Nigger. Darky. Coon. Slave. Refugee. Nappy-headed hos. WelfareMama. Mammy. Video Vixen. Monkey. Buck. For as long as there has been anAmerica, the bodies of black folk have been co-opted by language and imagesmeant to distinguish their presence as American citizens indeed humanbeings--within the context of global body politics. Such repositioning of theflesh, 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 itsinterplays. Many of the terms spoken above have circulated in popular culturein some form or fashion. Don Imus's arrogant assumption that he couldcall, for example, members of the Rutgers women's basketball team"nappy-headed hos" speaks to the referential systems ofrepresentation coded in the performances of race. Imus's attempt towithdraw (racial) currency from those patented images deposited in ourcultural vault speaks to the brilliance of this system and itssimultaneity--the ways the black body and its identity are seized upon andmade markers for the grounding of social limits. (1) In these interculturalcontexts, we come to understand the continuous migration of symbols ofculture, history, and power along the contours of the black flesh. As Hallascertains, regimes of power and representation are emboldened by thepositioning of human beings as subjects or groups of people for the expresspurpose of constructing--through memory, myth, fantasy, andnarrative--cultural identities that judiciously efface one's "trueself' or shared culture, creating in its stead a shifting andsuperficial doppelganger that cripples and deforms. It is one thing toposition people "as the Other of a dominant discourse," writesHall. "It is quite another thing to subject them to that'knowledge,' not only as a matter of imposed will ... [but] by thepower of inner compulsion and subjective con-formation to the norm"(299). In other words, the doppelganger "cons" the suspectingquarry--convincing those ensnared in the dominant discourse to believe thatthe knowledge presented by the regime of power is true, and these individualsspend the rest of their lives convincing themselves that they will or willnot become what someone else tells them they are. This combative struggle toappropriate their minds--their inner spirits--is key to understanding themind and body dynamic: if one can affect the way one thinks, the body willsoon follow. Thus flesh and mind must unite in a tumultuous performance ofunreconciled strivings, of imposed wills and inner compulsions, revealing inembodied form the peculiar sensation of always looking "at one'sself through the eyes of others" (Du Bois 3).
We position this special issue in the sutures of the production ofidentity and the "con-formation to the norm." Of key concern to ourauthors are the ingenious and revolutionary ways the disempowered reinventthe social politics of their bodies through word, act, and deed. Suchengagements seek to symbolically disrupt the cultural practices thatsubjugate their identities. Not all attempts to thwart the pathologicalmeanderings of a culture obsessed with the black flesh are successful. AsCarlyle Van Thompson aptly determines, "the violation of black bodiescontinues to be a pervasive issue in American society" and requires asustained discussion of the complex ways black people negotiate their agencywithin "a white supremacist culture" (15). Thompson goes on toargue that social, political, and legal narratives produced by and aboutAfrican American people reveal how black bodies are not only owned, but alsoconsumed within multiple racial and sexual cultural systems; these samesystems, I argue, expose the strategies of intersubjectivity employed byartists and critics alike who must reinvent themselves (and their linguisticidioms) in the public spaces from which they speak.
For these reasons, our issue re-enters "the Veil,"reinvesting energy in W. E. B. Du Bois's long-held belief that thespiritual striving of "black folk" is a never-ending quest toreconcile two aspects of one's soul: the African and the American. DuBois's keen insight into these warring ideals ingeniously points thecritical optic to the flesh, for it is through this medium that the soul istortured, distorted, maimed, and likewise healed. Our issue engages thevarious continuities and discontinuities of being black at various moments inworld history. Such an investigation requires imaginative readings of thesyntactical structures of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and the signsand symbols that support these systems. In many instances, the imagined orreal bodies of black folk--constructed as alien, grotesque, disorienting, orintrusive--reconfigure the dynamics of these structures. In these moments wesee the paradoxical nature of speaking one's differences whileacknowledging the social and cultural institutions that both fashion andmythologize these differences.
The figuring of Obama's candidacy as both an extension ofAmerican race relations (read nationhood) and a resituating of global bodypolitics leads us to our next essay, "A'n't I a Lady?: RaceWomen, Michelle Obama, and the Ever-Expanding Democratic Imagination."In this essay, Brittney Cooper revisits the public dialogue surrounding FirstLady Michelle Obama and the challenges of representing her in public spacesdeemed exclusive to white women. Cooper traces this dialogue back to thenineteenth century, charting how other race women disrupted the existingsocial paradigms developed for reading black female subjectivity by expandingAmerica's democratic imagination through what Cooper calls "themyth of the muted body." This myth, based on notions of culturaldissemblance and the politics of respectability, argues that black women wereinvested in reducing public access to their bodies. Cooper asserts thatscholars continue to overlook the ways race women rhetorically deploy theimagery of black bodies in their texts and speeches as "unapologeticmetonyms" for black people's lived experiences. Along these lines,"the entirety of modes of talking about Black women's publicself-representations" becomes grounded in the material reality of blackbodies. These women intrinsically create a relationship between race andnational identity as a function of Du Bois's notion of those warringideals contained within the black body.
Through such practices, black women reaffirm the importance oftheir presence in the process of liberation and "write theirbodies" into national contexts as surrogates for an entire race.Michelle Obama's arrival onto the national political stage in 2008reinvests necessary energy in these debates of racehood and womanhood. Unlikeher husband, who could claim a hybridized cosmopolitan blackness framed inworld citizenship, Michelle Obama's ancestral line embodies the verydiscourse of America's slave past and all of its darkness, and herphysical presence illumines the nagging realities of race, gender, and thedemocratic ideal. Cooper insists that during the campaign and the election,Mrs. Obama's body "was used as a canvas to dramatize stereotypes ofblack female identity ... reinscribing the fear of the unregulated blackfemale body as a supreme danger to the American body politic." In theend, however, we find a First Lady very well aware of the contending forcesthat seek to silence her by using her political body as a rhetorical deviceagainst her. But other rhetorical communities--namely the African Americanfemale community--reinvest this same corporeal body with "hope, light,and promise," thus endowing her flesh with discursive dimensions thatillustrate the generational links between what Cooper calls the"strategies of embodied discourse" and the "agile negotiationof complicated body politics of African American womanhood." In thisspace, Michelle Obama asserts her humanity as she wages her own women'ssuffrage movement of the twentieth-first century--motherhood, wifehood, andcareer become her tools for challenging the limited readings of black femalesubjectivity.
In "Fine Specimens of Manhood: The Black Boxer's Bodyand the Avenue to Equality, Racial Advancement, and Manhood in the NineteenthCentury," Louis Moore tills a different field--the fertile ground ofprofessional sports--teasing out the rudimentary origins of boxing and itsdevelopment as an avenue for racial advancement and the creative reinventionof black manhood in nineteenth-century world culture. According to Moore,history has demonstrated how white leaders, such as Teddy Roosevelt, haveconsistently promoted the virtues of athletic strength as "necessary forracial superiority." In nineteenth-century popular culture, thissuperiority focused primarily on the physical conditioning of whitemiddle-class men whose slender yet muscularly toned bodies representeddiscipline and self-control: in short, a well-balanced man. This imagery waschallenged during the American physical culture movement of the 1840s when,according to Moore, middle-class men who previously shunned sports asantithetical to the true hallmarks of citizenship and manhood began to floodgyms after urbanization challenged the neat boundaries of class. But"while middle-class whites exercised to protect and prove theirmanhood," Moore argues, "black gym owners used physical culture todemonstrate their 'fitness' for federal citizenship by offeringtheir healthy bodies as proof that they harbored necessary middle-classvalues." Thus the gym became the public space for delineating notions ofclass culture, race, and masculinity; by extension, sports like prizefightingand boxing became, for black men in particular, avenues for creating andreclaiming a form of their manhood.
The assumed fabrication of an insular and conventional democracybuilt on the hypervisibility (and in some cases invisibility) of"illegitimate" black male bodies means that democracy, itself,becomes a drama acted out in the ideological representations of blackmasculinity and white male patriarchy. To this end, in "InvisibilityEmbraced: The Abject as a Site of Agency in Ellison's InvisibleMan," Shelly Jarenski argues that for Ralph Ellison, invisibility is a"viable, even desirable, choice" of existence. 2b1af7f3a8