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Panel probes invisibility of black women in media By Beth Potier
Gazette Staff

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.
beth_potier@harvard.edu

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In When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, a complex and compelling analysis of Black male and female relationships, Joan Morgan reminds readers that 60 percent of African American women live well below the poverty line, earning as little as $11,000 dollars a year. They are the last to get decent housing and healthcare, and are in the lowest-earning jobs. With ill treatment of Black women at such a high level, it makes a lot of sense that the popular culture of America would reflect their oppression.

In addition, Black women account for the smallest percentage of purchasers of rap music, which means their protest of misogynist lyrics and images has little impact on music producers. (White men between the ages of 18-24 buy 70 percent of all rap music sold and the next largest purchasing group is young white women.) Hyper-sexualized video portrayals of Black women shift attention away from the realities they face "” twisting how they are perceived by Americans of all colors. Black feminists thus have a sense of urgency to challenge rap industry sexism as a way to defend their place in the Black community and U.S. society as a whole.

Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Jessica Care Moore-Poole, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, India.Arie, and Zap Mama use hip hop, as well as other genres of music, to empower not only Black women, but all people throughout the world. They give us inspiration for how music and the spoken word can evolve.
Whether she prefers bluegrass, punk, or rap, each woman can demand that her voice and body not be appropriated as a commodity, whether in a Nelly video or a Wal-Mart uniform. Holler if you feel me.

Katherine A. Cheairs is a filmmaker, Black feminist activist, and member of Radical Women currently residing in Atlanta.
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quote:

Crossley also advocated armchair activism: changing the channel. "If you're clicking away, that's money," she said.


This is definitely beginning. As individuals we can refuse to be consumers of these images. I simply don't watch TV (no cable).

quote:
Originally posted by Rowe:
Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Jessica Care Moore-Poole, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, India.Arie, and Zap Mama use hip hop, as well as other genres of music, to empower not only Black women, but all people throughout the world. They give us inspiration for how music and the spoken word can evolve.
...... Holler if you feel me.


Another form of activism is using your dollars to purchase the work of people we like. For those who have never heard Zap Mama, these sistas are INCREDIBLE. Their basic sound is like Bobby Mcferrin goes back to the Motherland. Pure vocal ensemble. Especially recommend Adventures in Afropea Vol. I, Sabsylma, and Ancestry in Progress.
[QUOTE]Originally posted by HonestBrother:
..... As individuals we can refuse to be consumers of these images.....[QUOTE]

Interesting point, HB and one that I strive to live by. It also remains me of an instance at work where a co-resident of mine who is a white girl was surprized to hear that I didn't date white girls as it was kinda expected in the area (Ohio) of successful and educated black guys. She was also surprized that I did not like skinny, boarderline prepubiscent girls; instead I like 'em "thick". For the longest, she could not understand why...I told her that I am very Afrocentric in what I regard as beautiful despite the fact that I am like 70% American and 30% NIgerian by socialization. She told me that using the work "thick" implied that a girl was fat and of course I told her that maybe the case in mainstream America but I do not ascribe to that rule of beauty.

Again, HB..excellent point!
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quote:
Interesting point, HB and one that I strive to live by. It also remains of an instance at work where a co-resident of mine who is a white girl was surprized to hear that I didn't date white girls as it was kinda expected in the area (Ohio) of successful and educated black guys. She was also surprized that I did not like skinny, boarderline prepubiscent girls; instead I like 'em "thick".

For the longest, she could understand why...I told I am very Afrocentric in what I regard as beautiful despite the fact that I am like 70% American and 30% NIgerian by socialization. She told me that using the work "thick" implied that a girl was fat and of course I told her that maybe the case in mainstream America but I do not ascribe to that rule of beauty.

appl
quote:
Hyper-sexualized video portrayals of Black women shift attention away from the realities they face "” twisting how they are perceived by Americans of all colors. Black feminists thus have a sense of urgency to challenge rap industry sexism as a way to defend their place in the Black community and U.S. society as a whole.


Yes, I can choose not to view these images of Black women being portrayed in the media, but how do I raise other people's consciousness about the negative impact of these images?
quote:
Originally posted by folobatuyi:
quote:
Originally posted by Rowe:
Yes, I can choose not to view these images of Black women being portrayed in the media, but how do I raise other people's consciousness about the negative impact of these images?


That is an uphill battle frought with resistance but my suggestion is one person at a time.


Great advice.
hey Huey, the wait is over. Smile
(I always check out music suggestions)

Afrodite
Imani Coppola

Audio CD (August 1, 2004)
Original Release Date: August 1, 2004
Number of Discs: 1
Label: Mental Records
ASIN: B0002TP7FW
Average Customer Review: based on 10 reviews. (Write a review.)
Amazon.com Sales Rank: #112,093 in Music (See Top Sellers in Music)
Yesterday: #109,802 in Music

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Track Listings
1. Afrodite
2. These Days
3. Satisfied
4. Gravity
5. Got That Hottie
6. Hope For The Future
7. Dirty Girl
8. reality Radio
9. On Our Way
10. Rebound


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lenny kravitz meets prince with sexy female delivery and tighter than hot pants rhythm section.

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  • imani
I don't buy women's magazines anymore, but I was flicking through the Australian edition of marie claire at work and noticed, among other women's pics, a picture of Alek Wek in a feature called "Women of the World ... what has changed?"
So I thought ok, what does she, or an african woman have to say? I flicked through the pages to see a Bio pic of a woman (supposedly) representing each 'world region' and a brief comment.
Not seeing any black faces, disappointed, I realised the only entry for Africa was white, Suzy Brokensha for South Africa. Anyway, you might be interested in what she had to say...

quote:

"These days, young South African women are self-assured, with the general feeling being that "this is my time". They believe that they can do anything they put their mind to, which is very different to how it was a decade ago.
The percentage of women in parliament today is one of the world's higest."
"However, unemployment is also high, and AIDS is a massive issue - 60% of HIV-positive people in South Africa are woman and girls. Eek In many rural families, the mother is dead or very sick, so children are being raised by grandmothers, which will have implications later on. As a strange spin-off, AIDS also means that bigger women are considered sexy here - extreme thinness is often associated with ill-health and poverty.
"Sadly, our beauty ideals are still Euro-centric. The finalists in a recent modelling contest were black but looked very Western. We need to find the next Alek Wek!"


Not good news overall, but I was very surprised at finding any acknowledgement of euro-centric beauty in ANY western woman's beauty magazine. A tiny step, but perhaps a step forward in consciousness for white women??

Also, I think the above mish-mash of views has been highly edited to 'fit the page' so it's a shame these thoughts weren't covered in more detail. Obviously the comment about bigger women compared to thin is highly subjective. And big and thick and fat are all just words that each mean entirely different meanings to different people. In the fashion world, 'big' probably means anyone over size 6 or 8. Roll Eyes
.
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quote:
Originally posted by art_gurl:
Not good news overall, but I was very surprised at finding any acknowledgement of euro-centric beauty in ANY western woman's beauty magazine. A tiny step, but perhaps a step forward in consciousness for white women?


The public has launched attacks against the fashion industry's narrow standard of beauty for quite some time. In the 80's, for example, there was a great concern for White teenage girls who suffered from anorexia nervosa and bulemia as a result of them trying to look like the super models being featured in popular fashion magazines. Feminists, parents, and other concerned members of the community criticized fashion editors harshly for not featuring "normal-sized" women in their magazines, that is, women whose bodies are representative of average women in America. To them, the fashion magazines were sending a clear message to the public and to their subscribers: If you do not look like the models being shown in these magazines, you are ugly, because THESE women represent ideal beauty.

Therefore, I'm not at all surprised by Marie Claire's acknowledgement of the fashion industry's preference for Eurocentric images of beauty. In fact, many fashion editors will tell you straight up that they feature predominately White, very thin women in their magazines because if they did not, no one would buy their magazines. This is still a White racist country, for the most part, which has it's own concept of beauty. Seeing nonwhite and/or larger-sized women on the cover of their magazines is not desirable.
quote:
This is still a White racist country, for the most part, which has it's own concept of beauty.


That behavior/mindset extends world-wide. Anna Wintour says straight out that she won't even hire women who aren't pin thin to work in any of her offices because she doesn't want that look associated with Vogue. Karl Lagerfeld was highly pissed that H&M decided to make his stuff in plus sizes because he only "makes clothing for slender women." Europe is the number one champion of Euro beauty. And everyone else follows suit.

I don't know if I can really appreciate what Suzy Brokensha has to say. With all her talk about how sad and disappointing it is that all the images are so Western, there she is representing South Africa. Her livelihood depends on people idolizing her beauty. How enthusiastic could she possibly be about broadening the beauty ideal.

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