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Centaurs and Equisapiens

Tom Hawkins

Ohio State University

Like most viewers of Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’ (2018), I fell out of my seat when Cash, the main character, stumbles upon a group of horse-headed equisapiens. Where did these creatures come from – both in terms of the story and within Riley’s biting commentary on our contemporary world? I suggest a triangulation of these equisapiens with images of Greek centaurs and W. E. B. Du Bois’s claim that white supremacy builds upon a conception of black bodies as a tertium quid.

In ‘Sorry to Bother You’ equisapiens are the lynchpin of a dystopic future envisioned by WorryFree, a company that lures people into lifetime contracts to work in exchange for basic sustenance. Critics allege that WorryFree espouses slavery, but while the public wrestles with this issue, WorryFree’s CEO unveils a gene-modification procedure that transforms workers into equisapiens– stronger, more obedient, harder-working upgrades to a human labor force. These hybrids suggest an inversion of the ancient Greek image of the centaur, but the reconfigured composite body hints that Riley is doing more than simply alluding to the well-known mythical figure. 

One aspect of Riley’s equisapiens can be traced back to Du Bois’s claim in The Souls of Black Folk that race relations in America can be traced back to white people’s ‘sincere and passionate belief that somewhere between men and cattle, God created a tertium quid, and called it a Negro’.[1] The idea that black bodies elide human and animal bodies places them within a liminal space that reflects both the images of ancient hybrids, such as the centaurs among the Parthenon metopes, and the realities of American structures of white supremacy, such as the ‘Three-Fifths Compromise’. 

Riley, like most of the cast of ‘Sorry to Bother You’, is black, and as Cash morphs into an equisapien we can connect Du Bois’s idea and Greek centaurs. But the analysis cannot stop here, since WorryFree’s goals are not limited to creating a black labor force. Rather, Riley expands a narrowly racial vision into a broader socialist condemnation of corporate greed. Structures of white supremacy and plutocracy combine in an Afropessimist vision of domination that aims to remove the human agency of the Greek centaur’s head with the docility of the equisapiens.

[1] Du Bois was deeply engaged with classical traditions, as discussed most recently in the papers included in the special volume of the International Journal of the Classical Tradition edited by Mathias Hanses and Harriet Fertik (July 2018).


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Black Classicism in the Visual Arts

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