"Reckless eyeballing": the Matt Ingram case and the denial of African American sexual freedom.

Author:Berry, Mary Frances

In Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (1982), John Blassingame and I included a reference to the 1951 episode in which Matt Ingram, a black tenant farmer in Yanceyville, North Carolina, was charged with assault with intent to rape a white girl, although he was 75 feet away from her at the time. He was eventually convicted of assault, however, based on her fear of his supposed "reckless eyeballing." A systematic search for the details of Ingram's experiences reveals how his release was obtained and the horrible conditions he and his family endured as result of the false accusation during two and a half years of court proceedings. The family's suffering persisted even after Matt Ingram obtained his freedom. His incarceration and the family's stigmatization and impoverished circumstances demonstrate the sometimes devastating consequences of "looking." What happened to Matt Ingram, even if his look denoted sexual interest, was a denial of his humanity and right to sexual freedom. (1)


Since Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," a great deal of theorizing about the power and meaning of "the gaze," in this case Ingram's supposed "eyeballing," has taken place. Mulvey suggested a world ordered by sexual imbalance, with pleasure in looking, split between active/male and passive/female. Using psychoanalysis, she proposed that the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (2) The concept of the gaze is based on the relationship between pleasure and images. Mulvey argued that Hollywood cinema offered images geared toward male viewing pleasure, which she read within certain psychoanalytic paradigms, including "scopophilia" and voyeurism. In psychoanalysis, the term scopophilia refers to pleasure in looking, and exhibitionism in the pleasure of being looked at. Voyeurism is the pleasure in looking while not being seen, and carries a more negative connotation of a powerful, if not sadistic, position. In Mulvey's theory, the camera is used as a tool of voyeurism and sadism, disempowering those before its gaze. She and other theorists who pursued this line of thinking examined certain films of classic Hollywood cinema to demonstrate the power of the male gaze. (3)

As films and images in various forms, including advertisements and the internet, have changed enormously since 1975, so has the scholarship on the gaze--looking--and its consequences. Mulvey has acknowledged that taking into account the female gaze of male objects, black female spectatorship, gay and lesbian spectatorship, different identities as subject and object, and the implications for power have all required reanalysis of her theory. (4) Still scholars understand that gazing may be voyeuristic, sadistic, assaultive, loving, or passionate. Some gazes may be seen as policing, normalizing, or inspecting. It is also possible to see images that deflect a possessive gaze and those that are respectful and non-objectifying. It is thus central to the ways that the concept of the gaze has been rethought that we can think of many different kinds of gazes, each with a different relationship to power, and that these gazes are not seen strictly along the lines of male and female.

As "looking" scholarship has evolved, the importance of racial animus, which ensnared Ingram, becomes better understood. Some African American women have been victimized as objects of the negative male gaze, and black men have suffered the results of their gaze upon white women. White women, as seen by white men, have been subjects of the negative gaze when they betray the definition of the traditional "pure white" female. This was the fate of one white woman identified in a case I discussed in my book The Pig Farmer's Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice (1999), and labeled a "bad woman" who had "lived with a Negro." The relation to blackness eradicated her whiteness and mitigated charges for her murderer as if she were black. (5) Similarly, black men subject African American women to the negative gaze when they treat them as sexual objects to be abused and exploited, as white men have done historically. Depending on migration flows and culture, men of color or "visible minorities" as the Canadians say, who engage in similar behavior could be seen as simulating whiteness in relation to women of their own race or nationality. Negative consequences persist for African American men who are thought to gaze lustfully at white women. The mere implication that he had seen white women as sexual objects upset Harold Ford's 2006 Senate campaign in Tennessee when an advertisement portraying a white female Playboy Bunny implied that he had displayed sexual interest in her. (6)

In 1951, three years before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, Matt Ingram's autonomous sexual self became questioned and compromised because he looked at a 17-year-old white girl, Willa Jean Boswell. Ingram, 44 years of age at the time, lived with his wife Linward and their nine children in Yanceyville, a tobacco farm county near the Virginia border. It was a place where every one knew everyone else, and even though racially segregated, whites would attend high school graduations and funerals of African Americans they knew "who either worked for them or were well known in the town." Ingram was well known as a hard working "good Negro," a tenant farmer who cared for his family. He owned his own mules, tools, and an old "ramshackle" jalopy. (7)

In June 1951 two sheriff's deputies went to arrest Matt Ingram based on a complaint from Boswell, who lived on a county farm with her father and mother, two brothers, and two sisters. Boswell told the sheriff that her father, two brothers, and her grandfather had been working in the tobacco field that morning. At about 8:45 a.m. she left home to go to the field to help them, carrying a hoe, wearing dungarees, a plaid shirt somewhat like a blouse, and a terrapin-shaped hat that covered her hair. She walked down the driveway from her home, which fronted west, 235 feet to a sand-clay road, then along that road about 100 feet to the paved State Highway No. 62; from there along the highway about 126 feet to the plantation road. (8)

Boswell reported that as she turned onto the plantation road, she saw Ingram driving onto the highway from the sand-clay road. He was alone in the car and drove along the highway in her direction slowly at about five miles per hour. "He came on up the road real slow and kept watching me, and when he got about straight across from where I was, he had his head out of the window." Then he continued to drive on along the road until he was out of her sight about 100 feet down the highway. Although Boswell knew Ingram, she said she was afraid because "his head was out of the window." Also, he "never had done that way before when he went by there."

The plantation road led through the woods and passed around a barn before ending at the tobacco field where Boswell's father, grandfather, and brothers were at work. She was passing through...

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