Social Death and Insurgent Discourses in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”

*Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers*

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) in Get Out. Photo: Universal Pictures.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) in “Get Out.” Photo: Universal Pictures.

As Jordan Peele’s blockbuster hit Get Out progresses, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) discovers that his eyes—the literal knots of dense neural fibers that allow him to see, but also his photographic eye that is the fruit of his work as an artist—are on auction along with his body. In the process, the audience gains vantage on a world where the highest bidders can purchase Black people in order to repurpose them directly in the service of enhancing and continuing white lives.

The Armitages join up to lure or violently snatch Black people, hypnotize them, and use their bodies to give loved ones, including the family’s own elders, new life. The family uses violence or seduction against Black people in order to provide themselves with respite from the unbearable inevitability of their own mortality. Black bodies circulate as commodities and form the material constituting the Armitages’ intimate as well as their wider social and economic relations. In Peele’s cinematic narrative, then, the unmaking of Black people and whatever lives they have made for themselves is the very possibility for white social and biological futurity. By implication, “White people and their junior partners need anti-Black violence [not only] to know that they are alive,” but also to literally remain so.

Peele’s ur-text is slavery as social death, and cinematically he examines the intimate gendered colonization of Black bodies that made slavery and its ongoing afterlife possible and generative. The film suggests radical continuity in its conception of “black flesh as discardable” as well as the ongoing racial and gender order borne of the antebellum plantation. Betty Gabriel’s performance of Georgina, the woman doubling as the Armitage family’s maid and their deceased grandmother, is among the most memorable in this regard. Despite the fact that Georgina is also the Armitage grandmother, it is the ceaseless labor of cleaning and care her Black body performs that upholds the Armitages’ disturbing domesticity.

Get Out trailer. Photo: Trailer Addict.
Betty Gabriel as Georgina in “Get Out”. Photo: Trailer Addict.

Central to the vision of somatic and psychic heist that Peele illustrates is Georgina’s (and the others’) radical availability, partially born of their position at the margins of social and civil society. Near the end of the film, while Chris searches through images of various Black people that Rose Armitage has seduced into the form of slavery peddled by her family, we capture the only glimpse of Georgina’s previous existence. Georgina’s previous life, like those of the others in the pile of photographs, is of no matter, however: the Armitages have appropriated her as a vehicle for the will of their deceased grandmother and it seems no one has come looking for her. The motif of social death is further enforced in the scene where Chris’s best friend Rod Williams seeks to report Chris as missing to the police. After laughing off his theory of sex slavery, they never follow up with any search for Chris or any of the others.

Likewise, the Armitages and the other families who bid on Chris’s form seek to sublimate his capacities through the pornotropic into the raw material of this sordid economy, flesh. Most notably, there is the scene in which Jeremy Armitage becomes titillated over the prospects of Chris’s athletic development, remarking that with training and his “genetic makeup” he could be a “beast.” Later one of the women there to bid on him prods his muscles and inquires about his capacity for good sex. Chris’s collapse into the figure of the slave who is socially dead is reinforced by the narrative of natal alienation that undergirds his smoking habit—the entry Missy Armitage exploits through hypnosis to send him to the “sunken place.” Chris smokes, the narrative implies, to cope with the loss of his mother to the gratuitous violence of a hit-and-run accident.

In the film, Peele draws explicitly on the specific (uninterrupted) histories of medical exploitation and radical expendability Black communities have suffered in the development of knowledge, practices, and technologies that save and extend white lives. While there is no explicit visualization of Dean Armitage’s neurosurgical experiments preceding his ability to efficiently take over Black peoples’ bodies, throughout the film he and the other characters who are the Armitages’ clients refer to a process by which he has come to perfect the procedure.

From the emergence of physicians as an organized profession in North America in the nineteenth century, medical schools trafficked in the bodies of the enslaved stolen from their graves in order to teach anatomy to white medical students. Antebellum researchers J. Marion Sims and Nathan Bozeman staked claims as the fathers of modern gynecology, practicing excruciating procedures on the bodies of enslaved women to found their discipline.

Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Photo: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Pearson Museum.
Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Photo: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Pearson Museum.

There are also more recent examples from the history of medical exploitation against Black communities in the United States upon which Peele signifies. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service orchestrated the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis experiments in which researchers endangered hundreds of Black men, their sexual partners, and their children in order to track what was held to be the distinctive yet no less deadly natural history of syphilis in Black bodies. Even as the curative agent penicillin became widely available, the researchers continued with the experiment, causing incalculable damage to the health of their victims. Between 1944 and 1994, the Atomic Energy Commission conducted thousands of human radiation experiments on vulnerable populations of children, soldiers, and prisoners, many of them Black, in order to track the adverse effects of radiation exposure. More recently, Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute led an unethical study in lead abatement using primarily Black children as its subjects. The research was ended with a suit brought by Black families who were not properly informed about the ill effects of long-term exposure to lead, even in the homes in which it had been partially abated.

In addition to referring to the verifiable history of medical exploitation to which Black communities have been and continue to be subjected since slavery, Peele’s film draws on persistent narratives Black people circulate about organ theft, experimentation, and exploitation independent of the sanctioned channels of critical public discourse. Black communities articulate these stories as part of a rich tradition of critique transmitted through rumor, insinuation, and signifying that indexes the “insurgent Black social life [that] constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things.”

A recent manifestation has taken form in the circulation on certain social media networks of an article from World News Daily Reportan intentionally fake generator of stories. The story reports the sixth heart transplant of David Rockefeller, who according to the writer intends to keep getting transplants so that he can live to the age of two hundred. I saw this post circulate mostly among Black members of my community from rural Virginia. A Black high school student I mentor in Connecticut also brought key elements of this story up to me. While an investigation by the website Snopes demonstrates that the story is fake, the narrative holds a kind of power in its circulation among those considered beyond the purview of civil society and thus radically marginalized if not completely rebuked from the normative modes of citizenly discourse and the public.

Like Peele’s film, this narrative signifies on the very real legacies of medical and scientific exploitation that make prolonged white life possible through the legal and illicit circulation and exploitation of Black bodies. Although the piece does not mention the origin or source of the six hearts, the implication when Black communities post and share this narrative signifies on the history of medical and other forms of exploitation described above.

A doctor draws blood from one of the Tuskegee test subjects. Photo: Wikipedia.
A doctor draws blood from one of the Tuskegee test subjects. Photo: Wikipedia.

In her classic work I Heard it Through the Grapevine, folklorist Patricia A. Turner examines another powerful if unverifiable rumor that circulated in Atlanta in the 1980s. The story combined an explanation for the mass killing of Black youth in the city with elements of a story about one of the period’s “miracle drugs.” As Turner illustrates, Black communities insinuated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was responsible for Black genocide in the form of the infamous Atlanta child murders. Turner’s interlocutors named the Bureau as the culprit stealing Black teens for biomedical research at the Centers for Disease Control and disposing of the dead teenagers after they had been used.

As Luise White illustrates in a different context, these kinds of stories harbor alternative epistemologies that also diagnose radical power differentials. Black communities articulate critiques that, even when unverifiable or explicitly false vis-à-vis the claims of “rational” public discourse, problematize white social life as a process of unmaking the biological and social possibilities for Black life and futures. These kinds of discourses are rarely aired publicly because they defy the logics of institutionally supported truth claims.

If Black people’s exclusion from public civil discourse through social death is a precondition of this social order historically and in ongoing ways, how do we make sense of that which the socially dead proffer among ourselves? Conspiracy and rumor suggest that the ongoing dynamics of alternative Black discourses are not totally “quashed by the temporality of social death” but are also not alive in the order of white social life we inhabit and to which we are subject. Herein, Black people figure as those radically marginal and socially dead who continue to form an out-of-sight and marginalized but also potentially disruptive social existence. As Jared Sexton posits, “Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground.”

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.