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.
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.