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Spectacular Blackness

The Spectacular Blackness digital exhibition looks at representations of people of African descent in film, advertisements, cartoons, children’s books, and new media to explore how stereotypes about African Americans have circulated in visual media. 

Chuck Dixon’s comic, The Nam: The Death of Joe Hallen.

Discourse about African American identity has been indelibly shaped by the connection of language and visual representations that portray blackness as a deviant other to the West and Western citizenship. From racist caricature in travel narratives and pro-slavery tracts to contemporary representations of “welfare queens” and “thugs,” visual representations serve as allegedly transparent and objective examples of the perpetual and inevitable failure of black men and women to be human.

Combating these representations requires untangling the web of raced and gendered representations shaping what Patricia Hill Collins has called “controlling images” of African Americans-images such as Mammy, the pickaninny, Sapphire, Jezebel, the Welfare Queen, Coon, Sambo, Thug, and Man on the Down Low. At the same time, even discourses of respectability and “good” blackness can contribute to hegemony. 

Two young girls with their hair nicely done and in pressed tops peer out of a double window with a banner beneath them reading "Freedom School."
Young Girls in Freedom School (1960s).
Young boy behind a chainlink fence. The caption reads "Birmingham, Ala., May 7. Inside Looking Out. A young Negro boy peers through the fence around the jail yard at Birmingham, Ama., after he was arrested with hundreds of others for march demonstrations yesterday."
Young boy in Birmingham Children’s Crusade (1963).