Sojourner Truth, Alice Walker, Michelle Obama—each of these women faced and overcame the harmful stereotypes placed upon strong black women. Lakesia Johnson explores the strides these women have made and the challenges they faced in her new book Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman.
“Given the persistence of negative stereotypes that exist in American media, revolutionary black women have had to negotiate and counter racist and sexist images of women and black people,” said Johnson, professor of English and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies (GWSS), in an e-mail.
Iconic expands on Johnson’s doctoral research dealing with black women in popular culture and discusses the negative stereotypes presented by the media.
Johnson, who teaches a GWSS course this semester titled Feminism and Popular Culture, has a special interest in the media and how it shapes our culture.
“My fascination with 1970’s Blaxploitation films featuring black female leads was one of the major factors that lead me to focus on this topic. Many of these films reinforced negative stereotypes about black women as part of what I believe was an attempt to deal with the anxiety caused by real revolutionary black women who were active in the civil rights and feminist movements,” Johnson said.
Johnson states that pop culture and the media, out of fear, have created many offensive stereotypes, such as the mammy, jezebel, welfare queen, and the “angry black woman” in response to these strong icons. The last stereotype famously befell First Lady Michelle Obama during the 2008 election.
According to the NPR article “Time to ‘Redefine’ Media Portrayals of Black Women,” the First Lady received considerable media scrutiny during the campaign.
Commentators claimed her Princeton thesis proved she had “racial issues,” and an infamous July 2008 cover of the New Yorker featured an image of Michelle Obama sporting an Afro and machine gun.
“Unfortunately, any black woman who is confident and speaks up for herself and others can be categorized as angry, dangerous and unpatriotic,” Johnson said.
Many black women, however, have stood up to these negative images, becoming icons who fight against society’s preconceived notions.
Iconic tells the stories of many of these women. From abolitionist and early feminist Sojourner Truth, who became famous for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, to more modern women, such as poets Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, these women have challenged the common conceptions of society.
Many of these women experienced extreme backlash and tribulations. For example, Walker’s novel The Color Purple was often challenged due to its graphic subject matter, and activist Angela Davis was fired from her job at the University of California due to her political beliefs. Sojourner Truth had to escape from slavery. Yet, despite their struggles, these women were all revolutionary figures in history.
However, it wasn’t just these historical women that influenced Johnson to write Iconic. A strong woman influenced Johnson in her personal life as well.
“I was raised by a mother who never backed down when it came to protecting her family and her children,” Johnson said. “This fighting spirit in the face of discrimination and oppression is at the heart of the book.”
While it may seem to students that the balancing act of teaching at Grinnell and writing a book on such a complicated subject is overwhelming, it’s all part of the job for Johnson.
“Doing teaching, research and service on campus is an important part of what professors do,” Johnson said. “Balancing these tasks can be tricky, but my colleagues and I have managed to accomplish quite a bit of scholarly work. Being part of a group of faculty writers was key to my success.”
Johnson’s book is available at the Grinnell College library for anyone interested in learning more.
In addition, this Friday September 14 at 4:15 pm, Johnson will be reading from her book in JRC 101. For more information on Iconic, visit www.revolutionaryblackwomen.com.