Barron Claiborne

Body PoliticsCulture

editor’s letter: body politics

August 1, 2019
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“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me

As Black people our very existence is political. Our bodies are often targets — of respectability politics, of social injustice, of celebration, brutality, imitation, rape, objectification, and murder.  Since 1619, when an English pirate ship first landed in what is now Virginia carrying Africans who were sold into slavery, the Black body has been, decidedly, a point of interest for white supremacy.

You see, for Black folk, our relationship with our own bodies is, well, complicated. This is why I love the Ta-Nehisi Coates quote so much: “my spirit is my flesh.” Historically, we have had to disassociate ourselves from our own physical bodies as a form of resistance and survival. When you are forced to stand naked on a auction block wearing nothing but shackles and chains while having your body sold into slavery, your flesh becomes a property and the only thing you could possibly retain in that moment is your spirit.

Look at the Black body. What is not to love? It’s beautiful, covered in sumptuous dark melanin that seems to glow and glisten while defiantly absorbing the sunlight. Its muscularity defies the laws of physics — thick, powerful, swift and agile. We move in ways that are otherworldly and supernatural. And no matter the shade of skin it is in, the Black body seems to be coveted, commodified or condemned by popular culture — see Venus Hottentot, Josephine Baker, Grace Jones, Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, and Serena Williams for all of the receipts.

Where Black women’s bodies are, by turns, objectified and then critiqued and criticized for their physical form, Black men’s are scrutinized and targeted by police. According to The Washington Post, 120 Black men have been shot and killed by police in 2019. The case of actor Terry Crews’ sexual abuse announcement in the midst of the #MeToo movement shocked the world. The fact that a former NFL player turned actor would have his genitals squeezed in public by a Hollywood executive sounds absurd, but it happened in 2017. In the 1980s, there were the powerful images of Black male genitalia and buttocks on full display in artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography — which received criticism and outrage from Black gay men who felt the artwork was pure objectification through a white gaze. If these are recent examples of what Black bodies are experiencing, imagine what our ancestors must have endured during slavery, or in the Jim Crow South, or while protesting during the Civil Rights Movement and challenging white power in America.

Violence against the Black body seems to be elevated in these politically oppressive times. As of last week, 12 trans women of color have been murdered or found dead in 2019 alone. According to Black Futures Lab, a political activism group founded by #BLM’s Alicia Garza, which recently conducted the largest survey of political beliefs, concerns, and aspirations of Black Americans in 154 years, most trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming respondents are concerned about the violence against trans women, and many respondents felt threatened at least once a week.

Today, Body Politics seems to be more important, urgent and in conversation than ever before. Millennials and Gen Z have no issue showing off their bodies on the ‘Gram and questioning gender norms, as well as the patriarchy and old-school respectability politics that created those norms. Pronoun conversations are never-ending. Body positivity is the new, well, Black. From Lizzo to Walter Owens, the lead in the critically acclaimed, Off-Broadway play A Strange Loop, these folks are no longer accepting a one size fits all, monolithic presentation of beauty. Small, Medium, Large or XXL, there is a renewed sense of agency and liberation when it comes to the Black body.

While politics, police, privileges of power, and popular culture all seem to hold great influence over the Black body as well as its presentation and perception, it seems that Black people are staying connected to their spirits and changing the narrative from oppressive ownership to self-possessed liberation.

Emil Wilbekin

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