Humane Insight Introduction excerpt

Those of us who have witnessed in person or at a distance even a few of the cruel scenarios of famine, disaster, and bloodshed have likely questioned what we are to “do” with what we have seen. Most of us have at some time questioned our permission to look at another person’s pain. Some of us have looked and then dedicated ourselves to ensuring that such scenes will not appear again. Others have rushed into the very scenes that initially shocked us and worked hand in hand with the people whose suffering moved us. Still others of us have looked away, too horrified by the pain and suffering on display to bear in our minds these awful images. And of course there are those who endured the suffering themselves, who testified to their personal knowledge of its horror and threat to their very existence. And there are those, too, who could not testify at all, but whose bodies are nevertheless called upon to tell the tale of their demise and to move those who did survive toward justice.

We who look from a safe distance at the pain and death of others have been challenged by the motivations and exploitations that are involved in this peculiar visual dynamic. There are troubling consequences set up by this looking scenario in which a spectator seems to hold power over an exposed victim. Scholars in fields of visual analysis—art, photography, film—have identified these power games of the ocular kind as invoking imperialist and imperious attitudes. The term gaze has come to name the dangerous look that targets and immobilizes its human objects in webs of racism, sexism, and other debilitating beliefs. But not all looks are gazes. Looking is a more variegated practice and even bears the potential for positive change. Our discussions of the look as opposed to the gaze have been stymied by the look’s flexibility—an inconsistency that has been and can continue to be a principle for more ethical human interactions. …

Spectators at the lynching of Jesse Washington, one man raised for a better view. May 16, 1916, Waco, Texas. Gelatin silver print. Real photo postcard. 5 1/2 x 3 1/2″
© Allen

This kind of looking, one in which the onlooker’s ethics are addressed by the spectacle of others’ embodied suffering, is what I am calling in this book humane insight. Whereas the gaze ignores or denies the humanity of the person being looked at, humane insight seeks knowledge about the humanity of that person. It is an ethics- based look that imagines the body that is seen to merit the protections due to all human bodies. Humane insight describes a decision to identify the body being looked at as a human body, a gesture that is integral to the formation of our social interactions. It is a look that turns a benevolent eye, recognizes violations of human dignity, and bestows or articulates the desire for actual protection. …

Photo by H. Max Hiller Hurricane Digital Memory Bank

The remarkable legacy of black pain and vulnerability has been and continues to be an important element of American culture and African American identity. Nevertheless, the presence of pain and the specter of vulnerability have caused consternation in African Americanist critical discourse, especially in recent years when any semblance of sentimental rhetoric has been regarded with suspicion. The pathos of black subjectivity that prevailed in liberationist discourse before the civil rights movement gave way to the confrontational, masculinist discourse that characterized black power and other Afrocentrist movements by the late 1960s. As a consequence, we arrived at a retrospective assessment that bifurcates African American liberationist struggles in gendered terms, identifying as accommodationist, passive, and retrograde the invocation of black vulnerability whereas the reference to black power and virility is figured as active and progressive. However, as is often the case with such extraordinary binarisms, the strategies and realities of black liberation movements are far more nuanced and complex. As Malcolm X’s oft- repeated aphorism exclaims, the free and protected articulation of black humanity has been undertaken “by any means necessary” and therefore recruited all the weapons in its arsenal, including the stealthy but potent power of the look.

Given this gendered casting of black liberation strategies, it should not be altogether surprising that the present study identifies women as bearers of some of the most significant visual gestures in the struggle for freedom and rights. From antilynching journalist Ida B. Wells to outraged mother turned activist Mamie Till to the unnamed enslaved cook whose deliberate fire demanded salvation from God or, as fate would have it, concerned neighbors, it has frequently been black women who have mobilized their keen understanding of the power of visual regard to improve substantially the circumstances for themselves and their racial kin. In this book, I seek to honor and acknowledge the humane insight of these women whose significant contributions to the cause cannot be written off as passive feminine gestures.

Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till- Mobley speaks to the press after her son’s kidnapping and murder. (Photo By Ed Clark/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images)

© University of Illinois Press 2015