- Dr. Charles Johnson. “Foreword.” Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, by Frederik Strömberg, Fantagraphics, 2003, pp. 12.
Which came first: the Black male or the Black male image? Modeled after the classic “chicken or the egg” question, this question appears less philosophically complex. Obviously, there can be no image of Black males if Black males did not exist. There is probably some truth to this. We live in a world of Black males; we cannot know for certain what a world without Black males would be like. That would be speculative fiction. However, there are times when the representation succeeds over the presentation, where the Black image comes before the human being. Examples of this abound, but allow me to provide a more personal one.
My Dad is a Black man. He has the close-cut curly hair, the cocoa brown skin, the muscled arms and height, the facial features I am too self-conscious to name but do not need to because I know you know those too. This is how I, you, and the world have seen my dad. This is how my Dad sees and described himself. My Dad is a Black man who has lived as a Black man. He ticks off certain boxes: former basketball player, grew up in the tough streets of Baltimore, had an afro in the 70s. He has been racially profiled by police in public spaces. He has been called “nigger” and has said that word about himself and others. He has been noticed by people in a crowded room and they have responded to him, altering the space around him. My Dad is a Black man.
This year more than ever, I noticed the deep lines on my father’s face. More than see, I remember those lines; when I think of my Dad, I see the weight of his flesh, the shadow made by the creases of skin sinking in and touching. Since I was a child I have called my Dad an old man because that is what he was to me. His response: “I wasn’t old until I had you.” I am 25 and now I see my father. I see an old Black man. My father is an old Black man and I never saw this image of him until 2017. It has been there -- no traumatic event has aged him overnight like in a fantastical film -- but I never saw that. I saw my father as a Black man and that image of him has changed me and how I feel about and around my father. My father is just existing, but the fact that he has not remained how I internally saw him -- the fact that the image of him has changed -- fills me with so many emotions. My father is not the Black man I once saw him as and continued to see him as. This realization -- this fact -- is why I made this exhibit.
This exhibit explores images of black males in multiple visual media. Eight items were selected for this exhibit: four items are comics and four are “fine art.” The bodies selected differ in how the body is portrayed (what media, the proportions, the stylings), the contexts for the body (to provoke, to make humorous, to further a narrative), and the setting of the bodies (fantasy, satire, the real world). Each item was selected for the images and questions it brought to the discussion that the other seven did not, creating a rich dialogue between all of the items.
Despite this, certain themes keep reoccurring: appropriation, physicality, advertising and marketing, and both Western history and the history of the Black Diaspora in America. The reoccurrence of these themes did not surprise me. Blackness, especially Black manhood (where “man” has and is synonymous with “human”), has always been moored into certain visual and narrative tropes (de Beauvoir 163). For example, the Black male as physically superior is the longstanding visual image seen in this exhibit. (Johnson 10). Narratively, Blackness and the history of Jim Crow reappear, suggesting the entire racial identity is defined by the oppression it has experienced. In this way, the need to acknowledge this identity via its legacy of oppression serves to further oppress the narratives of this group by chaining the identity to a past it had no control over and continues to not control the larger narrative of. In this regard, certain notions of black manhood are innate across media. This gives these representative images a presentative power.
Media images provide a false universalism about Black males, giving the illusion that the image is the person. Rather than putting us behind the eyes of the Other, as Dr. Johnson says, Black male images in visual culture have the power to put our eyes on the Other. This danger is the reason why black male images need to be analyzed and discussed. I hope this exhibit contributes to this discourse. If nothing else, seeing these images may, in the words of Dr. Johnson, allow me to see how my father sees the world. It has allowed me to begin to see the Black male before the Black male image.
- de Beauvoir, Simone. “From The Second Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader, fourth ed., edited by Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski, McGraw-Hill, 2013, pp. 161-68.
- Johnson, Charles. “Foreword.” Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, by Frederik Strömberg, Fantagraphics, 2003, pp. 6-19.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the Hofstra University Museum and Hofstra Special Collections for their assistance in researching my items and for their enthusiastic support of my project, Hofstra University’s Women’s Studies program for allowing me to make this project my Women’s Studies 198 independent study final project, Drs. Karyn Valerius and Lisa DeTora for their continued support and mentorship, Kerri A. Crocco for introducing me to the Omeka software and assisting me in assembling my exhibit, and last but not least, Dr. Martha Hollander, for being my advisor, suggesting this project, and just being a helpful, fun, understanding, and inspiring scholar and person. Thank you all for a great semester!
Rachel Davis, Independent Project in Women's Studies, Hofstra University (Advisor: Martha Hollander)