Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Reckless Eyeballing": The Matt Ingram Case and the Denial of African American Sexual Freedom

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"Reckless Eyeballing": The Matt Ingram Case and the Denial of African American Sexual Freedom

Article excerpt

In Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (1982), John Blassingame and I included a reference to the 1951 episode in which Matt Ingram, a black tenant farmer in Yanceyville, North Carolina, was charged with assault with intent to rape a white girl, although he was 75 feet away from her at the time. He was eventually convicted of assault, however, based on her fear of his supposed "reckless eyeballing." A systematic search for the details of Ingram's experiences reveals how his release was obtained and the horrible conditions he and his family endured as result of the false accusation during two and a half years of court proceedings. The family's suffering persisted even after Matt Ingram obtained his freedom. His incarceration and the family's stigmatization and impoverished circumstances demonstrate the sometimes devastating consequences of "looking." What happened to Matt Ingram, even if his look denoted sexual interest, was a denial of his humanity and right to sexual freedom. (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Since Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," a great deal of theorizing about the power and meaning of "the gaze," in this case Ingram's supposed "eyeballing," has taken place. Mulvey suggested a world ordered by sexual imbalance, with pleasure in looking, split between active/male and passive/female. Using psychoanalysis, she proposed that the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (2) The concept of the gaze is based on the relationship between pleasure and images. Mulvey argued that Hollywood cinema offered images geared toward male viewing pleasure, which she read within certain psychoanalytic paradigms, including "scopophilia" and voyeurism. In psychoanalysis, the term scopophilia refers to pleasure in looking, and exhibitionism in the pleasure of being looked at. Voyeurism is the pleasure in looking while not being seen, and carries a more negative connotation of a powerful, if not sadistic, position. In Mulvey's theory, the camera is used as a tool of voyeurism and sadism, disempowering those before its gaze. She and other theorists who pursued this line of thinking examined certain films of classic Hollywood cinema to demonstrate the power of the male gaze. (3)

As films and images in various forms, including advertisements and the internet, have changed enormously since 1975, so has the scholarship on the gaze--looking--and its consequences. Mulvey has acknowledged that taking into account the female gaze of male objects, black female spectatorship, gay and lesbian spectatorship, different identities as subject and object, and the implications for power have all required reanalysis of her theory. (4) Still scholars understand that gazing may be voyeuristic, sadistic, assaultive, loving, or passionate. Some gazes may be seen as policing, normalizing, or inspecting. It is also possible to see images that deflect a possessive gaze and those that are respectful and non-objectifying. It is thus central to the ways that the concept of the gaze has been rethought that we can think of many different kinds of gazes, each with a different relationship to power, and that these gazes are not seen strictly along the lines of male and female.

As "looking" scholarship has evolved, the importance of racial animus, which ensnared Ingram, becomes better understood. Some African American women have been victimized as objects of the negative male gaze, and black men have suffered the results of their gaze upon white women. White women, as seen by white men, have been subjects of the negative gaze when they betray the definition of the traditional "pure white" female. This was the fate of one white woman identified in a case I discussed in my book The Pig Farmer's Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice (1999), and labeled a "bad woman" who had "lived with a Negro. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.