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“hands up, don’t shoot”

We all know that hands raised in the air at a moment of conflict indicate surrender. They say, “I’m unarmed” or “I’ve laid down my arms” and “please, do not harm me” and “I am in your power.” At least, those of us who watch tv and films, read cartoons and novels, track newspapers and magazines. This “I surrender” sign is a global vernacular, taught and circulated by children’s cartoons. (We might need to ask why children’s cartoons teach this vernacular.) And so, what is striking about “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as a chanted slogan and as printed words on handmade, often homemade, signs is that it indexes the failure of this bodily vernacular when performed by a black body, by a killable body. Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular, the error that makes this bodily action illegible, the disposability that renders the gesture irrelevant.

Blackness, after all, is the great alchemy of social relations: it transforms hands reaching into pockets into weapons of mass destruction, wallets and brooms and keys and phones into machines whose wielders must be destroyed, proximity into justification for violence and murder. It lives as an unsounding: “how is one supposed to understand these people?” As always-threatening movement, even when that movement says, “I surrender.” Or, “please, don’t kill me.” Or, “I am trying to participate in a global bodily vernacular.”

We know, of course, that black bodies transform bodily vernaculars: the slight flinch when one shrugs, the wary smiles when one grins, the tensed muscles when one frowns, the relief when one keeps quiet, the intense concentration when one tries to speak, the closed faces when one enters the room. We know that black bodily vernaculars translate as sensuality, as aggression, as rudeness, as servility, as anger, as indiscretion, as incivility, as out-of-place, as disorderly, as illegible, as unhearable, as unhuman.

We know, as well, that the blend of bodily vernaculars combined with chants combined with signs that say “I surrender” issuing from black bodies are read as threatening order, disrupting a world view that insists certain vernaculars are shared, a world view that privileges certain visions and versions of being human.

Learning from Rinaldo Walcott, we might ask, “how do black life forms use vernaculars that were never designed for them?” As the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” bodily vernacular spreads—now, in images from Howard University students, black law students at Harvard, in protest across the U.S., we see the unhearing of these bodily vernaculars. An unhearing in statements that demand black obedience, in calls to “defend the police” and “protect property.” An unhearing that says, black life forms do not have access to vernaculars of the human, no matter how global the circulation of those vernaculars.

If “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” is an expression of “humanity,” as one tweet has it, we must ask for whom that humanity is available. In fact, the insistent repetition of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” by black bodies across the U.S. might offer a less promising narrative: it might suggest the banality with which black life forms can never gain access to the vernaculars of the human.