Withering Under the White Gaze: The Hart Family Tragedy

Abigail Hart, Devonte Hart, and their pet chickens

[Withering: to shrivel; fade; decay. To lose the freshness of youth, as from age…cause to lose freshness, bloom, vigor…to affect harmfully…to abash, as by a scathing glance.]

Devonte Hart is known as the boy who was photographed in 2014 hugging a police officer with tears in his eyes. In the midst of rising racial tensions, this image of Devonte’s “heartwarming” hug was paraded through the media as proof of possible reconciliation between Black people, the police, and white society at large. Others looked on this as propaganda, and were either skeptical or alarmed, especially when other images from that day were released; other images that show a clearly troubled boy possibly being coerced into doing something he did not want to do:

As it was later revealed, Devonte was terrified at the time and was indeed coerced into approaching this police officer.

“Last night I encouraged Devonte to face his concerns and fear. It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother. He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. I kept my distance and allowed him space to truly have his own experience.”

We later learned that the officer receiving the hug is a supporter of Darren Wilson, the cop who murdered Michael Brown. Looking back, this scenario is incredibly grotesque. Devonte was at a protest against Darren Wilson and police impunity being forced to hug a Darren Wilson supporting cop. His instincts were right, but he was forced to embrace someone who fully supported the systematic oppression of his own people.

The circumstances surrounding Devonte Hart’s viral photo (and the general response to it) is a classic example of the white gaze and how it filters and interprets reality. The white gaze as a phenomenon has been brilliantly summed up by the novelist and scholar Toni Morrison:

“As if our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze,” Morrison says.

The white gaze is the product of a culture that automatically centers whiteness and gives white people the benefit of the doubt. This is why, for days after the deadly crash, some people were refusing to even entertain the possibility of foul play because it did not compute with the familiar “white savior” narrative Jennifer and Sarah embodied.

The white gaze not only sees the world in terms of centering the experiences and desires of white people, it also automatically categorizes the colonized individual as either nefarious or as a “poor, poor thing” in need of rescuing. In the latter case we often find the “white savior,” and from the comments and behaviors of the parents, it is crystal clear that Devonte Hart and his siblings were viewed through this lens:

“Devonte Hart entered the world 12 years ago with drugs pumping through his tiny newborn body. By the time he was 4 years old he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect. He knew only a handful of words, including fuck and shit, and he struggled to identify with the names of food, body parts and every day objects. Devonte was a violent toddler and his health was weighed down by a heavy list of disabilities.”

His adopted parents imagined themselves as the noble and selfless white people intervening to save these downtrodden Black children, plucking them from the muck and mire and elevating them to the status of real people — similar to how the Blue Fairy transforms wooden Pinocchio into a real human boy. But this transformation, this elevation, could only happen on their twisted terms, which is why Devonte Hart and his siblings were made to perform for the cameras like trained monkeys.

We will probably never know what went through the mind of Jennifer Hart when she decided to drive her SUV over a cliff and into the Pacific ocean, though the song lyrics of one of her favorite bands might lend a clue. What we do know for sure is that she, and perhaps also her partner, had ceased to see these children as beings worthy of living their own lives.

With CPS closing in after more allegations of abuse, they must have foreseen the imminent destruction of the image they had carefully cultivated. At least one of them must have found it impossible to keep up the illusion of a picture perfect progressive family.

Illusions. One main function of the white gaze is the reinforcing of illusions that justify, support and perpetuate white supremacy. When Devonte was hugging a police officer and giving validation to the mythical “good cop” narrative, his image was splashed across the evening news for days, and he was even given international attention. Not only did this image make white people feel warm and fuzzy inside, it supported a very specific world view. Now that it appears his white adopted mother(s) likely murdered him after years of abuse, the attention is less forthcoming. It’s very possible that if Devonte and his siblings were white, this case would be getting much more media attention. It would be filed under “general salacious tragedy,” like JonBenet Ramsey and Caylee Anthony, whose cases received massive coverage for years. This case however must be downplayed. Not only does it obliterate the “white savior” myth and present white people as the killers of Black children, it’s also happening during a time of heightened racial tension following a string of police murders of Black people.

The Irish gaze, the French gaze, the Hungarian gaze, the German gaze —to my knowledge these terms are not often used. They denote seeing the world through the lens of a particular European culture, through the eyes of a particular ethnicity with ties to a specific language and culture. The white gaze by comparison is like the empty, glassy stare of a reptile poised to strike. It is the act of looking and observing from the perspective of a predator. It is inherently sinister. Yes, the origin of the white gaze is de facto sinister because from the beginning and at its core, whiteness was created as a tool with which to bludgeon non-white peoples and force them into submission. Whiteness was created to supersede various ethnic and religious differences among Europeans and unite them in the goal of enslavement, colonization, white supremacy, and world domination. There’s no there there, as the saying goes.

[Withering: to shrivel; fade; decay. To lose the freshness of youth, as from age…cause to lose freshness, bloom, vigor…to affect harmfully…to abash, as by a scathing glance.]

One of the most difficult aspects of the Hart family tragedy to comprehend is why these women chose to starve their children. Days before his disappearance, Devonte had gone to his next door neighbor begging for food. This begging continued for five days in a row, and he was asking for food not only for himself but for his siblings as well. Here are the estimated weights and heights of the three missing children who were not recovered from the crash site: Devonte Hart, 5'1, 90 lbs, 15 years old; Sierra Hart, 4'5, 60 lbs, 15 years old; Hannah Hart, 4'1, 45 lbs, 16 years old. These are nowhere near age appropriate stats for children of their age. They were being starved. They were literally withering away.

Unlike the Turpins, who shackled and starved their kids in strict secrecy, the abuse of the Hart children was happening right out in the open. Most ghastly of all, it was happening under the guise of progressive values, support for activism, and under the banner of “love”. Jennifer and Sarah Hart quite literally had their own menagerie of starving Africans. Despite any good intentions they may have started out with, in the end they perpetrated the abuse and murder of Black people, carrying on a long tradition.

White supremacy and colonialism can appear in many different forms. They can appear as a racist police officer gunning down an unarmed Black person; a racial slur hurled towards a Native person; a mortgage broker turning away a qualified home buyer based on the color of their skin, or as a president referring to African countries as “shit holes”. Less well known is the pernicious influence of well meaning liberal white supremacy, the “good cop” of the colonial system. Less examined is how settler colonialism reinforces itself through flowery language and feel good New Age philosophy that focuses on individual feelings while avoiding challenging systems of power and privilege.

It’s very likely that Jennifer Hart (the driver of the SUV) was struggling with some form of mental illness. There have also been rumors of one of them having cancer. Regardless, they don’t deserve any sympathy. Most people cope with physical and mental illness without resorting to abuse and murder. Jennifer and Sarah Hart abused their adopted children for years before driving them over a cliff and into the ocean. Any “good intentions” they may have had were negated by the cruelty they showed to these children both in life and in death. Because our society favors whiteness, they were given the benefit of the doubt time and time again even after there were clear signs of abuse — and even a conviction!

We need stronger protections for vulnerable children. Those who need mental healthcare must be able to access it easily and affordably. And, last but not least, we must examine, challenge and dismantle the system of white privilege that allows abusers to operate with impunity. If Jennifer and Sarah Hart were Black, Native or Latinx, those kids would have been removed from the home long ago. Now these children are gone and their potential unfulfilled. We must do what we can to make sure their deaths are not in vain.