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Language experts believe that non-verbal signs, gestures, and looks, make up between 70 to 93 percent of all communication. For marginalized groups, particularly African Americans, the utilization of coded, non-verbal communication set the cornerstone, historically, of Black unity and collective resistance.
Alexis Hancock of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted in “Coded Resistance: Freedom Fighting and Communication,” that with reading and writing illegal, African Americans adopted systems of communication to enfranchise themselves that required fusing their Diasporic cultures into a new language.
“One of the biggest obstacles enslaved Africans faced when trying to organize and fight was the fact that they were closely watched, along with being separated, abused, tortured, and brought onto a foreign land to work until their death for free. They often spoke different languages from each other, with different cultures, and beliefs. Organizing under these conditions seemed impossible,” Hancock writes. “Yet even under these conditions including overbearing surveillance, they developed a way to fight back. Much of this is attributed to the brilliance of these Africans using everything they had to develop communications with each other under chattel slavery. The continued fight today reflects much of the history that was established from dealing with censorship and authoritarian surveillance.”
These language-ways included the use of parables, word substitutions, symbols, winks, physical interactions (elaborate handshakes, pounds, daps, claps, fives, and shoulder bumps), and hand signs. While there are many signs, symbols, and gestures used to denote Black power, unity, solidarity, and resistance, two that have stood the test of time are the V hand sign and the raised black fist.
The “V” as a power sign has a military history that harkens back to English longbowmen in the 1415 Battle of Agincourt who used it to mock the defeated French army. The longbowmen relied on these two fingers to fire their arrows to deadly effect upon the enemy, which was a key factor in the victory. The “V” represented a show of defiance and derision by English soldiers, who only needed these two fingers to win the battle. More than 500 years later, African American soldiers fighting in the Second World War used holding up the index and middle fingers to signal victory along with other Allied nations.
In 1942 the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, launched the Double Victory Campaign, which stood for “Victory Abroad and Victory at Home.” Victory Abroad championed military success against fascism overseas, and Victory at Home demanded equality for African Americans in the United States. Anti-war activists later adopted it as a symbol of peace, and today the gesture is known as “the peace sign.”
Similarly, the power fist grew from military use, into a Black power symbol. The first likely appearance of a clenched fist as a symbolic gesture, however, was in France during the 1848 revolution that resulted in the abdication of King Louis-Philippe, the last reigning French monarch. It was one of a number of insurrections throughout Europe in 1848. French artist Honoré Daumier is said to have been so affected by the passion of the revolutionaries that he painted The Uprising to represent their fighting spirit. At the center of the piece was a man with rolled-up sleeves and a clenched fist.
When the Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to challenge police brutality against the African American community, the black power fist was repeatedly used as a symbol of black liberation.
Two years later, two African American Olympic medalist (track), Tommie Smith and John Carlos, won gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200-meter sprint, raised black-gloved fists while standing on the winners’ platform. They utilized the symbol as in international show of protest against ongoing racism and injustice in the United States and throughout the world. “[It] was a cry for freedom and for human rights,” Smith told Smithsonian magazine in 2008, further reinforcing its power as a non-verbal articulation. “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
In a 1969 survey, 56 percent of African American soldiers serving in Vietnam said they used the clenched fist or Black Power salute to show their opposition to a white man’s war in Asia. Others were protesting racial discrimination within the military, where Blacks were systematically over-represented in the draft, were assigned to menial tasks, and faced systemic harassment from their white peers.
The raised fist comes to represent a genuine political gesture, today, having been attached to protests across the globe, including those of silver-medal distance runner Feyisa Lilesa’s crossed fists at the 2016 Olympics to protest human rights violations in his native Ethiopia and Black Lives Matter rallies beginning in 2013.