Wednesday, September 11, 2013

George Yancy Ethers It in The New York Times: When I Talk About the Problem of the "White Gaze" and Trayvon Martin This is What I Mean

“Man, I almost blew you away!” 
Those were the terrifying words of a white police officer — one of those who policed black bodies in low income areas in North Philadelphia in the late 1970s — who caught sight of me carrying the new telescope my mother had just purchased for me.
“I thought you had a weapon,” he said. 
The words made me tremble and pause; I felt the sort of bodily stress and deep existential anguish that no teenager should have to endure. 
Did Trayvon Martin’s death happen in Dr. King’s ‘dream’ or Malcolm X’s ‘American nightmare’? 
This officer had already inherited those poisonous assumptions and bodily perceptual practices that make up what I call the “white gaze.” He had already come to “see” the black male body as different, deviant, ersatz. He failed to conceive, or perhaps could not conceive, that a black teenage boy living in the Richard Allen Project Homes for very low income families would own a telescope and enjoyed looking at the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. 
A black boy carrying a telescope wasn’t conceivable — unless he had stolen it — given the white racist horizons within which my black body was policed as dangerous. To the officer, I was something (not someone) patently foolish, perhaps monstrous or even fictional. My telescope, for him, was a weapon. 
In retrospect, I can see the headlines: “Black Boy Shot and Killed While Searching the Cosmos.”
I do not know how I missed this great piece by the philosopher George Yancy in The New York Times last week. If you have not read Yancy's essay on the relationship between ontological and existential "blackness", and the Trayvon Martin case, please do so.

I am a fan of the Harry Dresden detective novels written by Jim Butcher about a magician in Chicago who is an adult Harry Potter-Jedi mixed with Mike Hammer. the character is compelling.

Harry starts out as a magician with great potential, but one who is a rebel, and thus, undisciplined. Dresden matures, makes discoveries about his destiny, and becomes an amazing magic user. One of the recurring jokes in the books (known as the Dresden Files) is how our main character is damn powerful; however, he has nothing on the members of the senior council of wizards who have forgotten more than he will likely ever know.

Reading George Yancy's column in The New York Times reminds me that I am a very, very journeyman traveler. I know and embrace that fact. We make peace with our choices, life detours, and outcomes in order to remain at peace with ourselves. However, to see a master taking years and volumes of work and thinking, crystallizing it down into a few paragraphs, and offering up a devastating blow to his enemies in The New York Times, is damn beautiful.

In another life, I am acquainted with, and have competed against, some of the best professional bowlers that to this day still show up in big money tournaments on ESPN. I have gotten lucky--and they were on a bad day--and beaten just a few of them. We ghetto nerds do have dynamic and rich lives. Mock us at your peril.

However, I have had more than a many few moments when I realized that "nope, I ain't got nothing on what is going on here." Then I smiled. There is nothing wrong with admiring greatness when you encounter it. Boxing with God is a learning experience to be embraced.

Dr. Yancy does more in his concluding paragraphs here than most, if not all, of what casual observers (however invested and dedicated) have offered up about Trayvon Martin.
What does it say about America when to be black is the ontological crime, a crime of simply being? 
Perhaps the religious studies scholar Bill Hart is correct: “To be a black man is to be marked for death.” Or as the political philosopher Joy James argues, “Blackness as evil [is] destined for eradication.” Perhaps this is why when writing about the death of his young black son, the social theorist W.E.B. Du Bois said, “All that day and all that night there sat an awful gladness in my heart — nay, blame me not if I see the world thus darkly through the Veil — and my soul whispers ever to me saying, ‘Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.’ ” 
Trayvon Martin was killed walking while black. As the protector of all things “gated,” of all things standing on the precipice of being endangered by black male bodies, Zimmerman created the conditions upon which he had no grounds to stand on. Indeed, through his racist stereotypes and his pursuit of Trayvon, he created the conditions that belied the applicability of the stand your ground law and created a situation where Trayvon was killed. This is the narrative that ought to have been told by the attorneys for the family of Trayvon Martin. It is part of the narrative that Obama brilliantly told, one of black bodies being racially policed and having suffered a unique history of racist vitriol in this country. 
Yet it is one that is perhaps too late, one already rendered mute and inconsequential by the verdict of “not guilty.”
Yancy's above paragraphs should sound familiar to the readers of We Are Respectable Negroes. Much of my thinking on the relationship between Whiteness, violence, and how blackness is a state of existential dread and suspicion as viewed by White America, is informed by scholars such as George Yancy, as well as the intellectual well-spring he draws upon.

My father, a musician who played with quite a few accomplished and famous folks, told me that sometimes you just got to sit back and watch a master at work. Why? You will be better off for it. George Yancy is cutting heads in The New York Times. I do hope he gets a chance to conduct a master class there again.

Yancy's essay has more than 600 comments. He will be back. I hope this is just the first act in a long and ongoing performance.

1 comment:

chauncey devega said...

Trust me these are all drawn from real life examples. At this point, most black folks are numb to this. The police exist in the U.S., historically and in the present, as a force for institutional white supremacy.