Herizons Commentary

Beyond Black Representation  by Cheryl Thompson
Beyond Black Representation

In January 2021, the acclaimed African American actor Cicely Tyson died at the age of 96. Her 1972 film Sounder, about the plight of a Black sharecropping couple and their children’s fight for opportunity amid a blatantly racist Depression-era town, was one of the first films I saw as a child.

Tyson’s character Rebecca was powerful and outspoken, brave and vulnerable, and she was also Black. That film fundamentally changed my sense of self because I had never seen a Black woman like that on the big screen. Seeing that film was the moment when I realized how much representation matters.

Seeing oneself reflected in the visual landscape of one’s world matters. But is it everything? In the 21st century, do we need to move beyond representation?

There are more diverse representations of Black women on television than ever before. From U.S. shows that centre Black women in leading roles like Grey’s Anatomy to CBC’s Diggstown, the 2020s appear to be the dawn of a new era for Black women on television. Similarly, with films, like Ana DuVernay’s Selma as well as Regina King’s directorial debut in One Night in Miami, Black women as producer/ directors seem to be breaking into Hollywood’s most exclusive club.

Despite these visual victories, the increased visibility of Black women has not eradicated racist, sexist stereotypes. These controlling images, as Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins has called them, continue to form part of a generalized ideology of domination over Black women’s bodies.

The controlling-image moment that caught the world’s attention happened in 2008 when, on the cover of The New Yorker, a cartoon depicted President Barack Obama in the Oval Office dressed in traditional Muslim attire and Michelle Obama wearing an Afro hairstyle with a machine gun slung over her back. This image not only set the tone for how the public perceived the Obama White House; for Michelle, it perpetuated a historical stereotype of Black women with natural hair as militants.

When Obama’s term ended in 2016, the Washington Post had enough examples of Michelle’s debasement to pen an article titled, “22 times Michelle Obama endured rude, racist, sexist or plain ridiculous attacks.”

These controversies have not singularly been resigned to political magazines. The problem persists in women’s magazines, as well. In the August 2020 issue of Vogue, Simone Biles, who has been called the greatest female athlete of all-time, appeared in a series of images taken by acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz in which the lighting not only darkened her skin but, in some shots, washed out her body, a camera choice that minimized her greatness as an athlete.

After the magazine was harshly criticized for not hiring a Black photographer, Vogue hired Tyler Mitchell, the 26-year-old who famously became the first Black photographer to shoot an American Vogue cover when he captured Beyoncé for the magazine’s September 2018 issue, to photograph Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman Vice President of the United States, for its February 2021 issue.

Wearing a black jacket and Converse sneakers, Harris posed against an apple green and salmon pink background. Once again, her skin tone was washed out and she looked not-so-powerful. After much outcry, the magazine placed an alternate image featuring Harris posed authoritatively in a light blue suit against a gold background on the cover, but the damage had been done.

Canada is not removed from the representation wars. In a by-election last October, broadcast journalist Marci Ien was elected as the Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre (Liberal) after receiving 41.2 percent of the vote. Also running for the seat was Annamie Paul, leader of the Green Party and the first Black and Jewish woman to be elected leader of a federal party. Paul came in second with 32.7 percent of the vote.

Given the accomplishments of these two Black women, you would think Ien and Paul would be on every Canadian political magazine. While there has been some coverage, Canadian media have whispered rather than shouted about the glass ceiling these women have broken through.

On both sides of the border, I am left wondering: Why is public outcry still required for Black women in positions of power to be represented accurately and authentically? ▼