From the Series: Time of Monsters
Some get to fear monsters. Others must be them.
A few years ago, a sixty-year-old white woman in France attacked another woman in niqab, calling her Belphegor, the demon who was Hell’s ambassador to France in classical writing. She was afraid that the monster had returned.
In a series of paintings with titles like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner via 747” and “We are Coming for Dinner,” Julian Samuel renders what I imagine this woman saw before her: an apocalyptic landscape where phantasmagoric figures loom, the monsters feared by the West: bearded, turbaned men crashing 747s into twin towers and black-veiled, faceless specters coming to dinner. Samuel may be playing up the phantasmagoria in these fantasies of threat, but the discourses of terror and the terrifying Muslim-as-monster have all too real effects. Québec, where Samuel lives, recently banned women in face veils from giving or receiving public services. France has banned the face veil in all public spaces. And the United States continues its bombing campaigns and limitless detention of so-called illegal combatants, all in the name of a War on Terror.
With the titles of his paintings, Samuel clearly signals the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which starred Sidney Poitier as the black doctor who goes to San Francisco with his white fiancée to meet her wealthy and disapproving liberal parents. Black men, of course, have long had to live as monsters in white America, monsters to be killed indiscriminately. The grand jury testimony of Darren Wilson, the police officer who murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is a lesson in terror-ism, the ideology of white American phantasmatic terror. “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” the six-foot-four, 210-pound Wilson said of the six-foot-five, 290-pound Brown. According to Wilson, Brown “had the most aggressive face” and “looks [sic] like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” And demons are notoriously hard to kill. Wilson said that he feared for his life, pulled out his gun, and shot at Brown, who still—like some otherworldly beast—kept coming in spite of the bullets tearing through his body. Said Wilson: “I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy.” Wilson fired twelve times at Brown, including once at his head.
The trope of the black brute has a long and storied American history, as commentators like Jamelle Bouie and Lauren Williams have shown. From the turn of the twentieth century through the 1930s, terrifying tales of “giant negroes” appeared regularly in the mainstream press. Fast forward to the 1990s, and the police officers who beat Rodney King compared him to a “monster,” a “Tasmanian devil,” and a man with “hulk-like strength.” A recent study suggests that white people hold a superhumanization bias against African-Americans, that is, are more likely to attribute superhuman abilities like enhanced strength and pain endurance to black people than to anyone else. To be made a monster is to be made killable. White America’s response to its terror is destruction. A war on terror abroad, a war on terror at home.
All this death-dealing raises the question, of course, of who the real monsters are, a question grimly answered by the recent film Get Out, which mimics the setup of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Chris Washington, a young black photographer, travels to Connecticut to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage. Papa and Mama Armitage are affluent white liberals, the kind of people who eat organic, listen to NPR, and would have voted for Obama a third time if they could have. They have some black friends and wish they had more. They are also—spoiler alert—running a zombie operation, kidnapping young black men and auctioning them off to their white friends to use as physical vessels. Papa Armitage transplants white brains into black bodies, the latter heralded by the Armitages and their friends for their marvelous physical strength. In fact, one of the running jokes in the film is that Chris is so used to white people saying cringe-worthy things to him that the utterly weird interactions at the Armitage house don’t at first register as out of the ordinary. These folks don’t read as monsters; they’re just white.
In unveiling the monstrousness of whiteness as cloaked in the innocence of suburban progressivism, Get Out invokes James Baldwin’s meditations on the monstrous innocence of white people. Baldwin (1993, 5) writes of how his white countrymen have destroyed black lives and continue to do so, though “they do not know it and do not want to know it.” White selfhood is premised on destruction and ignorance of that destruction, on death-dealing and self-delusion. This means that white Americans have no sense of themselves, of white selfhood’s basis in destruction. White selfhood is premised on a blissful, delusional innocence: “White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded” (Baldwin 1993, 53).
On a fundamental level, then, white people do not know who they are—that is, monsters. These are monsters who destroy, yet deny their monstrosity. Whiteness is premised on making monsters of others, on turning black and brown men into the sources of terror and, therefore, the targets of terrifying violence. It is also premised on being the innocent victims of those other monsters. After all, writes Baldwin (1993, 6), what is so striking about whiteness is “that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” And, elsewhere, Baldwin (1955, 148) explicitly links this innocence to monstrosity: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
Baldwin, James. 1955. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press.
_____. 1993. The Fire Next Time. New York: Knopf Doubleday. Originally published in 1963.