My husband was excited about his latest find for our kitchen: A pulpy poster of an old ad for Campbell's "gumbo," stirred by a plump, black woman in an apron and Aunt Jemima-style bandana. Me? Not so much.
The woman could have been one of my grandmothers, who were both descended from slaves and both worked as domestics. I am proud of them and their sacrifice. But did I really want to be reminded of their limited life prospects every time I went into my kitchen?
When we look at images of the black woman, we never see them as individuals. It's always how said black woman fits into the larger historical procession. The feminist writer and educator Anna Julia Cooper famously wrote: "Only the BLACK WOMEN can say 'when and where I enter … the whole Negro race enters with me.' " She was talking about civil rights, but for better or worse, today that quote is just as relevant when it comes to media images.
This mostly explains the all-out love affair black women are having with Michelle Obama, who is setting us forward centuries with every public appearance. It also explains groans and bourgie conniption fits when Mo'Nique announced plans to do a biopic on Hattie McDaniel. And more recently why, when Erykah Badu debuted her new video, "Window Seat," in which she stripped down to nothing—it immediately drew some comparisons to the Venus Hottentot.
I am proud of Mo'Nique's bold attempts to rescue Hattie McDaniel's legacy from the pretentious Talented Tenth-ers. You know these folks who are embarrassed by the fact that there was a time in history when the majority of black people had rough, calloused hands used at the pleasure of white people. Set aside the fact that the majority of black people still have rough, calloused hands used at the pleasure of white people. Bottom line: It was true. Black women worked as maids in the South. Still do. I, too, cringe at McDaniels' reported groveling. But can we give her a little credit for what the writer Sheri Parks described as her work as a closet rebel? Hattie McDaniel deserves attention and respect for her accomplishment, and not to mention a little bit of credit for being a quiet, below-the-radar subversive.
Now Erykah Badu's video is a bit more complicated. Strolling purposefully through the streets of downtown Dallas, near the grassy knoll where JFK was shot, Badu throws off her clothes piece by piece. At the end of the video, Badu falls to the ground, shot dead, blood spilling out of her body spelling GROUPTHINK. Then a voiceover says:
"They play it safe. Are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another. They feel most comfortable in groups, less guilt to swallow. They are us. This is what we have become. Afraid to respect the individual. A single person within a circumstance can move one to change, to love our self, to evolve."
Badu told her Twitter followers that she was "inspired by this contagious act of freedom and artistic expression," and added a link to the similar video by the Brooklyn musicians Matt & Kim, who should be noted, are white.
Writers like Miles Marshall Lewis are hailing the video's message: "I saw it as the death of selling ass as a way to sell units." But I have a hard time believing he would say the same if say, Keyshia Cole made the same "statement." The very cynical will note how many more units her bare ass will help her move of her next album, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), which drops today. They will point out the tens of thousands of new followers she now has on Twitter.
But the non-cynical part of me also cheers for Erykah's refusal to get weighed down by the history of stereotypes and the uses and abuses of the black female body. With each piece of clothing, she is tossing all the baggage aside, striding purposely ahead as people scream at her "You oughta be ashamed!" She is releasing the shackles of history and stereotypes: the long history of black women's bodies, and the images of those bodies, being traded like cattle. She is pushing past the dehumanizing way that Sara Baartman's behind was put on display for morbid consumption. She is an artist, an individual—pushing the limits of her—and our—comfort zones.
We can go to the moon; we can run a Fortune 500 company, live in the White House. Why can't black women get nekkid like everybody else?
Me—I'm not quite there yet. My husband thought the Mammy poster was fun and ironic tribute to his Louisiana roots. "Absolutely not," I told him. On the phone my mother-in-law piped in from New Orleans. "Take it back!"
He begrudgingly agreed to take it back but noted, not untruthfully. "I don't know why you are so upset about it. It's not like you cook anyways. You feminists kill me!"
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
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Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.