Dehumanisation: Why Black Americans Are still Fighting to Be Seen as Human

TW: Slavery, Police Brutality, Racial Depictions

First it was lynchings, now it’s police executions. When your old pack mule gets too old to carry, you send it to the abattoir. America was built to profit a white élite on the backs and shoulders of American slavery, now that they have expended their use, the culling has begun. Whether it is dying because of poverty or at the hands of a protecting ‘community hero’, black Americans aren’t simply fighting to be recognised as equal to whites, they are fighting to be recognised as humans. Over 150 years since the 13th Amendment, African Americans still have to prove they are worthy of not being killed mercilessly, hunted, or corralled in a maximum-security pen.

For all the achievements of African Americans, from the visionary politics of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, to the exceptional creativity of Hendrix, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Beyonce (to name but a few) who radically transformed music with each new decade. Despite the artistic genius of Basquiat and the consummate artistry of Kehinde Wiley to James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, two of the twentieth centuries greatest writers, and the great scientific minds of Neil de Grasse Tyson and Percy Lavron Julian. It does not matter. Their achievements always come with the caveat of being ‘African-American’ achievements. These glories are seen as remarkable achievements for People of Colour, a separate inferior canon from ‘human’ history as if it is doubly remarkable that they have reached beyond their assumed base animal intelligence. These achievements are of course doubly remarkable. Not for overcoming alleged intellectual deficiencies, but for ascending the battlements of a society that considers black people not simply as less capable, but of a lesser species entirely.

Indeed, America has never completely overcome its dehumanising bestialisation of its own black citizens. This zoomorphism of POC is steeped in the ferment of Western history, and is by no means an exclusively American phenomenon. Well within living memory, it was publicly acceptable to compare the intelligence of African-Americans to that of donkeys, the last Human Zoos in Europe did not disappear till the late 1950s, and athletes and sports people of colour are still greeted with monkey noises. Even if this perverse animalistic image survives, few countries so actively hold on to it and enact regular violence as a result of America.

One has to only glance at the footage of Zayd Atkinson ‘armed’ with a litter picker, tidying up the street outside his accommodation. A routine identity check is soon escalated, six police officers surround him, and guns drawn, they circle him at a safe distance like hunters facing a wild animal. In their eyes, surely they see what we see, a terrified, unarmed man holding a bucket and litter picker. Or do they see a Zulu or a Massai warrior? A snarling lion? Ingrained deep within the white American psyche is this image, the cowboys and the Indians, the eternal battle between civilisation and the uncivilised, the nightmare of colonialist anxiety.

This image of POC as a feral warrior, more beast than man is an old colonial artifact. Academics dub this archetype ‘the noble savage’. The myth grew out of a need to explain alliances, exchanges, admiration, and most importantly defeats in Western interactions with “inferior” beings. It concedes that POC can be noble, brave, intelligent even, i.e. a worthy adversary for imperial powers. However, it was nobility despite savagery. Noble Savage really means Noble for a Savage. Regardless of nobility, they could never condemn this underlying belief of their lesser animalistic status.

So saw Josefine von Feuchtersleben when, to her horror, her father, Angelo Soliman (confidant of the Austrian Emperor, prominent intellectual, acquaintance of Mozart, former slave, and Nigerian Prince), was taxidermied upon his death. His body was displayed alongside stuffed wild animals and displayed in the Imperial History Collection. Displayed alongside other ‘beasts’ as an example of the noble savage and the perfectibility of Africans. For good measure, they dressed him in tribal costume of ostrich feathers and shells, a grisly and dehumanising end to a remarkable man.

This grotesque bestialisation, perverting black individuals into exotic and primitive beasts, continues to this day. Even more positive portrayals, such as Black Panther, his predecessor Lion Man, and even the musical adaptation of the Lion Man, have their origin in this image of the king of the jungle, the savage animalistic warrior. Even though these characters are intended as figures of strength and have been popularly adopted by people of colour, they are still the product of a white imagination that connects blackness to animal-ness.

Ultimately then, this battle is not for human rights. In theory, much of the discrimination and prejudice POC face is illegal under the law. However, human rights are meaningless if you are not considered fully human. Black Americans are fighting a battle not just to be recognised simply as equal humans, but as humans in the first place. The animalisation of black lives is all around us, it is embedded in Western and particularly American culture. One needs only look at Zayd Atkinson and his litter pick, Tamir Rice, 12 years old with a toy gun, and the unarmed Michael Brown and George Floyd. The excessive use of force lays out a fundamental message in broad daylight. For white American police, black people are too dangerous to be alive, too dangerous to be treated as humans. Not only does this violence and suppression rob people of their rights and their lives, it robs society, as a whole of some of its brightest potential. Imagine if Basquiat, Hendrix, et al weren’t the notable exceptions, and genius was not a predominantly white category. Until white America treats people of colour as people, the fight for basic human rights is a long battle.

The writer of this piece asked to remain anonymous. 

[Image Credit: Retha Ferguson]

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