“American culture endlessly facilitated racial myopia. No matter how race or racism was handled, it was inevitably viewed from the perspective of whiteness.” (Berger, 2010, p. 19)
In 1619 twenty Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia, the first African American slaves. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, at least fifteen million Africans were dispossessed and forced in to slavery (Coombs, 1972, p. 24).
This study was born out of a desire to interpret the modern legacy of African American slavery, in terms of racial representation, through the lens of visual culture. By unpicking one strand in America’s ongoing struggle with race issues, I hope to reveal some useful context, adding to the discourse on racial representation in the twenty-first century.
One hundred and fifty years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, racial inequality continues to blight America. Individual and institutional racism has an enormous negative impact on the lives of a significant section of American society. By framing modern-day examples of racially problematic images in a visual, historical context this dissertation will seek to identify the role of visual culture in perpetuating racial prejudice. Print media has remained largely unchanged in approach and purpose over the past two hundred years, thus by restricting my study to images appearing in magazines and newspapers, I will endeavour to remove the variable of ‘media’ as much as possible from the discourse.
My analysis employs a number of critical perspectives, first and foremost the entire subject is framed within the post-colonial discourse, and as such is informed by the writing of cultural theorists like Bell Hooks, Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. When Fanon asserts that “every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation” (2008, p. 9), he is describing a battle over cultural identity. I interpret the ‘language’ of the civilising nation as the language of capitalism, and thus my study is influenced by Marxist theory and Gramsci’s theories around ideology and hegemony. These critical discourses are encapsulated within the key sources used during my research. Of particular note are Michael Harris writing on race and visual representation; Maurice Berger writing on visual culture; Tom Burrell’s discourse on a ‘black inferiority’ complex; and Micki McElya’s history of the mammy stereotype.
Chapter one seeks to define the territory for discussion, framing the study within the historical context of capitalism and colonialism. An analysis of early twentieth century advertisements helps to identify negative and positive representations of race, and also defines the framework within which capitalistic hegemonic forces ‘negotiate’ new meaning when it is in their favour to do so.
In a more literal interpretation of Fanon’s “language of the civilizing nation”, chapter two considers the visual emergence of literary tropes, established in support of slavery. Ewen & Ewen explain that humans use stereotypes to “make sense of the big, complex, often transient world” (2006, p. 3) that confronts them. Through semiotic analysis, two enduring racial stereotypes are deconstructed in an effort to uncover embedded ideological intent.
Finally chapter three considers the media’s ongoing role in the discourse on race, citing three recent advertisements, deemed to be racially problematic. In an effort to understand the issue I look beyond overt racism and attempt to understand how stereotypes work.
1: DEFINING THE TERRITORY
Race and racial identity in America is a complex and divisive issue born out of 250 years of slavery, and a century and a half of ongoing struggle to overcome the deep wounds left behind. Slavery as a commodification of race was made possible through a concerted effort by the dominant culture to stereotype racial difference for their own benefit. Ewen & Ewen (2006, pp. 11-17) frames this process within the historical context of the European movement from rural peasantry to city living and the emergence of mercantile classes during the age of discovery. For Western Europe to succeed as the global economic power development in other regions needed to be stunted in order to serve the needs of the West. As part of this process Western ruling classes formed a system of language and stereotypes which they used to position themselves as superior to those they ruled, “the ability to use words, images, scientific and religious theories to envelop the conquered or the dispossessed in a cloak of moral, intellectual, and physical inferiority helped to make violent contracts and inveterate inequality justifiable.” (Ewen & Ewen, 2006, p. 17). The history of race and slavery in America is inextricably entwined with the emergence of mercantile trade and capitalism in Western Europe.
Professor of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Coombs (1972, p. 30) notes that “Capitalism increased the degree of dehumanization and depersonalization implicit in the institution of slavery. While it had been normal in other forms of slavery for the slave to be legally defined as a thing, a piece of property, in America he also became a form of capital”. Adapting the language of corporate America, pioneering marketing executive and author Thomas Burrell (2013) goes further by describing a 400 year “Marketing Campaign” waged by the dominant culture from the very first days of slavery through to modern times. This campaign sees “propaganda” and legislation used to convince blacks of their inferiority to whites; to convince whites that blacks were destined for servitude and condemned by God; and to convince whites that personal and national prosperity depended on free black labour. Supporting these ideas, professor of African American art history Michael Harris (2003, pp. 1-5), makes the case that racial assumptions are so deeply embedded in the American consciousness that they seem natural, resisting any critical inquiry.
Throughout this history of oppression and inequality, visual culture has been used at every juncture to shape and coerce outcomes for the benefit of cultural hegemony, thus ensuring that the dominant (white, patriarchal, capitalist) ruling class interests are protected and become the cultural norm. Burrell (2013, p. 5) claims that African Americans, regardless of how well educated or financially privileged they are, remain susceptible to sophisticated messages designed to reinforce black inferiority.
Despite the enormous detrimental legacy of this colonial view of African Americans, an alternative visual representation of race exists. This view seeks to ‘un-fix’ meaning and create value and change for the Black American diaspora. Writing authoritatively on race, Senior Research Scholar Maurice Berger (2010, pp. 51-54) describes how the author and early civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois envisaged and launched several aspirational, pictorial magazines before founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and launching its influential magazine ‘Crisis’ in 1910. Crisis pioneered a visual approach which juxtaposed examples of racial bigotry with more affirmative images, demonstrating by example the ability of black people to overcome prejudice.
Around the same time, Claude Barnett formed one of the first African American advertising companies where he claimed to “reach the Negro” by offering to place owner-created advertisements within Crisis and leading black newspaper the Chicago Defender. Here Barnett began to experiment with a more positive image of African Americans than other advertisers were using, concluding that in order to successfully market to black consumers companies must approach them “respectfully with attractive advertisements” (Chambers, 2008, pp. 23-26). Barnett’s positive approach, exemplified in his advertisement for The Kashmir Chemical Company (figure 1), stood in stark contrast to typical advertisements of the era. These typically promoted products to help African Americans to ‘achieve’ a more European look by bleaching their skin (figure 2), straightening their hair, and even re-shaping facial features.
Figure 1 – Claude Barnett, ‘The Kashmir Chemical Company’ (1916), originally in The Crisis, November 1916, p44.
Figure 2 – ‘Choose Your Own Complexion’ (c1929), Chicago Defender, Newspaper advertisement.
During the following decades various empirical studies, designed to quantify the spending power of black communities, supported Barnett’s views. One such study by Paul K. Edwards is cited in Weems Jr. (1998, pp. 22-27). Edwards, a white economics professor, discovered that the aggregate income of blacks in the seventeen largest southern cities was $308m. Edwards’ study also canvassed black reactions to advertisements for Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour (see figures 10 and 11 for representative examples), concluding that if white companies wished to reach this increasingly important market they would need to respect the feeling of black consumers, avoiding advertisements which may cause offence. Edwards continued his work, emphasising a broader social context and observing that as a result of “constant and humiliating subordination” African American consumer behaviour became an agent through which a person could “extricate himself from the caste system into which he has been placed”, Edwards (cited in Weems Jr., 1998, p. 27). Both Barnett and Edwards had reached the same conclusion. By deploying sensitive and targeted advertisements, the black dollar could be courted by anyone wishing to profit from it.
Figure 10 – Aunt Jemima Advertisement, ‘I’s in Town Honey!’, (1909), New York Tribune, 07 November 1909.
Figure 11 – Aunt Jemima Advertisement, ‘The old plantation cook who made a fortune’, (1919), Evening Time-Republican (Marshalltown, Iowa), 24 January 1919.
Du Bois and Barnett blazed a trail for others like them. In 1945 John H. Johnson published Ebony, a class-aspirational, empowering monthly picture magazine in the mode of Life magazine. Ebony straddled an important line, in 1950 circulation reached figures in excess of half a million, the magazine represented an irresistible target for corporate America (Berger, 2010, pp. 51-63). Furthermore, Ebony directly confronted racial representations made in mainstream publications. Humanities Professor and Americanist Maren Stange (2001) describes Ebony’s reliance upon photography’s verisimilitude as central to a process of detaching racialised blackness from the familiar signifiers of “degradation, spectacle and victimisation”, in order to intervene in the constant “racist debris” of the popular discourse.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the post-industrial capitalist appetite for new markets created a dichotomy in which racial stereotypes were challenged in order to bring about an effective ‘re-commodification’ of black people under the banner of consumerism. Discussing black consumers Burrell holds that “you couldn’t ask for a better demographic. If a consumer group believes that social status can be achieved through consumerism, why not make millions exploiting that perception?” (2013, p. 149). When Claude Barnett said that black consumers should be targeted, “respectfully with attractive advertisements” (Chambers, 2008, p. 24), he laid the foundations for a new discourse on race representation, one which questioned how stereotypes would adapt to allow the integration of the black dollar in to the wider economy. The dual role of magazines like Ebony, as affirmative agents of change and routes to new capital markets for corporate America, ensured their continued success throughout the Civil Rights era and well in to the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Throughout the early and mid-Twentieth Century, pages of magazines were the site of fiercely contested battles over racial representation. Author, cultural critic and feminist, Bell Hooks (1995, p. 57) states that “The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access”. This view is emphasised in Berger (2010, p. 20) who stresses that whilst anti-segregation laws ended white domination of black bodies, they were unable to break the hold which the dominant culture had over images of blackness.
Figure 3 – The General Tire & Rubber Co., ‘General Tire: Nice Legs’ (1948)
The General Tires print advertisement shown in figure 3 dates from 32 years after Barnett’s Kashmir Chemicals advertisement and paints an eloquent picture in support of Berger and Bell’s argument. The image is ripe for semiotic reading. Here an illustration is used to promote car tyres, the image features a car, a black man, a white woman and three pieces of luggage. This image is all about property; the woman carries her treasured possession, a hat, in an elaborate decorative box, her fur coat and car are signifiers of her wealth. She’s an astute lady and her form dominates the foreground of the image to the right of the frame. To the left of the frame is the wing, and a wheel of her car boldly featuring a brand new General Tire. The black man is a porter, or chauffeur, dressed neatly in his servile uniform and carrying the woman’s cases, he is several steps behind and is therefore much smaller in the frame. His head is fixed precisely in the centre of the image, as the only recognisable human face the reader is immediately drawn to him. The reader’s gaze is not returned. Instead, he looks off toward the woman with a deferential smile, she doesn’t notice him. Colour is used throughout the image to enforce hierarchy. The cases and car share the same colour tone as the woman’s legs and are positioned as essential necessities. The more ostentatious possessions, an animal fur coat, a handbag matching the tone of the porter’s skin, and a hat box unique in colour (drawing focus to the hat as a possession), act as a visual corollary to the hat wearing servant, whom in earlier times she may well have owned. Fundamentally, 85 years after the emancipation proclamation, visual tropes were still representing black Americans as servile, doting and subservient.
However, the battle for racial representation was not the only one being fought. An increasingly mobile and affluent black population also meant new capital markets and new opportunities for the mechanisms of capitalism. Concurrent to the struggle for representation was the dual struggle for corporate America to adequately attract and extract the black dollar and for black America to exercise new-found freedoms by choosing where and how to spend their dollar. Making this distinction is essential in attempting to understand both the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces at play prior to the era widely recognised as that of Civil Rights in America.
Advertising professor Jason Chambers (2008, pp. 44-45) describes Ebony magazine founder, John H. Johnson’s views on black consumer spending. Johnson believed that black consumer loyalty to brand names stemmed from previous mistreatment by merchants selling poor quality products. Branded products offered a degree of fairness, though Johnson conceded that the ability to purchase top brands showed affluence and could be seen as a symbol of status within black communities. Weems (1998, p. 27) suggests that African American consumerism continues to be motivated by a desire to purchase dignity.
Chambers (2008, pp. 58-112) describes the black pioneers who made careers for themselves in the advertising and marketing industry. Their work, characterised by a dichotomy between self-gain and an improvement in the prospects for their race as a whole, sought to educate corporate America, encouraging the use of acceptable racial tropes to displace cultural norms. Black owned agencies struggled to gain white corporate accounts in a segregated marketplace and ultimately failed to compete with white owned agencies, they remained provincial and eventually closed.
Away from the advertising media, greater availability of affordable cameras allowed for a more vernacular approach to image making. Hooks (1995, p. 61) posits the photograph as a territory where a legitimate Black American identity could be formed: “We saw ourselves represented in these images not as caricatures, cartoonlike figures; we were there in full diversity of body, being, and expression, multidimensional”. Defining the camera as the central instrument in the struggle to challenge degrading, racist representations within the dominant culture she notes that “Salt shakers, cookie jars and pancake boxes could be countered by true-to-life images” (Hooks, 1995, p. 59). She goes on to describe photography as a way to reclaim life-affirming bonds, a pivotal aspect of decolonization where images create a link to a “recuperative, redemptive memory”, allowing the construction of identities and images which “transcend the limits of the colonizing eye” (Hooks, 1995, p. 64). What Hooks describes is a reclaiming of the right to define how blackness is represented, a chance to redefine and resist historical racial stereotyping.
Jamaican born cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1990) also seeks to explore cultural identity through a post-colonial lens, suggesting that it can be considered in two distinct ways: Firstly as a single, shared experience relying on a shared history and ancestry to create a ‘oneness’ with which to overcome other, more superficial differences. Here the rediscovery of this identity is held as an essential part of post-colonial struggle, either as an unearthing of something supressed by a colonial past, or even as the production of identity, a re-telling of the past. Secondly, cultural identity is proposed as something which acknowledges critical and significant differences, something which is “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’”. Here cultural identity is posited as something in a state of flux, continuously transforming and being subject to the “’play’ of history, culture and power.” (Hall, 1990, p. 225). Hall seems to be laying down a framework for interpreting cultural identity either as a binding force born out of shared experience and memory, or as an evolving facet of cultural hegemony.
2: VISUALISING BLACK IDENTITY THROUGH COLONIAL STEREOTYPES
Any attempt to comprehend the entrenched realities of racial stereotyping in America must consider the mechanisms that allowed racial subjugation and slavery to propagate in the first place. Harris (2003, pp. 15-21) proposes black racial identity and associated derogatory imagery as a construct, dating back to the origins of slavery. Slave codes and laws put in place to divide dangerous free whites and black slaves created racial contempt and a racially divided society. Efforts to separate lower-class whites and blacks played on existing imperial social assumptions toward those in service, merging the discourse on black skin with existing ideologies which justified servitude.
Coombs (1972, pp. 31-32) addresses the unique nature of slavery in America by identifying three characteristics: capitalism, individualism and racism. Capitalist drivers reduced the slave to an expense, a part in the machinery of the master’s capital growth. Individualism celebrated individual worth and advancement for whites whilst further dehumanising black slaves. Finally racism, here Coombs notes that as all slaves were African, and virtually all Africans in America were slaves, that skin colour became an irrefutable marker of inferiority. Furthermore, these racial beliefs were forced on to the slaves themselves through a rigorous process of education, discipline, sense of inferiority, master’s superiority, acceptance of master’s standards and helpless dependence. Out of this conceit grew a series of racial idioms which can be found at the core of almost all racist imagery and indeed racist discourse orientated toward African Americans.
Harris and Coombs perspectives correlate with those of Ewen & Ewen highlighted in chapter one. Each places a strong emphasis on the capitalistic drivers behind the formation of racial stereotypes. In his discourse on black representation in early Hollywood, Berger (2010, p. 15) notes that black actors were cast as “reassuring stereotypes: doting mammy, wide-eyed darkie, stuttering fool, flirtatious harlot, and dutiful, long suffering servant”. In turn, these depictions can be traced back to the era of slavery. Professor and literary critic Sterling A. Brown (1933, p. 180) introduces seven types in his treatise on the literary origins of these racial tropes, “The Contented Slave, The Wretched Freeman, The Comic Negro, The Brute Negro, The Tragic Mulatto, The Local Colour Negro, and The Exotic Primitive”. Brown observes that each stereotype seeks to highlight divergence from the Anglo-Saxon norm to the benefit of the dominant culture, and that each is formed from the narrow perspective of an individual viewpoint, based on generalisations and a desire to perpetuate the myth. Exemplifying ‘race’ thinking a “positioning of the self as superior, an accounting of the relationship between self and ‘other’, and an explicit reference to colour as a key marker of difference” (Downing & Husband, 2005, p. 3). Such generalisations allowed for the creation of a framework of racial understanding, or prejudice, which was required in order to justify slavery. Whilst literary tropes established a racial worldview, film historian Donald Bogel posits D.W. Griffith’s 1915 motion picture, The Birth of a Nation (figure 4), as the vehicle which brought “the final mythic type, the brutal black buck” (2006, pp. 10-18) in to the mainstream consciousness. Brown (1933, p. 192) pours scorn on the absurdity of the story whilst warning that “it would be unwise to underestimate this stereotype. It is probably of great potency”. Almost a hundred years later a global fashion brand proved him correct.
Figure 4 – The Birth Of A Nation Movie poster (c. 1915).
In June 2008, US fashion magazine ‘Vogue’ featured a black man on its front cover for the first time in its 116 year history (figure 5). Renowned fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz’s portrait featured basketball superstar LeBron “King” James alongside Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen. The cover immediately garnered criticism on the grounds that it recalled the racial representation of black man as a primitive savage, or Bogle’s brutal black buck. Describing the familiar pose, Burrell (2013, p. 41) notes LeBron’s flexed muscles and bared teeth as he clutched “the tiny, slinky waist of white, blonde supermodel Gisele Bündchen”. Bogle elaborates on the buck stereotype, “bucks are always big, baadddd niggers, oversexed and savage, violent and frenzied as they lust for white flesh”, a myth which makes implicit the link between sex and racism, articulating a great white fear that “every black man longs for a white woman” (2006, p. 13). To begin to analyse the Leibovitz photograph it must be placed both within a visual context which makes apparent the assertion of racial undertones, and within the framework of Leibovitz’s oeuvre and worldview.
Figure 5 – Annie Leibovitz (2008), Magazine Cover, US Standard size, April 2008
Figure 6 – “Destroy This Mad Brute – Enlist”, 1917, recruitment poster, H.R.Hopps.
Figure 7 – King Kong movie poster, c. 1933
The images in figures 6 and 7 were widely cited in the critical media at the time and are relevant to the analysis. Neither is overtly racist, both depict savage gorillas with anthropomorphic traits, in neither case do these traits play to connotations of black skin or blackness. The question of race arises precisely due to the way in which figure 5 resembles the other images, especially figure 6. The intertextuality between the Leibovitz photograph, the ape illustrations and physiognomic dogma causes the reading of the image to immediately become racially charged. LeBron becomes the ape, or the animalistic brute, whilst Gisele reprises the role of white, female flesh. These signifiers stand the test of time. Harris (2003, pp. 28-29) writes that science, religion and ideology justified the subordination of blacks, that their very nature was brutish and whatever level of civility they possessed was imposed artificially by captivity. Burrell (2013, p. 45) draws on the words of 3rd U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, who claimed that blacks preferred the “superior beauty” of whites, to round out his reading of the image of LeBron as the uncivilised buck.
Clearly there is a strong case for this reading, the historical connotations perhaps outweigh the need for an alternate view, but in the interests of a more in-depth analysis further factors ought to be considered. The image itself does not stand alone, it exists within the context of being a magazine cover, and it therefore exists alongside other text and within a sphere renowned for courting controversy through the use of imagery. The magazine cover subtitles the image Secrets of the Best Bodies GISELE & LeBRON and surrounds the image with relatively affirming health/diet copy, here it would be very easy to read the image from a gender perspective. A woman’s magazine showing women what ‘perfect’ looked like, encouraging health and wellbeing, yet emphasising the words Perfect fit and Shape above all others. Furthermore, such readings neglect the agency with which LeBron, Gisele and Leibovitz acted during the creation of the image, they assume a manipulation has taken place, as surely LeBron would not wish to be the butt of a racial joke. Of the three LeBron appears to be the only one to go on record providing his insight in to the image, “I was just having fun with it, we had a few looks and that was the best one we had … Who cares, honestly, at the end of the day”, James (cited in Burrell, 2013, p42).
This benevolent reading does not impress media activist Harry Allen (Allen, 2008) who writes a fierce criticism of the photograph, Vogue, Leibovitz and the popular media response. Highlighting multiple sources of white and black scepticism toward racial criticisms of the image, and concluding that Leibovitz, in the employment of one of the biggest worldwide advertisers and fashion magazines, is responsible for a “white supremacy salute behind the back of arguably the world’s biggest athlete” (Allen, 2008). In support of rigorous analysis, Hooks (1992, p. 5) observes the incredulity of black and white audiences toward the idea that images hold embedded ideological intent, insisting that only “fierce critical interrogation” can penetrate the wall of denial which consumers create around themselves, in order to resist the notion of political domination. Ewen & Ewen (2006, pp. 438-451) discuss the ‘King Kong’ myth at length, interrogating the narrative of the 1933 film along with images like figure 6 and 7. They conclude that the film (and associated imagery) unify the brute stereotype with the global history that created it, forming a comprehensive system of seeing based around Western superiority, brutish lust for white women and prescribed gender roles. It seems unlikely that a photographer as experienced as Leibovitz would be unaware of the likely reaction to her work, furthermore it seems unlikely that Leibovitz would set out to make a racist photograph just because she knew how to. It is more plausible to consider the image as one within the canon of controversial fashion photography to which Leibovitz is a renowned contributor. Indeed, as a photographer known for appropriating images in her work, it is entirely possible that she took her inspiration from the cover of Ewen & Ewen (2006), a book dealing exclusively with the subject of typecasting, or perhaps she was deliberately making an ironic statement. Regardless of intent she certainly tapped in to a deep seated anxiety towards depiction of race and constructed a photograph which was racially charged.
Whilst the brute mythology offered a crude and unambiguous warning to anti-abolitionists, the Mammy myth served a more insidious purpose. Micki McElya, acclaimed author and Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut, describes the Black Mammy as “the most visible character in the myth of the faithful slave” (2007, p. 4), identifying her origin to at least 1830. Around this time, in the face of increasingly radical abolitionist views, the Mammy began to appear in the folklore of plantation owners. Writing extensively on race and gender in America, Dr Wallace-Saunders claims that though the word may have originated earlier, by 1820 ‘Mammy’ was “almost exclusively associated with African American women serving as wet nurses and caretakers of white children” (2008, p. 4). This view is subtly different from McElya’s in that it makes clear a real world basis for the plantation owners’ mythical Black Mammy. It seems likely that during the antebellum years, hegemonic forces were responsible for shifts in racial attitudes and that the Mammy character is a distortion of actual events; in which case both Wallace-Sanders and McElya’s perspectives are equally valid. Continuing her faithful slave analysis McElya notes that “the story of the faithful slave became a cornerstone of paternalistic defences of slavery and rationales for elite southern patterns of domesticity” (2007, p. 7). Here, the Mammy is positioned not as an allegorical character, but as the site for a battle over representation, a construct created to serve the purposes of the dominant culture.
Figure 8 – Fleischmanns’s Yeast Trade Card, 1880s, (Morgan, 1995, p. 102)
Having failed to assuage the appetite for abolition in the years following the Civil War, the black Mammy stereotype took on new roles in postbellum America. Jo-Ann Morgan, Associate Professor of Art History, draws attention to the reconciliatory role played by the Mammy. Arguing that the North and South were economically interdependent, Morgan suggests that “With reunification uppermost in people’s minds … an anachronistic figure from the South became one of the most widely circulated images exemplifying North-South reconciliation” (1995, p. 94). Harris suggests that the Mammy served to act as a control mechanism for the white patriarchy over both black and white women (1995, p. 90). This is a view shared by Morgan who suggests that “By remaining in the kitchen or the nursery, she offered a ready solution not only to the problem of how to assimilate former slaves into contemporary society, but also to the challenge of how to keep the middle-class Euro American woman in her ‘ladylike’ role of home administrator” (1995, p. 88). It seems evident that the Mammy was redefined as propaganda for a new era, mass-reproduction and media advertisements called for totem to help restore harmony and economic viability to a divided country. A trade card from the 1880’s (figure 8) shows a black woman tending to her domestic duties, smiling and engaging in a dialogue with her demure ‘mistress’ over which yeast to use for baking. Confident and in control this Mammy visually dominates her mistress, both in terms of composition and physical size. The image eloquently illustrates the points made by Harris and Morgan; here the antebellum Mammy is recontextualised to a scene of willing servitude and implied dominance (at least in the field of housework) over her white mistress. Wallace-Sanders (2008, pp. 1-5) suggests that the later success of screen Mammies, such as Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar winning performance as ‘Mammy’ in the 1939 motion picture Gone With the Wind, depended on the trope already being deeply embedded in the popular psyche. This assertion is readily demonstrated in figure 9, a still from the film which is remarkable in its similarity to the trade card.
Figure 9 – Film Still: Gone With The Wind, (1939), Victor Fleming et al
In 1889, the Mammy myth was appropriated as a commercial trademark by Chris Rutt, of the Pearl Milling Company. The Aunt Jemima brand is perhaps the most enduring example of the ‘print Mammy’, described by Berger (2010, p. 26) as the “ultimate symbol and personification of the black cook, servant, and mammy”. McElya (2007, pp. 17-19) traces the origins of the brand to vaudeville performances of the song ‘Old Aunt Jemima’. Harris (2003, pp. 84-86) offers further insight, explaining that the lyrics were based on a slave song and performed to a dance satirising whites. The original Aunt Jemima was an act of resistance and black authenticity which had been missed entirely. Rutt’s brand was a “misinterpretation of a character devised by blacks to critique their treatment by whites” (Harris, 2003, p. 90). This act of appropriation served to further commodify the image of Mammy, the contented slave, by galvanising the stereotype in to a concerted marketing effort. The advertisement shown in figure 10 is typical, the instantly recognisable Mammy grins out at the viewer from behind a griddle announcing “I’s in Town Honey”, the language of the advertising copy underlines the nostalgic sentiment: “good old-fashioned, light, digestible pancake”. Accompanying the advertisement is an offer for ‘FREE Aunt Jemima and Her Rag Doll Family’. Harris (2003, pp. 105-106) contends that such offers sent hundreds of thousands of items of Aunt Jemima memorabilia in to American homes throughout the twentieth century, further entrenching the ‘happy darkie’ stereotype. A decade later Aunt Jemima’s advertising shtick turned fiction in to history. Another newspaper advertisement (figure 11) tells the story of a renowned plantation cook from the 1860’s, freed by the war and living close to the Mississippi. One day a former guest of her master, and a representative of a milling company stopped by for cakes, and after a long bidding war she was paid in gold for her secret recipe.
Figure 12 – Jon Ony Lockard, ‘No More’, (1972), acrylic, 40” x 30”
Figure 13 – Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, (1972), mixed media, 11.75” x 8” x 2.75”
Over a period of decades, custodians of the Aunt Jemima brand have manipulated fact and presented a mythical character as one with a real history. Furthermore, their historical references are in many cases based on an interpretation of an antebellum myth, and racial nostalgia. This multi-layered corporate re-writing of history has not met without resistance, and has itself become a site for reinterpretation through the lens of reappropriation. Bricoleurs and artists have sought to hijack the mammy narrative in counter-hegemonic works like Jon Ony Lockard’s No More (figure 12) and Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima (figure 13), which recontextualise Aunt Jemima as an act of resistance to the enduring stereotype. Berger argues that the trademark owners “obliterated any hint of criticism or resistance. Instead they used the fantasy of the servile, devoted mammy to affirm white people’s superior social status” (Berger, 2010). Adding to this view, Wallace-Sanders describes how the Mammy caused “more accurate representations of African American women to wither in her shadows” (2008, p. 2). In 1989, the brand changed to depict a thinner, more elegant Aunt Jemima, with neat exposed hair, earrings and a white collar. McElya points to the juxtaposition between this new Aunt Jemima character and the old font and anachronistic name, asserting that the new brand means that any black woman could be Aunt Jemima (2007, p. 258). These readings of the Mammy myth point to the agility with which the dominant culture is able to manipulate meaning to achieve its goals.
3: PROTOTYPICAL THINKING, THE LEGACY OF COLONIALISM.
In their treatise on media and race in America, Rojecki & Entman explore the impact of cultural material on the white perception of blacks, acknowledging that “[the media’s] mediated communications help explain the tenacious survival of racial stereotypes despite a social norm that dampens public admission of prejudice” (2001, p. 49). Downing & Husband place racist ideologies within an evolving hegemonic framework, where the media is responsible for defining and manipulating past and present, suggesting that the mainstream media also create future racist ideologies (2005, p. 39). Stuart Hall asserts that “the media are not only a powerful source of ideas about race. They are also one place where these ideas are articulated, worked on, transformed, and elaborated.” (1981, pp. 90-91). Acknowledging that historical racial concepts continue to develop, rather than being fixed entities, and that the media is the petri dish in which this process occurs, is an important factor in understanding the pervasive and enduring nature of stereotyping. Interpreting this in a global, historical context, Downing & Husband (2005, p. 76) posit that structures and ideologies entrenched by five centuries of slavery and colonialism, create a ready supply of racist ideological discourse which media manipulators are able to access and perpetuate. Turning their attention to advertising media specifically, Rojecki & Entman propound that those responsible for creating commercial advertisements may not recognize the “subtle but pervasive way their products may inadvertently perpetuate the traditional racial pecking order” (2001, p. 180).
Figure 14 – Dove Advertisement, 2011
At launch Dove cosmetics’ 2011 advertisement (figure 14) was brought to prominence by the critic and blogger known as copyranter (copyranter, 2011). The advert situates three women in a large gallery room, they are dressed identically in white bath towels. The woman on the left is black, the woman on the right is white and the central woman’s skin tone falls somewhere between the other two. On the gallery wall behind them are two large canvasses, similar in tone and colour to the central woman’s skin, they are labelled before and after. The text accompanying the advert promises ‘Visibly more beautiful skin’ and that it ‘actually improves the look of your skin’. The women are arranged in order of skin tone, dark to light, under the captioned background; bringing to mind notions of white superiority, black ugliness, skin bleaching and Sterling Brown’s tragic mulatto myth. Just as Doctor Walker urged his customers to ‘Make it like you want it’ in 1929 (figure 2), Dove inadvertently promoted the same message 82 years later. In a statement made to the New York news blog Gawker, Dove’s PR firm made it clear that they “do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience.” Edelman Public Relations (cited in Nolan, 2011). Certainly on the surface it seems unlikely that Dove deliberately set out to make an advert which would be racially offensive, yet despite the obvious interpretation of the image, Dove and their advertising agency failed to identify an issue prior to publication. Perhaps the problem, seemingly rooted in history, is more pervasive than the above analysis suggests. Presently Dove’s parent company Unilever owns the Fair & Lovely brand which offers “safe and effective skin lightening benefits” (Hindustan Unilever, 2014) in over 40 predominantly ex-colonial countries. It is worth quoting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Yaba Amgborale Blay (2011, p. 37) at length:
“Skin bleaching is a widespread global phenomenon. Within the context of global white supremacy, skin color communicates one’s position to and within the dominant power structure. Given this reality, many people, namely those historically subjected to white domination, colonization, and enslavement, have internalized projected notions that the basis of their inferior condition is their skin color. In this context, skin bleaching would manifest as the seemingly most “logical” method through which to approximate the White ideal and thus empower oneself. As the political offshoot of European/White nationalism, global White supremacy continually creates an image of itself in order to perpetuate itself, and thus continues to employ and rely upon the fabrication and projection of imagery to forcibly convince the masses, particularly those oppressed under its systemic exploitation, that the White ideal is in fact the human ideal.”
Figure 15 – Nivea Advertisement, ‘Re-civilize yourself’, (2011)
Figure 16 – Nivea Advertisement, ‘Sin City’, (2011)
In the same year Nivea cosmetic’s Give a Damn campaign, featured two advertisements (figure 15 and 16) based around the conceit of a protagonist ripping off his dishevelled, unshaven mask to reveal a coiffured handsome man beneath. The advertisements were broadly similar, one featured a white man, the other a black man, and each carried a textual component. The text accompanying the image of the white man read ‘Sin City Isn’t An Excuse To Look Like Hell’ and the text accompanying the black man read ‘Re-civilize Yourself’. The choice of the word re-civilize and its use exclusively with the photograph of the black man present another example of a racially troubling image, this time signifying the brute myth, imperialistic colonialism, and the noble savage. In a similar tone to Dove’s defence, Nivea stated that “It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry.” (Nivea, 2011). These examples do not stand in isolation, but rather in an historical and contemporary context within which a constant recycling of visual tropes serves to perpetuate stereotype and encoded meaning. As such, any attempt to employ accusations of racial hypersensitivity, or ‘political correctness’ to explain away racist subtexts seems misguided. The lineage of cosmetic advertisements is rooted in racial exploitation which dates back to the late nineteenth century. Offering to help black Americans straighten “ugly, kinky, scanty hair”, “obtain beautifully shaped lips” or lighten skin to “remove the greatest obstacle to your success” (Weems Jr., 1998, pp. 16-17). It is tempting to consider racist undertones in contemporary cosmetic advertisements to be an unfortunate historical symptom of a particular industry, yet as figure 17 shows, stereotypes are portable and can work equally well in the most modern of industries.
Figure 17 – Intel Advertisement, (2007)
Intel’s 2007 advertisement for their Core 2 Duo processor situates a white man in a confident, managerial pose in the middle of an industrial office space. A text overlay offers to ‘Multiply Computing Performance and Maximise the Power of Your Employees’. Behind each of six desks is a black man, wearing athletic clothing and posed as if on the starting blocks of an Olympic race. The black men are identical and are positioned in such a way that they appear to be bowed over in the direction of the white manager. Further text presents a list of technical specifications and a headline of 40% more performance. The image is rich with embedded racial connotations, and can be read in a number of ways. Clearly there is the assertion of speed, the uniformity of the athletes makes it clear: black men are the fastest. The pose of athletes, black men bowing down to a white boss, equates both to modern-day workplace inequality and the slave/master relationship. Looking further the textual content can also be read as having encoded racial meaning. Multiply performance by impregnating female slaves and maximise the power of your employees with the lash.
If the benevolent intent of Nivea, Dove, Intel and others like them is to be believed, then something else must be occurring within these global corporations. Such advertisements appear to be born out of deeply embedded prototypical thinking, resulting in a resurfacing of subliminally held racial stereotypes. Entman & Rojecki state that “prototypes encode habitual ways of thinking that help people make sense of an uncertain world” (2001, p. 60). By this they are proposing that in order to quickly process and assess a given situation people rely on subconscious recall to define appropriate actions and expected outcomes. Downing & Husband suggest that when these innate thoughts, or prejudices, draw upon racial ideologies, they become racist (2005, p. 10). Hall (1981, pp. 91-92) calls such thinking “naturalised representations of events and situations relating to race”, arguing that the nineteenth century literary construct of imperial adventure informs a modern “grammar of race” based on the premise of total mastery of the colonised by the colonisers.
In the examples discussed above it is evident that a series of decisions made by stylists, photographers, copywriters, marketing departments and managerial teams has led to racially insensitive advertisements being launched in to the market place. These adverts form part of the discourse on race and racism, simultaneously unearthing entrenched ‘race’ thinking and feeding it back in to positive reinforcement loop, engendering further prototypical decision making to take place in all walks of life. Burrell laments that “No matter what the category, blacks statistically trail behind whites and other ethnicities … regardless of our individual social, economic, or media success, it has not affected the black bottom line … I maintain that the unwritten, audacious promotion of white supremacy and black inferiority was (and still is) the most effective and successful marketing/propaganda campaign in the history of the world.” (Burrell, 2013, p. 5). Hall concurs, grimly proposing that “[through the eyes of a racist worldview] Primitivism, savagery, guile and unreliability – all ‘just below the surface’ – can still be identified in the faces of black political leaders around the world, cunningly plotting the overthrow of ‘civilisation.’” (1981, p. 93). It seems likely that the types of decisions made in marketing departments are emblematic of those being made in the wider culture, and that racial stereotyping effects all areas of law, religion, economics and politics.
This dissertation endeavours to develop a greater understanding of the impact of slavery on visual culture, and therefore racial representation in modern day America. Through critical analysis three key themes have been identified which locate the image as a battleground for racial representation. Firstly, that colonial race myths established to support slavery have become deeply embedded stereotypes which influence the way black people are perceived by whites. Secondly, that even when racist intent is unlikely, prototypical thinking leads to the construction of images which harbour embedded racial meaning. Finally, that capitalism has deftly adapted throughout its history, first to commodify race then to co-opt African Americans as business owners and consumers.
Slavery, and by definition capitalism, has had an enormous impact on the way race is represented in America and further afield. Whilst it is desirable to believe that the legacy of slavery was somehow purged by the civil rights era and the subsequent modernisation of laws and public opinion, the above findings suggest that this isn’t the case. Racism and inequality exist because of a concerted effort by the dominant culture to prey on human suspicion and fear throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. By identifying recurrent visual tropes and decoding their original purpose, it is possible to challenge them and in doing so limit their modern day effectiveness.
It would be easy to disregard charges of racism in the Dove or Nivea adverts as ‘political correctness’, but that would be missing the point. Capitalism created a worldview which allowed slavery to happen, its racist constructs are so powerful that they inform race representation and understanding today. Time and again subtle pieces of racist material leech into the public consciousness. Each time this happens, an embedded stereotype is reactivated and the ideal of a society without racial bias slips further away. If one believes that global capitalism remains the dominant ideology, then understanding the mechanisms by which it seeks to coerce is key to preventing future transgressions. Any effort by elites to influence opinion, especially through the media must be read with a critical eye. Racial prejudice is counter productive to the development of the human race. By systematically deconstructing the apparatus of racism it is possible to advance our overall cause. By allowing it to pass by unchallenged we’re either supporting a damaging historical legacy, or creating new pathways for future racism and inequality.
This study takes a large piece of modern history and applies a very specific lens to a small part of it. By virtue of the scale of the subject matter there are numerous areas which would benefit from further study. I purposefully side-stepped the Civil Rights era where an enormous visual legacy challenged entrenched stereotypes. Many print advertisements of the era approach race in a more productive way, largely thanks to the input of black marketing agencies and executives, but also because capitalism had identified a new revenue stream. I only briefly discussed the counter-cultural efforts of black artists, many of whom focussed on re-appropriation of the visual stereotypes discussed above. Another excellent topic for research would be the multi-billion dollar hip-hop industry, which plys its trade through a constant rehashing of race myths. Finally, there are the remainder of Sterling A. Brown’s myths to explore, each one as pervasive as the Brute and Mammy.
“The stereotypes may be missing from public discourse but they exert their power nonetheless in a political culture of distrust and wavering hostility that lies beneath surface politeness.” (Rojecki & Entman, 2001)
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|Figure 1 – Claude Barnett, ‘The Kashmir Chemical Company’ (1916), originally in The Crisis, November 1916, p44.|
Source: Chambers, 2008, p. 25
|Figure 2 – Dr Fred Palmer Advertisement ‘Choose Your Own Complexion’ (c1929), Chicago Defender.|
Source: Walker, 2007
|Figure 3 – The General Tire & Rubber Co. Advertisement, ‘General Tire: Nice Legs’ (1948).|
Source: Berger, 2010, p. 65
|Figure 4 – The Birth Of A Nation Movie poster (c. 1915).|
|Figure 5 – Annie Leibovitz, Vogue front cover (2008), April 2008.|
Source: http://www.vogue.com/869171/the-past-decade-of-shape-issues/, accessed 17/11/2014
|Figure 12 – Jon Ony Lockard, ‘No More’, (1972), acrylic, 40” x 30”|
Source: Harris, M. 2003. Colored Pictures Race & Visual Representation, The University of North Carolina Press
|Figure 13 – Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, (1972), mixed media, 11.75” x 8” x 2.75”|
Source: Harris, M. 2003. Colored Pictures Race & Visual Representation, The University of North Carolina Press
|Figure 14 – Dove Advertisement, (2011)|
Source: Multiple Google images returns.
|Figure 15 – Nivea Advertisement, (2011)|
Source: Multiple Google images returns.
|Figure 16 – Nivea Advertisement, (2011)|
Source: Multiple Google images returns.
|Figure 17 – Intel Advertisement, (2007)|
Source: Multiple Google images returns.