This book demonstrates the challenges of pursuing rights or recognition through capitalism and the market.
“The more strategic route is to expose representational regimes that tie equality, civil rights, and humanity to normativity as constructed and lethal.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Brenna Wynn Greer.Greer is the Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Assistant Professor of History at Wellesley College. Her book isRepresented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African American Citizenship.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Brenna Greer: At its core, Represented is a book about what American citizenship looks like – literally; and how popular images of citizenship draw boundaries that shape people’s experiences of belonging in the United States. After World War II, black entrepreneurs produced mainstream images that claimed African Americans’ citizenship through their depiction as civic-minded patriots and capitalists. Their media images challenged ruling ideas that made non-whiteness a barrier to first-class citizenship. However, they also encouraged formulations that tied one’s rights or belonging as an American to their embrace of reigning norms. In other words, the postwar enterprise in visualizing black citizenship revealed benefits, as well as costs of engaging discursive politics of citizenship. In the early Cold War period, black mediamakers’ representation of black America encouraged expansive ideas of citizenship in the civil rights era.
“Black entrepreneurs produced mainstream images that claimed African Americans’ citizenship through their depiction as civic-minded patriots and capitalists.”
Presently, we are witnessing the power of popularized notions of ‘what Americans looks like’ with the tremendous rollback of inclusive notions of citizenship. Under the umbrella of “Make America Great Again,” our current administration consistently elevates an image of the Unites States that holds whites (specifically white, working-class men) as “true” Americans – an image vitalized through media coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign events, as well as alt-right rallies. Since 2016, this definition of American citizenship – which makes little to no room for people considered non-normative along lines of, especially, race, nationality, sexuality, or faith – has been increasingly codified and protected. Respectively, the rights and humanity of non-whites, non-citizens, and foreign-born people in the United States are under assault. The effects are clearly evident in the unchecked police brutality against black and brown people. It is also now acceptable – or, at least, excusable – for the President of the United States to tell American-born congresswomen to “go back to [the crime-ridden, non-white] countries they came from.” Finally, a prevalent image of the United States as a “white” country helps explain official policy that detains immigrants (overwhelmingly on our southern border) and asylum seekers – including children – in concentration camps and cages, and general allowance for this practice.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
In Representation, Stuart Hall asks the question, “Can there be an effective ‘politics of representation’?” This is the question Represented takes up and which I hope activists and organizers carefully consider when developing strategy within their respective movements and enacting their politics. The black imagemakers at the center of my book advanced black citizenship primarily by producing and promoting images that cast African Americans as “not disturbing.” Many of my students would refer to this as “respectability politics,” which they understand to be the attempt to integrate with or appease the dominant class. I push them to differentiate between polite protest, shared values, image politics, and the limits of agency when considering what compels activists’ or marginalized groups’ political tactics, which is separate from the effect of those tactics. It makes sense that marginalized, oppressed groups offer up “good” images to counter “bad” images and dispel stereotypes we believe undermine our claims of equality or worthiness. This is the politics of representation that kicks into gear and comes into plain view after incidents of police brutality, in particular. In the wake of such incidents, friends and family of the victim typically present a picture – often through pictures – of him, her, or them as upstanding, innocent, righteous, loving, and lovable, while the media, authorities, and other detractors depict that person as criminal, dangerous, or even just unrespectable. Back and forth this image war goes, as each “side” tries to fix their image as “true.” The effect is to perpetuate notions, as well as systems, of justice that do not recognize, let alone protect, the rights or humanity of people who appear “thuggish,” or people who are or appear to be welfare recipients, juvenile delinquents, homeless, prostitutes, etc. The more strategic route is to expose representational regimes that tie equality, civil rights, and humanity to normativity as constructed and lethal.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope readers will reject civil rights narratives that divorce “the struggle” from capitalism. It is wrongheaded, even illogical, to think that African Americans in the post-World War United States did, or could, pursue the experience of first-class citizenship in a society characterized by consumer capitalism without going through the market. While there are an increasing number of exceptions, U.S., African American, and civil rights histories have routinely depicted African Americans in the mid-twentieth century United States as isolated in their struggle, which has obscured their relationship to hugely significant events shaping that period, such as the expansion of visual media, the explosion of image-based marketing, the rise of mass consumerism and consumer citizenship, and the solidification of a middle-class, consumerist American Dream. Recognizing that African Americans’ civil rights campaigns intersected with market dynamics also challenges the overdetermined notion of the civil rights history as a history of activism alone. The black entrepreneurs at the center of Represented capitalized on consumer and political demand for visual representations of black citizenship to produce images of black America that undoubtedly served contemporary civil rights agendas. These men were not activists, they were unabashed capitalists and the work they performed on behalf of black civil rights reveals how, in efforts to improve their social position, African Americans necessarily engaged and participated in institutions that contributed to their oppression, most notably capitalism. The purpose is not to celebrate or condemn their choices, but to consider the historical circumstances that made them legitimate, logical, and reasonable. Recognizing that African Americans have pursued their equality, rights, and freedom through activists that were not oppositional, explicitly political, or, at times, even progressive is essential to understanding the successes, but also the failures of the modern black freedom movement.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Wow. Any answer I write here will be insufficient, given the debts I owe.
First, there are those historians that cracked open my thinking about how to “get at” the histories of subaltern groups. With To ‘Joy My Freedom, Tera W. Hunter gave me my first memorable lesson in “reading against the grain” through her use of the crime sections of post-Reconstruction newspapers to determine how African American women spent their “leisure” time. Walter Johnson’s “On Agency” and Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki Rosa” are foundational to how I think about and teach students to approach black historical actors.
Nan Enstad launched my deep dive into the relationship between consumerism and politics; Tiffany Gill, Adam Green, Davarian Baldwin, Nathan Connolly, and Quincy Mills helped me navigate those waters with their analyses of black politics and capitalism. My education about black photography began with Deborah Willis and continued with bell hooks, Shawn Michelle Smith and Leigh Raiford. Elspeth Brown’s influence on how I theorize about photography and the visual politics of citizenship runs through Represented.
Then there are the writers who have impressed upon me time and time again the power and potential of language. They include Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Adrian Louis, Louise Erdrich, James Baldwin, Gloria Day, and Toni Morrison, who said of storytelling, “The point is so that it doesn’t look like it’s sweating…the seams can’t show.”
Finally, without a doubt, my students are the scholars that inspire my work above all. Their intelligence and desire for it fuels – and legitimates – all my scholarship.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Represented demonstrates the challenges of pursuing rights or recognition through capitalism, an institution that relies on and reproduces inequality, and the market, a set of forces that popularize some products – including ideals – while devaluing and discarding others. Consumer demand, marketing practice and theory, corporate and political interests, and geopolitical concerns all set the terms of which conceptions of blackness have circulated and become popular, even ruling ideas. After World War II, these dynamics elevated media images of middle-class blackness as an accepted standard against which other appearances or performances of blackness – other ways of being black – have been judged and found wanting, if not frightening, criminal, or un-American. A primary argument of my book is that, in a consumer capitalist society, people necessarily wage their freedom battles through the market. However, the book also puts the lie to neoliberal notions of the market as a leavening agent or a force naturally inclined toward equity. Given this, how do we pursue progress along the lines equity, equality, or justice without producing or reproducing structures of meaning or circumstances that promote or, worse yet, require the exclusion or oppression of others? Is this possible? This question consumes many of my students, who belong to the generation that is, at present, most questioning capitalism’s viability and morality. I hope Represented encourages them in the legitimacy of their questions, as well as the urgency.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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