26 January 2007

Bettye Saar imagery at college "ghetto party"

Bettye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) reframes the ubiquitos image of the jolly, happy-to-serve "mammy" by suggesting--with the gun-- that, contrary to common modes of representing black life on screen and in print, black people are most definately not content and that, as suggested by the black fist, revolutions are being plotted and change is impending.

At Tarleton State University, in Stephenville, TX (about sixty miles from Dallas/Fort Worth, the city of my birth), some students saw fit to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday by hosting a "ghetto party." From BREITBART.com(emphasis mine):

Photographs posted on social networking Web site Facebook.com showed partygoers wearing Afro wigs and fake gold and silver teeth. One photo showed students "mocking how African-Americans do step shows," Elder said. In another picture, a student is dressed as Aunt Jemima and carries a gun.

I immedietly thought of Saar's "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima," but I can only speculate on whether or not this student was familiar with the work. It's possible that she wasn't familiar with the imagery. A quick look at Tarleton State's website shows that they offer a BFA in Fine Art but no degrees in Art History, and no art history classes either. So then why include a gun with your Aunt Jemima costume? Because it's "gangsta?" And if this student was aware of the imagery her costume referenced, what exactly was the costume mocking? Attempts by black people to assert an identity in visual representation that is threatening to the white power structure? The desire to rise up and revolt? The anger of a people who have been owned, subjugated, abused and tortured by a white power structure and who continue to be negatively affected in multiple arenas of life by the same power structure?

In the photo I found, she has her hands full with a 40oz. and some syrup and there is no gun. You can view a slideshow of the images that were posted on facebook at The Smoking Gun.

For those who don't know, "ghetto parties" are events where a predominately white group of young people (I would say it is usually people of my generation, in their teens and twenties, who throw these parties) get together to eat fried chicken, drink malt liquor and mock any and all aspects of black culture. Even though I know that these parties exist, and I know of actual people who throw them and attend them, I always find myself a little surprised when I hear of new cases.

These "incidents" bring up issues of affirmative action and equality in higher education, as well as issues of equality in the judicial system. As Philip Arthur Moore notes in response to another "ghetto party" that occured at the University of Conneticut School of Law the weekend following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, "One thing that comes to mind is the reality that the legal system will one day be run by these people. Would it be a stretch to say, then, that the legal system is racist? Because these parties surely are." You can view the facebook photos of the UConn Law School party at The Smoking Gun.

Because these students were foolish enough to post these photos to the internet, we now have visual evidence of a lot of things we already knew. When these students thought about black life, and how to impersonate it, these are the things they came up with. When they think of black people, this is what they come up with. One student asserts that "the photos of the black students in attendance were not released to the media," but what this student fails to acknowledge is the pervasiveness of socialized self-hate and the reality that inclusion of people of color does not prevent a "ghetto party" from being racist. Another thing we already know is that these students will not be expelled, and will go on to have a better shot at available jobs than their non-white classmates, and their employers and family members will most likely write this off as just a crazy college party. At least this is what I think will happen, but I would love to be proven wrong.

[edit] from Racialicious: XXL has a good solution: New rule: if you make fun of ghettos, you have to go to one.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I don't know what to think about white people. They really don't get it.

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