Why Is This White Woman in a Morehouse Shirt?

For those familiar with the HBCU, Sanford Biggers’ image of a blonde in a crimson T-shirt bearing the school’s name is jarring. It’s safe to assume that’s intentional.

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Because blackness is neither static nor easily defined, any number of volumes could be written to address this question, and they would still fall. African-American identity and culture have always been fluid, and this image represents their continuing evolution.

But at this particular moment in history, the photo is notably defined by who isn’t in it: the black woman. Does her erasure signify the demise of the black family? Does it represent a stereotypical, pathological dreamscape—the hoped-for outcome of an educated black man’s fortune and the associated elimination of the black woman from his life?

At this particular moment in history, the photo is notably defined by who isn’t in it: the black woman. 

Even further, Biggers’ model appears jubilant. Is that an allusion to her willingness to literally don the shirt of a black man and emotionally support him in friendship or sexual intimacy? And if so, what are we to make of this? Perhaps this image is symbolic of what some would deem “the new black,” the aspirational identity that characterizes the wished-for world of those who yearn to transcend race, or convince themselves that they’ve done so already.

By inserting the name of one of the black community’s most hallowed schools and then corrupting it with the unexpected, Biggers’ piece offers us an opportunity to reconsider who we are. It inspires the kind of discomfort that encourages examination of both our prejudices and our priorities. That’s what art—and this controversial photograph in particular—asks of us.

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Irvin Weathersby is a writer and adjunct professor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow him on Twitter.