Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Explaining the 'sunken place' concept

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Explaining the 'sunken place' concept

Recently, I was asked to discuss the concept of "the sunken place" by the Black Faculty and Academic Professional Alliance at the University of Illinois. The concept comes from Jordan Peele's directorial debut film, "Get Out." Eight months after the film's release, why does it remain a significant topic of conversation in several sectors of the black community? I think its continuing popularity is due to the relevance of its central metaphor, the "sunken place."

"Get Out" is a neo-slave story. In it, wealthy Euro-Americans purchase select African-Americans in an auction reminiscent of chattel slavery. Here, the slave owner doesn't simply abuse the black body and exploit its capacity for labor. Rather, the purchaser acquires control of the black body's motor functions, in effect, becoming the controlling consciousness.

The "sunken place" is a recess in the mind where a black person's consciousness is banished, trapped and prepared for mental colonization. Through hypnosis, Missy Armitage, the psychologist mother of Rose, casts Chris, her daughter's black boyfriend, into the "sunken place." Missy exploits Chris' childhood trauma over his inability to aid his mother during a heart attack. She uses his guilt and insecurities to cast him into the lost realm. There, Chris is alienated from himself, loses control of his mind and body, and through paralysis, is deprived of agency, of the ability to act in his own interest.

For young middle-class African-Americans, "the sunken place" symbolizes their day-to-day struggle in the snowy spaces in which they work. For them, the "sunken place" represents the white space in which they must struggle to fill with their authentic social existence and consciousness. To escape the "sunken place," the neo-slave must regain his or her sense of self — heritage, culture and consciousness. Individuals trapped in the "sunken place" must author a counternarrative, an analysis that negates victim blaming and one that provides him or her with pride and a sense of personal efficacy.

In real life, the sunken place consists of situations in which a black person suppresses their true beliefs by either affirming or tacitly consenting to whatever her or his white peers or supervisors desire. The sunken place represents conforming to Euro-American mores, norms and perspectives. More than a hundred years ago, in "The Souls of Black Folk," W.E.B. Du Bois called this phenomenon "double consciousness." By which he meant, the negation of the African-American self via acceptance of Euro-American standards for measuring one's self.

The "sunken place" is an allegory for psychological and socialization processes that alienate colonized people from their sense of self — their heritage, culture and consciousness. It is meant to convey the impact of Eurocentric education and media representations on African-descended people. The "sunken place" symbolizes the silencing often produced by racial microaggressions. Though invasive, it is largely a nonviolent ideological process. However, it is preparatory for a more insidious procedure, the imposition of white consciousness.

The real possession occurs through a violent process. In the film, through a surgery performed by Rose's father, Dean Armitage, a neurosurgeon. The surgery transplants a portion of the white purchaser's brain into the body of the black neo-slave. It gives them control over the black person's motor functions while suppressing, paralyzing and confining the black person's consciousness in the "sunken place."

What purpose does the possession of the body serve? One explanation is that it supplies aging and infirmed wealthy whites with a "healthy, younger, sexually viable, exotic, and physically superior body." This is the view expressed by Jeremey, Rose's brother in the film. While true, it's not the whole story.

We only meet three African-Americans who have undergone the mind transplant — Georgina, Walter and Logan. Georgina and Walter are Rose's grandparents in black bodies. Georgina works at the estate as the stereotypical black female domestic servant. Walter is also employed as a menial laborer, he works as the handyman on the estate. The youthful Logan appears as the companion of an elderly white socialite. Apparently, he provides sexual and emotional labor. The photography gallery owner who buys Chris' body is blind and desires Chris' "eye," his photographic vision.

Given the roles performed by those who successfully underwent the mind transplant procedure and the reason the photography gallery owner covets Chris' body, the purpose of the transplant in consciousness primarily appears to be the exploitation of black labor.

The "sunken place" metaphor resonates with middle-class African-Americans. It summarizes the contradictions they face as the only black person in their department, class, office or neighborhood. At the end of the day, the "sunken place" is a critique of the racism of white liberals and progressives. It is also the contemporary way of calling someone an "uncle Tom." The popularity of this metaphor is a comment by the lower and middle segments of the black middle class on those African-Americans who occupy the upper rungs of university administrations, corporations and elected office.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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