│Dr. Georgiana Banita is an assistant professor of US literature and media at the University of Bamberg. She is the author of the monograph Plotting Justice: Narrative Ethics and Literary Culture after 9/11 (2012) and co-editor of the essay collection Electoral Cultures: American Democracy and Choice (2015). She has published on contemporary literature, transnational American studies, and a wide range of articles in US visual culture, photography, and film studies. She is currently completing her second book on the transnational effects of North American oil fictions, expanding this research to encompass representations of renewables energies, and starting out on a new project around the vexed relations between African American communities and law enforcement.
The Signifying Hoodie: Race, Surveillance, and Invisibility between the Middle Passage and the Police
Several stubborn blind spots manifest themselves in the critical field surrounding the origins and implementation of surveillance with regard to race. The problem has many dimensions, none more significant than those which relate to the origins of surveillance as a disciplinary practice during slavery, the deployment of observation for political containment during the civil rights movement, and the form it takes today through enhanced policing. While arguments have been made that the fugitive slave was originally used to justify the expansion of police power and the use of lethal firearms, thus leaving little doubt that slavery directly resonates with perceptions of black threat in the police force, surveillance hasn’t yet drawn attention as a category of racial control spanning the history of black communities in America. To shed light on this long duree of racial surveillance, we must ask: What are the earliest uses of the disciplinary gaze in the cultural narration of slavery and lynching? How did these practices later intersect with state-sanctioned intelligence activities targeting leaders of the black community, especially Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr? And finally, how does this history affect contemporary images of race and police patrols? I address these questions by examining the slave ship as a panoptical structure of deterrence, the plantation with its overseers for its visual systems of control, the role of the FBI in the struggle for racial justice, and by considering residues of these systems in late-twentieth-century and contemporary policing practices. The archive selected for this purpose includes slave narratives, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, African American life writing, blaxpoitation cinema, and post-Rodney King representations of police brutality. I want to take this tour d’horizon around surveillance and its docile black subjects to revisit Henry Louis Gates Jr’s signifyin’ concept and identify a kind of subaltern “reverse surveillance.” What does the black body under surveillance resort to in order to carve out spaces of invisibility? How does invisibility mutate from a source of racial chagrin to a tool of empowerment?