Reading Humane Insight

Humane Insight explores the ways we see people, the ways we look and notice the experiences of people through the history of experiences of suffering and death.

“Humane” is a word that intends to point toward a particular “kind of looking,” one that “seeks knowledge about the humanity of that person” (5). Baker’s book about seeing pain focuses on the ways Blacks have been represented visually and how those visual portrayals express, challenge, or ignore the intense suffering within black life.

In investigating (or re-searching) how black suffering has been identified, she illuminates possibilities for maintaining the humanity and protection of the black body. The particular kind of looking that she invites readers to is a looking through the experience of African Americans in order to preserve humanity and dignity. Dignity threads the pain-filled pages. It lifts the project to purposes beyond seeing, allowing us to look and to, in my view, hope.

There are a number of conversation partners in Baker’s work. She listens especially to liberationists from the past with Ida B. Wells and Mamie Till as two notable survivalists. Baker points to how these folks have contributed to “the image of the African American body in pain and death” (6), making visible black experience in order to call for change despite what is the extremely private event of a person’s body. Noticing black particularity is a means of understanding how to notice broadly. Baker calls this noticing empathic and political, active and ideological. Her book takes what is seen and interprets the visual into discourse. In using language for this translational purpose, Baker “reveals how black pain has been made to make sense” (7).

Baker takes the reader through discourse (i.e., language) in order to construct a critical understanding of humanity. She brings into dialogue theorists who are steeped in empiricist and scientific ways of seeing, such as Darwin and Schmitt, in order to put forward good questions about the acknowledgement of vulnerability as universal and how racial identity impacts perception. The construction of photography and enduring images from history are her tools to interrogate race, culture, and the various ways black pain and suffering are re-presented.

She traces the re-presentation by lifting up expressions of culture as a component of how humanity is expressed, drawing attention to the abolitionist movement in order to situate the term image, turning to lynchings as a social controlling mechanism, exploring the political and emotional power of Mamie Till-Mobley’s insistent decision to show the world brother Emmett’s brutalized body, and activating imagination for the connected civil gestures of nonviolent direct action. The book ends with a recounting of the destruction around and in Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Baker doesn’t exactly hold her reader’s hand through the text. You know she cares but you don’t always feel it when you meet the deep wisdom in her scholarship. This seems good. Responsible critical discourse, even if it ends in one’s growth, is not first about the emotional. The sentimental is present in the book but there is a wideness to those available sentiments. There is disappointment and anguish in the pages. There is appreciation and gratitude for those who have fought, resisted, lived, died, and made babies who took pictures with their lives and passed on their stories so scholars and teachers and other black people could keep the life alive.

I couldn’t read Humane Insight without seeing more of how I see. I think Baker’s meditation on critical race watching has contributed to my “sensitive” sighting of race as an enduring, political, and ideological tool that can construct, dissemble, and reconstruct how we see beautiful black bodies. Baker’s work makes me think of the body and she helps me reconsider how the body is depicted in popular media and in decidedly theological discourse.

Related, black bodies that have been afflicted by pain–be it through sickness or violence–are particular, and the re-view of such bodies takes and develops care. I would be interested in seeing a similar analysis by Baker on black photographic resources and materials. She highlights the important role of black newspapers in portions of US history, but her primary work is to interrogate the ways mainstream images have constructed views, calcified understandings, and sustained images of and about Blacks, images which don’t represent true expressions of suffering and death in African American life.

How you see matters. How you see people matters. I’ve known this and Baker tells me a lot more about what I know. She deepens my knowledge in a relentless, thorough, painful, and captivating way. She shows and tells a truth about how black bodies have been shown and how black bodies have been told or spoken or languaged into existence and death. In creating such an engrossing, scholarly project, Baker has given a gift to the world, even if it’s a gift that’s hard to fully appreciate. Gifts remarking upon pain are no less valuable for the spread of responses we have to them.

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