror of brutality.
And then there are the individuals who are the recipients of this egregious violence, the sufferers of this inhumane treatment that must bear witness to that which they have endured, reliving the trauma they have experienced over and over each time they tell their stories. Finally, and most hauntingly, there are those who were silenced by death, but whose bodies stand as a witness to that which they bore— a lasting legacy to the ways the body is voice—a fleshly reminder of the savage ways in which humanity is torn from a person in word and deed. [End Page 329]
Baker’s study reminds us of this delicate dance between voyeurism and witnessing, pity and righteous indignation. In chapter one, Baker returns our cultural memory to the startling and little-discussed case of Dr. Louis Lalaurie and his wife Delphine Lalaurie, prominent citizens of the New Orleans community of Vieux Carré. A fire in their home in 1834 revealed a house of horrors as neighbors discovered the Lalauries’ African American cook chained to the floor and a room of seven mutilated and maimed slaves, some who were “suspended...