Lakesia Johnson’s new book Iconic highlights how negative stereotypes have followed black women from Sojourner Truth to Gabby Douglas, and shows how the black community can be among the worst perpetrators of negativity.
By Guest Contributor Tracey Ross
Recently, Lakesia Johnson, assistant professor at Grinell College, released her new book Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman. Through her book, Johnson strives to demonstrate how black women throughout history have worked to counteract negative stereotypes placed on them–angry, emasculating, mammy, sex object–and reposition themselves to advance agendas for social change. She illustrates this by honing in on some of history’s most iconic figures–Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Michelle Obama, to name a few–and analyzes the imagery, interviews, film, literature, and music by and about these women. At times, Johnson seems to over-interpret some of the images she analyzes, offering deep meaning to what the eyes in a photograph might signal, but her work highlights the power that images of black women possess.
Throughout the book, a few important themes emerge. For instance, black women’s hair becomes a character of its own, from the “threatening” natural style of Angela Davis to the “peaceful” locks of Alice Walker to the “Afrocentric” braids and head wraps of Erykah Badu. Johnson believes these women’s intentionality with their looks helps direct their message towards their ultimate agendas. Another theme throughout is the idea that outside forces work to turn these “revolutionary” women into sexual objects, focusing on their beauty and appeal over their intellect in an attempt to diminish their power. Johnson covers lots of territory in only 128 pages, but the main contribution of her book is that it serves as a reminder that we need to do better by black women. Starting with the black community.
We often find ourselves outraged when we see members of the white community diminish our women, and rightfully so. When Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) attacked the First Lady’s work to promote healthy eating by saying “She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself,” who among us wouldn’t be mad? How did he mistake her curvy body for being unhealthy? And why are we talking about her body at all? There is a long history of such disrespect, but there is also a history of the black community marginalizing and stereotyping our women as well. This isn’t to let the white community off the hook, but is to say we can’t let ourselves off the hook either. And Iconic comes out at a time when there has been much debate over the images of black women perpetuated throughout the black community.
Kanye West once famously said, “If it wasn’t for race mixing, there’d be no video girls.” While I shouldn’t be quoting West as a wise philosopher, his comment revealed the rampant colorism and objectification of women seen in the entertainment world, where light-skinned women are privileged but then utilized as props. And such sentiments don’t seem to be going anywhere. This year, we saw the release of Eric Benet’s ode to light-skinned women, “Red Bone Girl,” where he recalls his experience with a light-skinned woman whose “reputation ain’t squeaky clean.” Benet, surprised by the outrage this caused, said “You can talk about having an experience with a dark-complected person but how dare you talk about having an experience with a light skinned person.” The fact of the matter is too much has been afforded to and denied of black people based on skin color to claim that a song celebrating a woman’s fair complexion is a simple matter of attraction. If her skin color was irrelevant to him, the song wouldn’t have been written.
Further, black women continue to be commodities in the music industry–and some have embraced this as a way to advance their own careers. This year, Nicki Minaj’s released her video for “Stupid Hoe,” where she is depicted as an animal in a cage. Dodai Stewart at Jezebel described the image as being “a tired, troubling visual. In this context, we’re supposed to see Nicki as threatening, wild, dangerous. But the objectification and exoticization of black women is steeped in racism.” Song lyrics and music videos are powerful images that make traction inside and out of our community, and yet we still rely on images that should have been put to rest long ago.
This year we also saw the return of Tyler Perry’s controversial character Madea, this time in an all-white cast in Madea’s Witness Protection. Perry has been criticized before as perpetuating a mammy-like character, but has defended Madea as representing black women he has known. Author Nelson George, also defended the character, saying “comedy and stereotypes go hand in hand.” Perhaps that is true, but stereotypes go hand-in-hand with prejudice as well. I give Perry credit for making roles in his movies for black actresses when so many studios continue to bypass them, but placing Madea in a white movie removes this element of empowerment and aims to share the character with a wider audience. As Thembi Ford puts it, it’s “nerve-wracking to realize that a rehashed mammy has been reappropriated for mainstream consumption… Madea is still as violent and angry as ever, but as a caricature, not as a sympathetic character”
While Iconic underscores the great affects the music and film industry has on images of black women, it leaves out one important industry: social media, where snide remarks can be elevated to public discourse. This summer, much attention was paid to the criticism of Gabby Douglas, whose pulled back hair was criticized by many black women on Twitter for not being properly done. Blog commenters also criticized Solange Knowles’ natural look for being “unkempt” and giving natural hair a bad name. Social media enables us to share our opinions in very public ways, making it possible for criticism and comments to be consumed and felt by those we’re discussing. Luckily, these two women let the comments roll off their shoulders. Just as Iconic highlights the power of styling black women’s hair, Douglas’ and Knowles’ ‘dos signify the practical hairstyling of an Olympian and the carefree spirit of an individual.
While these debates reveal the need for us to do better by black women, they also highlight the fact that in every instance, black women are the ones stepping up and expressing frustration that we’re still talking about these things–that the concept of the video girl is alive and well, that the angry black woman and mammy are go-to characters, and that our hair seems like it will always be a topic of conversation. Johnson concludes Iconic showing how the black women she features are able to combat negative stereotypes and pursue their goals, saying “their knowledge of these stereotypes helps them develop counterimages that support truths about themselves.” While we need to do better as a community, it’s not going to change overnight, but Iconic reminds us that black women have always risen above it all and will continue to rise.
Tracey Ross is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and completed her graduate work at Princeton University, earning a Masters in Public Affairs. Her writing focuses on women, race, and urban policy, and has been featured in Racialicious, Next American City, and The Hairpin.