When Black Humanity is DeniedRoundup
tags: history of science, racism, intellectual history, prisons, Enlightenment, policing
Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and a writer based in Berlin, Germany. A central question of her work is, What makes people sick? She earned her PhD in history of science at Princeton University in 2017. She has written about the history of epidemics, racism, and imperialism for Al Jazeera, The Nation, The Baffler, the New Republic, and more.
In 1967, the Black American singer Nina Simone performed “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” one of her many protest songs that were popularized during the civil rights movement. At the core of this song’s lyrics is a bird soaring through the sky, an image which functions as part of an allegory for achieving freedom. The song’s power emerges from its use of lyrical transformation to manifest liberation. That is, in singing the song, Simone herself seems to achieve freedom: while she begins by singing “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” she ends by proclaiming, “Yes I know, oh, I know how it feels to be free.” For Simone, freedom is not an impossible dream; instead, it is a sensorial experience that is possible to achieve in one’s lifetime. And so, while anti-Blackness might subjugate Black people in ideological, mental, or physical ways, Black people complicate that abjection through creative and cultural production, like that of Simone’s freedom-seeking bird.
In fact, the tonal shift in Simone’s ballad—from dreaming freedom to living freedom—echoes an ideal at the very core of the Black struggle: expressing one’s desire through imagination as well as action. In fact, Nina Simone’s music (in addition to art by so many other Black creative voices during the civil rights movement) teaches us, effectively, how Black studies offers tools for imagining freedom.1 Creative works that embody individual desires for freedom, as Simone reveals, can also offer models for how to achieve liberation.
In a moment when people are fighting for Black lives by challenging police violence, three Black women theorists carry on the fight in a different, but necessary, fashion: by interrogating what it means to be unfree and not quite human. Science, as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson shows in Becoming Human, has long treated Black people as not quite human. Prisons, as Nicole Fleetwood shows in Marking Time, similarly deny their Black prisoners not just their freedom, but also their humanity. Even definitions of disability and madness, as Alyce Pickens reveals in Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, are twisted by the denial of humanity to Black patients.
These texts work in conversation because they show how the fields of science, medicine, and art determine who gets to be (un)free. Indeed, where Becoming Human, Black Madness, and Marking Time converge and overlap is in their critique of the Enlightenment. It is through the thinking of the Enlightenment that science, the asylum, and prisons unveil their violent foundations. These institutions deny people’s intellects and enclose them into tight spaces, while creating binaries between reason/madness, free/unfree, and human/nonhuman. The histories of these institutions cannot be separated from how Black people in the United States were contained and rendered nonhuman.
Yet this trope of dispossession and pain is not the only focus of these texts. They also reveal the radical and hopeful potential produced by Black literary and artistic traditions, such as that of Nina Simone. In examining these traditions, the three texts display the Black art and texts that contradict white patriarchal structures.
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