Angela Davis, Pam Grier, Alice Walker, Michelle Obama. Revolutionary Black women have evoked strong reaction throughout American history. Magazines, political campaigns, music, television and movies have relied upon deep-seated archetypes and habitually cast strong, counter-cultural Black women as mammies and sexual objects. In “Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman” (Baylor University Press, $22.95), Lakesia Johnson explores how this belittling imagery is imposed by American media, revealing an immense cultural fear of Black women’s power and potential.
“This book asks what it means to represent Black womanhood and explores how these representations are connected to the long history of representational depictions and choices that communicate the role of Black women in social movements,” explains Johnson. “On the one hand, ‘Iconic’ explores how representations of strong, revolutionary Black women within popular culture are use to reinforce dominant, lingering and mostly negative stereotypes about Black women. On the other hand, ‘Iconic’ traces the numerous ways that African-American women activists, actors, writers and musicians have negotiated, confronted and resisted stereotypical representations of Black womanhood by taking control of their public images and constructing iconic depictions of and narratives about African-American womanhood ...These revolutionary Black women have used these counter images to promote a vision of racial and gender justice that is attentive to their inter-sectional experiences and committed to movements that fight against racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.”
Johnson chronicles how strong Black women — truly revolutionary Black women — have nonetheless taken control of their own imaging despite consistent negative characterizations. Through their speech, demeanor, fashion and social relationships, women from Sojourner Truth to Michelle Obama have counteracted these depictions. With ingenuity, fortitude and focus on the greater good, these revolutionary women transformed the cultural images of themselves and, simultaneously, those of American Black women as a whole.
Seamlessly weaving together role models of past and present, from women in politics to artists and musicians, Johnson eloquently demonstrates how the revolutionary Black woman in many public forums has been — and continues to be — a central figure in challenging long-standing social injustices.
As assistant professor of gender, women’s & sexuality studies and English at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, Johnson doesn’t allow the media does not have the last word: “Part of what I’m doing is looking at the image of the angry Black woman, or the revolutionary Black women, gets used when she speaks truth to power.”