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.