Surveillance is the means through which the expendable objects of anti-black violence are tracked- able to be disposed of at any time. To understand how this racist practice is foundational to America and its supremacy, we first look back in time.
History takes us to colonial New York and Black luminosity- the panoptic gaze which keeps black bodies illuminated for not only surveillance but also consumption. It was through the consumption of free Black labor that America’s national identity was built. Black luminosity is not a bill to be repealed or made unconstitutional because to do so would be to make illegal the cultural practices that are America not merely in law but in spirit.
Simone Browne (Assistant Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies Department and the Department of Sociology) January 2012 “EVERYBODY'S GOT A LITTLE LIGHT UNDER THE SUN” Cultural Studies, 07/2012, Volume 26, Issue 4
In the three sections below, I offer a discussion of the racial body in colonial New York City done by a tracing of the archive of the technologies of surveillance and slavery. The first section focuses on the technology of printed text, namely runaway notices and identity documents, in the production of The Book of Negroes during the British evacuation of the city. This section draws on archival documents to provide textual links that evidence the accounting of black bodies as intimately tied with the history of surveillance, in particular surveillance of black skin by way of identity documents. In so doing my analysis then raises the problem of my own surveillance practices in reading the archive: by accounting for violence do my reading practices act to re-inscribe violence and a remaking of blackness, and black skin, as objectified? Thus, I am mindful of both Katherine McKittrick’s cautioning that there is a danger of reproducing ‘racial hierarchies that are anchored by our ‘‘watching over’’ and corroborating practices of violent enumeration’ (2010) and Nicole Fleetwood’s urging for the ‘productive possibilities of black subjects to trouble the field of vision’ by virtue of ‘the discourses of captivity and capitalism that frame’ the black body as always already problematic (2011, p. 18). To question acts of watching over and looking back, in the second section I turn to lantern laws in colonial New York City that sought to keep the black body in a state of permanent illumination. I use the term ‘black luminosity’ to refer to a form of boundary maintenance occurring at the site of the racial body, whether by candlelight, flaming torch or the camera flashbulb that documents the ritualized terror of a lynch mob. Black luminosity, then, is an exercise of panoptic power that belongs to ‘the realm of the sun, of never ending light; it is the non-material illumination that falls equally on all those on whom it is exercised’ (Foucault 2003, p. 77). Here boundary maintenance is intricately tied to knowing the black body, subjecting some to a high visibility by way of technologies of seeing that sought to render the subject outside of the category of the human, unvisible. My focus in the second section is the candle lantern and laws regarding its usage that allowed for a scrutinizing surveillance that individuals were at once subjected to, and that produced them as black subject. Following David Marriott in his reading of the spectacle of death that is lynching and its photographic archive, such laws, I suggest, operated ‘through visual terror’ in the management of black mobilities, warning of the potential to reduce one to ‘something that don’t look human’ (2000, p. 9). Or perhaps too human. Rather than looking solely to those moments when blackness is violently illuminated, I highlight certain practices, rituals and acts of freedom and situate these moments as interactions with surveillance systems that are both strategies of coping and of critique. This is to say that ‘ritual heals’ and ‘constitutes the social form in which human beings seek to deal with denial as active agents, rather than as passive victims’ (Sennett 1994, p. 80). With the third section, I consider varied notions of repossession by examining the Board of Inquiry arbitration that began in May 1783 at Fraunces Tavern in New York City between fugitive slaves who sought to be included in The Book of Negroes by exercising mobility rights claims as autonomous subjects and those who sought to reclaim these fugitives as their property. In her discussion of ‘narrative acts’ and the moments of narration through which racialized subjects ‘are brought into being’, (2009, p. 625) Hazel Carby suggests that we must ‘be alert to the occasions when racialized subjects not only step into the recognitions given to them by others but provide intuitions of a future in which relations of subjugation will (could) be transformed’ (p. 627). I am suggesting that The Book of Negroes is one of those occasions that Carby alerts us to. At Fraunces Tavern, the pub turned courtroom, mobility rights were sought through de-commodificatory narrative acts, disputing the claims made on the self as goods to be returned. I conclude this article by turning to a different narrative act, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes: A Novel (2007), as it extends the racial surveillance practices discussed in this article through its creative remembering of the brutalities of slavery. I begin and end this article with representations of black escape to argue that, in different ways, they allow for a rethinking of the archive of the technologies of slavery and surveillance, in that they disclose how this archive continues to inform our historically present tenets of emancipation. The Book of Negroes lists passengers on board 219 ships that set sail from New York between 23 April 1783 and 30 November 1783. Ships, as Paul Gilroy tells us, ‘were the livings means by which the points within the Atlantic world were joined’ (1993, p. 16). Following this, The Book of Negroes is not only a record of escape on board 219 ships, but it can also be thought of as a record of how the surveillance of black Atlantic mobilities was integral to the formation of the CanadaUS border. If we are to take transatlantic slavery as the antecedent of contemporary surveillance technologies and practices as they concern inventories of ships’ cargo and the making of ‘scaled inequalities’ in the Brookes slave ship schematic (Spillers 1987, p. 72), biometric identification by branding the body with hot irons (Browne 2010), slave markets and auction blocks as exercises of synoptic power where the many watched the few, slave passes and patrols, black codes and fugitive slave notices, it is to the archives, slave narratives and often to black expressive practices and creative texts that we can look to for moments of refusal and critique. What I am arguing here is that with certain acts of cultural production we can find performances of freedom and suggestions of alternatives to ways of living under a routinized surveillance that was terrifying in its effects.