The author makes the argument that to destroy racism, you first need to destroy the concept of race.
Trying to remedy racism on its own intellectual terrain is like trying to extinguish a fire by striking another match. The fiction must be unbelieved, the fire stamped out.
In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explored some questions about the ever-evolving technology of photography and what it does to us, particularly when it’s used to capture moments that would normally make us avert our eyes. “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order,” Sontag wrote, “are those who could do something to alleviate it—say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken—or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Sontag spends much of the book discussing war photography; scant pages mention images and cruelties closer to home.
In the modern American context, there remains perhaps no more insidious cruelty than the belief—constantly manipulated and reinforced—that race is a natural and constant thing, something that should have any bearing on how we choose to organize our society and our lives. And though the convergence of racism and the photographic impulse isn’t new, the recent pictures and videos of killings by police officers have given renewed life to the questions that Sontag explored—and those she didn’t. Indeed, these images raise fewer questions about the act of looking at them than about the ways in which we view ourselves.
To modern eyes, the photographic portraits of Frederick Douglass are not so remarkable. Douglass was almost always photographed seated, wearing a dark suit, alternately staring directly into the camera and looking off to one side. As he abided by the portrait conventions of the era, only his skin color would have made these portraits remarkable in Douglass’s own time. The real joy of Picturing Frederick Douglass (2015)—a collection of 60 portraits, taken between 1841 and 1895; his four speeches on his theory of photography; and a critical essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr.—is to study his constancy. The changes in Douglass’s facial expressions across all of the portraits are mostly imperceptible: He looks serious, defiant, and proud.
The final portrait of Douglass was taken on February 21, 1895. He’d died the day before. That image shows him lying on his bed in Washington, DC. It is mostly a spectral gray-white. His hair and beard, his clothes, the bed linens, and the wall in the background all appear to be about the same color. There’s a faint outline of his profile, and with his hands crossed over his abdomen, he looks as dignified as ever.
The photographers can be forgiven for what time has done to their work—milkiness where there might have been clarity, yellows and browns where whites and blacks might have once revealed more. But looking through the portraits, you could well begin to think that Douglass was more an artist than any of the photographers who pointed the camera at him.
His portraits are, in effect, the emblems of his more than 50 years of performance art. Photography was a tool that Douglass used in his abolitionist efforts to counteract images of inferiority and magnify the presence of a dignified, well-dressed, intelligent Negro. In total, the editors of Picturing Frederick Douglass have identified 160 distinct portraits of the former slave, abolitionist, writer, and orator. There are more photographic portraits of Douglass than there are of Abraham Lincoln, George Custer, Red Cloud, or Walt Whitman. Moreover, Douglass was deliberate about disseminating them. He gave them as gifts; he printed them in newspapers, including his own, The North Star; he used them to promote abolitionist and civil-rights organizations.
In 1849, Douglass found an unauthorized engraving of himself that pictured him with a smile. The image angered him. In The North Star, he wrote that it had “a much more kindly and amiable expression than is generally thought to characterize the face of a fugitive slave.” By then, Douglass had not been a fugitive slave for three years, but something in his psyche remained trapped. Paintings and engravings, he continued, were too dependent on the artist’s predilections to figure into Douglass’s mission:
Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. And the reason is obvious. Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy.
Thus, Douglass preferred the burgeoning technology of photography—which faithfully rendered the appearance of its subject—and a few trusted engravers. In “Pictures and Progress,” a speech he gave sometime between November 1864 and March 1865, he more fully articulated his theory of photography and its potential to inspire social change. In reference to photographs in general, he said that “by looking upon this picture and upon that [one],” we are able to compare, “to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.” More specifically, he viewed his own pictures as signs of perfection, in contrast to the defects of the more common images of Negroes during his lifetime.
Objectivity is part of what Douglass liked best about photography, and so Douglass, with his exercise in constancy, manipulated what he set in front of the camera. He performed his vision of perfection, which he sought to use as a basis for antislavery and civil-rights advocacy. But as much as Douglass worked for and achieved progress in the abolitionist movement, he knew the limits of human endeavor. “All subjective ideas become more distinct, palpable and strong by the habit of rendering them objective,” he said in an 1862 speech. “By its exercise it is easy to become bigoted and fanatic, or liberal and enlightened.” Photographs merely represented both the technology and the form that, he believed, gave him the best chance at reaching the latter.
Nowadays, it’s become popular, again, to note that white supremacy is a harmful ideology. By insisting on that fact tirelessly, Black Lives Matter has brought about the slogan for a countervailing ideology and become the vessel for activist energy and potential change. That BLM has focused national attention on police injustice is a commendable achievement. However, for all its dynamism and appeals to moral goodness, the movement shares a foundational belief with Douglass: the ideology of race as a natural fact.
Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality, a 2012 book by the scholars (and sisters) Karen and Barbara Fields, should be more widely read than it is—no matter its current reach. In it, the authors achieve an intelligence and agility that is rare in discussions of identity, racism, and inequality. They start by asserting distinctions between two common words. Race is “the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits”; racism is “an action and a rationale for action, or both at once,” which “always takes for granted the objective reality of race.” To describe the “mental terrain” on which race and racism operate, the Fieldses coined the term racecraft, which defines “what goes with what and whom (sumptuary codes), how different people must deal with each other (rituals of deference and dominance), where human kinship begins and ends (blood), and how Americans look at themselves and each other (the gaze).” The term takes its provenance from “witchcraft,” which, the authors argue, is a useful way to understand the fiction’s dominance over our minds.
In “Pictures and Progress,” Douglass spoke pointedly about the limits to his insistence on objectivity. Pictures, he said, “are of the earth and speak to us in a known tongue. They are neither angels nor demons, but in their possibilities both. We see in them not only men and women, but ourselves.” But the fiction of race, the authors of Racecraft remind us, thrives in that uncertain balance between the angelic and the demonic. They take a different stance: “No operation performed on the fiction can ever make headway against the crime” of racism.
The rhetoric and thinking common to Black Lives Matter and its supporters reaffirm that same fiction. To assert and maintain its antagonistic political goals, the organization must accept the “objective” reality of race. Douglass’s pictures make a similar case: Negroes are the same as white folks. The deeper truth, which perhaps is impossible for a photograph to say—or perhaps impossible for our eyes to see—is that there’s no such thing as a Negro and no such thing as a white person.
Our writers and political activists, however, possess tools that are more attuned to nuance. Recently, in The New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones walked through a series of questions that she asked after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers on consecutive days in early July. She began:
How do you explain the visceral and personal pain caused by the killing of a black person you did not even know to people who did not grow up with, as their legacy, the hushed stories of black bodies hung from trees by a lynching mob populated with sheriff’s deputies?