The Vulnerability of the Black Body in Public Spaces

Growing up, I never really had the experience of feeling like I needed to be careful in public spaces, or around figures of authority or law enforcement. This is because I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a country where black people were the majority. It was therefore unlikely that we would ever enter any sort of public space where we would be surveilled or policed simply because of the color of our skin. In America, it is very much the opposite experience for black people. For me, that transition has been a jarring experience to confront. For this reason, I have chosen to focus on the policing of black bodies in public spaces, specifically in Harlem on 125th Street, where there is a high African-American and/or West Indian population. It is important to note here, that it is not a coincidence that you find more police officers than usual in these communities.

In a New York Times article fittingly titled, “Walking While Black in the White Gaze” George Yancy describes the prejudiced assumptions made about the black body in different spaces. They could be in a park playing, or walking on a sidewalk, very mundane things, but because they inhabit a black body, they are potentially in danger because of these prejudices. Subsequently, black people often have to ‘move’ through these spaces in ways that can help us survive. Still, even in some cases, black people could simply just be going about their day, and within seconds be under threat. This in mind, Yancy poses a very important question in his article, “What does it say about America when to be black is the ontological crime, a crime of simply being?” In light of everything, this is very frightening to think about.

In an art context, I have also been exploring the idea of feeling comfortable in vulnerable spaces, which is interesting to think about in the context of the transmission of affect, as it is discussed in the Brennan reading. I’ve always thought about why, from my observation, black people tend to gravitate towards each other, in spaces where they are a minority, or in some cases, just in general. Initially, I was under the impression that it was purely because of shared culture, and because the way we perceive the world is virtually similar, as a minority group. However, after considering the term “affect,” I realize that it may be much deeper than that. While it does make sense for us to gravitate towards people with a shared history or culture, shared social norms and cues, it may also be because these are the people who perhaps, are most likely to energize us. Of course, I’m sure there must also be some sort of ‘familiarity’ involved. 

It’s sad then, to think that when minority groups gather in one place, this may make it easier for them to become a target, as I previously discussed, regarding the policing and surveillance of black bodies.

Citations:

Brennan Teresa, “The Transmission of Affect.” Cornell University Press, 2004.

Yancy George, “Walking While Black in the White Gaze.” The New York Times, 2013.

~ by kayleereynolds on February 16, 2020.

5 Responses to “The Vulnerability of the Black Body in Public Spaces”

  1. The blog in-person voice is present!

  2. I liked the personal narrative as well as the thinking about art.

  3. The way you used your own experience to inform her project and speak about her art was really interesting.

  4. I would also add that while I feel somewhat distant to the issue, it’s important for me to educate myself, and really understand concretely what the experience is like here in America, vs. back home in Jamaica, both from a historical and contemporary standpoint. How have things changed? Have they changed?

  5. I like how the narrative you’ve created is inspired by both your personal experience and including art within this context.

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