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Politics, Groups, and Identities
ISSN: 2156-5503 (Print) 2156-5511 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rpgi20
(Re)Defining the black body in the era of Black
Lives Matter: the politics of blackness, old and new
Shayla C. Nunnally
To cite this article: Shayla C. Nunnally (2018) (Re)Defining the black body in the era of Black
Lives Matter: the politics of blackness, old and new, Politics, Groups, and Identities, 6:1, 138-152,
DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2017.1420549
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2017.1420549
Published online: 04 Jan 2018.
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(Re)Defining the black body in the era of Black Lives Matter:
the politics of blackness, old and new
Shayla C. Nunnally
Political Science, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA
As a social construction, race has been defined differently for various
racial groups. The construction of the “black body,” over time, has
been fraught with societal, scientific, biological, and educational
conceptualizations about the members, who comprise this group.
These racial ideas have challenged the humanity, rights, and
sociolegal incorporation of “black” persons into American society.
In order to grapple with contemporary understandings of the
“black body,” we should assess the historical discourses, public
policies, and vast contexts, over time, for which the “black body”
has struggled to assert its equality and liberation. Through the
analysis of unconventional political contexts, such as AfricanAmerican education, and particularly, historically black institutions,
such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) and
Jim Crow black public high schools, (African)American political
development can understand how race influenced the political
decisions affecting the democratic experiences, agency, and
responses of black Americans to their groups’ racial construction
and treatment. Such studies can move black sociopolitical
experiences beyond historical lore and situate them within the
contemporary context of Black Lives Matter’s arguments, politics,
and public policy interests.
Received 23 October 2017
Accepted 17 December 2017
“Black body,” black
institutions; African-American
political development; black
public education; black
intraracial politics; black racial
uplift; Black Lives Matter
Race and (African) American political development
Race is a social construction, an idea with no biological foundation (Omi and Winant
1994; Gossett 1997). As a concept, race organizes bodies into a social hierarchy, whereupon bodies are attributed different values and social statuses. In the United States,
people’s bodies are defined socio-legally and differently over time, distinguished
as“white” and “non-white” persons (Mills 1997; Haney-Lopéz 2006). Yet, the most restrictive racial categorization has been based upon defining, by law and societal definition,
those persons of African descent, who have also become known as “black” (Davis 1991).
The American racial hierarchy places whites’ sociopolitical status atop nonwhites’,
and contemporary data continue to illustrate the extent to which whites have a higher
socioeconomic status compared to most other racial and ethnic groups, barring the
© 2018 Western Political Science Association
CONTACT Shayla C. Nunnally [email protected] Political Science, University of Connecticut, U-1024,
Storrs, CT 06269-1024, USA
VOL. 6, NO. 1, 138–152
advancements of some Asian American ethnic groups (McClain and Carew 2017). In an
era of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is important for scholars of American political
development to contextualize the historical and contemporary meanings of race, in order
to account for its effects on society today, and in particular, its effects on the sociallyconstructed “black body.” In the words of political theorist, Chris Lebron, “The black
body has always been at the center of racial inequality in America – how could it not,
given our irrational preoccupation with skin color (Lebron 2017: 102)?”
However, through understanding the construction of the “black body” over time, we as
political scientists can understand better the political contexts and policy environments in
which the “black body” continues to be scripted disparately compared to the “white body,”
in particular. Engaging “the black body” in this way, also, assists us in understanding the
contemporary political messages of black political actors, especially those who identify
with the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As researchers of American political development, understanding the construction of
the “black body” helps us to understand race, itself, as a larger institution with social, political, and economic processes for which people interact, according to racially-ascribed
social norms, social networks, expectations, and political preferences, based upon their
racial group status. In the conceptualization of King and Smith (2008), we also can
render more visible the adaptation of political actors’ interests based upon their situatedness in the American racial hierarchy via what they refer to as “racial institutional orders,”
which adapt and change over time to serve racialized political interests. Thus, it is important to comprehend the construction of the “black body,” over time, in order to understand the significance of (African) American political development in times past and in
an era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
How this particular “black body” has been treated lends critical analysis to the personification of bodies, once deemed “property” by the state and not recognized with personhood. Black Americans’ human and civil rights had to be accrued, recognized, and
protected by the state – a state that also historically proved complicit in their oppression.
Without the knowledge of this historical treatment of the “black body,” we lose sight of the
various possibilities for political violation, activism, and agency to incorporate the “black
body” as a full, human, rights-bearing body, in the American politic. American political
development studies can provide us the contexts, over time, of state and societal discourses, laws, and the identification of specific strategic political actors, whether as perpetrators of (in)justices or as agentic actors. Hence, African-American political development
assists us with tracing the processes of blacks’ struggle to move beyond the constructed,
corporeal “black body” towards black humanity, and what Lebron (2017) would
perhaps note distinctly as “black personhood.”
In my discussion of the “black body,” I, first, describe the historical origins of its construction as a corporeal body, socio-legally proscribed as enslaved, devoid of liberty,
“property,” and without constitutional rights, until Reconstruction-era laws recognized
and applied to it citizenship, voting rights, and legal protection, nonetheless, with social
inequality. Next, I describe the state’s legal divestment of equal protection of the laws,
as applied to the “the black body,” through the use of scientific racism to “prove” biological, racial differences and promote negative, black racial stereotypes that became public
knowledge about black Americans and facilitated the fabricated “Negro problem.”
Then, I discuss how this racial “knowledge” was used to promote inequality and additional
divestment of resources in different aspects of black life, most notably, in the area of education, where “separate but equal” educational facilities, in practice, were operated as
under-resourced black public schools. Yet, these schools also became inadvertent sites
of resistance, as black Americans sought and acquired higher education levels.
As I point to the significance of (African) American political development in understanding the agentic constitution of unconventionally-studied black institutions, such as
black public high schools, I highlight the need for examining the historical context, sociopolitical engagement, and activist responses of black Americans to Jim Crow-era oppression. Through this lens (among others), I argue that we can further contextualize the
historical framing, contemporary nuances, and complexities of the “black body” in the
new-age, Black Lives Matter movement. It is through this movement that we see clear
articulation that all “black bodies” can make legitimate claims for equality and justice
and rightly be a part of black political agendas, whereas historically, such inclusion may
have been more marginal.
Defining the “Black Body” in historical perspective: a societal denigration
Scholars of American race and politics acknowledge the extent to which, over time, white
supremacy defines the relationship between white and nonwhite persons and further
defines the practices that restrict nonwhite persons’ behavior, and they also acknowledge
how this affects incorporating the analysis of race and American political development
(Lowndes, Novkov, and Warren 2008). Emerging from New World, western hemispheric
contact among indigenous peoples of the Americas, Europe, and Africa, the bodies of
people from each of these continents were defined by the economy of slavery, such that
Europeans drove and immensely profited from trade markets built upon cheap (and
mostly, unpaid) labor and production of indigenous and African peoples, beginning in
the fifteenth century.
By the mid-seventeenth century, the first laws distinguishing Africans from Europeans
appeared in the North American colonies, and by the century’s end, slavery in colonial
America became racialized and codified as synonymous with the “black body” and
further characterized by lifelong stricture, based on the enslaved status of the African
mother, and not patrilineage (Painter 2006; Franklin and Moss 2007). Not only could a
black person, then, be born into slavery, but also, one could die in slavery, with limited
options for freedom. The institution of chattel slavery further commodified and economized the “black body” as “property” and the “white (male) body” as free, citizenshipworthy (via the Naturalization Act of 1789), and importantly, protected, by the rights
embodied in the U.S. Constitution (Mills 1997). Although at one point recognized as
three-fifths a person for representation purposes in the U.S. Constitution, nonetheless,
enslaved Africans did not have the right to vote, themselves, until codification over
almost eight decades after the ratification of the Constitution.
In a slavery-based, economic system that prized human procreation to breed and maximize the reproduction of certain body parts believed to be assets for labor, the “black
body” became institutionalized as a public entity, subjected to public scrutiny, violated
of personal-space and privacy, and marketed for sale on public auction blocks
(Hartman 1997; Johnson 1999). This public objectification further devalued the humanity
and personhood of enslaved Africans, who, also as commodities sold in chattel slavery,
were recognized by the U.S. courts as property to be bequeathed, even upon their slave
owner’s death. While freed African people existed in smatterings throughout the North
and the South, the U.S. Supreme Court, nonetheless, established a different status for
enslaved Africans, who lacked governance over their own “personhood,” because they
were deemed “property” with no rights for which the Court acknowledged or found
worthy to protect; furthermore, national citizenship was barred from all descendants of
enslaved Africans (Dred Scott v. Sanford1857). Otherwise, defining this “black body” as
“rights-bearing” and capable of sovereignty also challenged conventional ideological arguments that slave–owners touted as reasons to protect slavery: Slavery was declared a
“societal good” because it offered structure and resources that, otherwise, enslaved Africans would be unable to provide for themselves (Faust 1981). Simply put, slavery’s paternalism was seen as a public good, and while Northern abolitionists opposed slavery, many
Northern blacks were discriminated against and not acknowledged as social equals to
whites, in that region (Litwack 1970).
The American Civil War helped bring slavery to an end, and yet, despite passage of the
Civil War Amendments, which formally prohibited slavery, provided birthright citizenship to natural-born persons, equal protection of the law, due process, and voting rights
(for black men), the assumption of full-citizenship for African-Americans would not
occur until the mid-twentieth century, during a Second Reconstruction era. In a society
also grappling with the ideological dominance of white supremacy theories and a dominating “science of race,” by the latter-nineteenth century, oppression of the “black
body” occurred further by racial knowledge publicized through research, media hysteria,
and (pseudo-)scientific racism that was also taught via the public education curricula
(Gossett 1997; Mills 1997; Dorr 2000).
Social Darwinists openly debated what to do with the ill-fated “Negro,” who also posed
a societal burden (along with other racial and ethnic groups considered to be of “lower
stocks”) and an inconvenient pariah for whites, who, themselves, were deemed naturally
“fit” to evolve and contribute to societal progress. Hence, in their view, whites were forced
to solve the “Negro question,” for a less “evolved” race – ”the Negro.” This query – what to
do with the “Negro” – prevailed in the latter-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries,
because blacks, at the time, were deemed a societal threat because they were no longer
bound by institutionalized slavery, which supposedly provided the paternalizing structure
to tame blacks’ purported inferior intelligence, depraved mentality, and disobedient
deportment (Faust 1981; Taylor 2016). Without some formal, institutionalized system
of containment, blacks were feared to run amok.
Indeed, this was a “condemnation of blackness,” met with the perceived need to control
“black behavior” through public policies that also criminalized behaviors associated with
“the black body” (Muhammad 2011). These policies varied in their attempts to curb criminality, miscegenation, and reproduction (within and across races with whites), and segregation in every aspect of life. The “negro” was unaccommodated, treated second-rate, and
openly violated, despite his incorporation into the American polity, via Reconstruction-era
public policies. Moreover, outright disfranchisement and disavowal of protection for the
“black body” during Jim Crow, further oppressed these sociopolitical advancements,
The psychological effects of Jim Crow, in particular, cast black bodies in ways similar to
the American institution of slavery but also differently, based upon pointed second-class
citizenship status. Rather, physical, psychological, and policy-driven violences obliterated
the “black body” from public discourses of equality and led to divestment of Reconstruction-era (and later, twentieth century) political investments (Mills 1997; Taylor 2016). The
“black body” was relegated to a racialized private sphere for which equality could only be
spoken in the confines of racially-segregated spaces (the black public sphere), wherein
black institutions (like the church and educational facilities) and organizational spaces
in Southern states, were heavily concentrated by black Americans, prior to the Great
Migration of many to Northern cities in the early-twentieth century (Dawson 2001).
This black “home sphere” provided resources, wherein otherwise, the state failed to do
so, based upon its own discretion (Lewis 1990).
Black Americans countered this state- and societally-sanctioned condemnation of the
“black body” through their own articulation of the “New Negro” identity and politics
via arts, letters, black media, and activism in the early-twentieth century, and they objected
to the negative constructions of “blackness” and recast the “black body” as humane and
self-articulating (Lebron 2017), as opposed to an inanimate “body” on which to project
negative aspersions. Nevertheless, simultaneously, violences were onslaught against the
“black body” and normalized in the form of racial etiquette, segregation, exclusion,
legal re-enslavement via a convict-lease system, and extra-legal lynchings (Litwack
1998; Pinar 2001; Blackmon 2008; Lebron 2017). The racial project of a black parallel
society – Jim Crow – lasted almost one-hundred years, after the conclusion of the Civil
War in 1865. Second Reconstruction public policies such as the Civil Rights Act of
1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 improved the corporeal status of how the “black body” was treated by prohibiting formal barriers to public
accommodations, voting, and housing. However, these policies still did not address the
economic degradation and police brutality that coupled anti-black and systemic racism,
which also existed in de facto forms in the North and other predominantly black urban
centers across the country (Taylor 2016), and despite policy enactments meant to
address racial inequality, civil unrest erupted across the country, beginning with the
riots in Watts, Los Angeles in 1965 and lasting through the latter 1960s, with unrest in
other places such as Newark, Detroit, Chicago, and New Haven, but also many more.
The Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson, attempted to determine why these riots occurred: Put simply, it was because extreme racial inequality
By the mid- to latter- twentieth century, once civil rights policies had been
implemented, white politicians used black pathological arguments to court white, antiblack animus and political outrage in opposition to rapid changes wrought by the civil
rights movement and civil unrest, and they implicitly blamed black Americans for their
own circumstances and civil disorder, ignoring the role the state and societal practices
played in creating them (Mendelberg 2001; Taylor 2016). Yet, black political elites, over
time, increasingly took similar, more moderate political tones, as they also denounced
the presumed behavioral practices of the black poor, as being sociopolitically degenerative
and anathema to black advancement (Taylor 2016), perhaps even changing the previously
more liberal, social welfare support of the black masses by the early, twenty-first century
(Tate 2010). This led to increased public policy divestment and a call for “law and order,”
leaving many urban black communities’ problems’ address unfulfilled, and practically
The environmental effects were devastating, manifesting even today in concentrated
poverty, under-performing, elementary and secondary public educational institutions,
public health issues, and mass incarceration, further complicated by over-policing and
racially disparate, and unfounded “War on Drugs” policies (Alexander 2012; Taylor
2016). Despite 1960s public policies meant to fight the “War on Poverty” and usher in
urban redevelopment, the contexts where blacks were more heavily concentrated were
not socially mobile for black urban poor people (Taylor 2016). This was not enough.
With a changing economy, wherein industrial jobs no longer flourished and shifted to a
service industry, black Americans, prepared for the former economy, faced fewer job
opportunities in the new one (Rothstein 2017). To an eye unsympathetic to systemic
racism, devoting public policies to address blacks’ impoverished conditions may appear
worthless and unavailing, but this thought, itself, is grounded in institutionalized
thought about the Negro and the “black body.”
Black futility = public divestment: publicizing the “black body” as “waste”
As white society and many white political actors of the Jim Crow era saw it, investing in
“the Negro” was a doomed enterprise, because, too, “the Negro” was doomed for corruption and extinction, as Social Darwinists predicted in the latter-nineteenth century
(Gossett 1997; Dorr 2000). To embolden societal knowledge and support of eugenicsbased policies, sociopolitical actors encouraged biological instruction on the topic and
its ideological premises in the classrooms of public high schools and colleges and universities (Dorr 2000). Disciplines such as biology and anthropology institutionalized the
notion of black inferiority in their theories and research (Gossett 1997; Baker 1998).
Thus, racial knowledge about the inferiority of “the black body” also evolved in the classroom – textbooks and curriculum: It was purported as fact.
Prevailing latter-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century discourses cast black people as
“deficient” and “futile” and lacking potentiality of full investment. Pseudo-scientific and
public racial knowledge supported these claims, and the “black body,” formerly recognized
as a valuable labor commodity, became free and assuming of personage, but also biologically and societally repugnant in ways that required regulation, legally and extra-legally,
over time (Roberts 1997; Pinar 2001; Hancock 2004; Simien 2011; Threadcraft 2016;
Lebron 2017). It is through these violences that the “black body” was cast as a site of
“public waste,” which was ultimately expendable for the better and public good of white
society, through even state-sponsored eugenics projects (1930s–1970s) meant to curb
reproduction among a people deemed “unfit” for reproduction and social evolution (as
Social Darwinists conceived it). Their bodies were deemed ripe for medical experimentation as enslaved persons under duress (without informed consent) and at the behest
of medical schools and the state (Washington 2006).
Moreover, with respect to land, black people often were segregated in resource-poor
neighborhoods, poor quality land, and even exposed to environmental hazards – all indicators of environmental racism (Bullard and Wright 2012). Additional governmentinvolved productions of casting the “black body” to racially-marginalized spaces, and
sometimes environmental “wastelands” (Bullard and Wright 2012) involved legalized,
geographic segregation through the housing market in the early- and mid-twentieth
century, such that resources could be concentrated-out black neighborhoods (Katznelson
2005; Coates 2014) and school districts could establish demographic and economic imbalances in black and poor children’s education (Highsmith and Erickson 2015). Through the
government evincing what Moffett-Bateau (2014) refers to as “bureaucratic violence,”
today, black public housing residents experience constant, overbearing surveillance,
over-regulation of their behavior, and over-exposure to violence to the point that they
also feel less protected, less safe, and less empowered to advance change. Bureaucratic violence against black people also occurs when the government responds slowly, if at all, to
their concerns, rendering their voices politically ineffective and serving as an affront on
their political efficacy.
Casting the “black body” in public as essentially and biologically different from the
“white body” also undergirded the segregationist arguments for separating blacks from
whites in every aspect of society, including limiting and decreasing public spending on
blacks’ education in public schools and educators (in comparison to such spending on
whites), during Jim Crow. Philanthropists and scholars (white and black) debated the
capacity of black intellectualism, as they indulged larger societal questions of the
“Negro problem,” and questioned black inclusion based on, yet again, where the “black
body” fit into Southern political economy, especially. If the “black body” were to “fit”
into society, it would have to retain its place as subservient to the “white body.” Thus,
the “Negro problem” also became an educational question – “How (and to what extent)
to educate the Negro?” As “separate and (un)equal” became part of the answer to this
question for many whites, black leaders’ visions varied, yet towards an eye of “black
Political and educational leaders in white Northern and Southern contexts disagreed
over how blacks should be educated for societal participation. They even debated black
educational curricula to the effect of sustaining racially-status quo social and economic
structures, wherein “black bodies” would fit into the Southern economy, mostly as agrarians and menial laborers (hence, an industrial education) and not as free-thinking labor
agents and entrepreneurs (hence, a classical education). Black political leaders (a la
Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and later, Carter G. Woodson) of the day
engaged in similar debates; however, their thinking veered towards black group advancement, and at times, curricular enhancements to defy societal beliefs about black inferiority
(a la Woodson). Thinking “freely” defied Jim Crow’s racial etiquette, especially in Deep
South states, which were still heavily dependent upon an agricultural economy and subjugated, black labor (Anderson 1988; Fairclough 2007). The general societal mode, no
matter the investment, was that the “Negro” was inferior, meanwhile “whites” were the
supreme race. Various systems, including labor, medicine, housing, land concentration,
and public education, thus, propagated white supremacy.
To this extent, the institutions that helped facilitate the everyday oppression of black
Americans become potential research sites for race and (African) American political
development, because these spaces also became politicized points of equal entry and treatment of black Americans. (Later, I emphasize this point with respect to studying AfricanAmerican political development in the context of black education [and black public high
schools, in particular], during Jim Crow.) However, it also becomes important for us to
understand the costly effects of “forgetting” the construction of the “black body” in our
political development analyses.
Forgetting the construction of the “black body”: racism and
institutionalized oblivion
As an ideology supported by interrelated beliefs, attitudes, societal structures, public policies, and lingering historic racial stereotypes, which stem from historic, hackneyed, and
pseudo-scientific racialized knowledge, white supremacy, thus, sustains a psychology for
which people comport or resist. The actions propagating white supremacy constitute
racism. Through concealment of all the violences historically committed against black
people, white supremacy is reified (Lebron 2017). Extracting these ideas and actions
from their historical origins and relevance constitutes institutionalized oblivion and intellectual violences upon the subject, itself. It gives us un-contextualized rhetoric and attentive audiences, who arguably recognize the familiarity of white supremacy’s tenets, yet
reduce its components to mere liberal-conservative ideological framing, when they once
were couched in racially, liberal-conservative framing for which even political actors
were publicly recognized (Carmines and Stimson 1989) and for which white political
actors devised code-words to evoke white fears, without using racial epithets about
blacks openly, because black, civil rights activism during the 1960s influenced American
society to deem them no longer socially acceptable (Mendelberg 2001; Taylor 2016).
These actions culminate in a public “forgetting” of historic facts about race, ones that
even inform similar patterns of systemic racism today, and thus, contribute to a
society with a nebulous concept of racism, but no practicing “racists” (Bonilla-Silva
2001 and 2006).
Because of the prevailing, memetic, and ideological nature of white supremacy, we must
understand how different actors (white and nonwhite) interacted, complied, perpetuated,
or resisted its tenets. This is important for incorporating race in the study of new institutionalism and examining political actors’ reactions to white supremacy, Jim Crow as its
own institution, and other actors, whose commitment to these tenets and institutions
can change over time. Again, this is similar to what King and Smith (2008) describe as
“racial institutional orders.” However, the way in which American political development
comes to understand these interrelated processes of black–white interaction, or what
Johnson (2008) refers to as “interracialisms,” should be mindful of situating the black (historical) political subject more visibly in these intellectual enterprises and interrogations.
(Harris-Lacewell [2003] makes a similar claim, as far as the study of racial attitudes in
the U.S.)
The “black body,” however, is not just an inanimate concept or political subject to be
analyzed: it is an intellectually, emotive and agentic “subject” for which the people, who
occupy these bodies have sought liberation for centuries in the New World, through
their opposition to their perennial objectification as “things” on which to project power,
anger, control, inequality, and inferiority. Simply put, rather, the “black body,” beyond
corporeality, is personified, and black political activism and struggles to attain equality,
over time, remind us of this. Hence, we see blacks’ agentic production of black civil
society, black-identified and associated arts and letters, and black institutions, which
assist in presenting “blacks” as “humankind” (at all times, in their own perspective)
and, importantly, “citizens,” especially post-Civil War proscription (Lebron 2017).
These cultural and systemic productions also occurred at different points in time from
the latter-nineteenth century through the twentieth century, as black orators such as the
abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, black educators such as Anna Julia Cooper, black scribes
such as Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, and James
Baldwin, (re)defined conscriptions of black people through anti-slavery, anti-lynching,
anti-intellectual suppression, and anti-dehumanization expressions, to the effect that
“Black Lives Matter” is an idea that Lebron (2017) asserts predates the current movement
of the same appellation. But, arguably, this enterprise of struggle and contestation to reinscribe the value of the “black body” as equal to that of the “white body” continues in
the era of Black Lives Matter, today. However, historically, this project of challenging
the “deficient” characterization of blackness focused on also making invisible the secondary statuses of blacks, who were felt to be detrimental to the positive portrayal of blackness,
and these politics also occurred intraracially. Historically, all intraracial, black group
members were not recognized, valued, and equally supported in the struggle for justice
and egalitarianism. Thus, it becomes important for American political development to
understand in-group contestation and the scope of black political agendas and activism
in various realms, within black institutions and larger black movements.
(All) Black bodies matter: studying black institutions and intraracial
politics over time
Skocpol and Liazos (2006) remind us of the vast organizational networks that blacks established, during the Jim Crow era, but what about the black institutions, which also served as
politically mobilizing agents to effect change in American society? Political science scholars have researched the continuing significance of the black church in political mobilization (Calhoun-Brown 1996; Harris 1999; McDaniel 2008; Tucker-Worgs 2012), but
political science has a more limited view in our understanding of other black institutions,
such as educational institutions (historically black colleges and universities and historically
black public high schools), in the promotion of humanity, citizenship, and socioeconomic
mobility among black Americans. Education was a politically contested space, wherein
“black bodies” were deemed intellectually limited and incapable and deemed disruptions
for whites’ education. However, in their fight for humanity, black Americans struggled to
acquire and obtain equal access to high-quality education, even as a political enterprise in
which they developed their own, black educational institutions, in the face of Reconstruction but also the challenges of Jim Crow.
Black education historians have researched and amassed a literature on historically
black colleges and universities and historically Jim Crow black schools (Randolph
2014). These institutions, of which black actors were administrators, teachers, staff, and
students, who participated in an educational environment scripted by the provisos of
Jim Crow. Yet, their stories of resistance or compliance varied depending upon the ideologies, beliefs, and actions of each of these actors, especially as the civil rights movement
transpired. Black actors employed their tenacity, political entrepreneurship in starting
their own educational institutions, and political activism to counter Jim Crow constraints.
Such narratives and complexities of black Americans moving in and out black- versus
white- spaces and adapting “acceptable” norms for black behavior during Jim Crow
have received limited historical treatment, as far as black education politics in political
science. African-American political development studies can assist with such analyses.
For example, in political science, Orr (1999) helps us to understand how black and
white community networks functioned in twentieth century, Baltimore City (MD)
public schools’ politics, and Orr’s analysis centers on the power of “black social capital”
and “interracial social capital” in brokering urban education policies. Henig et al.
(2001) explore the multifarious politics of race and school reform. More recently, Meier
and Rutherford (2017) have provided a contemporary investigation of African-American
education and its partisan politics, alerting us to the educational outcomes of black Americans, when the bureaucracies around them comprise majority Democratic or Republican
political actors. However, in addition, it is pertinent to examine, over time, the racially discriminatory treatment of the “black body,” as far as prohibited literacy during slavery, the
Freedmen’s Bureau and philanthropic support of black education during Reconstruction,
its partisan discourses, public-private partnerships supporting black education during Jim
Crow, and importantly, the debates over the quality, type, and level of education that
should be afforded to blacks at the public’s expense. Such an analysis lends itself to our
understanding how black educational institutions represent sites of political resistance,
as well.
It is, here, that unconventional black institutions, such as Jim Crow black public high
schools, are sites for future political inquiry. Despite their comparatively dearth resources
vis-à-vis white public high schools, black public high schools during this era served as politically-socializing agents that assisted black Americans (of various socioeconomic backgrounds) in challenging inferiority claims that dominated civil and political discourses
about the “black body” during Jim Crow. Yet, the political resistance potential of black
public high schools depended upon several factors: (1) whether secondary education
was available in rural or urban areas (2) whether students were taught industrialversus classical- curricula (3) the influence of external, northern and southern philanthropic whites and white political actors’ control over the sociopolitical resources and curricula
(4) the individual outlook of black administrators, staff, teachers, and students on the need
for promoting challenges to Jim Crow (5) the locus of white sociopolitical actors’ resistance to black civil rights and (6) the historic, black social capital in the locale, whether represented as civil rights organizations, historically black colleges and/or universities, black
churches, or black-owned businesses (Fairclough 2007).
Harkening the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine integrating Central High School
in 1957, we also know the various cases of violences onslaught against blacks, in whites’
opposition to school desegregation, post-Brown (1954). Understanding these “Jim Crow
orders,” as Johnson (2008) reminds us, will help us to comprehend the historical, racial
stereotypes, political knowledge, political discourses, and political actions that were part
and parcel black education. Jim Crow black public high schools, as I argue, are political
institutions that deserve further analysis in political science, because, at times, we also
lose sight of the educational experiences that blacks had prior to desegregation, again,
spaces that, themselves, represent a struggle for access to education, whatsoever, despite
their disparate resources. Put differently, as public institutions, depending upon the
moment of Jim Crow and the “black body’s” status, black public high schools represent
the struggle for blacks in their respective locales to acquire a higher-level of education.
In more Deep South rural areas, whites believed that secondary educations were anathema
to black labor productivity (Fairclough 2007). In other areas, there was a question of
whether blacks had the intellectual capacity for higher education levels.
Some black high schools also had mantras and curricula that focused on “black excellence” in ways that disrupted and challenged negative, racial stereotypes about blacks’
intellectualism, while preparing them for the potential of social mobility, in the face of
limited, racialized labor options, once again, more stringently enforced in the Deep
South versus the Upper South (Anderson 1988; Fairclough 2007). As for “black excellence,” it carried the Jim Crow psychology of knowing that as a black person, one had
to be twice as good as whites to win, knowing that if one lost, one still may have been
the best and had to settle with being recognized as “second-rate,” and knowing that the
extent of celebrating black excellence may have had to be balanced delicately with the
nuances of racial etiquette in the presence of whites and exuberance in the privacy of
black spaces. Differences in resources and white leaders’ control of urban versus rural
school schedules, curricula, and access to secondary education, also introduced inequalities within black education accessibility, especially in the latter-nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries, before secondary education became more standardized throughout
the South in the early-twentieth century (Fairclough 2007).
Black education historians, furthermore, question the extent to which contemporary
segregated black public schools may find exemplars for overcoming under-resources,
similar to the strategies employed by Jim Crow public schools (Kelly 2009). The point
is, black public high schools (and historically black educational institutions, in general)
resiled in spite of Jim Crow, as they attempted to educate blacks with state-restricted
Within black public high schools, black administrators, teachers, staff, and students
surmounted limited resources to produce a respectable, well-prepared, and morally
grounded black citizenry (Anderson 1988; Fairclough 2007) – all major tenets of black
racial uplift (Gaines 1996). Thus, despite the accessibility of public education to black students, within these institutions, black racial uplift defined who had a clearer role in the
larger group’s uplift.
During the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, racial uplift ideology was seminal
in promoting the most talented blacks as the group for which noblesse oblige led them to
represent “the best of the race,” with model citizenship and comportment, to serve their
communities with an eye towards“uplifting” black community members, who were downtrodden and perceived to be not yet accomplished in the vision of what constituted black
group advancement (Du Bois 1903; Gaines 1996). Bourgeois in its orientation and elitist in
its adaptation for who best fits the model of blackness to present to the white world, “racial
uplift” castigates black group members whose behaviors violate the norms perceived to
facilitate black group progress. Whether poor, ill-behaved, or indebted to society due to
incarceration, such black group members were perceived to contribute to the negatively
stereotypical images that whites abhorred about blacks and employed to oppress them.
Thus, at times, black racial uplift ideology was interwoven in these schools’ political socialization to produce racial group-focused leaders. On the face, however, black public education was purported to be a “good” for all blacks.
Black racial uplift, also a heavily, black middle-class and religious framing, rendered the
“politics of respectability” that was supposed to garner blacks respect, and ultimately,
grounds for better treatment and full-citizenship in whites’ view (Higginbotham 1993).
However, these same “respectability politics” also are known to have secondarily marginalized (a la Cohen 1999) black women, black gay people, and black poor people in
particular ways that further suppressed their intraracial political interests from being at the
forefront of what was deemed a black political agenda. Racial uplift ideology, and others
which have been identified as African-American-focused ideologies (see Dawson 2001 and
Harris-Lacewell 2004), point us to black historical subjectivity in American politics, which
also further humanizes and complicates the understanding of blacks’ political activism
during the Jim Crow era, because intraracial differences in ideological perspectives and
relationships to Jim Crow oppression made racial uplift inaccessible to some black
group members.
Hence, over time, different black intellectuals and activists countered dual oppressions
of racism and sexism (e.g., Anna Julia Cooper) and homophobia (e.g., Audre Lorde), as
they complicated the scope of black struggle within the United States (Lebron 2017).
Moreover, by challenging intraracial pathological claims about the black poor, and
instead, attributing them to systemic explanations, we can shift policy agendas to consider
black subgroups’ interests, which otherwise, have been overshadowed by black elites, who
have been often wedded to black middle class concerns (Cohen 1999; Taylor 2016). For
example, with respect to education, the “talented tenth” of black Americans received
special attention for their success and example to lead other blacks, the masses of
whom were believed to be less polished and destined to limited success, similar to what
Du Bois (1903) suggested by his “talented-tenth” theory.
Thus, as Lebron (2017) argues, the “idea of Black Lives Matter” predates the popular
moniker of the movement. Because there are different black thinkers and activists, who
challenged “the norm of blackness” to make it accessible to all blacks. While different
black activists introduced their contributions to expand the definition of blackness and
those protected by an agenda of racial justice, the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement emphasizes acknowledging all aggrieved blacks at the outset, no matter their sociodemographic backgrounds.
This is why, in an era of Black Lives Matter, contemporarily, this movement challenges
the intraracially restrictive access to protection of black leadership that once characterized
the often middle-class (male and hetero-normative) protections of certain black people.
Rather, as Black Lives Matter would now have it, all blacks should have access to resources
and become valuable in the pursuit of justice and equity. Today, Black Lives Matter presents a concerted point of departure from historic black racial uplift ideology and the politics of respectability. It creates a memetic mantra of full-citizenship and human rights
protection for all Blacks via social media and textual and visual political activism, no
matter their status or background as women, gay, differing ability, gender identification,
or undocumented people (Black Lives Matter 2017). If there is a perceived legitimate disparagement or violation, then these persons should be “lifted up,” in this case, in the sense
of community support seeking justice for the violated black group member. These persons
would not be further marginalized, such that their claims for justice render no attention or
With respect to education, more specifically, in a Black Lives Matter lens, an excellent,
high-quality education, thus, should be available to all black people, irrespective of their
black leadership potential or talent. By analyzing historically (and contemporarily)
black institutions, such as black colleges and universities and black public high schools,
we may also find rich data, in spaces where black leaders such as Mary McLeod
Bethune, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington foresaw the
future of black socioeconomic advancement through education. Through (African) American political development, we also can learn more about how race affected the “black
body” (in its various iterations) and the dynamism and ideological contestation that
defined its presence (and erasures) in educational spaces over time, thus, changing the
situatedness and actions of both black and white political actors.
Through the lens of all black bodies matter, black communities can find extended arguments to protect present-day black institutions, which continue to facilitate the advancement of black people in a continuing “anti-black” society: Over time, the “black body” has,
and continues to resist societal, (extra)legal, and governmental violences against it, in
pursuit of its humanity and personhood. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement recenters our thoughts about the conceptualization of all “black bodies,” their treatment,
and protection even in education and all other aspects of society. Hence, the many
spaces for which black bodies exist also become politicized spaces, which should be
subject to political inquiry in political science and our examinations of (African) American
political development.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
This work was supported by University of Connecticut Humanities Institute [Humility and Conviction in Public Life/Public Discourse Project].
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