The Decentering of White Experience in Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination
Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination is a poetry series reminiscent of Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants in terms of scope and timelessness. Eady’s formulations speak to the heart of the issue of racial injustice and provide a compelling account of how white fear of the (unjustly and incorrectly) criminalized Black body results in alteration of white sensory perception. This alteration precipitates the perpetration of violence and terror onto Black bodies, whether at the hands of police or armed vigilantes (à la George Zimmerman).
Brutal Imagination is told from the perspective of the, to borrow Jung’s verbiage, collective unconsciousness of fictional Black “subjects” created by white minds to serve a certain purpose — whether it be in the furtherance of an advertising or criminal scheme (and, really, what’s the difference?). The most significant subject is the fictional Black “phantom” (borrowing the word choice of one of my professors) that Susan Smith accused of kidnapping her two children in 1994, when in reality she committed filicide.
Eady begins his sequence with a poem entitled “How I Got Born,” referring to the coming-into-being of the phantom. Eady writes “Though it’s common belief / That Susan Smith willed me alive / At the moment / Her babies sank into the lake”, alluding to the ever-presence of this fictional accusatory scapegoat of the criminalized Black body. Because of white fear — Eady goes on to refer to the face of a Black man as “the scariest face you could think of” — a feedback loop is established where the notion of the criminalized Black body can be scapegoated and that process reinscribes the stereotype that empowers the cultural bias. Eady’s first poem talks about the reemergence of this cultural trope as Susan Smith engages in mothering of this phantom through the motherly gesture of dressing — “So now a mother needs me clothed / In hand-me-downs / And a knit cap.” — and the phantom responds with a defiant and adolescent gesture of “Whatever.”
Though the sequence beings with the phantom and Susan Smith closely aligned — as they share the feeling of bereavement — Eady recontextualizes the tragedy and decenters Smith. In the exterior world outside of the poem, Smith grafts the phantom to herself and drags it along, attempting to take formerly invisible aspects of Blackness and make them hyper-visible to draw all attention away from herself and her crime. Just as Peter Pan staples his shadow to his feet, Smith does the same to this fictional Black body. Eady works within this context and alludes to the phantom being a shadow (in “The Law”) which serves to account for how the phantom, a shadow, is circumscribed by Smith’s “light,” a distracting light to avoid criminal culpability. Within Eady’s paradigm, however, there is a reversal. Not Smith, but the phantom is the center of the narrative and the source of all existential insight offered by the sequence. Only Smith’s exteriority is depicted in the form of excepts from her confession in the piece “Birthing,” where the phantom observes but has no involvement in the actual death of the children.
In this way, the phantom serves to drag Smith along through an exploration of this collective unconsciousness of fictional Black creations like Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Buckwheat, and Stepin Fetchit. The moral judgment of Smith rendered is inconsistent and intermittent, as this is not her story but rather the story of the phantom. The phantom grants the reader insight into the one feeling shared with Smith, bereavement, but later in “Why I Am Not A Woman” says of Smith that “The children didn’t mean a thing / To that woman.” Smith’s guilty feeling about the crime and her lack of caring — both feelings experienced by way of symbiosis or observed by the phantom — are never reconciled. The only thing that is clear is that the phantom has far more concern for the children than Smith. This is most evident in the piece “Who Am I?” where the phantom says “And here is the one good thing: / If I am alive, then so, briefly, are they, / Two boys returned, three and one,”. The phantom’s conscience paired with a duty to accomplish the task of his creator or summoner, Smith, are consistently at odds.
“Sightings,” “Where Am I?,” and “Composite” deliver an interesting perspective of the multilocal existence of the phantom, as he moves throughout mythology behind the curtains of reality to eventually engage with Uncle Tom and Buckwheat. The phantom’s ability to move in this way, outside of physicality, parallels the suspicion of Black men that occurs when a phantom like this is created, whether in the case of Smith or Charles Stuart in 1989. Black communities are forced to share this burden of “fitting the description” predicated on a falsehood. The phantom’s presence on TVs, fliers, and on the lips of people are all locations where the oppressive force that afflicts this burden is generated.
“Sightings,” beyond depicting different locations for the subject of the phantom, benefits from a parallel to Schrodinger’s cat in the case of the falsified witness reports. The phantom says “I signed or didn’t sign the register. / I took or didn’t take the key from his hand. / He looked or forgot to look.” Unlike the discrete space that houses the phantom, the still-living children, and Uncle Ben, what is described here is a probabilistic space created by the unreliable eyewitness accounts of white people whose sense are compromised by conscious or unconscious racial bias. A similar phenomenon is explored in “Charles Stuart in the Hospital” where the police are described by Eady as doing “quick, but sloppy work” in regards to taking down descriptive information about phantasmic Black assailants.
Eady’s sequence decenters whiteness and the white sensory experience by only providing an outside perspective on those things and restricting its perspective to elucidating the existential concerns of a non-existent imaginative construction. Furthermore, Eady gives life and agency to a previously dismal category of the white-imagined disposition of the Black American. James Baldwin speaks to this process in “Take this Hammer,” where he says:
what I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires … now here in this country we’ve got something called the ‘nigger’ … I didn’t invent him, white people invented him … I’ve always known that I’m not a ‘nigger.’ But if I am not the ‘nigger’ and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, than who is the ‘nigger’?
This category to which Baldwin refers is the same one which collectively houses the phantom, Aunt Jemima, and Buckwheat. These constructions are created for a purpose, to serve a “necessity” of the white mind, whether they be receptacles for envy, fear, or hatred. And, indeed, this category has no relationship with the actual experience of Blackness or being Black in an interior sense, but these non-existent subjectivities are violently projected onto and sublimate the Black body when subject to the gaze of a white supremacist power structure. Eady takes a more charitable approach to these creations, as opposed to relegating them to the realm of theoretical detritus. They’ve been stapled to the feet of white folks and dragged around for so long, after all. Isn’t it only fair they’re granted a life in a mind far more robust and beautiful than the one that birthed them?