Farah Peterson on What the History of a Gesture Tells Us about Black Creative Power

On Our Knees

Kneeling has reentered American political discourse. In the protests after George Floyd’s murder, Black Americans approached police officers and knelt. To lower one’s body in front of a man wearing riot gear and weapons, a man who is vibrating with the knowledge that today may be the day he will use them, takes a rare kind of physical courage. In some ways, it is an escalation of the raised hands and chants that followed Michael Brown’s killing in 2014: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” It is an attitude of petition and surrender transformed into an act of defiance. At once vulnerable and insistent, the posture demands a commitment from the kneeler and, I imagine, wrests an emotional reaction from the officer that must be very difficult to suppress. 

This emotional urgency is certainly part of the gesture’s power. But part of its power is also in its historical resonance. I say that kneeling has reentered our discourse because it calls to mind old images—older than last summer, older than Colin Kaepernick’s steadfast protest on the football field and the angry responses he provoked—an ancient iconography of Black men and women on their knees that is worked deeply into our visual culture. 

The silhouette of the Black person kneeling is a cliché in Western art, one that has been demeaning to Blacks more often than it has been empowering. Like the other Procrustean caricatures we encounter in daily life, it limits us to something less than full humanity. Its appropriation in our recent protests shows yet again Black Americans’ capacity to master the badges of our oppression in powerful new ways. We are a people, after all, who took the castoffs from other men’s tables and the tough, gristly refuse of the slaughter, and made a cuisine that became the quintessentially American food. We are a people who created glad music about our pain, and that music, the blues, now underlies all of America’s homegrown genres. Our kneeling during the George Floyd protests, while holding signs that read, “Get your knee off our necks,” was another dramatic proof of our ability to transform a painful inheritance into a new narrative.

Viewed in the broader context of Black creative power, the re-emergence of this gesture can be taken as a threat, not only to subvert and reclaim individual confrontations with power, but essentially to remake the American narrative. To understand where we are now, therefore, it may be worthwhile to consider the history of this iconography and to reflect on what it means that we reenacted it in the summer of 2020.

Read more at The American Scholar