The ‘freak of nature’ problem

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Last week, Jeffrey A. Lieberman, chair of the psychiatry department at Columbia University, was suspended for his tone-deaf comments regarding a a Black model.

“Whether a work of art or a freak of nature, she’s a beautiful sight to behold,” Lieberman wrote on Twitter.

The model he was referring to was Nyakim Gatwech, an American model of South Sudanese descent. Gatwech is a popular model whose fans refer to her as the “Queen of the Dark.”

Soon afterwards, Lieberman issued an apology stating that he used language that was “racist and sexist.” He further stated that he was “deeply ashamed” of his “prejudices and stereotypical assumptions.”

Lieberman, who according to the New York Times is considered one of the leading psychiatrists in the nation, was removed from his position as psychiatrist-in-chief at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. He also resigned from his role as executive director of New York State Psychiatric Institute.

The esteemed physician had quite a dramatic week due to his awkward comments, which were completely tone-deaf, regardless of his intentions. Would could possibly be complimentary about being referred to as a “freak” of anything?

Lieberman’s commentary was even more unsettling given the fact that he directed them toward a Black person. Not surprisingly, many Black folk and folk of other ethnic groups chided Lieberman about his wayward and undisciplined mouth.

Truth be told, referring to Black Americans and people of African descent as physically abnormal — often associated with monkeys, apes, and other primates — has long, deeply etched roots in our society. From the time of our arrival to this nation, Black people were immediately and routinely characterized as subhuman species.

A correlation between Africans and apes without tails was a common myth and legend propagated by the British in the early 17th century. Equating Black people with animals was commonplace. Throughout much of the 1800s and well beyond, a number of writers did not hesitate to imply that Africans were the descendants of apes or unknown African beasts, or vice versa.

Here on American shores, similar regressive ides were commonplace as well. Founding father and former President Thomas Jefferson wrote without any degree of hesitation in “Notes on the State of Virginia” that Black men were a lower species who lusted after White women. He also expressed his deep misgivings about interracial relationships despite producing a number of children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Such a level of rank hypocrisy speaks for itself.

It was due to such vile and negative rhetoric of equating Black people (in particular, males) to animalistic, savage beasts that resulted in centuries of degradation, denigration, and downright humiliation for people of African descent. Such mistreatment manifested itself in the form of Jim Crow, chattel slavery, lynching, wanton violence, and other abominable forms of marginalization.

The abominable 1915 film “Birth of a Nation,” produced by D. W. Griffith, assisted in propagating this horrendous, intellectually dishonest mythology by portraying Blacks as uncivilized and animal-like.

The undeniable fact is that the Black person as a “freak of nature” trope is very problematic. Such regressive commentary has had a devastating impact on Black people, in particular, younger Black people.

Such rhetoric, regardless of intent, propagates the false message that Black people are not fully human. It especially cannot be allowed to continue in a nation that is becoming more diverse on a daily basis.

Copyright 2022 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.