When Names, and Images, Do Hurt

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” I thought about this phrase the other day, for whatever random reason, and though it’s one that most of us are familiar with, especially in the context of teasing and bullying, what strikes me now is the part that’s missing.

We usually don’t question the harmful effects of violence. We also know that words have the power to hurt. But beyond verbal abuse and physical harm, there are also images. Ever the pessimist-trying-to-be-an-optimist, I seem to be drawn to the parts of design that are, historically, most troublesome, in a bid to undo some of the damage that has been left in the wake of slavery and Jim Crow. Such is my obsession with black caricature, as though understanding these images—and putting them to rest in my own mind—will somehow lead me to a greater sense of peace.

Once again, unfortunately, I find myself getting swept up in the brouhaha over a certain performance at the Video Music Awards (VMA) the other week, and the renewed discussion about feminism, slut-shaming and the cultural appropriation of “twerking.” Predictably, amid the cacophony of commentators weighing in, discussion about the role of black women in the aforementioned performance gets drowned out. I know full well that the term “minstrel show” is a loaded one, and yet that’s the only phrase that came to mind when I broke down and watched the video that went viral. I was all too quickly reminded of how female caricatures, created to rationalize the subjugation of black women by portraying them as either desexualized mammies or promiscuous Jezebels, have manifested themselves in the modern world.

We still have much to learn about the ways in which negative caricatures shape our attitudes about people, and the VMA footage I saw only cemented that fact. Perhaps we think we are above such conditioning, but all of us fall prey in one way or another. I spent time in graduate school studying black caricatures and made the mistake of believing that I could approach my research from a safe, academic vantage point. Only when I starting filling up my studio workspace with photos of family members did I realize that I was becoming depressed, subconsciously looking for positive images to counter the negative ones. My intellectual understanding could not immunize me against the emotional effects of caricature.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names and images most certainly hurt me.

I have written about this subject numerous times and am frustrated to find myself thinking and writing about it yet again. On the other hand, this is not an abstract conversation topic; it is reality. Caricatures are not references to other, darker, more ambiguous, unnamed women out there in the unknown. They are about me. They are about my sister. They are about my cousins, my aunties, my friends. Moreover, they have a direct impact when it comes to our personal lives -- that is, how people engage us and treat us in the real world.

From our hair to our lips to our backsides and breasts, our body parts have been commodified…as though anyone in a position of authority has the right to claim appropriation over them. Yes, slavery ended a long time ago, but a simultaneously long history of dehumanization and sexual objectification followed. Hundreds of years later, the stereotypes about women of color linger, and the images that come to us in 2013 via ads, cartoons, videos and awards shows perpetuate notions that are rooted far back in the past. Sigh.

True to my pessimist-versus-optimist nature, however, I continue to look for an antidote. I help rear young creatives, some of whom end up in the advertising industry. I feel obligated, then, to try and intervene, counteracting the messages that limit who women of color are and what we’re capable of. Beneath the layers of slick advertising and distorted representations there is humanity -- that is, real people with real feelings living the kinds of lives that are not far removed from everyday people. So, I continue to dream of that indefinite point in the future when female blackness exemplified by the Toni Morrisons, Michelle Obamas, Shirley Chisholms and Leontyn Prices of the world becomes the norm and not the exception.