When poet and author Carrie Allen McCray attended Alabama’s Talladega College in the early 1930s, images of black women were everywhere: on pancake mix, on cookie jars, on salt and pepper shakers.
Decades later, Tricia Rose, assistant professor of history and Africana studies at New York University and an expert on music and black popular culture, sees an explosion of images of African-American women in movies, in music videos, and on network and cable television.
But if Aunt Jemimah slims down, trades her headscarf for an Afro, and sings rap, are black women portrayed more fairly? Are they more visible, less of a commodity?
Television news producer Callie Crossley and moderator Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history and Afro-American Studies, joined McCray and Rose to discuss “Invisibility to Commodity? Constructions of Black Women in Art and Media” at a forum at the Kennedy School of Government Friday afternoon (March 1).
The forum, co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee and the Harvard College Black Arts Festival, was the opening event of the festival. Two scheduled panelists, filmmaker Julie Dash and Essence magazine executive editor Joan Morgan Murray, were absent because of last-minute emergencies.
A narrow view of black women
In a lively discussion and question-and-answer session, the panelists seemed to concur that while black women are more visible in media and popular culture, the range of their visibility remains narrow. And although they are no longer being bought and sold as slaves, they are still commodities.
Images of black women, said Crossley, are “being bought and sold in a different arena. We’re no longer on the auction block, but we’re in that little square” of the television screen.
Higginbotham opened the event with a historical perspective, reading slave-trade advertisements from a day when black women were very literally commodities, for sale with or without their children.
The first speaker McCray, 89, brought perspective to that history. Strong, charming, and self-effacing, she said, “I think she started with me because I’m the oldest thing in this room.” Her most recent book, “Freedom’s Child: The Life of a Confederate General’s Black Daughter,” is a memoir of her mother’s life. She encouraged young and older people to write memoirs, she said, because “it’s amazing how little whites know about our culture.”
“We have moved a long way, but I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet,” she said.
Amplifying that point, Crossley recalled participating in a similar forum in the same room about 10 years ago. “I’m sorry to say that 10 years later the same discussion is taking place because the same things are in evidence,” she said.
On local news programs – with the notable exception of Boston – there are lots of black women, said Crossley, a former producer for ABC News “20/20” and several public television programs, including the acclaimed “Eyes on the Prize” series.
Yet she cautioned that there might not be as many as there seem: That very visible black anchorwoman may be the only black woman in the entire newsroom. And, she said, black women on the air are not powerful: They may deliver the news, but they don’t decide on it. Crossley got a laugh when Higginbotham asked, “Who decides what becomes news?” and she quickly responded, “About six white men.” She was not, however, joking.
More is not necessarily better
Funny, fast-talking, and impassioned, Rose, author of “Black Noise: Rap Music and the Black Culture in Contemporary America,” said that more is not necessarily better when it comes to images of black women.
“While we have much more space to be visible in American popular culture than [at] any other moment in its history, our images are extraordinarily narrow,” she said.
She cited Anita Hill as an example of popular culture’s inability to embrace a broad spectrum of images for black women. “In the national consciousness of what categories black women can fall into – mammy, shrill, Jezebel, now the welfare queen – Anita Hill didn’t make sense,” she said.
While Crossley’s “six white men” might be controlling images of black women in the news media, Rose conceded that in popular culture, black people are creating the media that portrays them, often as commodities. Yet in many ways – rap videos, for instance, that glorify the ghetto and present women as sex objects – they are reinforcing negative images.
“This idea of ‘keeping it real’ has a way of feeding into the stereotypes,” she said.
While none of the panelists had tidy solutions to the media’s portrayal of black women, they offered up some hopeful actions.
“At the risk of sounding like an old civil rights activist, you have to work within and without the system,” said Crossley. By portraying “ordinary” black families in her “20/20” stories about a range of issues, not just “black” ones, Crossley knows she made an impact. She also recalled a group of African Americans from Detroit so upset about something they had seen on the show that they flew to New York and picketed ABC’s offices. “They ended up meeting with the vice president of ABC and some stuff changed,” she said.
Crossley also advocated armchair activism: changing the channel. “If you’re clicking away, that’s money,” she said.