I’ve seen many photographs and pictures depicting the white man’s mistreatment, dehumanization and outright murder of black people, from that iconic photo of a former slave with whipping scars all over his back to the picture of the 1930s Indiana lynching of two suspected rapists to, closer to home, the 1970s image of the Philadelphia Police vs. Delbert Africa, and many more, but none made me quite as uneasy as this photograph shared several days ago by Philadelphia attorney and Philly Post contributor Michael Coard on his Facebook page, a photo that Facebook has since removed.
“It stopped me in my tracks,” says Coard of the photo, which he found on the page of his Facebook friend, New York City filmmaker Stacey Muhammad. “Look at how this man is treating this black girl as a captured trophy. Look at the grinning and leering and lustful face on the man and the terror etched on the face of the girl. A monstrous grin meets a face of terror. It crept right into my soul. I’m not really a spiritual or emotional person like that, but when I saw this picture, it spoke volumes. It cut to the core of the evil of racism.”
Before Facebook deleted the image, as well as all of the comments, shares and likes associated with it, Coard says there were hundreds of likes and dozens of shares. The last time I looked at it, there were over 90 comments, and Coard says he received not one complaint. But it’s his belief that the photo was removed after Facebook received complaints about it from “some confused white or black person who found it offensive.”
Facebook also removed the image from the pages of all of the people who shared it and from the page of the original poster, Muhammad, who says she doesn’t recall where she found it. “I find and post photos like this all the time of minority persons being oppressed or harmed in some way,” explains Muhammad. “Social media have more value than just conversing. Look at how Twitter was used in Egypt. They can take it down, and they can try to control it, but things can’t really be controlled the way they were controlled in the past. Even if one connection is made, that can be enough.”
Coard and his friends were concerned that Facebook might have effectively wiped from the Internet completely a photograph of possible historical significance. Over the weekend, Coard, myself and others began a hunt across the web for the photo, although we were unable to find it. Fortunately, one of Coard’s Facebook friends who shared the photo herself also downloaded a copy of it and was able to email it to Coard last night, and he turned it over to me.
In an emailed statement yesterday, a representative from Facebook explained that the company does not “make any exemptions for nudity due to an image’s documentary context.” The statement went on to explain Facebook’s official terms: “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” But Facebook’s own Community Standards page makes it clear that there are, in fact, some exceptions to its nudity rule, such as a photo of “a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.”
“This just illustrates Facebook’s racially insensitive censorship policies,” insists Coard. “So if I had put up a photo of a sculpture of a white David, 17-feet tall with his giant dick exposed, they wouldn’t have taken that down. Everybody understands what David represents, his artistic importance. Well, what I did is similar to that in its political importance. This is not obscene. This is not an erotic depiction for sexual excitement. This is something you might see in a National Geographic. If they want to say that Michelangelo’s nudity is out, then I’ll say ‘OK, you got me.’”
I have been unable to obtain any reliable information about the provenance of the photograph: Who took it? Where and when was it taken? Who are the man and woman in it? The URL in the bottom right hand corner, chan4chan.com, is an image archive that catalogs photos of all kinds, from historic to pornographic, though I was unable to find this image on that site.
Is it possible that the photo is a fake, either a Photoshopped image or a modern photograph staged to look like an old one? Yes. But Coard, for one, believes in its authenticity. “My former law partner taught be about the concept of competitive plausibility,” says Coard. “Even if you can’t prove it’s true, you ask what’s realistic. Can I prove it as a matter of fact or law? No. But based on what I know of the exploitation—physical, environmental and sexual—by Europeans in Africa, this photo makes sense. And in the end, whether it’s real or fake, this is the starting point for an essential discussion and one that history has ignored.”