Academic journal article MELUS

Guest Editor's Introduction the Bodies of Black Folk: The Flesh Manifested in Words, Pictures, and Sound

Academic journal article MELUS

Guest Editor's Introduction the Bodies of Black Folk: The Flesh Manifested in Words, Pictures, and Sound

Article excerpt

And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil'?

--W. E. B. Du Bois (xxviii)

Nigger. Darky. Coon. Slave. Refugee. Nappy-headed hos. Welfare Mama. Mammy. Video Vixen. Monkey. Buck. For as long as there has been an America, the bodies of black folk have been co-opted by language and images meant to distinguish their presence as American citizens indeed human beings--within the context of global body politics. Such repositioning of the flesh, a result of what Stuart Hall, invoking Michel Foucault, calls "the fatal couplet of 'power/knowledge'" (Hall 299), brings into view the imaginary fullness of cultural identity and its interplays. Many of the terms spoken above have circulated in popular culture in some form or fashion. Don Imus's arrogant assumption that he could call, for example, members of the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" speaks to the referential systems of representation coded in the performances of race. Imus's attempt to withdraw (racial) currency from those patented images deposited in our cultural vault speaks to the brilliance of this system and its simultaneity--the ways the black body and its identity are seized upon and made markers for the grounding of social limits. (1) In these intercultural contexts, we come to understand the continuous migration of symbols of culture, history, and power along the contours of the black flesh. As Hall ascertains, regimes of power and representation are emboldened by the positioning of human beings as subjects or groups of people for the express purpose of constructing--through memory, myth, fantasy, and narrative--cultural identities that judiciously efface one's "true self' or shared culture, creating in its stead a shifting and superficial doppelganger that cripples and deforms. It is one thing to position people "as the Other of a dominant discourse," writes Hall. "It is quite another thing to subject them to that 'knowledge,' not only as a matter of imposed will ... [but] by the power of inner compulsion and subjective con-formation to the norm" (299). In other words, the doppelganger "cons" the suspecting quarry--convincing those ensnared in the dominant discourse to believe that the knowledge presented by the regime of power is true, and these individuals spend the rest of their lives convincing themselves that they will or will not become what someone else tells them they are. This combative struggle to appropriate their minds--their inner spirits--is key to understanding the mind and body dynamic: if one can affect the way one thinks, the body will soon follow. Thus flesh and mind must unite in a tumultuous performance of unreconciled strivings, of imposed wills and inner compulsions, revealing in embodied form the peculiar sensation of always looking "at one's self through the eyes of others" (Du Bois 3).

We position this special issue in the sutures of the production of identity and the "con-formation to the norm." Of key concern to our authors are the ingenious and revolutionary ways the disempowered reinvent the social politics of their bodies through word, act, and deed. Such engagements seek to symbolically disrupt the cultural practices that subjugate their identities. Not all attempts to thwart the pathological meanderings of a culture obsessed with the black flesh are successful. As Carlyle Van Thompson aptly determines, "the violation of black bodies continues to be a pervasive issue in American society" and requires a sustained discussion of the complex ways black people negotiate their agency within "a white supremacist culture" (15). Thompson goes on to argue that social, political, and legal narratives produced by and about African American people reveal how black bodies are not only owned, but also consumed within multiple racial and sexual cultural systems; these same systems, I argue, expose the strategies of intersubjectivity employed by artists and critics alike who must reinvent themselves (and their linguistic idioms) in the public spaces from which they speak. …

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