8/8/2014 For the love of (black) pop culture – The Gonzaga Bulletin: Arts & Entertainment
For the love of (black) pop culture
Story by Jordan Love Video by Eddie Legaspi | Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 3:00 am
Dr. Manoucheka Celeste’s “For the Love of Black Pop Culture” provided a historical overview of black representation and the problematic images that continue to be incorporated into popular culture in her lecture on Tuesday.
Celeste, an assistant professor of African American studies at UNLV, was hosted by the women and gender studies department and UMEC in honor of Black History Month.
Misrepresentations of blackness can be traced to black performance themes in Jim Crow and blackface during the 17th century. These entertainment practices involved interpretations and caricatures of African Americans portrayed by white male performers. African Americans were portrayed with over-the-top googly eyes, extremely large lips, and were mentally slow, dumb and incompetent.
“Popular culture and media are signs of struggle. Part of it is oppressive and part of it is liberating,” Celeste said. She suggested that individuals could create meaning and challenge it through observing themes and representations in pop culture.
Celeste presented a PowerPoint slide of pictures from a number of films featuring black actors and actresses and asked what they all had in common.
The films included Gone with the Wind (1939), The Help (2011), Training Day (2001), Monster’s Ball (2001) and Hustle and Flow (2005). The films all integrated black stereotypical characters (a pimp, a mammie, a hyper-sexualized and violated woman and a violent and corrupt police officer) and they had all won Oscars. The academy recognized black actors and actresses who portrayed harmful stereotypes of black people in their work.
Celeste also critiqued Beyonce Knowles’ iconic status as a black woman in pop culture and as a figure worshipped as post-race, post-feminism and post-identity. Beyonce was quoted in a 2009 Vogue magazine interview describing herself as universal and beyond the issue of race. She does not address issues of race in any of her interviews or song lyrics, and this is problematic for African Americans idolizing her for whom racism is still very much a part of their everyday lives, Celeste argued.
“Black women cling to the idea of representation. Anything is better than nothing,” Celeste said. She explained that the way in which Beyonce’s body and sexuality is displayed today, as the focal point of her fame, is comparable to the sexual exploitation of Sarah Baartman in 19th century Europe. It is the focal point of her appeal and it is idolized.
Beyonce was named People magazine’s most beautiful person last year but Celeste argued that she was judged by European standards of beauty. The only other black women featured on the “most beautiful list” were Gabrielle Union and Halle Berry — also women with more European, straight and narrow physical features.
“There’s something about blackness that people don’t want to deal with,” Celeste said.
African American singers like India. Arie, Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello and Janelle Monae do not usually have long-lasting careers (or fame comparable to Beyonce) because they do not represent European ideals of beauty, Celeste said. They do not hyper-sexualize their bodies but instead keep them covered with clothing. They also incorporate issues of race and struggle into their music, which is not appealing to a “universal” white audience.
Celeste’s call to action involved finding the courage to critique institutions of power, social structure, industry and images that justify oppression. It also requested an investment in representing the multiple voices, images and experiences of black people.
“We definitely idolize figures like Beyonce on this campus, and we need to challenge what we think is the norm or universal,” said senior and BSU member Michaela Brown. “We need to be open to other representations of black women.”