- Soraya Nadia McDonald has been publishing some of the best cultural commentary on a wide range of topics (I’ve definitely linked to a bunch in this column) and she shows no sign of letting up (hopefully she never will). Her latest commentary is about George Floyd’s neck and the history of necks as points of subjugation and control:
When Wu-Tang Clan’s debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” came out in 1992, it was a fitting salvo for an era of hip-hop that put a premium on artful, bombastic rhetoric. The group let listeners and other MCs know that to expect lyrical mercy from them was a lost cause. Protect ya neck, indeed.
Aside from genitalia, the neck is the part of the body most susceptible when subjected to attack. And because of this widespread recognition of the neck as a spot of weakness, it’s also ideal for communicating intimacy. When André Leon Talley interviewed former first lady Michelle Obama for the November 2012 issue of Vogue, the article was accompanied by a portrait made by Annie Leibovitz. In it, Obama is in profile, her face turned away from the camera. Her hair is pulled back in an elegant swoop, to reveal her shoulders, her neck and a single earring. The composition, the lighting and the background called forth another portrait: Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. But while Vermeer’s subject directly engages the painter and the audience, Obama is turned away, but exposed.
The Times has reconstructed the death of George Floyd on May 25. Security footage, witness videos and official documents show how a series of actions by officers turned fatal. (This video contains scenes of graphic violence.)
- Nicole J. Caruth writes about a film and photo series (George Stoney’s All My Babies (1953) and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s 2018 photography series for the New York Times) that have played a role in efforts to humanize Black maternal and infant mortality statistics. She writes in the Ostracon:
In 1951, the Georgia State Department of Public Health and the Association of American Medical Colleges commissioned filmmaker George C. Stoney to create a documentary about childbirth, specifically, the practices of Black lay midwives in the Deep South. Also known as “granny” midwives, these women were trained through apprenticeship and respected healers in their communities. With the help of community liaisons, Stoney met Mrs. Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900–1966), a midwife who is said to have delivered more than 3,000 babies in roughly 30 years. For four months, Stoney followed “Miss Mary” to her patients’ homes, observing her practice and deriving inspiration for his script. Miss Mary would become the star of his film, All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story, a bizarre period piece that merges reenactments by a mostly Black cast with midwifery instruction, a live birth, and a hymnal soundtrack.
All My Babies was intended to educate lay midwives in the Deep South, and Stoney was given a list of 118 teaching points to incorporate. But the film found a broader audience. Advertised early on as one of the “outstanding humanist works of American cinema,” All My Babies holds a place in the pantheons of film history: Stoney donated his outtakes to the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Department, which was at one time a distributor of the film. And in 2002, the Library of Congress placed All My Babies on the United States National Film Registry, calling it “a culturally, historically and artistically significant work.”
The distance between the landing and the sidewalk isn’t great, yet he inhabits one world and the white men in their suits and ties, advancing and walking briskly through the streets, exist in another. No, it is more like they are in the world and he has been cast out. (Now isn’t the time to explain why this is so, or to offer a biographical sketch of a black messenger in New York, or a grand theory of how the African became a captive and then a commodity, or detail the forms of servitude that conscript black life, or offer a picture of the enclosure, or explain why the bank is the threshold to the everything and nothing that is the Negro, the pieza de India, chattel, ambulatory real estate, which are the variants of his dispossession. To provide the reasons why or expound on such matters would be premature before the context of the story has been properly established, its author credited, the characters named, the scene arranged and the plot set in motion; and it would risk stating the obvious: he is not at home in the world. I could elaborate and provide additional elements, for example: he appears so small against the backdrop of the grand edifice, diminished by the solidity and mass of the granite structure and the frame of huge Doric columns, but these details are not provided in the story, so the steps as easily could be concrete and the bank without columns, in which case the mahogany doors at the entrance would have to suffice in conjuring the majesty of capital and empire. The navigation acts, international trade agreements, traffic in slaves, maritime insurance, stolen life and land necessary to harvest mahogany, to fell trees, to transport them to Europe and North America, and craft doors would stand in back of the beauty of the dark wood and the polished brass fixtures.)
The problem with the photo is that it told a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might put it, about the man on the roof of the police car and about the protests in which he took part. That he stood atop the car is a truth. But the photo also summoned up an old lie about black men. It invoked the centuries-old stereotype of black men as inherently savage beasts, an idea about the nature of blackness that has been employed to justify enslavement, lynching, and the unwarranted use of force by the police. The man surely has a life beyond the moment in which the camera captured him. But nothing about the image encouraged us to ask whose son he might be, whose father, whose neighbor, whose friend. The photograph also suggests that mayhem defined the protests, rather than the demand that policemen stop killing defenseless black people. (The violent death of George Floyd reflects a brutal American legacy.)
Comparing Trump to Putin, Gessen notes that both are limited and incurious men: “To them, power is the beginning and the end of government, the presidency, politics— and public politics is only the performance of power.” Gessen also warns against conspiratorial thinking, including an overreliance on the narrative of a corrupting Russian influence on an otherwise untainted American political scene: “Conspiracy thinking focuses attention on the hidden, the implied, and the imagined, and draws it away from reality in plain view.”
Bálint Magyar divides an autocracy’s capture of power into three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation. In this schema, Trump is still an attempting autocrat. Opposition still exists, and it’s still expected that he would cooperate with a democratic transfer of power should he lose the election in November. But as Gessen remarks:
The first three years have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding. Worse than that, they have shown that an autocratic attempt builds logically on the structures and norms of American government: on the concentration of power in the executive branch, and on the marriage of money and politics.
Americans are now accustomed to reading about the removal of Confederate statues across the country, but effigies to the men who fought to preserve slavery are not the only controversial likenesses to be found in the United States. On Friday night in Louisville, Kentucky, a man protesting the recent police killing of George Floyd (who was unarmed), inadvertently broke off the hand of the statue of Louis XVI that sits in a public square of the city named after the French monarch.
The next morning, a man claiming to be a modern-day relative of Louis XVI’s took to the digital streets of Twitter to express his tone-deaf dismay. Louis de Bourbon, who goes by the title of Duke d’Anjou, opined early Saturday, “As the heir of #LouisXVI, and attached to the defence of his memory, I do hope that the damage will be repaired and that the statue will be restored …”