Though it’s not often directly referenced, one of the things that’s always held over the heads of people who want social justice is Reconstruction. Just think back to Nina Simone singing “Mississippi, Goddamn” when she talks about “people keep saying, ‘go slow.'”
Go slower than what? At the time it had been roughly a hundred years since the Civil War. Asking one hundred years after the Civil War to have the voting rights and the social equality the amendments passed right after the Civil War actually upheld seems pretty damn slow.
So, slow. Why do you have to go slow?
Because of Reconstruction.
Let’s talk briefly about the reality of why Reconstruction failed. The reality is that Reconstruction failed because southern whites opposed it and the Federal government, in order to smooth the reincorporation of the South into the Union, threw black Southerners to the wolves.
But the story we’ve been told is that Reconstruction failed because black people were failures at governing. Not just failures, but completely unready. No, more than that, not just unready, but incapable of ever being ready.
You don’t have to be a great cultural theorist to see how this cartoon works. The black people are drawn with thick dark lines while the white people are drawn with thin lines. The white folks look like drawings of white people, but the black images are more clearly caricatures. And the point is clearly that these central figures are a joke, that they can’t really govern, because they’re just “aping” leadership and governing, not actually leading. I mean, look at how they’re drawn. Not only aren’t they politicians; they’re only almost human.
And this, America, is always there in the background, images like this, of black people who can’t handle the responsibility of governing, drawn up by white people who are afraid of black people governing.
In the shower this morning, it got me thinking of the Uncanny Valley. This is a… thing… they talk about in video game development, how the more something looks human the more humans respond positively to it–up to a point. Then, after that point, if something looks almost human, but not quite, we have a very negative reaction to it. This also, clearly, is one of the reasons we find certain kinds of robots and sex toys kind of viscerally repulsive.
In general, though, I’ve only ever heard people talk about the Uncanny Valley in terms of things moving closer to resembling humans and what happens when they become almost human.
But it seems to me that there might be very, very fertile ground for thinking about how that applies when the movement is the other way–from human into the Uncanny Valley, when we move people from the status of “human” to “almost, but not quite human.” The more I think about this, the more I think there’s something to understanding how images such as the one above or other types of racial and ethnic characterizations work.
Look at the image again and look at how the tallest black dude is portrayed. You could read it as suggestive of him being monkey like, with the shape of his mouth and the arm raised above his head. But I think that the reason it worked/maybe still works to repulse the intended white audience is that it portrays him as something that is not human coming too close to being mistaken for human.
I don’t know. I’m going to have to give this some more thought, but for me, it starts to put some pieces in place. If people can come to believe that a group is almost, but not quite human, they will feel a gut revulsion towards that group and the terrible treatment of that group seems justified and natural.
Anyway, it got me thinking that these portrayals of black politicians from the Reconstruction era still shape at some level our ideas about black politicians and our notions of needing to go slow, to take our time, to not try for too much, less it backfire on us, are a direct result of our common understanding of Reconstruction. And the Uncanny Valley.
I don’t know what to make of all that. But it seems to me important.