- Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death by Courtney R. Baker
By Courtney R. Baker. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xx + 118 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $45.00 cloth.
Humane Insight collapses the temporalities of race and violence in American memory: to see a bloated black body in a flooded New Orleans street in 2005 is akin to the act of gazing at the strange dangle of a charred body in 1909. Such visceral scenes mold into each other, mediated through newspapers, screens, postcards, and oral retellings. Humane Insight investigates not only images of black suffering and death, but also the responses, tensions, actions, and humanistic impulses these images produce.
In order to attend to the lived dynamics of images, Baker makes various theoretical moves, from discourses on representation and trauma, to humanity and the nature of evidence. Baker astutely intervenes on Susan Sontag's notion of the gaze as the mechanics of optic Othering. For Sontag, the subject who looks-at is always already enacting the power of determination over that which is being looked-upon. Our repeated looking at images of suffering only qualifies as invasive and/or voyeuristic.
However, when Baker revisits key scenes of black suffering—the New Orleans LaLaurie fire, post–Civil War lynchings, Emmett Till's open-casket funeral, Civil Rights protests, and Hurricane Katrina fatalities—the experiential framework of the gaze does not hold. For example, Baker considers the visual recoding necessary for Ida B. Wells to shift photographs of lynching from the context of extralegal racist righteousness to that of anti-lynching movement and American shame. Additionally, twentieth-century galleries and exhibitions played a role in mandating new ethical practices of engagement with violent, shared memory. By "shifting the critical gaze from the body or from the image to the idea of humanity" (17), Baker allows for a more comprehensive approach to the ethics, politics, and socialites of looking.
Looking-as-praxis is the historical and theoretical possibility that links Baker's case studies and anticipates what more we can do with her interventions. According to William D. Carrigan in The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836–1916, "by the middle of the 20th century, whites were attempting to erase lynching from their historical memories. African Americans, however, were placing the memory at the center of the black freedom struggle" (114). National memory, then, bears this tension of erasure and insistence, of (dis)appearance and reemergence. If we indeed shift critical looking from the image itself to the practice of humanity, perhaps we can approach race, violence, and citizenship—including indigeneity and immigration—through new ethical sightlines. [End Page 324]