What’s New in Viewing Blackness

In his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King argued for forcing oppressors to commit their brutality in the open. Only then, he said, could activists flush oppression out of “dark jail cells and countless shadowed street corners” into “a luminous glare.”
That advice suggests the nature of Leigh Raiford’s Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle, due for release in February by the University of North Carolina Press.
Raiford, an associate professor of African-American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, examines the role photography played in three social movements—anti-lynching, civil rights, and black power. In each, she says, activists used photography to reframe African America. They sought “to both unmake and remake black identity” by, for example, challenging demeaning representations of black Americans as ignorant and unfit for citizenship.
On the phone from Berkeley, Raiford says she came to her project remembering iconic photographs, and realizing her indebtedness to African-American social movements. Of her generation—black scholars now finding their feet in academe—she says: “The way we learned history was through images.”
The relation of images to African-American life has become a much-studied subject matter for scholars like Raiford. They have been inspired, she says, by scholars like Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who suggested ways in which visual images constitute ideas about race, and more recent researchers like Shawn Michelle Smith, an associate professor of visual and critical studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago whose books have included Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (Duke University Press, 2004). There, Smith argues that Du Bois’s own photographs challenged imagery conventions of his day—those of early-twentieth-century scientific typologies, criminal mug shots, racist caricatures, and lynching photographs—and brought to visual life his key theoretical concepts such as the color line and double consciousness.
Such books—and a slough of new and forthcoming ones—seek to ”dislodge some of the limited frames in which the thing called black art has often been discussed” by art historians, Raiford believes. New books range from general theoretical studies of how blackness has been viewed in American culture and art criticism to works that approach the same issue through narrower focuses, including museum exhibitions, pornography, black power, and lynching. Due out next month is Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (University Of Chicago Press) by Nicole R. Fleetwood, an American-studies scholar at Rutgers University who analyses a persistent presumption in American culture: that seeing blackness is problematic.

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01.06.2011 | par martalanca | blackness