With respect to photography of children suffering in the midst of a humanitarian atrocity, we’ve already developed something of a canon. Or maybe since our world leaders seem to promise—if nothing else—an interminable supply of evermore vivid, evermore gruesome political horrors always to come, we’re forced to be more precise and describe it as an ‘open’ canon.
The image taken last week of the sobbing Honduran toddler at the U.S.-Mexico border is of course already iconic, already history-bound. She stands beside the border patrol vehicle, about eye level with its dust-caked tire. She is half-lit by some adjacent convoy’s roof-mounted LED beam, half-obscured in the penumbra cast by the border agent who is engaged in detaining her mother. The child’s face is upturned, wrung in anguish and confusion, watching it all happen.
It’s hard describing her expression in any way that doesn’t necessarily minimize it, since precisely what’s animating it is probably some nameless dread at watching your parent maybe about to be taken away from you. She is two, wearing what looks like rolled-cuff Jeggings, which is maybe something your own two year-old daughter or niece would wear.
In a certain way, the image of the Honduran child sort of breaks with the tradition of canonical humanitarian photojournalism. Routinely, the depictions of ruin and misery in these photos, while being the handiwork of the U.S., have as their settings some very distant regions of the world, at least from the vantage of a U.S. citizen. A brief, by no means comprehensive survey might include the naked Vietnamese girl running away from a napalm blast. A skeletally thin Sudanese boy collapsed on the way to get food, lying face down in a burnt-out savanna, a vulture abiding in awful, menacing calm just some feet away. The Syrian boy seated in the back of an ambulance, completely ashed in the pulverized debris of Aleppo. Another Syrian child—a drowned corpse—washed ashore and prostrate in the lapping surf of the Mediterranean Sea.
The U.S. presence in these images is generally more of an ambient thing as opposed to an observably dominant, front-and-center one. And it’s maybe in this respect especially where the Honduran girl at the border photo appears to take on new valency for most U.S. viewers. Here we have presented the same historically annihilative hand of the American government, but unabstracted, unproxied from the foreign dictatorship it installed to open up new economies in one of its client states and which, to the surprise of exactly no one, went on to starve, falsely imprison, torture, disappear, chemically assault and otherwise generally deprivate and massacre its people. This is a sort of rare cameo by America in its own long-running, worldwide production of misery, death, separation and sorrow, here seen fully operative in the act of corralling migrant families and dividing up the children from their parents right here on the bone-dry, loamy soil of McAllen, Texas.
A lot of commentators have moved swiftly to remind people that it is in fact not a cameo appearance. Rather it is just a reprisal of a very familiar role. To use but one of these sources, Shaun King, writing for The Intercept, says, “You’d have a hard time finding an extended period of American history where children and parents of color weren’t forcefully separated from one another by the white power structure in this country. It’s woefully and painfully normal . . . This nation has mastered separating parents and children.” Describing the complacency which society has historically been inclined to assume in the presence of such damning exercises of abject cruelty, he offers a fairly 101-ish, Postcolonial Studies account of the phenomenon’s ideological underpinnings: “Whenever a group of people suffers unspeakable horrors and oppression, the people in power first reduce and dehumanize them — making it such that the conscience of the people in power is fully at ease during the oppression.”
He’s not wrong, of course.
It’s discomfiting but not all that unreasonable to think that part of what accounts for the basic intensity of effect that these photographs produce in a western audience is conditioned by the fact that up until that moment when we observe these people—these, in fact, humans—they’ve long existed for us as something conceptually less than that. Then a photojournalist captures and recoups something undeniably lost in the discourse, lost in the nightly news anchors’ bland utterances regarding the catastrophe. And in so doing the photojournalist provides an immediate and compelling motivation to now attend to the humanity in a situation where its complexity, its distance, its spun narrative, would otherwise threaten to totally remove that element from existence.
Though to take the present moment, an unfortunate thing seems to end up happening in the headlong rush to historicize what’s happening to the Honduran toddler and other migrant families at the border. In trying to ground our indignation in a more complete understanding of how, in fact, throughout the course of U.S. history, splitting apart families within marginalized groups has been fairly procedural stuff, that same logic of dehumanization—that easing of the conscience, to which Shaun King referred—ends up getting reproduced in the most familiar, nefarious and traditionally-U.S. way possible. That is, through hitching the history of African-American oppression onto another group’s social justice struggle and ignoring the singularity of the former’s experience. In this latest coupling, the discussion of putatively ‘like’ policies that have long functioned to break up families in America neglects to mention the economic imperative—and its enduring, devastating material impact—behind rending apart the black family and preventing its equal status in a nation that their ancestors effectively built for free.
To the extent this unique aspect of black oppression is not outright ignored in the discussion, it’s nonetheless bracketed for the purposes of promoting the idea of a uniformly oppressed and victimized community of color, one that by default erases the specific justice claim held collectively by U.S. Native Black Descendants of Slaves. It’s precisely because of this erasure that we have no difficulty citing slavery and the auction blocks as an antecedent to the Trump administration’s border policy of separating families. Doing so requires rather little in the way of an actual, unequivocal commitment to a politics of reparative justice. What we seem to have a lot more difficulty with is being able to acknowledge the critical way in which the two are in fact very different; how those original fracturings of the black family were an integral, indispensable part of the development of an economic system that has since demanded—and primarily run on—the consequences of that instability reverberating throughout black America for centuries.1This is what it means to necessarily subaltern Native Black Descendants of Slaves by suggesting that the separation of families occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border is in essence an extension of the same ideology that determined their (U.S. Blacks’) particular history. Because as long as we continue to discourage, or find new and different ways to not look at black America as a uniquely deficient economic group as a result of specifically discriminatory government policies and state-sponsored terrorism, it’s almost certain that we will be prevented from ever fully humanizing them as victims because we fall so dramatically short in accurately understanding their condition and what it will require from us to meaningfully ally with them in their struggle.
In the Trump era—presumably because it’s been a while since such bold and naked expressions of xenophobia have been on display and informing public policy—there’s a bit of ostensibly conventional wisdom floating around that we, as a nation, are in fact all fundamentally alike in our shared, immigrant ancestry. And so to repudiate a group based purely on the grounds of their ethnic background is to simultaneously reveal yourself as a categorical hypocrite in addition to being a bigot. Shaun King, in that same article, makes it a point to remind the audience of this precept: “[E]veryone here but Native Americans,” he says, “are all descendants of immigrants themselves.” Carefully qualified, that statement nonetheless rings wildly and empirically false, omitting mention of the fact that there is one other group in this country who does not descend from immigrants. That group is the descendants of slaves, whose ancestors (it should be obvious enough) did not come here on their own volition, but were violently captured from their original homeland and cargoed here in the hulls of ships to be consigned to a life on American soil as providers of free labor and the principal capital for the profit engine of the globe’s richest economy, a system from which their deliberate exclusion was promised; an unimaginably wretched condition and fate and—most importantly—one for which they were never given full recompense, which resultantly has hounded and permanently obstructed their efforts at full, equal participation in American life.
We tend to get sort of amnesiac about that fact in our rush to conceive of ourselves as all basically glorified guests here anyway. And that—conceived as such—our real progress as a society can and should be indexed to the position of other groups who are also coming to this country simply seeking a better life. Perhaps, though, a more exacting measure—a more honest and true index—should be the position of the group that was dragged here against its will in order to make a better life for everyone but themselves. And if we take that criterion as our calculus, then really, where are we?
To relate this question to the complementary projects of Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, and the work of economists and scholars like Sandy Darity, Tom Shapiro, and Darrick Hamilton, we have long foundered in our aim of civic progress. And somewhat in contrast to the more remote, intangible, or difficult-to-really-mentally-grasp suffering that we hear of or read about in the geopolitical situations of refugees and migrants, the complete privation of black America—the sheer and utter material want of an entire group of citizens on the verge of economic collapse—is too all around us and too tied up in our own history to require photojournalists to really bring it home. It’s been home. It’s a short bus or car ride away for most people in American cities. We need only to look around to observe it. But without the critical analyses like those of the aforementioned individuals, just looking around or driving through is a mode of engagement that cannot possibly compel or really even allow for an understanding of the sort of necessary and urgent scale of response to fundamentally remedy what should arguably be our most pressing domestic concern. And the information—the data—that informs all of their respective and ultimately correlated and cooperative efforts on contextualizing this condition of black America within a framework of a government-made humanitarian crisis, is the only way to coherently read the situation, bring our consciences into focus, and properly formulate and mount an effective moral and material response.
1. Mass incarceration—also commonly cited as an analog to the gruesome policy of dividing up families at the border—seems to suffer from the same instinct to uncouple the practice of locking a bewildering abundance of black men in cages from a more nuanced discussion about that practice’s specific place in the shoring up of the economic legacy of slavery.↩