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The Story Behind Will Smith’s Scars in Emancipation Is Not Just a Tale From History

9 minute read
Janell Ross is the senior correspondent on race and identities for TIME.

In the new movie Emancipation, streaming on Apple TV+ starting Friday, Will Smith has the unusual distinction of portraying a lead character whose name is never spoken. He plays an enslaved man, stripped of nearly all indications of humanity, held captive and beaten by a real-world lash on a Louisiana plantation before escaping to join a so-called colored unit of the Union Army. An examination by Union medical personnel reveals on his back a horrifying network of keloid scars caused by an overseer’s whip. The marks stretch nearly shoulder to shoulder, from his neck to below his waist, covering most of the skin.

Viewers may already be familiar with them, if not with the story of the man whose back they marred. Producers have described the film as “inspired by” a true story: the scars were exposed to the world in a photo, which became known as “Whipped Peter,” or “The Scourged Back,” which helped to galvanize anti-slavery sentiment around the nation. The man portrayed by Smith is known today only as Gordon. Many other details of his life appear to have been lost to history, but his story is an example of an elemental form of bigotry: the complete disregard for the sacredness of the human body. It would be tempting to see that problem as something from the past, but 2022 has given us ample proof that it endures.

As someone who writes about race and identity, I am the frequent recipient of messages from readers—often from the opposite end of the political spectrum as those who send me their racist conspiracy theories—attempting to press on me the comforting fiction that bigotry in today’s America is actually rare, or at least subtle and unconscious. Yes, they may concede, mortgage rejections, cancer death rates, and voting wait times are disproportionately high among people of color. But surely, they say, the reasons have to do with some combination of personal failings and structural inequality—not direct animus. And it’s complicated, or the fix too disruptive, so nothing can be done. That’s their potholder warding off the heat of reality.

It is of course true that the violence of slavery, physical and existential, is in the United States a thing of the past (at least outside the walls of our prisons). And yet, looking for proof that elemental bigotry—including that disregard for the body—can still be found, boiling hot today, one need only go back a few weeks.

In mid November, a Senate subcommittee released a bipartisan report on allegations that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees at a Georgia facility were subjected to “​​excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary gynecological procedures.” In a hearing on the matter, Senator Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat and subcommittee chair, described the “medical abuse” of women in the custody of the U.S. government as “deeply disturbing” and “a catastrophic failure by the federal government to respect human rights.”

Read more: Senate Committee Finds Medical Abuse of Detained Women at Georgia ICE Facility

Karina Cisneros Preciado, 23, was held at the Irwin County Detention Center between July 2020 to January 2021. She told my colleague Jasmine Aguilera that she was taken to see a gynecologist then misled about what would be done by the doctor, who said little beyond the moment he gruffly told her to “open your legs”; she was given a contraceptive injection without her consent. Senate investigators found the same physician, Dr. Mahendra Amin, performed an unusual number of highly invasive and medically unnecessary procedures on detainees at Irwin. (Amin, who did not respond to requests for comment and invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify before the subcommittee, has said he is innocent of the allegations raised by at least dozens of ICE detainees and a whistleblower nurse.)

The idea that ICE detainees—a group comprising mostly people of color never convicted of any crime—were subjected to unnecessary and unwanted procedures related to their reproductive health carries sickening echoes of American contraceptive experiments and forced sterilizations, which have often targeted disabled people and people of color. Alexandra Stern, a professor of medical history at the University of Michigan, has put the number of people sterilized due to eugenics policies between the early 1900s and 1970s at a massive 60,000 people in 32 states. Especially as Jim Crow faded, she notes, Black women were affected at a disproportionate rate. And in 1976, a federal report found that nearly 40% of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been sterilized.

Our society has supposedly recognized that forced sterilization is a form of disregard for a person’s most elemental bodily autonomy.

“It is one of the worst human rights abuses in modern U.S. history,” says Elora Mukherjee, a clinical professor of law and director of the Immigrant’s Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. She is representing a group of 41 women who have filed a class-action lawsuit in the matter. “A number of the women are no longer able to bear children because of what happened in this facility…It’s, it’s a tragedy.”

Even as portions of the ICE situation remain under investigation, the agency announced plans last year to stop housing detainees at the facility and the doctor is no longer providing healthcare to detainees. But ICE officials have been unable to say that its policies have changed to prevent similar issues elsewhere.

Earlier in November, Lionell Dotson, the surviving brother of two girls killed in 1985 when Philadelphia police bombed a Black radical communal living organization known as MOVE, filed suit against the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia. His sisters, 14-year-old Katricia and 12-year-old Zanetta, were among the five children and six adults killed by the bombing and subsequent fire. Lawyers representing their brother allege that even after the families were told they had received their loved ones’ remains, some of the victims’ bones were stored in a University of Pennsylvania professor’s office for decades, shown by a museum official to “graduate students, donors, and Museum personnel on at least ten occasions between 2014 and 2019,” and used as demonstration objects in an online course. The museum official is now suing the university and more than three dozen other parties for defamation.

Bakari Sellers, who is representing Dotson, argues it’s unclear what or who was turned over to the family in 1985, or how a portion of one of the sisters’ pelvic bones was displayed in the online course decades after her family was led to believe they had buried her. Katricia Dotson was treated, Sellers told me, like something less than human—and by people in recent memory, not long dead residents of the 19th century.

City and university officials declined to comment when contacted by TIME, but the Penn Museum, where the online course’s teacher worked (and where a controversial collection of human skulls is also housed), directed me to its explanatory website and a University commissioned independent report, which was delivered in August 2021. While the report acknowledges that unspecified remains were turned over to members of MOVE in 2021, it disputes that the bones displayed in the online course were definitely those of a child victim of the bombing or that the remains of a second child victim were ever held by the museum. The report also notes one lesson of the course in which the pelvic-bone fragment in question was displayed: to “teach how the techniques of forensic anthropology could be used to restore the ‘personhood’ of unidentified remains.”

“There is a natural connection with the way that Black bodies are treated throughout the country,” Sellers says of the remaining questions about the MOVE bombing victims. “I think [all the people involved] were just racist and indecently perverse in the way that they prostituted the remains of Black folks and I don’t think this is anything new in this country.”

Some remains were just returned to Lionell Dotson about two months ago but he remains unconvinced that they are complete, Sellers says.

For me, the idea that human remains possibly belonging to Black people killed in a police bombing, people with living relatives who were not consulted about their storage much less their use, may have been essentially deployed like props or human curios brings to mind the story of Sarah Baartman, an enslaved woman exhibited nude in European capitals while alive—and, after her death, in parts, in Paris, until the mid 1980s. It makes me think of the human beings once displayed naked or half-clothed on American slave auction blocks.

At the end of Emancipation, Will Smith’s character completes his journey—a hero’s odyssey not entirely different from those the actor has taken in many an action film—with a homecoming scene that it is not clear occurred in real life. In fact, it is not known if the man known as Gordon survived the war. But the image of his back and the story of his escape to Union ranks circulated around the country and appeared in Harper’s Weekly, then one of the nation’s most widely read publications.

Another account of Gordon’s plight was passed along, too—in a contemporaneously documented description full of awareness about the American tendency to disregard evidence of cruelty. It also offers a warning for these later times, when bigoted disregard for human bodies has not yet been extinguished.

A Black doctor working for the Union Army sent the now infamous picture of Gordon to his brother. He dispatched it with these words: “I send you the picture of a slave as he appears after a whipping. I have seen, during the period I have been inspecting men, …hundreds of such sights …If you know anyone who talks about the humane manner in which the slaves are treated, show this this picture.”

And there it is. For every photo, every lawsuit, every whistleblower who makes some of America’s remaining bigotry plain, there are likely many inhumanities that remain disbelieved or unexposed.

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