Poster by Ernesto Yerena
When I saw this striking poster by Ernesto Yerena a couple of weeks ago, it immediately resonated with me. "Respeta nuestra humanidad," it says. Respect our humanity. Why in 2017 do we still have to demand this? Why is it still acceptable to label some people less than human?
It was reported in the news media last weekend that State Representative Rick Brattin of Harrisonville, Missouri said on the House Floor, "When you look at the tenets of religion, of the Bible, of the Qur’an, of other religions, there is a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.” Brattin has received some negative responses from the Missouri media who have told him to apologize, but nothing else had happened. He can call us not human beings and not face any consequences.
(By the way, Brattin is the Missouri Rep who has introduced legislation to end tenure at Missouri Universities; prohibit food stamp recipients from buying cookies, steak, or seafood; deny women abortions without the permission of the baby's father. Clearly, he's a conservative, but that doesn't explain it.)
Brattin's attempt to make queer people less than human is part of a long history of colonization based on de-humanization that began with the coming of Europeans to the Americas. This process of dehumanizing people shows its face throughout our history and the experiences of marginalized communities.
Rick Brattin from www.RickBrattin.org
When Europeans first arrived in the Americas with the arrival of Columbus to the Caribbean in 1492 and later in North America and South America, the Spanish encountered millions of Indigenous people. Immediately, the Spanish began enslaving them. (There is an exhaustive and brilliant study of Indigenous enslavement by Professor Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, if you want to learn more.) The question arose, often at the insistance of the Catholic Church and its representatives in the Americas: Was it moral and legal to enslave the people that the Spanish encountered as they began the colonization of the Americas? Were Indigenous people human? The answer came in 1537, forty five years after Columbus' arrival.
In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a papal encyclical, Sublimus Deus, that blamed Satan for deceiving people into believing that Indians were not human. The encyclical says, "We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it." Indians "are truly men."
It was annulled the following year, possibly due to conflict with the Spanish monarch, Charles V. But, now Indigenous people had been declared human.
Pope Paul III, oil painting by Titian 1543 Carib family by John John Gabriel Stedman 1818
In the 1660s, the Virginia House of Burgesses made a similar argument. Enslaved people were indeed human and slave masters were encouraged to convert them to Christianity, although conversion would not mean freedom. Historians argue that this law acknowledges the humanity of enslaved people. A 1705 law, however, explicitly declared enslaved people "real estate."
Humanity was made equivalent to being a man. The Society of Friends, the Quakers, commissioned artists to create a pro-abolitionist image and it became an important image well into the 19th century. The image asked, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"
The concept of "Am I not a man" became important for two reasons: one to assert humanity and secondly, to assert independence and intellect as an adult. African American men were denigrated as "boy" as a way to instill feelings of inequality. The label "boy" was applied to Mexican Americans as well. Both groups were infantilized.
The most iconic image featuring the powerful statement "I Am A Man" comes from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, which began in February of that year when two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a truck. The City didn't respond and after years of poor wages and bad working conditions, hundreds of men voted unanimously to strike. The City refused to move and in February, the police used mace and teargas against the peaceful strikers who were marching to City Hall. The strike was supported by Martin Luther King, Jr., the NAACP, AFSCME, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By March, the governor called the National Guard and in the face of 4,000 of them, 200 sanitation workers marched with the "I am a Man" signs.
The sanitation workers strike continued. Four days after the assassination of MLK, his widow Coretta Scott King led 42,000 people through the streets of Memphis in a silent march honoring her husband and demanding the City meet the strike demands.
Diorama of Memphis Sanitation Workers, National Civil Rights Museum courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Women also claimed humanity as women. In the 1830s, abolitionists created the "Am I not a woman and a sister" image shown below. Sojourner Truth, an eloquent abolitionist born into slavery in New York, is credited with the "Ain't I a Woman" speech. She gave the speech in Akron at the Women's Convention on May 29, 1851. While later versions of the speech had her speaking with a Southern accent, hence the use of the word "ain't," she didn't speak that way. Her question was "Aren't I a woman?" The question brought together gender and race.
"Am I not a woman" image from 1830s and Sojourner Truth ca. 1864
The history of the powerful and their allies working to keep the power structure in place and keep people of color, women, poor people, and queer people subjugated has deep roots. The demand "Respect our humanity" is one rooted in centuries of oppression and centuries of resistance.
We are human. Respect our humanity.