“‘You ain’t ready,’ someone would snap…’You aren’t ready for integration.’ Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist begins with the author’s reminiscing on her growing up in the 1950s, wherein she “imbibed a version of black racial identity filtered and shaped by Cold War politics” so “antiblack” and “self-abnegating” that in order to locate acceptance in American society, black Americans had to were forced to perform an exclusion of blackness (and any association therein with radical politics) in order to conform to “those elusive standards for white acceptance” and thus avoid the blacklist. This is, of course, not a shocking or novel concept with regard to the constant struggle of being Other in America, that is Other than white.
To be Other, to possess blackness, is to be subject to surveillance, notes Simone Browne, in her book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, when she calls upon Frantz Fanon to say that “the white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me.” Browne notes how far-reaching into both the past and the present surveillance truly is, and how at the root of the practice is the transatlantic slave trade as well as its afterlife, citing antiblack practices such as lantern laws in the eighteenth century and stop-and-frisk policing practices in the (presumably) present era. But where surveillance exists, so too does sousveillance, and in the scope of American history, dark sousveillance emerges as a method by which black Americans “[contend] with antiblack surveillance.”
Browne notes that dark sousveillance manifested in a variety of ways such as “forging slave passes and freedom papers or passing as free.” And so perhaps Washington’s (and others) imbibing of an antiblack and self-abnegating version of black racial identity was really an imbibing of dark sousveillance in practice. In order to avoid the blacklist, an “absented presence” of blackness” had to occur; that is everything but could be communicated. This is in a manner similar to William J. Maxwell’s description in Total Literary Awareness of Calvin Hernton’s plea of “artistic myopia” when confronted by the FBI about his work and its potentially Communistic and/or political leanings. The FBI’s need to investigate Hernton, and Washington’s five portrait figures, is not dissimilar to how, as Katherine McKittrick in Freedom is a Secret claims, the Underground Railroad is a “geography that both white and non-white communities desire to map and therefore know.” But, per McKittrick, “freedom is unmappable” and to do so is to territorialize space and thus reify anti-black frameworks.