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  • (Re-)Documenting the Black Body in America
  • Naila Ansari

My son, you are a black man in America. That means you have a responsibility, a responsibility to live as long as you can. You are charged with living your life without any mistakes so that you do not become a target for the gunfire of the protector of some. But I will not place that pressure on you, my son. Instead, I will give you advice that will help me defend your black body. Regardless of your wins or sins, to some you will never be worthy of life. I want you to tell me how you move and why you move. I want you to say to me your inscriptions that allow a description of how you move through spaces of the unjust and ridiculed. I pray that I never have to defend your black body in the court of law that builds a structure for the privileged. But in case I do, I will be able to gesture and let them know what America has done to you.

As I reflect on this letter to my son, as an artist and scholar I chose to identify gestures of protest within a post-fact society, to represent the truth of a black community in pain. These gestures represent the many bodies taken from mothers as the protectors of fear pull triggers. Movements of resistance and oppression are the thoughts filtrated through the body to speak the unspeakable. These thoughts are not of value to an America divided by those who own property and those who are property. Words tell the story; the body knows the story. These gestures are vital to understanding the black experience in America; they are the thoughts that do not get language prescribed as a cure for change, but an insight into how the black body feels America. In this essay, I will look at the (un)documentation of gestures of black resistance in Congressional Record, and what the absence of that documentation means for the future of acknowledging black bodies in America.

On December 1, 2014, Representatives Hakeem Jeffries, Sheila Jackson Lee, Yvette Clarke, and Al Green performed the gesture “hands up, don’t shoot” on the floor of the US House of Representatives. By “performance,” I am referring to the repetition of congressional members gesturing hands up, don’t shoot. In a united speech titled “Black in America: What Ferguson Says about Where We Are and Where We Need to Go,” these representatives recreated the gesture through four vignettes of oratory that was a cry for help to seek social justice for people of color in America. The choreographed movement they embodied says, “I am a person of color, I am not a threat, I do not want to die. I am holding my hands up to surrender so that a police officer does not execute me.” This performance is one that is monumental in seeking social change, not only by words, but movements. Yet, these gestures of hands up, don’t shoot were not documented in the transcription of Congressional Record.

The absence of movement in Congressional Record is a dismissal of black thought in a system that views gestures of resistance as acts of defiance. How do we speak about the body and the gestures that emerge from inscriptions of abuse and marginalization? [End Page 451] How can a written document of an embodied action exist if it does not affect the institution that is recording it? I argue that for the black narrative of the body to survive on record, language must work simultaneously as the body is making the gesture. The absence of the movement is the denial of the liability of institutional racism. The action gets manipulated as having no meaning, because the physical production is benign. The performance of gesture in spaces such as courts of law, political arenas, and institutions allows for scholarship and artistry to meet as a negotiation of the documentation of bodies that hold inscribed experiences of a disenfranchised lineage. While I do not claim to know the answers for the black bodies executed by the police, I do propose, as a mother...


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pp. 451-452
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