In 2017, while attending the Rhetoric Society of America’s Summer Institute at Indiana University, I took a long walk with a dear friend.
After a day of participating in our respective workshops and grabbing dinner with a few of our grad school classmates, Emily and I made the trek back to our dorms together. Intuitively, it seemed, we agreed to take our time getting to our final destination.
The two of us had been journeying for a while when Emily stopped abruptly.
“Look,” she whispered. “There!”
Obediently, I followed the direction of her pointing finger, and, once my eyes adjusted to the deep darkness, I gleaned the object of her interest. Emily, the consummate nature lover, had spotted a herd of deer grazing on a dimly lit area of the campus lawn.
How she had managed to see the animals in the night confounded me. I, on the other hand, had missed them entirely.
“Let’s get closer,” she whispered.
I took a few steps in the direction of the deer, but my caution regarding wild animals stopped me from advancing further. Maintaining a respectful distance, Emily inched closer to get a better view, and, after getting her fill of the animals, she re-joined me to continue our walk.
Yet, soon after, we experienced another divergence in our sense of sight.
“What is this person doing?” Emily asked. Apparently, she could make out a form’s movement in the stretch of street ahead of us but was unable to decipher its substance.
Without hesitation, I had somehow known what I had not registered knowing, and had processed this knowledge before Emily could even properly consume it.
“It’s a cop car,” I answered.
After squinting into the darkness, Emily saw that my assessment was correct. Ahead, a police vehicle with lowlights was being driven by an officer either completing a 3-point turn or attempting to park inconspicuously in a turn-around.
I could feel Emily’s eyes on me. “How did you know that?” she asked, mirroring my earlier wonder at her ability to detect the grazing deer.
“We have radar for that,” I answered earnestly. At that moment, I was surprised by how quickly the statement came to my mind and left my mouth.
“That makes sense,” she conceded, and since she is the type of white woman who needs no clarification regarding the referent of my “We,” our exchange about the matter quickly reached its conclusion. We switched topics, finished our walk, and reached our dorms without further incident.
Although I did not give much thought to the events of our walk while they were unfolding, alone, in the quiet of my room, I was unsettled.
On the most beautiful college campus I had ever seen, while enjoying a lazy walk on a gorgeous summer night, it was not the deer that my sight had registered. It was the police car.
Even more unsettling was the fact that there wasn’t actually a moment when I could perceive that I had registered seeing the car. It seemed to be almost an automatic reception. My quip about the radar seemed more honest observation than wit.
More than a few times, Black writers have discussed how the faculties of meaning-making and interpretation are racialized. In the first narrative of his life, Frederick Douglass discusses how the hearing of enslaved people was attuned by the persistent terror they faced. Describing life on the first plantation he inhabited, he explains how the enslaved community had to take care to hear the slave driver’s horn signaling the beginning of the work day. “[W]oe betides them who hear not this morning summons to the field,” Douglass writes, “for if they are not awakened by the sense of hearing, they are by the sense of feeling.” Those who were “so unfortunate as not to hear” were met with a severe beating by the overseer.
Frances Harper’s important novel Iola Leroy contains a scene in which an enslaved character, violently prevented from learning how to read, resorts to interpreting her mistress’s face for news about the Civil War: "Oh, sho, chile," said Linda, "I can't read de newspapers, but ole Missus' face is newspaper nuff for me. I looks at her ebery mornin' wen she comes inter dis kitchen. Ef her face is long an' she walks kine o' droopy den I thinks things is gwine wrong for dem. But ef she comes out yere looking mighty pleased, an' larffin all ober her face, an' steppin' so frisky, den I knows de Secesh is gittin' de bes' ob de Yankees.” By perceiving slight changes in her mistress’s body language, Aunt Linda is able to determine whether the Union or Confederacy is leading in battle.
Of course, Du Bois’s discussion of the Negro’s “second-sight” cannot go unacknowledged, and other examples abound.
Although I had been familiar with this work and with rhetoric scholarship exploring the sensorium prior to 2017, it was in Bloomington, in the darkness, that my experience and theoretical education illuminated intimately the perverse violence that has shaped Black sensation.
Throughout my life, I have experienced and witnessed police harassment and violence. The immediate harm of this treatment is often easily apparent. The cumulative, subcutaneous impact of these encounters, however, is harder to trace. Casting a long shadow on its victims, they shape how they experience (and don’t experience) the world.
That night, Emily’s and my engagement with the environment was remarkably different. Emily saw the deer, and I clocked the police car. Alone in my room, I was unsettled, and unsettled I remain.
Mudiwa Pettus is an Assistant Professor of English Composition at CUNY, Medgar Evers College. She is currently finishing her first book, Against Compromise: Black Rhetorical Education in the Age of Booker T. Washington.