Monday, April 16, 2007

Prolegomena to a Theory of the African American Imaginary

SDSU English and Comparative Literature Graduate Student Bianca Chapman checks in with some semantic and semiotic fire:

“But in my case everything takes on a new guise. I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance.” –Frantz Fanon

The image holds an ever-steady beat, permeating through the consciousness. The beat can transcend the music held before its composition, or it fights through the impressive amount of noise surrounding it. The African-American female image works over-time. As gifted student of the culture, Kiri Davis, demonstrates in an entry to the Sixth Annual Media That Matters Film Festival, there is a very present dissection of the “proper” image and the image of the African-American self. This concept of beauty is buried underneath the guise that dark-skin is still associated with “badness” or “ugliness” while lighter skin is associated with “goodness” or “beauty.” As the investigation continues, Davis juxtaposes (ever so appropriately) the experiment used by Dr. Kenneth Clark to justify segregation in the Brown vs. Board of Education case with a contemporary experiment of identical proportions. African-American children were given two dolls, black and white, and positioned to choose which dolls (yes, dolls) were better, nicer, prettier. The majority of the children preferred the white dolls over the black dolls. Davis consorts with this experiment in 2006 and little has changed. The power of the image has transformed into a louder/brighter force, suffocating the eyes/ears of human beings of African descent. We also see the opportunity of this toy-takeover in Republic of the Congo, thanks to the prolific work of Hector Mediavilla.

The dolls/mannequins represent what Fanon emphasizes as the need to become white at the expense of the dark skin or the “dark” image. The dolls also give a diagnosis of the destruction of the self-image in the African-American consciousness. The doll becomes the embodiment of the beat/image, its power only determined by the ability to be absorbed or (hopefully) purged.


  1. This is so sad and frustrating especially considering how much process we have made as a community, as a country and as a world. Have we really not advanced in our prejudice subconscious? Obviously not, if this is what we are teaching our children. And this IS what we are teaching our children if they value white over black, light skin over dark skin.
    When I was young, my mother always made sure my brother played with dolls in addition to his trucks, and always made sure my dolls were not all Caucasian. She was criticized for this from our family members, saying that she was making a “political issue” out of our play time. What’s the harm in that? Isn’t part of the job as a parent to make sure our children are aware of the issues, even if they are too young to understand the issues?
    In the modeling industry, arguably the foundation for everything we understand as being “beautiful,” there exists a level of racism that is either or accepted or simply ignored. The article "The Role of Race," from TIME magazine concludes by stating:
    “Few people would be surprised to learn that models are judged by a criterion as superficial as the color of their skin, and it's debatable whether fashion is significantly more racist than other industries; the images it projects, however, are inarguably more pervasive. ‘When you think back on an era,’ says Iman, ‘it's the pictures, not the words, that you remember, which is one reason fashion and beauty should be put under a microscope.’” (September 9, 2003)
    Few people would be surprised by the superficiality of the industry, but many would still be disappointed and shocked by some of the facts and numbers. The magazine Vogue, for example, has only had an African-American on the cover three times in the publication’s history.
    So, while this may be an unfair responsibility to place on the modeling/fashion world, we have to change what people see if we are to change how these “ethnic bodies” are seen. Part of the problem lies in fact that we do not see representations of ethnicity in “popular” culture. The television, movie and fashion industry are filled with images that simply do not adequately represent our country’s diverse ethnicity.
    -katie ness

  2. Luisa Schaedler11:33 PM

    Horrible! But to be honest, I wasn't too surprised by those still existing predjudices.
    I'm an exchange student from Germany, where we, at least in the smaller town where I grew up, don't have many colored people. I can remember only one black guy in the whole school.
    Well, one reason why I've chosen the US for an exchange year was (not the politics!) the internationality, the so-called melting pot - people with origins from all over the world living together peacefully. Sounds great, especially because I'm a person who wants to travel the whole world in order to get to know other people, cultures, traditions or ways of living .. . but I remember that one of the first things I realized when I got here was that all nationalities are seperated (just look around in school) - Asians have Asian friends, Blacks have black friends and Whites have white friends - ah the Mexicans not to forget ;)
    Is it only their passboards and their prides about the country that sticks them together, the American patriotism?
    Also, it is what Europeans call the superficiality of the Americans - the friendliness that doesn't come from deep of the heart or the small talk everywhere with everybody as they were good friends... I found out how important it is here in order to make those different national groups talk to each other at least a bit.
    It is sad and the little kids in the video are especially sad to watch!
    Last semester I took Indian American history and I was shocked! by the brutality of the reality. Predjudices were there and still are there, even if it isn't said aloud.
    Also, I'd like to give a link to another seminar about death penalty in the US. Predjudices are not only there in questions of beauty. Do you know that people of color are the vast majority of death row prisoners? Coincidence?
    Those people being in power set the standards for beauty as well as for all the other parts of life - with the help of predjudices that are talked into us.
    If we wanne do it better, we should think and not accept everything given to us!