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The Surveillance of Blackness: From the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to Contemporary Surveillance Technologies

Author Simone Browne discusses how the rise of surveillance technologies can be traced back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

(Photo: Surveillance Camera via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

Mobilizations around Black Lives Matter have revived attention around surveillance of Black organizers and communities by the police and state institutions. The intensification of surveillance calls up comparisons to the civil rights era, when government surveillance programs, such as Cointelpro, were established to infiltrate, surveil and target leading movement organizers. Yet, as Simone Browne, a professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, demonstrates in her new book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, we can trace the emergence of surveillance technologies and practices back much further, to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

By centering the archive of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in addition to Black feminist theories, Browne demonstrates how surveillance practices are predicated on colonial logics of anti-Blackness, capital, governance, property and violence. In so doing, she prompts us to consider how Blackness functions “as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated and enacted.”

From this perspective, she examines how race informs surveillance studies, technologies and techniques, revealing in the process a consistent absenting of Blackness from dominant discourses. Importantly, Browne exposes how this absenting is evident in the work of leading thinkers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, whose theories form the foundation of the study of surveillance. Browne builds on these scholars’ theories, but also offers a corrective.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Browne further complicates conventional notions of surveillance and information technologies. She also talks about the important role that Black expressive arts are playing in contesting policing and the commodification of Blackness, and introduces us to alternate surveillance histories that center Black feminist theories. In other words, Browne spotlights what happens “when Blackness enters the frame.”

Claudia Garcia-Rojas: In Dark Matters, you speak of “black luminosity” in relation to 17th-century “lantern laws”: colonial practices that required that the black body remain illuminated at night. This is an early form of surveillance that made it possible for white people to identify, observe and control the black body in space, but also to create and maintain racial boundaries. What more can you tell us about lantern laws and do we see current manifestations of these laws today?

Simone Browne: Lantern laws were 18th century laws in New York City that demanded that Black, mixed-race and Indigenous enslaved people carry candle lanterns with them if they walked about the city after sunset, and not in the company of a white person. The law prescribed various punishments for those that didn’t carry this supervisory device. Any white person was deputized to stop those who walked without the lit candle after dark. So you can see the legal framework for stop-and-frisk policing practices was established long before our contemporary era.

Recently, Josh Scannell, a graduate student at City University of New York, in his research around the New York Police Department, made the connection between these lantern laws and the NYPD’s Omnipresence, which is the use of high-intensity artificial lights, flood lights or the flashing roof lights from the police cars throughout the night in certain housing projects – so, subjecting people to violent illumination by way of artificial light.

And so, to make these connections 300-plus years earlier of the kind of regulation or disciplinary practices through light in the same city space – I am really happy that people are able to make those connections with, say, lantern laws – to say that that these surveillance practices have a history and are not necessarily new.

What we see, then, is an erasure of how these colonial-era laws and practices connect to present times. How is this also the case with surveillance studies? And how do these erasures narrow our general understanding of what surveillance is?

(Image: Duke University Press)(Image: Duke University Press)What I discuss is this kind of absenting of Blackness from surveillance studies. So something might end up in the index or as an add-on in that space. There is an absenting of the foundation work key Black scholars have done. I wanted to center these concerns as a new way within surveillance studies.

For instance, I was recently looking at the work of Marie Van Brittan Brown. Brown was a nurse living in Queens, New York, often working the night shift, and her husband, Albert Brown, was an electronics technician. In 1966, they developed blueprints for the first home security system – closed-circuit televisions, remote-control entry, intercoms, recording devices that could be accessed within a home – and in 1969, they got the patent.

So, this Black woman living in Queens and concerned with crime decided to do something about it. What does it mean for a Black woman to center her conditions at a time when the police response was quite lax?

The Browns were granted the patent in 1969, and this patent is cited by numerous patents up until this day, like video doorbells, which people now use or you can use your smartphone app to see who’s at your door and you can be someplace else. That’s a kind of absented history, and Van Brittan Brown is not an academic but somebody who is an inventor, a creator and a maker. These kinds of histories are not honored in a way with how we think of surveillance in relation to policing.

In your book, you introduce the concept of “racializing surveillance” and define it as a “technology of social control” that reifies “boundaries, borders, and bodies along racial lines.” How does “racializing surveillance” help shift our understanding of surveillance?

I wanted to zone in on surveillance as a racial practice because in many works it is not taken up as such. When a surveillance practice gets enacted on racial bodies, that is another part of racialization, so racialization is an effect and a practice that is repeated in many ways.

Similarly, the term “dark sousveillance” – which builds upon Steve Mann’s definition of sousveillance – describes the “tactics used to render one’s self out of sight” and “in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight.”

With dark sousveillance, I wanted to critique sousveillance but still have a critical generosity because it’s a generative term. Looking at the ways people challenge repressive practices through their own counter-veillance and surveillance is important to me because it speaks to a particular intimacy and knowledge about living within the context of plantations societies, repressive societies, anti-Black spaces, and that there is some liberatory knowledge in knowing how to subvert that, resist or mainly survive within it and live still.

Importantly, you center Black feminist theories and scholars in your book, such as Patricia Hill Collins, Evelyn Hammonds and Katherine McKittrick, demonstrating how they offer another critical reading of surveillance practices. Can you elaborate upon this?

Black women, inside and outside of academia, have been thinking about, writing about and challenging surveillance for some time.

For example, June Jordan created something called “Skyrise for Harlem.” Alexis Pauline Gumbs has written about June Jordan being an architect. This was a time of post-Harlem riots in 1964 when Jordan worked collaboratively with another architect, Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, on a plan to redesign Harlem. She asks this question in her book Civil Wars:”What kind of schools and what kind of streets and what kind of parks and what kind of privacy and what kind of beauty and what kind of music and what kind of options would make love a reasonable, easy response?”

Part of making it possible for love to be “a reasonable, easy response” for Jordan involved imagining Harlem as having more green spaces. There would be a new bridge to the Bronx. Rather than have it in a grid, which might make for unsecure spaces, it would have more curvature within it. Then, she eventually published this piece, this blueprint and plans, in Esquire, and they called it “Instant Slum Clearance.” So no longer a “Skyrise for Harlem.” She was the lead writer, but they didn’t put her as the co-architect. All credit went to Fuller. June Jordan was responding to police violence, repressive practices and structural inequalities built into the architecture and the making of the city. Honoring and recovering these histories, centering them, is another mode of understanding surveillance.

“Racial baggage” is another important term you introduce as a way to expose how “race and racism weigh some people down at the airport.” How are we to understand “racial baggage” within broader international and global logics of surveillance as it pertains to racialized bodies traveling?

One example of this are the migrants who arrive in the Italian port of Lampedusa and tell agencies that many Somalis, Nigerians and people from sub-Saharan Africa are relegated to the bottom of the boat. So you see the slave ship continues to be reenacted in these spaces of the border that aren’t necessarily airports but borders from Africa to Europe, from people who are being trafficked in those spaces, again.

These kinds of racializations – people get weighed down by them, literally weighed down, into the lower decks, and into more unsafe conditions than others.

One of the important interventions you make in Dark Matters is to show how biometric information technologies that examine and produce quantifiable information about the human body – mainly identifying characteristics, such as fingerprints or movement and voice patterns – have been used historically and contemporaneously in the racial framing, branding and commodification of Blackness. Do we see new surveillance and knowledge technologies reinforcing these colonial practices?

With biometric information technologies, I wanted to see how the racial framing that came out of trans-Atlantic slavery continues in many ways.

I looked at some early biometric technologies and then looked at the ways in which contemporary research and development reports use the same colonial framing of women’s bodies, of static notions of gender, of race, in thinking about various social groupings and how best to surveil them.

Some surveillance technologies aren’t necessarily in play, but we can look to where they are being tested out, and where they are in play, and what some of those companies’ previous technologies are.

You have a large push into affective computing technologies, the kind of machine reading of emotions being used at airports, for example, in Israel, which monitor people for blood pressure, for sweat and for changes in their voice, and then assign a threat category or score to them.

These kinds of affective computing technologies amp up the role of affect, which, as we know, is something that is socially constructed.

This gets us to think about: Who gets marked as “angry” prior to any reaction? Again, this harkens back to the controlling images of the “angry Black woman” and the “threatening Black man.” Patricia Hill Collins’ “controlling images” is one of the foundational concepts that continues within sociology and Black feminist theory. It is about social control and the ways in which Black women’s various ways of being become surveilled and stereotyped as a form of social control.

There’s a thorough engagement in your book with the work of Black artists that shows how Black expressive arts challenge issues of surveillance, policing, and the branding and commodification of Blackness. What are some other creative responses that you’re seeing addressing these issues?

I like artistic ways of getting us to think differently about our position and surveillance, and how surveillance can be challenged. There are some fantastic artists out there that consider these issues.

Artist Micha Cárdenas’ work speaks to these issues through wearable computing. Some of her work looks at wearable technologies that can be used for prison abolition. She’s also working on a project called “Unstoppable” with Patrisse Cullors from Black Lives Matter. It is do-it-yourself bulletproof clothing.

There’s so much fascination and regulation around Black people’s clothing and sartorial choice, whether it’s saggy pants laws or the earlier colonial regulations or edicts on wearing particular cloth that was above one’s standing. So, what kinds of clothing can Black people have that can make them feel safe?

How can we collectively make safe spaces?

Note: Simone Browne participated in a collaborative process of editing the transcript of this interview for clarity and length.

Read the introduction to Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness here.

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