Dark Designs and Visual Cultureby Michele Wallace
Michele Wallace burst into public consciousness with the 1979 publication of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, a pioneering critique of the misogyny of the Black Power movement and the effects of racism and sexism on black women. Since then, Wallace has produced an extraordinary body of journalism and criticism engaging with popular culture and gender and racial politics. This collection brings together more than fifty of the articles she has written over the past fifteen years. Included alongside many of her best-known pieces are previously unpublished essays as well as interviews conducted with Wallace about her work. Dark Designs and Visual Culture charts the development of a singular, pathbreaking black feminist consciousness.
Beginning with a new introduction in which Wallace reflects on her life and career, this volume includes other autobiographical essays; articles focused on popular culture, the arts, and literary theory; and explorations of issues in black visual culture. Wallace discusses growing up in Harlem; how she dealt with the media attention and criticism she received for Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, which was published when she was just twenty-seven years old; and her relationship with her family, especially her mother, the well-known artist Faith Ringgold. The many articles devoted to black visual culture range from the historical tragedy of the Hottentot Venus, an African woman displayed as a curiosity in nineteenth-century Europe, to films that sexualize the black body—such as Watermelon Woman, Gone with the Wind, and Paris Is Burning. Whether writing about the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings, rap music, the Million Man March, Toshi Reagon, multiculturalism, Marlon Riggs, or a nativity play in Bedford Stuyvesant, Wallace is a bold, incisive critic. Dark Designs and Visual Culture brings the scope of her career and thought into sharp focus.
“I can hardly think of a living critic who is as courageous as Michele Wallace—she says things no one else dares to—and this collection proves just how consistent her bravery has been over the years.”—Andrew Ross
“Michele Wallace has long been one of the most insightful and brave writers dealing with popular culture in this country. Her latest work continues that tradition of courage and wit.”—Nelson George
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Dark designs and visual culture
By Michele Wallace
Duke University Press
Chapter OneWhose Town? Questioning Community and Identity
When I was twenty-seven years old, a few days before Grandpa Bob (my father's father) died, he called to tell me about a Portuguese Jew, a slave owner who settled in Jamaica in the early nineteenth century and who had children with an Ashanti woman. After the Ashanti rebellion and the emancipation of the slaves in the British West Indies in the 1830s, this Portuguese Jew married the Ashanti woman. They became my grandfather's grandparents-my great-great grandparents. That day on the telephone, Grandpa Bob gave me the keys to learning something I've never forgotten about identity and community: both are realized through processes, the former of accumulated information and self-revelation, the latter of competing group conceptualizations and interests. Neither is immediately understood but rather unfolds over time, each in tension with the other, according to how curious and open one is to becoming aware of the inner logic and evolution of both.
My artist mother had divorced my musician father when I was two. I had grown up in Harlem knowing my mother's family best. They were originally from Florida and transplanted to Harlem in the 1910s. When Momma Jones, my mother's mother, would entertain us on Thanks giving with stories about how Betsy Bingham, her grandmother (who seemed so very black in her photographs), was halfCherokee, everybody would collapse with laughter. But perhaps because of these same stories, when I was in a position to pay attention to Native Americans, I did. Living in Oklahoma, the state that almost entered the union as Sequoyah, a Native American State, and in Buffalo, where there is a large Native American community, I studied the history of the Cherokee, their sojourns in Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, the forced removal of their Trail of Tears, and I learned that Momma Jones was probably telling the truth.
A socialist, an atheist, an astrologer, a musician, a painter, and a horticulturist who was well read in several languages, Grandpa Bob strived to teach me, as I was growing up, a comparative sense of black community. With his facility for accents and his knowledge of the guitar, he recreated Jamaica for my childhood entertainment as an anarchic patchwork of ethnicities, dialects, and songs. Moreover, his stories about Harlem and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s made clear that such diversity was effectively transplanted and further variegated in its new setting. On the telephone on that particular day, the last time we ever spoke, he told me many things about his own and his family's history that he hadn't told me before. He had just finished reading my first book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, and it must have occurred to him that as the family writer, I could make some immediate use of the information he was giving me.
Grandpa Bob's and Momma Jones's revelations led to my wanting to know how many great-great grandparents I'd had (everybody has sixteen) and how many I could account for. From then on, I began to wonder what a great-great grandparent was, indeed what a parent was. How many great-great grandparents determine one's identity? How many family locations in history determine one's community? How many races determine one's ethnicity?
Of course, the overwhelming majority of my ancestors were black and I grew up in a black neighborhood, which makes me black. But I like to think of myself as mixed and as a citizen of the world. I never forget, have never forgotten since my grandfather told me, that I had a great-great grandfather who was a Portuguese Jew, anymore than I would forget that I had a great-great grandmother who was Ashanti or another great-great grandmother who was half Cherokee and half African.
When events began to occur in Crown Heights and when Leonard Jeffries began to appear regularly on the evening news, and the assumption became law in the press-"high" and "low"-that blacks have become haters of Jews, for the hundredth time in the last decade I felt at a loss for "community." This feeling was only amplified when I saw that the hoards in the streets of Crown Heights-both the West Indian youth and the Hasidic youth-were predominantly male. No self-respecting woman could have any identification with such vigilante tactics on either side. Again I began to wonder about the nature of community and identity. Are these established through class, race, turf, gender? Or is each mutually exclusive of the rest? Cries of racism were sparking debate at the City College of New York (CCNY) long before Leonard Jeffries's infamous speech on July 20, 1991, at the Black Arts Festival in Albany. Dr. Michael Levin, a white professor of philosophy, had been publishing articles contending that "it has been amply confirmed over the last several decades that on average, blacks are significantly less intelligent than whites." Meanwhile, the black Dr. Jeffries was espousing his views with regard to the materialistic, greedy "ice people"-those of European descent-versus the humanistic, communal "sun people"-those of African descent. American Jews as a "community" since World War II have managed to transform their experience of oppression into a state of privilege, in part through their unconscious identification with a national system of white elitism. Yet some black Americans may have been reacting to world systems of white dominance by an unconscious identification with anti-Semitism.
Twenty years ago, Jeffries was installed as permanent head of Afro-American studies at City College in Harlem (where I also teach). He was given tenure and a full professorship without publications. The Afro-American studies paradigm which Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Harvard University, Houston Baker Jr. at the University of Pennsylvania, and even Molefi Asante at Temple University have advanced is a program in which faculty are initially appointed in traditional disciplines in the humanities or the social sciences. Their courses are then cross-listed with Afro-American Studies and/or Women's studies and/or Latino studies. As a consequence of Jeffries's leadership style, most black professors in the conventional disciplines at CCNY choose to disassociate themselves from Afro-American studies. Nevertheless, the continued presumptions in the press that Jeffries's speeches stand for "black community" in Harlem and at CCNY may destroy us and, in the process, many good people who wish to preserve the delicate equilibrium of intelligent discussions about "identity" and "community." Whereas Crown Heights and Jeffries were local New York fiascoes-albeit with national implications- whose focuses were primarily racial "communities" and where a few voices were said to represent many, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings threatened (happily) to fully demystify the myth of a national black identity or black community.
Besides the experience of sexual harassment, I share with Hill and with all other black women the negative "community" and negative "identity" of being a silenced black female subject in a world in which we continue to be represented only as objects. This is why, incidentally, our voices are so rarely heard in the press in times of national or local crisis. This is why nobody knows what informed female intellectuals of color think about Crown Heights, or Leonard Jeffries, or Hill-Thomas. Most black women-as their response to the hearings and their distrust of Hill proved-are unaware of their membership in a "silenced" community, their stake in a negatively constructed "identity." But some black women-as it happens the educated ones, the professional ones, the married and unmarried, heterosexual and lesbian ones who have touched the glass ceilings, floors, walls, and locked doors with their fingertips, and, indeed, rammed against them with their skulls-know that Hill is one of us. Despite Hill's Bible Belt conservative Republican politics, and despite all the floating, socially and culturally constructed and negotiated identities of race, gender, class, sexuality, she has begun to learn the one thing that unites us as a conceptual "community," which we might call the black feminist community. The difference between black women who are pro-Thomas and anti-Thomas cannot be fully explained by our membership in communities of race, gender, class, or sexuality- or identities forged in the mantle of same-but by how deeply we, as individual subjects, have had to become aware of the following painful fact: it is our job to fight for justice for black girls because no one else will. What often has joined people together-forming perhaps the most powerful sense of community-has been the need to be heard. This fight for a voice is what black feminists, myself included, have in front of them. Hill, and white feminists, may call it the fight against sexual harassment. They may call it the fight to displace the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They may call it anything they like.
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Meet the Author
Michele Wallace is Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. She is the author of Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory and Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. She has written for numerous popular and scholarly publications, including The Village Voice, The New York Times, Emerge, Aperture, Ms., October, and Renaissance Noire.
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