Thursday, February 26, 2009

Race, Visual Matters, and Harm

How do we account for the harm caused by anti-black racist images?

That's one of the questions that came up and then continually came back to me as I reflected on Sean Delonas's image (pictured above) from last week's New York Post.

The issue of harm surfaced as I followed discussions about the problem with the cartoon. Large numbers of black folks expressed disgust with the image. The Reverend Al Sharpton, for one, noted on his website that "The cartoon in today’s New York Post is troubling at best, given the racist attacks throughout history that have made African-Americans synonymous with monkeys."

Columnist Leonard Pitts explained that the initial ignorance and arrogance of New York Post editors and Delonas concerning the cartoon were a larger problem.

"Let's be clear on one thing: The Post has a right to provoke and even offend," explained Pitts. "That is absolute and sacrosanct. But it is difficult not to be troubled by a suffocating cluelessness that allows it to provoke and offend without knowing it or meaning it or even, apparently, caring about it -- and then, to dismiss provocation and offense as the work of ''opportunists'' instead of seeking to understand why people were so upset."

Indeed, progressive-minded folks were upset, and I also think untold numbers of people are hurt by such images. Who knows the damage done to a people when they are dehumanized in public discourses? And if, as Pitts suggests, the Post "didn't know that it didn't know" what it was doing by publishing the image, we might be in more trouble than we previously imagined. All this despite the presence of a black president.

A number of our Black Studies programs have been focusing on visual matters, but after the appearance of that Post cartoon, I started thinking that we had perhaps not been doing enough to really identify and critique racist practices. Maybe.

So far, our Interactive Reading Group has largely focused on Aaron McGruder's and Keith Knight's works, and our discussions have not gone deep about the prevalence of anti-black racism in comic art.

Our regular contributions on our editorial cartoons have focused on depictions of Obama, which have tended to be somewhat positive, hopeful. And our visual matters campaign has concentrated on promoting empowering images, which of course may be a response to the existence of troubling representations.

So on the one hand, we seemed to be inadequately addressing the nature of racist imagery. But then again, I discovered another take. The very existence of these groups and small teams of folks focusing on Black Studies issues constituted mini-communities that allowed us to engage in meaningful discussions. It also allowed us to draw on one of the benefits of community: support.

In a future post, I'll try to say more about some of our short-term and long-term responses to the cartoon. I'll also want to say more about the significance of us establishing communities devoted to subject-matter related to Black Studies.

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