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.
Fittingly, the most sincerely gripping moments in Ice-T’s directorial debut, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, happen when the art form is allowed to speak for itself: when tracks like “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Message” kick in on a theater-quality sound system, alongside footage of the neighborhoods their stories inspired, Ice’s argument behind their power comes through loud and clear.
But in attempting to break down both the mechanics and the magic behind MCing, Ice unwittingly undercuts both the audience and his interview subjects. At least, as of right now. Some spoilers under the cut. Continue reading →
Ok first things first I’ll eat your brains/ Then I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs/ ‘Cause that’s what a muthafucking monster do
— Nicki Minaj, Monster
Article after article, tweet after tweet, I watched the conversation about Kanye and all the dead women in “Monster.”
But if you watch the actual video, you’ll notice something interesting. All the dead women are white, with the possible exception of the second model in the bed. There are eight or nine brown* women in the video, all with prominent roles – and all of whom are alive.
Black woman with mutilated eyes who screams at the opening? Alive. The brown twins staring while sitting on the couch? Alive. Brown woman eating the server’s remains? Alive. The two monsters in the hall during Jay-Z’s verse? Alive. The zombie girls working the jump rope? Alive. (Or, at least, currently animated.) Nicki’s alive. The black were-woman? Alive.
In some ways, the conversation around dead women in Kanye’s video reminds me of the conversations that happen around feminism and black women. The reality of black women is assumed to be exactly the same as white women – if it is mentioned at all. The fact that the majority of the women pictured lying dead where white, while black women are all part of the monster crew is generally not mentioned.
So, I’m not surprised that no one has looked at the very specific positioning of white women in the video as opposed to black women, which dives deeply into the history and construction of black women as beast-like and fearsome, the sexualization of violence, and how the video is a win for both normalized misogyny and upholding the ideals of white supremacy. Continue reading →
Kanye has officially overdosed on artistic symbolism.
After his 35 minute debut of “Runaway” in back in October 2010, it difficult to figure out how Kanye would top a video that incorporated references to modern performance art, ballet, couture, mythology, and Fellini.
And yet, I don’t think anyone counted on Kanye deciding to deck the halls with dead white women in “Monster”. Continue reading →
Just wanted to pause between Kanye posts for something a little lighter. Lyrics are still very much NSFW, but the visuals have at least 50% less dead bodies. And Cookie Monster and The Count teaming up on the Jay-Z section. Hm. How many Jiggas? TWO! TWO JIGGAS! AH AH AH!
TRIGGER WARNING: Video NSFW, includes imagery of violence toward women
By Guest Contributor Naima Ramos-Chapman, cross-posted from PostBourgie
Decided to throw this up here before the label undoubtedly takes it down: Kanye West’s leaked video “Monster.”
Soon there will be a host of blogs that pick a part every scene to explain what Kanye is trying to tell us, but here is the short version: there are a lot of dead, eroticized women- dead model-esque women hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers, dead women lying in bed made to pose in “sexy” positions, dead women body parts lying around a mansion…there just seems to be dead women everywhere.
But to be fair, there were also women who are seemingly alive and kicking, depicted as man-eating zombies, screaming banshees and werewolves.
The dichotimization of women as it pertains to race; in the video, white women are predominantly locked into roles of subordination to the point of gruesome lifelessness while black women are cast as aggressive, angry and threatening sexual beasts.
Nicki Minaj’s scenes are mild compared to rest because A) they have no corpses of any kind and B) the self-interrogation part can be seen as “edgy” and “different.” But, that would be too kind. What sort of internal conflict can be that deep if the two versions of yourself that are having issues with one another — dominatrix Nicki versus barbie Nickie — are also ones that readily appeal to male-fantasies?
Last night was rough. I helpeed emcee at Busboys and Poets for Free Speech TV. (Many thanks to Marc Steiner, for allowing me to be a part of his show!) It was a very tough evening for a lot of reasons, but it was a good conversation. (Clips are here and here, for those interested.)
However, Busboys emptied out by 11 PM, with a lot of demoralized people cutting off the coverage and heading home. Happily, my last vote for Congressional representation wasn’t in vain – O’Malley defeated Ehrlich and Barbara Milkuski stomped the competition in Maryland. I was going to open the thread for election results and discussion, but then I caught this other headline:
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I do. He called me a racist.
MATT LAUER: Well, what he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s — “he’s a racist.” And I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.” It’s another thing to say, “This man’s a racist.” I resent it, it’s not true, and it was one of the most disgusting moments in my Presidency. [...]
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes. My record was strong I felt when it came to race relations and giving people a chance. And– it was a disgusting moment.
Why oh why does the King Kong image and its attendant suggestions of pure white goodness and evil black barbarism keep on rearing its ugly head? Sent to us by reader Ruth, this photo is one of a series done by celeb art photographer David LaChappelle, for special editions of Lady Gaga’s new album. See the whole series here.
Or you may remember it and its ilk from the Amanda Marcotte/Seal Press debacle, where Seal Press used images such as the following to illustrate Marcotte’s book, It’s a Jungle Out There:
Or you may remember this image from this:
The list goes on.
In September, I linked to another Gaga/West image, which features a white lady (Gaga I assume) and a black person (West I assume) humping around. I suggested that the image dehumanised both players in a sexist and racist way. Mostly the reader response was: yawn.
This new King Kong photo of Gaga being the white virgin for West’s primal altar is problematic just to look at: a naked blonde woman with a perfect body is being stolen by a dark-skinned tropical heathen with dead eyes. Aiyeeee.
But the shot is even problematic in the context of the Iconography of Gaga.