Photo Credit: Documenting the American South via Wikimedia Commons
“I opened my phone and I started recording because I knew if I didn’t, no one would believe me.” So said Darnella Frazier, the 17-year old Minneapolis resident who took the footage of George Floyd’s killing that circulated around the world last summer.
Frazier’s instinct to press record, something other witnesses to anti-Black violence have done in recent years, makes perfect sense in light of our country’s history of ignoring and suppressing Black testimony. Black people have testified about the terrors of racism for a long time now; most white people, and the political institutions that could end that violence, have refused to listen. The assumption that Black testimony doesn’t count as much as white testimony is a basic feature of American racism that was built into the laws of the slave system and continues to frame the idea of justice in the United States.
Black people have always used whatever technology they could to put their testimony before the general public. Consider nineteenth-century slave narratives, books that launched the African American literary tradition and became pillars of the long Black freedom struggle. Prefaces written by prominent white abolitionists were essential features of the genre, serving to assure white readers that these Black authors really had written their own books—and that they really were telling the truth about the horrors of slavery.
It is no coincidence that the most common subtitle for slave narratives was “Written by Himself” (or “Herself” in the case of Harriet Jacobs). That former slaves—from a supposedly “inferior race” and deprived of formal education—could successfully write their own life stories was perceived as a remarkable fact that demanded explanation. “It will naturally excite surprise that a woman reared in Slavery should be able to write so well,” Lydia Maria Child noted in her introduction to Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), citing a kind mistress who taught Jacobs to read and spell as well as frequent contact with cultured Northerners who gave her “opportunities for self-improvement.”
Still, many white readers harbored doubts that former slaves could be reliable narrators, especially when recounting instances of slavery’s violence. “Skeptics,” William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the preface to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), “will try to discredit the shocking tales of slaveholding cruelty which are recorded in this truthful Narrative.” But Douglass’s testimony, Garrison assured them, was “sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable.”
These “Certificates of Character,” with respectable whites praising the “moral integrity” and “religious sincerity” of the Black authors, were crucial to the abolitionist cause. So were assurances that there was evidence backing authors’ claims. In the case of Henry Bibb, an official committee vetted the claims he made in Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (1849) as follows: “Thorough investigation has sifted and analyzed every essential fact alleged and demonstrated clearly that this thrilling and eloquent narrative, though stranger than fiction, is undoubtedly true.”
In a slave society where bondage depended on the dehumanization of Black people, it’s hardly surprising that only white people could be counted on to certify the accuracy of a book written for a white audience. We should not forget that the most popular and influential anti-slavery text published during the antebellum era was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Note that Stowe’s depiction of slavery as a “system of hidden and endless violence” was deeply informed by the “living testimony” of liberated and fugitive slaves she had met.
Beginning in the colonial era, African Americans were prohibited from speaking on their own behalf in court. In 1705, the state of Virginia passed its first slave code, which included a prohibition on Black people testifying against whites. “This legal disability,” according to historian Paul Finkelman, was “a hallmark of racial codes for the next 160 years.” It opened the door for whites to cheat, harass and terrorize Black people, free and enslaved, with impunity.
After Reconstruction, when Black men and women had the constitutional right to testify in court, it was frequently disregarded. At the trial for the lynching of Emmett Till in September 1955, two Black sharecroppers provided compelling eyewitness accounts identifying J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant as the individuals responsible for kidnapping and killing Till. The two white men were acquitted by an all-white Mississippi jury in deliberations that lasted just over an hour.
Again, despite extensive reporting about violence against Black Americans by Black journalists, scholars and activists, white testimony became a chosen vehicle for changing white minds. In 1961, white journalist John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me to rapturous reviews. Using a prescription drug and an ultraviolet lamp to darken his skin, the book documented Griffin’s journey to discover what it was “really like” to be “a Negro” in the Deep South. It was a “nightmare,” Griffin wrote, recounting daily indignities and threats, including frequent barrages of racial slurs. Griffin’s task was not to reveal what racism was, but to convince white people that all the things Black people had been saying about racism were true.
And how many people would have believed Rodney King’s account of his 1992 beating by Los Angeles police had an observer not recorded it with a video camera? In the past few years, the police killings of Black men and women resonate with this long history of white disbelief, making the recording functions of inexpensive cell phones a powerful tool for collecting and disseminating evidence.
When she decided to record the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Darnella Frazier understood that without the footage, no one in authority would believe what she was seeing. Alissa V. Richardson, author of Bearing Witness While Black, places Frazier’s actions in a long tradition of “Black witnessing,” a distinctive gaze that musters “defiance, self-defense and self-preservation” and declares: “I don’t want anybody to lie about this death.” Black witnessing encourages us to see instances of violence against Black bodies, not as isolated incidents, but as part of an “ongoing racialized saga.”
Social media allows Black witnesses to broadcast police brutality and violence to a broader public without white gatekeepers or mediators. These videos have an extraordinary power, providing evidence that challenges ignorance, indifference and injustice. “America can’t un-see” videos such as the George Floyd killing, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nuttter said: they “can’t act like it didn’t happen.”
Yet as these incidents accumulate, so does an endless loop of brutality and annihilation that can flatten the individual humanity of victims. “I would like to get to the point where Black people are just believed,” Richardson said in a recent interview with the Guardian. “We shouldn’t need this footage to prove that we didn’t deserve our own demise.”
The phenomenon of “Black witnessing” now has a parallel in books that ask white people to bear witness about whiteness and white privilege. Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018) is just one of the many recently published books about whiteness by white authors that features a foreword by a Black activist or scholar that attests to its authenticity. African American Reverend Brenda Salter McNeil’s foreword to Daniel Hill’s White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to be White (2017) attests that she has “known and walked with Daniel for over ten years.” McNeil continues that she has “observed him in many situations and conversations about reconciliation and justice and I can attest that he is attuned to his own identity and privilege as a white man.” Here, we can hear an echo from 175 years ago of Wendell Phillips’ introduction to Frederick Douglass for white readers: “We have known you long and can put the most entire confidence in your truth, candor and sincerity.”
Recalling the skepticism about how former slaves could write so well, contemporary anti-racist white authors face doubts about their racial literacy, and what they can contribute to a movement for Black liberation. Does this white author have the necessary qualifications to write about racism? The question, it seems, can only be answered by a Black witness, someone who has experienced racism firsthand.
Because of this perhaps, prominent white, anti-racist educator Tim Wise summons more than a dozen well-known Black witnesses to vouch for him and his work on the “Testimonials” page on his website, Michelle Alexander, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Cornel West among them. “Wise,” West attests, “is a vanilla brother in the tradition of John Brown, a truth-teller and long distance freedom-fighter whose fight against White Supremacy is exemplary and inspiring.” Similarly, in his introduction to White Fragility, the Black sociologist Michael Eric Dyson praises Robin DiAngelo for forcing white people to recognize that “their whiteness has given them a big leg up in life while crushing others’ dreams.” He goes on to call her “the new racial sheriff in town,” who bravely “fetches to center stage a whiteness that would rather hide in visible invisibility.”
In exchange, it is a pre-requisite for white authors to offer self-reflexivity about their own complicity in maintaining white supremacy. (We find ourselves, then, in the curious situation where white supremacists go out of their way to claim they are not racist, while white allies loudly proclaim that they are.) “I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns and investments in the racist system that has elevated me,” Diangelo confesses. On the never-ending work of recognizing her own “internalized superiority,” she writes: “I am eager—even excited—to identify my inevitable collusion so that I can figure out how to stop colluding!”
If Black testimony is often subject to a heightened degree of scrutiny and skepticism among whites who would prefer to turn away from racism, it is also a valuable, and more deliberate, currency for white liberals and progressives. Surely this validation of Black perspectives must count as historical progress. At the same time, we should at least pause to note that, when mobilized by whites, Black voices replicate a familiar Black-white racial binary that Americans have been taught to see as natural and preordained. When Black witnesses render a verdict on the character of white authors, we are not necessarily seeing a new conversation about race, but a reversal of the power dynamic in which one group authorizes another to speak.
The idea that we are fundamentally different from each other, and that this difference is fundamentally racial, remains intact.
Jeff Snyder is associate professor of Educational Studies at Carleton College and author of the book, Making Black History: The Color Line, Culture and Race in the Age of Jim Crow.