Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rodney Spivey Jones: On Messianic Black Bodies

This post is dedicated to the men fighting for their lives
inside the walls in Mississippi. Ashe'

Americans in general have used the Black body as an object of rhetoric to define their identity. Black people, for example, use the suffering Black body, use Black bodies in a way to force Americans to see the suffering so that you can empathize with their pain. We see this not only with Emmett Till, but we see this with the Black Lives Matter movement, with Mike Brown, with Tamir Rice.

[Scholars have suggested that] we shouldn't see history as linear, as one event following another and then the other events are in the past. [Using the word] "messianic" [is] saying that the past is constantly being resurrected. It's constantly re-emerging.

When we take the Black body as a continuum of all this history of suffering and resistance and we have the body of Mike Brown lying in the middle of the street for 4-1/2 hours, for many of the African American activists who are seeing this body in the middle of the street, they're not just seeing Mike Brown. They're seeing all the previous acts of indignity and injustice, and it's not just their personal experiences, but the entire "race." I think messianic Black bodies allows me to explain why African Americans can look at a Black body and say, "Listen, that is all of this history -- and it's me."

During the course of my research, I developed a hyper-awareness of the many often insidious ways in which society disfigures the personhood of marginalized people. I noticed the attempt of so many to lump disparate elements into the category of Blackness or some other category meant to house the unworthy, categories such as "offender" or "inmate." It is difficult to live, to function in one of these categories. You begin to feel like scurf that one cannot scrub clean from the body.

I am an "irredeemable" trapped in one of the crippling categories of the undeserving. I am reluctant to use the word anger -- in America, anger and Blackness and offender is considered a volatile mixture. But everyone, every single one of us, should see when injustice is rampant and bodies are falling and the nation is divided about whether the losses of Eric Garner, of LaQuan McDonald, of Mike Brown, of Trayvon Martin, (insert here), are worth mourning.

Mourning is not a question of race and bodies. It is a question of humanity. Let me say it plainly: the Black body is a prison of flesh and the truth is unforgiving. African Americans can no more relinquish their signifying Black bodies than they can change the history of  this nation, but they must continue to demand.
NOTE: The above was transcribed from the Kenneth Burns documentary, "College Behind Bars," which is about the Bard Prison Initiative, a college program functioning in the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York. Rodney Spivey Jones was incarcerated in that facility until he graduated from Bard with a Bachelor's Degree in Social Sciences in 2017. He is currently located in Fishkill Correctional Facility and will be eligible for his first hearing before the Parole Board in 2022.

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