Much of Hall’s analytical work is rooted in the exploration of the material consequences of the black/white binarism that permeates the language, thought, and aesthetic constructions of Early Modern England. She maintains that the moralization of this chiaroscuro theme, and its use in the creation of gendered and class difference, remain key processes in the emergence racist discourse. 

In this study Hall brings to light the discursive and symbolic domains of racism—the opposition of the black male body to the white woman’s as a trope of beauty and class exemplifies this phenomenon. As an extension of the body of the nation, the body of the white woman—its fairness, its purity as codified by its whiteness—becomes a central site of anxiety and constant articulation. Within the blackwhite binarism whose examination runs through the book, Hall demonstrates that blackness/darkness—notably the black man’s body—is the condition of emergence for whiteness/fairness, and ergo for the standard of white womanhood that in itself defined Englishness a category of race and class. As Hall puts it, “[t]he ‘black skin’ […] is the necessary element for the fetishization of the white skin, the ‘white mask’ of aristocratic identity” (211, see also p 215). Thus it is that the fetishization of black skin enables a practice of whiteface through which Enlighsness, as a class, reveals itself as a racial category whose symbolic modes of operation are negotiated in the social sphere. If Stuart Hall stated, in ’78, that “race is the modality in which class is lived,” Hall’s (Kim) study points at the gendered and gendering aspects of this racialized modality. 

Though Hall makes no mention of Hortense Spiller’s work, I see her emphasis on the discursive and symbolic to fall in line with Spiller’s delineation of an “American grammar book” predicated on the black woman’s presence: “My country needs me,” says Spillers, “and if I were not here, I would have to be invented” (65). They both illuminate the language function of carrying surplus semantic weight—the “overdetermined nominative properties” of explicitly and implicitly racist language—through which normative and dominant discourses of race, gender, class, and nation come into being, insidiously, as grammars of domination.

As a black feminist method, this way of foregrounding the symbolic and discursive stands in opposition to the view that the creation of a racialized class of black Africans during the 16th/17th century emerged as an almost accidental byproduct of an emerging global capitalist system. Hall, and the black feminist tradition, has demonstrated that such a view is incomplete. In addition to the economic, race operates at the symbolic and libidinal registers of the modern order, and it is this double valence that distinguishes black forced labor from the systemic subjugation of other racialized groups. The latter point is the central concern dealt with in Hall’s chapter “An Object in the Midst of Other Objects,” where an analysis of portraiture practices reveals the crucial symbolic role of the commodified African in the creation of a colonial aristocratic class. Here again it is the black male/white woman dyad that takes central stage. However, because of the paradoxical nature of racialized beauty standards by which aristocratic women were made to abide, the representative regimes themselves are filled with paradoxes, the greatest of all being the simultaneous near-invisible and indispensable status of the commodified African. 

It was not rare to see black pages and servants in portraits of both men and women aristocrats, yet their symbolic purchase varied according to the gender of the poser. These black servants, often children, tend to figure as part of, or emphasizing, the shadow corners of the canvas, functioning thus as enablers of literal and symbolic whiteness. But in the case of portraits depicting women, there is a double or compounded objectification: while female portrait painters commodified the female presence in search of an almost homogenizing beauty ideal, it was the presence of a black servant that made complete the ornamentive motiv. Thus in female portraits the commodification of blackness registers as a symbolic expression of not only the already objectified beauty of the women, but also of wealth and “the promise of continually multiplying wealth and novelty that will fill [the depicted woman’s] desires” (244). 

I find the explorations in the discursive and symbolic realms a crucial intervention of black feminist thought as a means to understand, not only race and gender (bodies), but also the colonial endeavor and later the nation as categories of affect. 

For reasons that are only partially unfortunate, the rise of white supremacism has gone from shyly showing its seams to overtaking the public, institutional, and political spaces at an almost global level. Ideologies of exclusion and their corresponding discourses have proven to be laden with an ethos of affective and emotional import. What once may have been easy to dismiss as irrationally hateful and therefore unlikely, has now become part of the social fabric in ways that are impossible to comprehend if we attend only to reason and facts. As Said argued in Culture and Imperialism, the imaginary of colonialism had a symbolic, prefiguring potency before the colonial enterpise was established as such. Similarly, there has been, since the Early Modern period at least, a subterranean stream of imaginaries where the black/African has played a variety of symbolic roles toward the establishment of what, in the context of this book, we have called the English aristocracy, but that can be also be thought of as the Foucauldian/Wynterian Man/human. What makes these imaginaries so powerful, and what allows for their self-sustenance over the centuries, is their malleability as played out on the bodies of black/Africans. In this sense, Hall is again in conversation with Spillers and with Snorton, as the interplay of significations that the chiaroscuro theme allows is a manifestation of the “fungibility” that whiteness has ascribed to the black body. In other words, what the malleability of these imaginaries enable is “an onto- epistemological framework premised on the fungibility of captive bodies, wherein their flesh functioned as a disarticulation of  human form from its anatomical features and their claims to humanity were controverted in favor of the production and perpetuation of cultural institutions” (Snorton, Anatomically, 19).

Kim Hall was an early pioneer in the methodological innovations needed to bring to light what scholars of Early Modernity had been reluctant or unable to acknowledge in the name, perhaps, of “‘propriety’ or ‘historical accuracy'” (256). That is, she spearheaded and enabled a black feminist approach to the archive whereby experience becomes interpretation: the survival strategies and mechanisms necessaries for black people to inhabit an anti-back world serve as interpretative tools which, through intuition and creative thrurst, recuperate historical aspects that have gone either completely unrepresented (Hartman’s Venus) or vastly ignored (black pages in portraiture culutre). 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *