Posts Tagged ‘Erykah Badu’

Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me—a big, looming blank space—full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don’t have to be. – Walter, A Raisin in the Sun, I.ii

Yes—just look at what the New World hath wrought!…Just look! There he is! Monsieur le petit bourgeois noir—himself! There he is—Symbol of a Rising Class! Entrepreneur! Titan of the system! Did you dream of yachts on Lake Michigan, Brother? Did you see yourself on that Great Day sitting down at the Conference Table, surrounded by all the might bald-headed men in America? All halted, waiting, breathless, waiting for your pronouncements on industry? Waiting for you—Chairman of the Board! I look at you and I see the final triumph of the stupidity of the world! – Beneatha, A Raisin in the Sun, III

Erykah_Badu_-_New_Amerykah

On the album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), neo-soul singer Erykah Badu offers a black female counter-narrative to what black radical feminist bell hooks calls the “imperialism of patriarchy,” re-imagining America as a site of universal humanity where, “as sure as All and All is one, we All shall grow before it’s done.”[1]  In this, Badu works to unveil the dystopian dimensions of the American Dream, breaking the chains of her own imprisonment to its seductive allure of bourgeois comfort through a hip-hop inflected feminist critique of the legacy and structure of male dominance on which the promise of the American project is premised.

At the outset of the album Badu satirizes American capitalist utopianism, implicating it an economics of slavery by which one’s entire being is exchanged for the falsely perceived security of money and sex. In “American Amerykahn Promise,” a male voice—presumably that of the corpse-like, gun-toting Uncle Sam pictured in the album sleeve—speaks for this illusion of economic and social stability. Backed up by female singers as if a game-show host, this troubling icon of American hegemony offers a deceptively warm welcome to his audience, advertising America as a beautiful place of true love and fulfilled desire.  In the background a choir repeats the refrain, “promise promise amerykahn promise,” and, is if brainwashed, sing:

Promise I’ll love you ‘til the day I die / Promise I’ll love you good and give you the sky / Promise I’ll never love another guy / Promise I’ll give you things that you can’t buy / I’ll give you my nose / I’ll give you my toes / I’ll give you my eyes / I’ll give you my ears / I’ll give you my hands / I’ll give you my lips / I’ll give you my tongue / I’ll give you my thighs / Damn near anything you want

In a manner of irony, the song signifies on modern conceptions of the New World, believed by the architects of modernity to be a land of figurative “milk and honey”—a land fashioned on the black backs of slaves who were forced to give “nose, toes, eyes, ears, hands, lips, tongue, thighs” for the purposes of realizing the American Dream.

Badu meanwhile critiques the process of socialization whereby subjects are conditioned to hand over their history in exchange for what the figure of Uncle Sam in the song calls “a modern mystery”—a dream of Utopia as it exists “across space and before time,” where there is “more action, more excitement, more everything” as long one “stays on the grind.” This is particularly the case for the female subject in America as intimated in the song when Uncle Sam admonishes a “young lady”—curious about the status of her “42 Laws” (read: human rights)—for “causing quite a disturbance over here.” He proclaims in the fashion of an Orwellian Big Brother, “I want everyone to see this. I think we’re gonna have to make an example of her. Rid me of her sight. But before you get rid of her, give me a brain tissue sample of her. We’re gonna have to use it. We might need that later.”

Through satire, “American Amerykahn Promise” references the way “American women have been socialized, even hooks_aint i a womanbrainwashed, to accept a version of American history that was created to uphold and maintain racial imperialism in the form of white supremacy and sexual imperialism in the form of patriarchy.”[2] As hooks writes, the success of such indoctrination depends upon the conscious and unconscious perpetuation of the very evils that oppress black women.[3] Badu implies this much toward the song’s end when we hear a woman’s voice giving the directive, “Ok, when he say a key word, everybody, everybody just shout.” Critiquing the way power is organized and consolidated through a process of double- or groupthink, Badu laments the loss of individual rights to a warped vision of democracy that has implanted in our psyches “a seed of the racial imperialism,” to quote hooks, which keeps the black female subject in bondage.[4]

This critique runs through the rest of the album, which functions as a collective “wake-up call” to those seduced like the characters of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun by an American Dream, the real dimensions of which are “white supremacy, black ‘inferiority,’ […] fascism and war.”[5] Understood this way, the American Dream is really a guise for an oppressive system of white male patriarchy that judges an individual’s worth—whether male or female—according to his or her productive capacity, and establishes a hierarchy of being according to normative codes of gender, class, race, and sexuality that place black women at the very bottom.

Badu’s rallying cry against patriarchal and racial imperialism is made explicitly clear in tracks such as “Soldier.” An anti-war, anti-fascist and Black Power protest song in its own right, “Soldier” finds Badu calling for an increase in critical consciousness through education, non-violence, and a deeper rootedness in individual and collective Black history:

BACK BLACK!!! / What am I talkin’ about / Everybody know what the songs about / They be trying to hide the history / But they know who we are / Do you want to see? / Everybody rise to the next degree / Raise your hands high if you agree / Just say YES SIR-REE….

Channeling the spirit of Harriet Tubman—with a “shot gun on ya’ back”—Badu stakes her claim in the cause of black radicalism as a female leader, thereby assuming a revolutionary role typically reserved to black men in the struggle for liberation.[6]

In so doing, Badu puts herself on equal footing with the likes of black male leaders such as Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, invoked in the beautifully contemplative self-tribute, “Me,” when she sings, “I salute you Farrakhan…cause you are me…” Signifying on the Nation of Islam’s newspaper The Final Call, Badu reminds us that we “got the wake up call / when [we] saw the buildings fall.” Referring to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers, Badu implicates the Black Nationalist call for economic justice in the struggle against American racial imperialism that the razed buildings, monuments of American neo-colonialism, represent. She further protests American racial imperialism by alluding to the dispossession of a large percentage of New Orleans’ black community—“baptized,” as Badu sings, “when the levy broke”—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Badu therefore sings to prevent black history’s erasure by the “powers that be.” Calling on black activists—“my folks”—not to stop “‘till you change they mind,” Badu takes her place in a lineage of black matriarchs such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, and Angela Davis who exercised a dogged strength in the causes of women’s suffrage, anti-lynching, abolition, and black power respectively. Most important to Badu, however, is the role of her own blood mother Kolleen Gibson Wright, “a girl from South Dallas, Texas,” who married William, gave birth to “Erkyah, then Chorea (sp?) under Erykah, and then […] finally delivered Evan Wood.” According to Badu, “[Kolleen] look like a model with those eyes. She was witty and beautiful.”

People were drawn to her smile. “Lovely, young and fresh,” sings Badu, “I could not think of a better soul that I’d rather be like or admire. Kolleen is tighter, smarter, quicker than the average bear. Even though, even though it was hard. You would never ever know it.” A testimony to the power of black womanhood, this sung homage to her mother, a coda to “Me,” portrays a message similar to that of Hansberry’s Raisin…, signifying the “strength and self-sacrificing nature of the single black mother working to ensure the survival of her family.”[7]

Through Badu’s description of Kolleen, we glimpse a portrait of an assertive, self-possessed and independent black woman whose role as mother functioned to embody a kind of black liberation specific to the female experience.

Indeed, in the liner notes she dedicates the project to her grandmothers, Thelma Louis Gipson and Mattie Viola Wilson, and “to their struggle as young women and their knowing as old women.” Badu adds, “Because of you I sing!!!” Punning on the words “matriarch” and “artist,” she writes, “We love you! Matriarts! Soldiers! Women! Creators! Life givers! Friends! Teachers! I owe you. I am you. I love you.”

This is coupled with shout-outs to fellow music-makers—male and female—in whom she finds peers, as well as a note of thanksgiving to God whose gender she queers, “I give thanks to the Most High Freaq. [a fusion of  “Freak” and “Frequency”]. The Original G [read: “Gangsta”]. The Author of The Story. The Time Keeper. The Mother/Father-rhythm duo. The All Knowing One of ONENESS of ONE.”

It is under this banner of divine unity in multiplicity that Badu implicates herself in a collective struggle that is the work of a uniquely black female subject in particular and a universal human subject in general. As such, Badu can tell her brothers and sisters in “My People” to “hold on / thru the thunder and lightning” for a love that conquers all division is “on the way.”

And who are these people? They are the Brendas of Badu’s testament to the reality of post-industrial urban blight in “The Cell,” who “done died with no name” as result of drug addiction—symptomatic of the greater social ill of racial imperialism. Diagnosing the problem as a social sickness, Badu sings, “we’re not well / we’re not well / we can tell,” before asking:

Will they ever find the vaccine? / Shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang / Rich man got the double barrel, / Po man got his back to the door…/ Code white, stand for trouble…/ Shots from the po-po

Echoing the likes of Tupac, Nas, Black Star, and Cornel West, Badu addresses the issue of black nihilism in America, which functions as a fatalistic response to white supremacist oppression along the lines of class, gender, race and sexuality. In this case, society is a figurative slave chamber, a holding cell to keep black bodies in check through a system of heightened surveillance, police brutality, and the prison industry itself. Moreover, it is market-driven, promising happiness through the attainment of material wealth—“shiny new things / (diamond gold chains diamond gold rings)” as the song goes— that is ultimately inaccessible to those, namely racial minorities, on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Furthermore, Badu indicts American society in the exploitation of black female bodies.  In this vein, Brenda’s “light-skinned body” signifies a history of miscegenation that often happened through rape to which black women were subjected at the hands of white slave masters. Such exploitation manifests today as prostitution, pornography, and sex trafficking.

Possibly a child of rape, the fictional Brenda finds herself reduced to the status of commodity, a dehumanized object splayed nude across a “center-fold spread.” A synecdoche for the exploited black female laborer, she is Badu’s frame of reference for protesting a broken social system that capitalizes on the black body as a source of national revenue. As the album art for the song suggests, the black body, symbolized by a blood-red thumbprint, is worth nothing more than the price assigned to it by a bar code.

Badu also problematizes the dual issue of materialism and black nihilism in “Twinkle.” Against the threat of fatalism, she sings:

They don’t know their language / They don’t know their god / They take what their (sic) given / Even when it feels Odd / They say their grandfathers and grandmothers work hard for nothing / And we still in this ghetto / So / They end up in prisons / They end up in blood

Echoing hooks’ contention that “wherever there exists a master/slave relationship, an oppressed/oppressor relationship, violence, mutiny, and hatred will permeate all elements of life,”[8] Badu adds:

They keep us uneducated sick & depressed / They end up in blood / Doctor I’m addicted now I’m under arrest / They end up in blood / We makin’ mo money than a mutha fugga / They end up in blood / With NO choices theres (sic) NO hope for us / They end up in blood

Situating the problem of black criminality in the context of urban decay, Badu hints at the white supremacist practice of class- and race-based exclusion that limits black access to education and other means of social mobility such as meaningful work. In this way, she further posits the intersection of classicism and racism while reminding her audience that people without options will make a virtue of violence, mutiny, and hatred if necessity demands it.

In so doing, Badu performs the part of critical realist. As Amiri Baraka says of Hansberry in his critical reevaluation of Raisin, Badu “analyzes and assesses reality and shapes her statement[s] as an aesthetically powerful and politically advanced work of art. Her statement[s] cannot be separated from the characters [such as Brenda] she creates to embody, in their totality, the life she observes.”[9] This is made more explicit in “That Hump” wherein Badu takes on the persona of a dope fiend who feeds a drug addiction as a means of escape from the struggles of the everyday and to numb the pain of its brutalities on her black body.

In light of this harsh underside of the American Dream as it manifests in the life of the archetypal Brenda, Badu professes to keep vigilant in “Master Teacher.” Lamenting the dearth of black leadership in society, she asks:

What if there was no niggas only master teachers? / I stay woke / Even if your baby don’t have no money to support you / I stay woke / Even when the preacher tell you some Lies and cheating on ya mama / I stay woke / Even though you go through struggle and stride (sic) to keep ahead in your life / I stay woke

Badu affirms her own search for “something new,” embodying the demeanor of an assertive and independent woman looking to find a “beautiful world,” as she sings, “searching inside me searching inside you.”

It is in this search that Badu comes to find within herself the “master teacher” for whom she is seeking. As such she appropriates the traditional American Dream and fashions a “New Amerykah” into being by reclaiming her own autonomy as black female subject who insists on staying “woke.” In this, she refuses to deny the reality of racial imperialism, holding herself accountable to revealing the underside of American history as one of genocide, slavery, apartheid, and colonial conquest. Reminding her listeners not to believe everything we think (see “The Healer”), Badu invokes the spirit of her African heritage as it lives through hip-hop, a movement “bigger than the government.”[10]

In the liner notes to Part Two of her New Amerykah album series, Return of the Ankh, Badu welcomes her listeners into the “mind of Amerykah.” Shorthand for “I am Erykah” as well as a pun on the word, “America,” the term signifies her struggle to reconcile with the American Dream-cum-Nightmare, as Malcom X would have it, and be wary of its many false promises of security and success.

A self-described “bundle of light energy,” according to her notes, Badu considers herself “a spiritual being first, man or woman second, Black or White 3rd, Jew or Gentile 4th, and pretty or ugly 5th.” It is from this queer positionality, simultaneously located between and on both sides of various binaries (of gender, phenotype, race, religion and appearance), that Badu the artist sings herself into a new existence as a figure of enlightenment, master teacher and soldier alike—engaged in the long, hard struggle to “stay woke” through the healing power of “fire, dance, sex, music, hip hop.”[11]

[1] See the lyrics for “Me,” Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Universal Motown, 2008.

[2] bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 120.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Riffing on hooks, ibid., 121.

[5] Amiri Baraka, “A Critical Reevaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion,” in Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 17

[6] See op. cit. 95.

[7] See hooks, ibid., 179.

[8] hooks, ibid., 117.

[9] Baraka, op. cit., 10.

[10] See lyrics to “The Healer,” New Amerykah (4th World War)

[11] Ibid.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Against a luminescent violet backdrop resplendent with flowery, multi-colored foliage the mechanized bust of a misty-eyed Badu stares serenely at the viewer. A rich mixture of orange, blood red, deep purple, royal blue, and fuschia wildflowers , some of which resemble peacock feathers in shape and pattern, reach in full flourish toward a twilight sky arched by three crescent moons—two on the left-hand side of the portrait in wax; and one on the right-hand side in wane.  A closer look at the thick vegetation reveals a human fetus just beyond the android’s right shoulder.

Nestled inside of a yellow-orange wildflower in full bloom, the little human body gestates as if a bud awaiting its first blossom or a caterpillar on the verge of hatching its chrysalis. Beyond the robotic figure’s left shoulder lies a babe firmly planted in a purple flower blossom just after the word Return (of the album’s title). Above that is another baby wrapped in the pink leaves of a daffodil as if in swaddling clothes.

Beneath this other-worldly garden is a mound of random objects in miniature detail—an amalgam of fighter planes; a smashed TV with a cracked glass screen; a porcelain toilet bowl; space satellites; cell phones; a one-story house with the word “foreclosed” written across its side; chain links; a dollar sign; the Washington D.C. Capital building with the mythical “Eye of Horus” covering its dome; an open packet of cigarettes; sports utility vehicles; a Caduceus staff stuck inside (or rising from) a toilet bowl; a tea bag; a cheeseburger; power plants; bullets; and bombs—that together form what looks to be a massive trash heap of technological waste away from which the feminine android seems to be moving. Across the top of this dystopian landfill read the words of the album title in capitalized bubble lettering: A New Amerykah Part Two on the right-hand side of the forward-facing body; Return of the Ankh on its left.

Flanked by Japanese bonsai trees that rise up in the far background on each side of this metallic visage, the robot stands in juxtaposition to the mostly untainted natural environ that surrounds the quasi-human being’s silver form. The figure appears to be the singer herself, transformed into a machine as evidenced by the metallic blue and silver bolts, wires, and plates that constitute her humanesque head and shoulders. A neck ring, also called a “dzilla,” coils around her throat, ornamenting the figure with an air of wealth and status that is attributed to such accouterments by cultures indigenous to Africa including the South Ndebele peoples.[1]

A circular medallion with a triangle inside—a dual symbol of creation and eternity—is situated where the figure’s collar bone would be, and on either side of that are two silver medallions with heart-shaped ankhs engraved into them. Also known as the “key of life,” “the key of the Nile,” or crux ansanta (Latin for “cross with a handle”), the ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that symbolizes eternal life.[2] The two ankhs depicted on each of the plates form the base of a trinity completed by a third ankh, tattooed on the curved back of the bronze-skinned, female body emerging  from the android’s open crown as though from a plant bed.

Taken together, the three ankhs form the points of an invisible triangle—a multivalent symbol of ascension, harmony, creativity, subjectivity, culmination and integration.[3] As figurative tattoos, the ankhs signify on what literary theorist Hortense Spillers calls the “hieroglyphics of the flesh”—a reference to the wounds such as lash marks, whipping scars, and brands inscribed on slave bodies that designated their subhuman status as objects of their white masters’ possession.[4] In terms of how Badu is performing them, they mark a reclamation of and ownership over her own black body—whether depicted as a goddess-birthing robot, or the goddess herself.

A classic depiction of the Egyptian symbol of the Ankh.

A classic depiction of the Egyptian symbol of the Ankh.

The arabesque branches of the sprouting figuration on the mythical Tree of Life to which this miniature, goddess-like figure clings spiral upwards, forming letters that spell out the singer’s full name. The small human figure meanwhile gives a sidelong glance over the smooth contours of her left shoulder, naked like her backside and the partially revealed front of her upper torso. A lush, light green bed of shrubs blanket her lower torso. The figure holds a tuning fork in her left hand, its glitter as golden as the royal wig she dons to compliment the sharp features of her face. It is an evocative stance, indicative of one who holds the power to instill harmony and balance in the universe as intimated by the two-pronged instrument she wields which, when struck, sends out a vibratory frequency that ripples like the circular vortex hovering just above the tree as if waves caused by a pebble thrown into a still pond.

As a whole, the portrait is an evocation of a new beginning, made plain not only by dint of the album title, but by the symbolism the cover art portrays. It pictures an “outer space” landscape fashioned as a kind of utopia.  At once futuristic and seemingly “pre-civilized,” the world pictured here is mythic—a kind of virgin forest untouched by the rapaciousness of modern “progress,” signified by the landfill behind these two figures.

A symbol of a failed American Dream, the trash heap equates the project of modernity—built on the black backs of slaves—to nothing more than a pile of compost that functions as fertilizer for the evolution of a new epoch. Indeed, the portraiture announces a new era of earth-consciousness, ushered in with the dawn of the divine feminine as symbolized by the brown-skinned goddess that emerges from the robot’s head like Athena from the crown of Zeus. In this way, Badu signifies on Ancient Greek mythology, appropriating a tradition associated with the dawn of Western civilization through a black feminist lens that culls from Ancient Egyptian symbolism to reroute (read:  “re-root”) modern history in a far more ancient and black past.

Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. Image from Username or e-mail:  Password:  CREATE NEW ACCOUNTFORGOT YOUR PASSWORD? D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. See: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385015837?aff=annieandaunt

Athena emerging from the head of Zeus.  Image from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.

In so doing, Badu not only rewrites a dominant western narrative of origins in Greek civilization, but refigures a mythological tradition so as to position herself as a goddess in her own right, embodying the virtues of “wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill” that the classical Pallas Athena represents.[5] Moreover, she inverts the paradigm of Father God by playing the role of Zeus. That is, if we take this manifestation of herself as android to represent an albeit dehumanized, though strikingly human, embodiment of the female sex—of Badu herself. Taking this to be the case, Badu further queers an already queer mythological figure and professes a kind of faith in the cult of divine motherhood in which the creator is “Mother of all (wo)men” rather than simply “Father of all men.”

Granted it is difficult to escape the fact that this version of herself is a post-human machine. Yet, what is significant in the way of its giving birth to a fully formed woman, who herself is a kind of super-human figure, is the fact that it humanizes what could easily be mistaken for a mere android. In this way Badu signifies on the dehumanizing forces of technological advancement and a global political economy that has reduced the human subject to an object of labor, a mere cog in the capitalist machinery of modern civilization, and no more or less than the commodities produced for mass consumption within capitalism’s austere system of wage slavery.

Against this, Badu works to humanize the technologies that have reduced her to the status of object, personifying the machine that even she, as socially peripheral artist who in many ways exists outside of the labor force, is subject to becoming. In the vein of an Afrofuturist she appropriates images of technology and a “prosthetically enhanced future” and reclaims her own humanity in the process. She therefore posits a “uni-versal humanity” on the cyborg landscape of “spaceship earth” in the midst of the devastation wrought by the forces of a global “austerity economy” that runs the capitalist machine.

Moreover, in this portrayal of herself as android, Badu critiques the idea of prosthetics bettering humanity insofar as it exists “alongside a dystopic notion of prosthetics as dehumanizing [in the way it] replaces people and/or reduces them to a single mechanized labor function.”[6] To echo cultural critic Bershini Bhana Young’s assessment of graphic arts/writer John Jenning’s 2009 series Matterz of Fact, Badu, by way of Emek, “insist[s] on tempering our celebration of the cyborg and the prosthetic,” issuing a “quiet warning lest we embrace the cyborg too easily without careful attention to its historical context” as a flesh-consuming machine that turns persons into commodities, life into death. [7]

From John Jennings' Matterz of Fact series

From John Jennings’ Matterz of Fact series, 2009. For an engaging write-up on Jennings’ work, visit: http://www.buffalo.edu/home/feature_story/black-comix.html.

As Young says of Jennings’ images, the picture of Badu as machine shows that

disembodiment and/or hyperembodiment, in fact, is not an escape from the traumatic consequences of race. Rather the monstrosity of the cyborg draws our attention to the monstrosity of the master as he forcibly removed blacks form categories of the human and converted them into prosthetic devices.[8]

By taking ownership of the figurative machine and giving fleshy, human features to the cyborg, Badu vivifies it and the technological landscape it inhabits with new life that emerges like the black Athenian goddess from the forehead of this “new human.” Badu thus attempts to “conjure up a different kind of world that re-focuses our attention on the intimate encounters between capitalism’s violence, artistic world-making, technology and the (black) body.”[9]

The vision she creates of the future, then, is no longer a machinery of civilization, but a humanity of civilization. What we have, echoing cultural critic Griffith Rollefson, is the “tactical recovery of the black soul” that foregrounds—literally, in terms of Badu’s album art—black subjectivity in reimagining history with the mythic dimensions of an African past.  Badu thereby puts a black face not on the technological catastrophes of modern progress but on the actual redemption of the human race through and in spite of technoculture itself.

Indeed, insofar as the android represents a variation on her own black, female body, Badu’s human figure breathes life into the machine in a way that infuses technology with black power and black female “being-hood.”

As evidenced by the tuning fork that the mini-goddess clasps, the force with which Badu aims to accomplish this task of regeneration is that of music, a labor of love and an expression of the very lifeforce responsible for the overwhelming fertility of this “New Amerykah” pictured on the cover.

Shorthand for “I am Erykah” as well as a pun on the word, “America,” the term signifies her struggle to reconcile with the American Dream-cum-nightmare, as Black Power figurehead Malcom X would have it, and be wary of its many false promises of security and success. A self-described “bundle of light energy,” according to her liner notes for Part Two, Badu considers herself “a spiritual being first, man or woman second, Black or White 3rd, Jew or Gentile 4th, and pretty or ugly 5th.”[10]

Erykah_Badu_-_New_Amerykah part 1

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), cover art by Emek, 2008.

It is from this queer positionality, simultaneously located between and on both sides of various binaries (of gender, phenotype, race, religion and appearance), that Badu the artist sings herself into a new existence as a figure of enlightenment, master teacher, goddess and soldier alike—engaged in the long, hard struggle to “stay woke” through the healing power of “fire, dance, sex, music, hip hop.”[11]

It is also from this intersubjective stance that Badu offers her “oppositional gaze,” to recall the words of black feminist bell hooks, by which she finds power in looking and thereby reclaims the right to gaze that has been historically denied black people in the “politics of slavery.”[12] The black Athena’s “sidelong glance” [13] meanwhile embellishes this defiant “looking back,” making of the album art and the “other-world” it portrays a site of resistance, a space of agency wherein the singer can construct her presence through bodily performance. By making visible a so often invisible presence in the “scopic regime” of white patriarchal society, Badu inverts a paradigm of “phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white.’”[14]

She therefore upends the threat of erasure by acknowledging her own black womanhood through a defiant gaze, and “sidelong glance,” that functions to interrogate the viewer’s return gaze, calling him or her to question their assumptions with regard to what the black female body signifies in the context of a “New Amerykah.” As hooks writes, “Looking and look back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory using it as a way to know the present and invent the future.”[15]

There is little question that Badu is engaged in this very practice of “counter-memory” by looking back at the objectifying stare that has reduced her, as black woman, to the status of the “abject”—the invisible presence, the horrifying corporeality of blackness[16]–on account of her doubly-layered alterity (read: “otherness”) as both black and woman. Hers is the depiction of a black female body free of the discipline and punishment wrought on black female bodies according to dominant ideals of beauty as white and feminine. In this way, she breaks free from the dehumanizing glare of whiteness by returning the gaze as both android and sidelong glancing goddess.

In using her own flesh—whether as humanized cyborg or super-human black goddess—as a site of protest to authenticate an embodied expression of black female subjectivity, Badu accomplishes a task that black feminist and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady commissions the cultural worker to take up in her work: (re)inscribing the black, female body with new meaning and purpose in order to liberate it from the colonizing  claims of patriarchy and racism on its freedom as a “place” of agency, autonomy, and movement.[17] Badu in this way engages in an act of deconstruction. By making her body a matter of public display, Badu casts a critical eye on a society that has historically exploited the black body as a means to define racial difference and, ultimately, racial (read: black) inferiority.

Cultural critic Lisa Gail Collins does well to unpack this historical reality in her investigation of the “Hottentot Venus”[18]—a derogatory term that references the exploitative use of South African-born American slave Saartjie Baartman’s body by 19th century French zoologist George Cuvier as evidence of difference between the white and black races. Like the African-American women Collins uplifts in her assessment of artistic confrontation with the denigration of Baartman’s rotund body—at once contained, observed, dissected and labeled in a manner of both “scientific” exploration and pornographic entertainment—Badu resituates and recontexualizes the “Hottentot Venus” as a signifier of radical insubordination of, versus subjection to, the white supremacist logic of racial superiority.

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Badu does so by placing herself in the position of Baartman, personifying not only a black variation on the Greek goddess Athena, but a 21st century black Venus through the visual medium of Emek’s poster art—a kind of portraiture in its own right by which she asserts black, female individuality despite threats of its erasure by “representational colonialism.”[19] A term coined by cultural critic Brian Wallis, “representational colonialism” references the white supremacist gaze to which the black, female body has been held captive in a history of sexual exploitation that is typified by the 19th century phenomenon of slave photography.

Exercised as a way to type and order bodies according to a hierarchy of being in which the Caucasian body—representing the classical Greek ideal of beauty set forth by Enlightenment era art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann[20]–slave photography made use of pictures, originally called “daguerreotypes,” to demarcate the races and generalize the racialized “other” according to features that became associated with inferiority. In this, the myth of white superiority was established as an essentially historical fact through the semblance of realism that photographs portray.[21]

In protest to this, Badu positions her own body as part of a visual “counter memory” that functions to create a new future predicated on black self-love, which the album’s various songs, as testimonies to the trials of human relationship, vivify. Indeed, love is Badu’s ultimate “language of redress.” As heart-shaped-ankh-bearing harbinger of a “New Amerykah,” the singer embodies a Utopian longing for justice that seeks to repair present social ills—signified by the trash heap with its various emblems of a defunct social system such as those of warfare (fighter planes, bombs and bullets) and government corruption, symbolized by the Capital building with the mythical “Eye of Horus” inscribed into its dome.

Recognized as the “Great Seal of the United States” used to authenticate government documents, and also found on the reverse of the one-dollar bill, the ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health was appropriated by the founding fathers as a stamp of approval for, and blessing of prosperity on, the formation of the United States as though divinely mandated.[22] It has since become known as the “Eye of Providence” and is linked by way of conspiracy theory to the “Illuminati”—a sectarian group with supposed historical ties to the Bavarian Illumaniti, an Enlightenment-Era secret society aimed at opposing superstition, prejudice against women, and abuses of state power.[23] In the contemporary context, it has, however, come to refer to something more insidious in intent: a secret organization aimed at masterminding a New World Order by planting covert agents in government and big business.[24]

The mythical Eye of Providence as inscribed in the U.S. dollar bill.

The mythical Eye of Providence as inscribed into the U.S. dollar bill.

It is as a symbol of such corruption that the “Eye of Horus” is being deployed in Badu’s album art, inverted here as an indication of government failure, which is further illustrated by the mound of images that surround the “evil eye.” Taken together, these pieces of figurative garbage evoke a sense of social decay attendant to a global “austerity economy,” signified by the dollar sign, that has resulted in the disease (read: dis-ease) of society’s general welfare—emblematized by the image of a caduceus stuck inside of a toilet bowl, that porcelain receptacle for human waste.

A staff entwined with two serpents and bearing a pair of wings at the top, the caduceus was carried by Hermes (Mercury) as messenger of the gods according to Greek mythology.[25] It has come to symbolize the medical profession and signals both healing and transformation.[26] As pictured in the techno-trash heap on the album’s cover, however, the ancient symbol has lost its power to an historical present of racialized oppression as it manifests in failed welfare reform, unjust war, post-industrial urban decay, unemployment, drug violence, the cooptation of government by corporate interests (the “almighty dollar” inscribed as it is with the “Eye of Horus”), the militarization of urban space, and the prison industrial complex.

What Badu offers in this despairing portrait is the possibility of redemption through love, signifying on the “now-time” of a contemporary America in shambles and making of this decay fertile soil ripe for the nourishment of fresh fruit. In this way, she arrests the “fierce urgency” of the present moment in a hopeful nod toward the future rich with erotic lifeforce, signified by the babes—and the flowers that cradle them—in full bloom. As the heart-shaped ankhs indicate, love will save the day, restoring the “Eye of Horus” to its original meaning as the eye of Ra, Egyptian God of the Sun, and reinscribing the caduceus as a triumphal and emergent symbol of resurrection from the feces of modernity.

The Eye of Horus

The Eye of Horus

This trope of resurrection is made more explicit in the figure of Badu as black goddess—at once Athena, Venus, Phoenix, and Wadjet. The personification of the “Eye of Horus (Ra),” the goddess Wadjet, whose name translates to “the green one” and, according to some derivations, “the risen one,” is an early Egyptian deity of protection.[27] By way of such associations, Badu the artist, particularly as depicted by Emek, embodies a “mythic consciousness” that signifies on themes of rebirth and regeneration not only tied to Egyptology, but to Christianity as well. In many ways, she is the female Christ who died (and rose), according to Christian myth, for the sake of ushering in an era of “uni-versal humanity.” As Christ, her eschatology—that is, her theology concerning the future state of the world—is a fully realized one of hope for things to come as they take shape in the present moment, even if it is one of seeming decay. Her Afrofuture thus finds its telos (read: its fulfillment) embodied in and through “uni-versal” love.

This is especially the case if we read her emerging body to be an Afrofuturist variation on Isis, the ankh-bearing Egyptian goddess who was worshipped as the ideal personification of motherhood, magic and fertility, and who was seen as the companion of slaves, sinners, artists, the disenfranchised, aristocrats and rulers alike.[28] Isis was also responsible for resuscitating her husband Osiris (whom Badu also represents as symbol of resurrection) after he was torn to pieces in a battle with his brother Set, Egyptian god of disorder and violence that the old America signifies.[29]

In this proliferation of alter egos that Emek’s depictions of Badu on the album cover open up, we have what Alexander G. Weheliye would call a “surplus of signification” that is imbued with critical aesthetic power.[30] Asserting a “crowd of synthetic subjects”[31] within and by this artistic portrayal of her own black being, Badu signifies on W.E.B. Du Bois’s conception of double-consciousness, layering it with multiple meanings in light of the various allusions she makes to mythic figures of the “pre-modern” past.

For Badu, the critical aesthetic power she assumes in this tricksteresque “surplus of signification”—reminiscent of the shapeshifting capacity found in the West African trickster God, Esu-Elegbara—is that of dreaming a “New Amerykah” into existence, one that reinvests the future toward the interests of a radical black subjectivity.[32]

In her evocative exploration of Erykah Badu’s “post-soul sensibility,” cultural critic Marlo David notes that the singer does well to mediate the tensions between R&B’s humanist concern for professing black subjectivity and the strategic rejection of blackness as a “unitary subject position” in “post-soul” or “post-black” aesthetic through her Afrofuturist gestures.[33] Speaking of Afrofuturist thought as a “reconciliation between an imagined disembodied, identity-free future and the embodied identity-specific past and present” useful in expressing a “radical black subjectivity,” David notes that Badu works toward a similar aim.[34]

That is, Badu casts a “backward glance” into the “imagined spaces inhabited by precolonial African spirituality” redolent with Egyptian symbolism and “Nile Valley mysticism,” while looking forward with “allusions to space travel [which] give birth to an unashamedly hybrid, self-created version of black humanity” resonant with “Civil Rights and black nationalist era values that were integral to ‘soul’ music.”[35]

As the foregoing analysis attests, the same can be said of Emek’s album art for Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. Through it, Badu performs a self-image that articulates an Afrofuturist “language of redress” in the cover’s simultaneous allusions to a pre-modern African past and a post-modern American present—all with an eye, a glance, a gaze toward the future. In this, Badu’s body functions as a site of Afrofuturist signification as she dons the form of an “Afro-centric New Age Goddess.”[36]

As such, she deploys Afrofuturism to check the “destructive capacity of America’s technological rationality” through “mystic, natural forces” contained in the symbolism of the ankh.[37] It is with this ankh inscribed into her body as a “hieroglyphics of the flesh” that she unlocks the key to a future oriented toward justice, offering us a vision of tomorrow that makes of today a hopeful moment in the “now-time” of the Afropresent, evolving toward the future under the soft glow of modernity’s waxing moon.

[1] See “Neck Ring,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation Inc., updated March 26, 2014) [encyclopedia online], accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neck_ring.

[2] See “Ankh,” in ibid. (updated and accessed July 19, 2014), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ankh.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Referenced in Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 50.

[5] See “Athena,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encylcopedia, op. cit. (updated July 18, 2014) accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athena.

[6] See Hershini Bhana Young, “21st Century Aliens: The Rise of the See-J,” (unnumbered, unpublished paper).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two Return of the Ankh, CD, Motown, 2010.

[11] See lyrics to “The Healer,” New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), CD, Motown, 2008.

[12] See bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115.

[13] See Krista Thompson, “A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diasporic Art History in the United States,” CAA Journal (2011).

[14] hooks, op. cit., 118.

[15] Ibid., 131.

[16] See Nicole Fleetwood, “Colorism, Vision, and the Dark Female Body,” in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011),  90, 94.

[17] See Lorraine O’Grady, “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” Afterimage 2 (1992): 1-23. The full version of “Olympia’s Maid” has since been anthologized several times, most recently in Amelia Jones’s  The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, publ. Routledge. Those wishing to read the article in full may also download it from the WRITING section of O’Grady’s website: http://www.lorraineogrady.com.

[18] See Lisa Gail Collins, “Historical Retrievals: Confronting Visual Evidence and the Imaging of Truth,” In The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 12-36.

[19] See Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 54.

[20] See ibid., 52.

[21] See ibid., 48. According to Wallis, author Roland Barthes calls this the “reality effect.”

[22] See “Eye of Horus,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (updated July 7, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_horus.

[23] See “Illuminati,” in ibid., (updated July 8, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminati.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See “Caduceus,” in ibid., (updated July 3, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus.

[26] Ibid.

[27] See “Wadjet,” in ibid., (updated December 28, 2013), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wadjet.

[28] R.E Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 7.

[29] See “Isis,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, op. cit., (updated July 19, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isis.

[30] Quoted in J. Griffith Rollefson, “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 89. Cf. Alexander Weheliye, “‘I am I be’: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity,” Boundary 2, vol. 30, no. 2 (2003): 111.

[31] Riffing on Afrofuturist scholar Kodwo Eshun, quoted in Rollefson, ibid.,89. Cf. Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet, 1998), 27.

[32] Riffing on Marlo David, “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music,” in “Post-Soul Aesthetic,” African American Review 41, no. 4, (Winter, 2007): 697.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 697-98.

[36] Ibid., 700.

[37] Riffing on black Atlantic theorist Paul Gilroy in his discussion of P-Funk’s Afrofuturism, quoted in Rollefson, op. cit., 92. Cf. Paul Gilroy, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 180.

In its attempts to engage the past while looking toward the future, Afrofuturism is part and parcel of what art historian and cultural critic Huey Copeland calls a “rhetoric of redress”–a concept to which he refers in his close reading of such works as African-American artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992).

In Part 2 of this blog series on the ways in which an Afrofuturist “rhetoric of redress” factors into neo-soul singer Erykah Badu’s album art for Return of the Ankh (2010), I summarize Copeland’s interpretation of Wilson’s exhibition, which sees Mining… as an act of reparation aimed at healing the social ill of racism. In this, I hope to explain further what Copeland’s “rhetoric of redress” entails as a form social activism geared toward healing the wounds of historical trauma associated with the (neo)colonial subjugation of bodies rendered “other” according to a web of racist, classicist, sexist, nationalist, and homophobic notions of personhood that lie at the heart of the formation of the modern nation-state.

Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum: Reclaiming Black History in Institutional Space

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson

An exhibition which displayed prized objects housed in the annals of the Maryland Historical Society (MHS), Wilson’s Mining functioned to critique the use of the museum, broadly speaking, as an institutional space which disciplines its attendants to view what is on display according to its own logic. Along the lines of Wilson’s critique, the museum, as a cultural institution, essentially freezes cultural formation–or the development of cultural traditions–in time and space.

In so doing, it creates a distance, or imagined border, between the museum as a community resource and the ongoing cultural dynamics of the community it supposedly serves.

The museum is meant to be a tool for engaging, or “mining,” history for a deeper understanding of one’s present context and the past which shapes it. According to institutional critique, however,  it often fails to include history’s untold narratives in the ways it frames its exhibitions. In so doing, the community it serves cannot claim a sense of ownership, that is, “mine,” the history being represented. Put another way, the museum occasionally misrepresents the community/ies it is meant to represent. This is particularly the case in terms of histories that relate to the experiences of those on society’s margins–those whose histories have been silenced by the various displacements of European-American colonialism, which manifests in the contemporary moment as global capitalism.

Predicated on subjugating the racialized other–be it in Haiti or America–capitalism operates through a system of wage slavery structured to maximize business profits by way of cheap, outsourced labor exported  to the  so-called “Third World” and a concomitant process of de-industrialization, or the replacement of the manufacturing with a service sector, in the so-called “Developed World.”

In the failure to adequately represent the narratives of those excluded from ownership over the means of production, the museum, generally speaking, meanwhile perpetuates colonial power-relations as they exist between the oppressor and the oppressed–that is, those who have historically held a monopoly on political power and those who have been castigated as abject, or “wretched,” to use Frantz Fanon’s terms. The latter are those who are subjected to White hegemony, or the consolidation of power into the hands of a white “ruling elite,” through an economic system rooted in class- and race-based prejudices that place the non-White Other at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

The museum, which can function as a means of White self-preservation, or the preservation of “White culture” over and against the non-White Other, creates “hierarchical modes of seeing, framing and memorializing the [cultural] other.”[1] In other words, the museum operates as a kind of “scopic regime.” A term coined by film theorist Christian Metz, the notion of “scopic regime” refers to the “power of looking […] to assess, surveil, and represent the visual world.”[2] As black cultural theorist Nicole Fleetwood writes, “Scopic regime more broadly theorized gets deployed to describe the use of vision and visual technologies in a given historical or cultural context to maintain power relations.”[3]

The Maryland Historical Society (MHS) Library

The Maryland Historical Society (MHS) Library

In this regard, the museum, generally speaking, acts as a kind of “scopic regime” insofar as it implicitly tells its viewers what to see and how to see it, assuming authority for determining a rather static and fixed conception of culture, frozen on display, while excluding other cultural narratives viable for representation that exist outside of the museum’s institutional and colonizing gaze.

Against this threat of cultural stasis and the exclusion of under-represented populations, such as those in the African-American community, from the museum space, Wilson’s Mining the Museum reclaims (i.e. “mines”) the cultural institution that is the museum for the purposes of disclosing the unheard narrative of African and Native American subjugation that is the often ignored shadow-side of the American democratic project–contextualized, in the case of Mining, by Baltimore City’s history of race antagonism that is deeply embedded in the formation of the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) under the whims of its primarily “white male board” [4].

Playing on MHS’s exclusion of subaltern narratives from the collection of cultural artifacts it houses, Wilson reordered the space in a way that brought history’s shadow to light. He did so by “mining” the museum’s collection to recover those objects which give visual testimony to the violence of slavery and white domination as it exists in the history of a once slave-holding state, Maryland. In this way, Wilson’s Mining worked to bring consciousness of race relations (read: race differences) to the fore through a re-staging of local history using artifacts of the local culture, artifacts that the museum itself owned, rife with the terrific memory of slavery.

Metalwork 1793-1880

“Metalwork 1793-1880,” Fred Wilson, 1992. A set of shackles is placed inside a glass case displaying silver objects and prized possessions of the landed nobility whom American slave served.

In this, Wilson played, or signified, on the concept of the museum as a “scopic regime” by guiding his audience to see the installation as a counter-narrative to a history of racialized oppression in which MHS itself played a part by its failure to account for the untold histories of slave society, abolition, and colonization to which its collection, as Elisabeth Ginsberg notes, implicitly refers. To do so, Wilson introduced the exhibit with a televised recording of himself on a TV monitor, flanked with black nationalist flags, by which he familiarized viewers with the story being told inside the museum.[5]

Cabinet Making 1920-1960

“Cabinet Making 1920-1960,” Fred Wilson, 1992

He meanwhile situated the museum’s collection in such a way as to to implicate it in a history of slave capture and punishment. “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960” is one such example, whereby Wilson centered antique chairs around a “Baltimore Whipping Post” gifted to MHS. In this, he restaged lynching “as a kind of living-room leisure sport”[6] to satirize the ways in which the brutal act functioned as a spectacular kind of white entertainment, or enjoyment, at the expense of the subjugated black body in an ante- and post-bellum South. In a manner of irony, he meanwhile indicts the MHS for its complicity in silencing the history of black subjugation by previously refusing to acknowledge the history of suffering that such objects embody.

“Mining” the Past to Make the Present “Mine”: The “Rhetoric of Redress” and Afrofuturism

Speaking to this, Copeland notes that Wilson’s practice articulates a “language of redress” which, through its “varied aesthetic means—objects, texts, space, artworks, and sound”—reveals a “fundamental imbrication,” or deep-rooted linkage, with “rhetorics of reparative speech,” or ways of speaking, that seek to repair social relations and which “seek justice for the subjects of racial oppression.”[7] Copeland therefore frames the “rhetoric (or language) of redress,” especially as it is operating in Wilson’s work, as a form of cultural expression, a “language,” oriented toward correcting (i.e. “redressing”) social ills symptomatic of white supremacist ways of being. With Wilson’s work in mind, he writes that the task of redress “is terminally unfinished, requiring constant repetition and renewal to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[8]

Quoting literary theorists Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, he further delineates the “rhetoric of redress” as “‘the kinds of political claims that can be mobilized on behalf of the slave (the stateless, the socially dead, and the disposable) in the political present.’”[9] As with “Cabinetmaking,” Wilson’s Mining, according to Copeland, revealed racialized violence so that it “might be turned back on itself”[10]–brought to the viewer and white society’s attention so as to awaken them from the slumber of what Marx would call “false consciousness.” In other words, Wilson’s Mining is a kind of archaeological dig that seeks to excavate cultural objects, or artifacts, in order to reveal experiences of oppression related to sexism, racism, classicism, etc. through the vantage point of the oppressed themselves. The work of redress therefore serves as a means of waking people up, shaking them out of apathy, and disclosing the reality of racism as it operates, mostly unacknowledged, in the social practices of everyday life within an advanced capitalist society such as our own that was built on the black backs of slaves.

Homework

“Homework,” Fred Wilson, 1992. A Ku Klux Klan hood is placed inside of a black baby carriage to signify the fact that racism is a learned condition and a legacy which carries across generations.

For Wilson’s intent and purposes, Mining was a way to address the historical specificity of black suffering, rooted in slavery, while engaging the MHS collection as charged space in which to assert black self-determination through an act of “re-membering” that used found objects, the collection itself, as tools for bringing the past of black blight to bear on the present–this as a means to mediate race relations and cultivate the anti-racist consciousness as well as discourse necessary for creating a more egalitarian society.

Wilson’s work in this sense served to awaken in his viewers a sense of historical consciousness that accounts for social injustices–one which holds itself accountable to the diversity of histories which shape the local community–and in turn reorients historical discourse, the way we remember the past, from the perspective of the dispossessed.

In the same way, the tropes, or themes, used for seeing the world as found in Afrofuturist thought cultivate an epistemology (a way of thinking) deeply rooted in black historical consciousness that figures on the past as a means to bring reparative justice to a post-industrial present—one characterized by the horrific memory of slavery as it is relived in the loss of a strong manufacturing sector in North American cities; the introduction of drugs into urban communities and the subsequent proliferation of the drug trade therein; poor housing standards; and what Marc Anthony Neal calls the “juvenizaton of poverty,” or the militarization of the black urbanscape through gang violence and turf wars associated with the drug trade.[11]

In such a blighted context as this, Afrofuturism became, and remains, an imaginative means to ask important questions rooted firmly in a black radical stance that aims to deconstruct  what cultural theorist George Lipsitz calls the global “austerity economy”[12]–that is, a global economic system in which transnational corporations control the flow of capital through the workings of free-market structures, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which exclude black, or minority, ownership over the technological means of production through the State-sanctioned business practices that solidify class- and race-based divisions of labor.

Against the triple threat of economic disenfranchisement, social dislocation and existential angst wrought by the global “austerity economy,” Afrofuturism embodies the kind of critical inquiry necessary to dismantle the spectacle of capitalism. This is the case inasmuch as it asks not only why black people are so beset, but what black people can do to change a social system in which relations between individuals are essentially reduced to the status of an economic transaction–one that capitalizes on the exploitation of the non-White body.

Noted above, such critique mandates a preoccupation with history embedded in a longing for roots that, in the case of Afrofuturism, finds a home in a prehistoric, Egyptian past—one which precedes modernity, yet signifies a kind of modernism (read: “futurism”), or turn toward the future, associated with technological advancement in the present era. In this, Afrofuturism professes the innate creativity of the “Black” (wo)man as the original (wo)man[13] endowed with a capacity for constructing the technologies deemed necessary to human progress.

As black cultural theorists posit, Afrofuturism is rooted in a “b(l)ack to the future” kind of thinking that signifies on themes of technological progress through the lens of science fiction “as if to signal to African Americans,” writes cultural critic Graham Lock, “that the only way to define personal identity, to experience a form of rebirth, to be ‘saved’ in fact, [is] not by following the old myths of the Christian Church and its Bible, but by embracing a future in which (as [Sun Ra] sang in one song, based pointedly on the spiritual ‘No Hiding Place’): ‘The space age is here to stay / Ain’t no place that you can run away.’”[14]

outerspaceways incorporated

Cover Art, Sun Ra, Outer Spaceways Incorporated, 1968

Constitutive of an “Astro Black” mythology, this “mythic consciousness” of Afrofuturism articulates its message through a “rhetoric of redress” that ultimately incorporates a “mixture of black Bible interpretations, [mystic] texts, modern science, Egyptology and science fiction”[15] to imagine new ways of black being in and for the world.

Taken in context of the wider historical narrative of the black freedom struggle and the narrower specificity of Afrofuturism itself, the ideology engages in various “aesthetic means”–or artistic-cultural practices –to capture what Jewish political philosopher Walter Benjamin terms, “now-time,”[16] referencing the “production and performance of what is to come” by arresting “the ‘fierce urgency’ of its moment”[17] through elaborate sci-fi costumes and visions of outer space grounded in a prophetic turn toward present historical conditions, particularly as they relate to the marginalized.

In this way, Afrofoturism is an engagement with the present moment which gives evidence to history’s catastrophes, namely as experienced by “real life” black people in the unpictured “then” of racialized oppression that has implications for the ongoing “now” of the current black struggle for fuller participation in the American democratic project. As a kind of historical documentation (read: “mining”) of the past and a nod toward the political possibilities inherent in the future of humankind, Afrofuturism ultimately crystallizes reflection on the historical present–what’s fucked up about it, what’s great about it, and what could stand to change.  Afrofuturism is in this way rife with potential for inspiring future, movement-oriented action as related to the black freedom struggle in which it is situated, and in the struggle that extends beyond the context in both time and space of the present moment. In short, it is a way to claim ownership of (read: “mine”) the present.

Afrofuturism is thus deeply invested in an historical process that offers a “promise of an alternative future”[18] (such as Erykah Badu’s “New Amerykah”)  pregnant with the tension born between despair and hope—between the “then” and “now”—that Badu, through Emek’s deft hand, engages in her visual, Afrofuturist articulation of a “language of redress.” It is to an interpretation of her album cover as an expression of Copeland’s “language of redress” that this blog series turns in Part 3.

[1] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 31.

[2] Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 16-17.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] See Elisabeth Ginsberg, “Case Study: Mining the Museum,” http://beautifultrouble.org/case/mining-the-museum/, accessed July 12, 2014.

[5] Darby English, How to See A Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 200&), 156.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Copeland, op. cit., 26.

[8] Ibid., 35.

[9] Quoted in ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Mark Anthony Neal, “Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader 2n ed., edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, 477-502 (New York: Routledge, 2004): 477.

[12] See George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Noise: History, Hip Hop, and the Post-colonial Politics of Sound,” in Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994), 27.

[13] Riffing on Kerry James Marshall, “The Legend of Sun Man Continues,” in Traveling the Spaceways: Sun-Ra: The Astro Black and Other Solar Myths, edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis (Chicago: WhiteWalls, 2010), 59.

[14] Graham Lock, “Right Place, Right Time, Wrong Planet [Chicago Talk Remix],” in Traveling…, ibid., 33.

[15] Ben Schot, “Astro-Black Mythology,” Blastitude, Ethics 13 (August 2002), accessed January 11, 2014, http://www.blastitude.com/13/ETERNITY/sun_ra.htm

[16] As referenced in Leigh Raiford’s evocative discussion on the way in which SNCC posters used in civil rights marches captured the “fierce urgency” of the historical moment. See Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2011), 96-97.

[17] Ibid., 97.

[18] Playing off of Raiford in her discussion of Civil Rights movement photography, ibid., 79.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Crafted by Israeli-born illustrator Emek, the psychedelic cover art for Neo-Soul singer Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) deploys tropes of Afrofuturism to construct what cultural theorist Huey Copeland would call a “rhetoric of redress.”

In the cartoon portrait of her black female body—or bodies[1]—that the album cover depicts, Badu indexes a range of utopian aspirations that intervene in experiences of African-American blight, refuse historical forgetting of the black freedom struggle, and point toward a future aimed at societal transformation through an invocation of a mythical past.[2]As Copeland says of the mid-twentieth century avant jazz artist and Afrofuturist Sun Ra, Badu addresses the “contingency of black [female] being,” gesturing toward a temporal outside—a “New Amerykah”—that remains firmly rooted in the present post-industrial urban predicament experienced by many black Americans.[3] She does this through a kind of bodily performance, captured in the visuality of Emek’s album art, that ultimately signifies on the black female body as a site of both reparation for social injustice and liberation there from.

To both ground and substantiate this claim, the ensuing blog series first details the contours of Afrofuturism in part one. Part two of the series then interprets the Afrodiasporic movement of Afrofuturism as a Copelandesque “language of redress.” In this, I make reference to African-American conceptual artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, which Copeland treats in his own work, as a means to explain what we mean by “language of redress.” Through the dual lens of Afrofuturism and the “language of redress,” part three of this series finally interprets Badu’s album art for Return of the Ankh. In so doing I address the ways in which Badu—by way of Emek’s Afrofuturistic depictions of her black female being as simultaneously super-, sub-, and post-human[4]—engages Afrofuturism as an act of protest aimed at repairing the injustice of racial (or race-based) oppression.

Finding a Place Beyond Time and Space: Afrofuturism and the Outerspaceways of Sunny Ray

Cover art, Space is the Place, 1973

Cover art, Sun Ra, Space is the Place, 1973

First coined by scholar Mark Dery in the preface to a set of interviews with semiotician Samuel R. Delaney and cultural critics Greg Tate and Tricia Rose, the term Afrofuturism designates “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture.” [5]

More generally, it involves “African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”[6] Afrofuturism is in this way a collective habit of imagining concerned specifically with the question of black liberation in the context of existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation and social deportation that has become part and parcel of the Afrodiasporic experience since the dawn of modernity in the form of the slave trade.

In this, it is a kind of cultural work which engages technology and technological imagery, artifacts and rhetoric as a means of envisioning alternative futures for the black subject in the present moment. As Afrofturist scholar Alondra Nelson frames it, Afrofuturism references a “past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation” and deploys science fiction tropes and technology not only to index black life and history as it unfolds in the present, but to imagine things to come.[7] It therefore invites a practice of self-making for a people historically denied access to the political right of self-determination. It meanwhile invokes a mythic past that extends beyond the horrific memory of the rupturing New World slave trade for the purposes of shaping the present and future.

For example, Sun Ra (né Herman Poole Blount), the 20th century mystic and avant-jazz musician (who is part of a legacy of Afrofuturist cultural producers, including musicians George Clinton, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Afrika Bambaataa, as well as writers Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney) was famous for his mytho-poetic musings that linked Afrodiasporic peoples to the advanced civilization of Ancient Egypt, and implicated them in an evolutionary process which culminated in the formation of an extra-terrestrial utopia predicated on black self-government.

For Ra, who renamed himself after the Egyptian God of the Sun following a visionary experience at the age of 23 in which he visited the planet Saturn by way of astral projection, Egypt functioned as an imaginative motherland for peoples of African descent.[8] Outer Space (or the “spaceways”) meanwhile served as a figurative, if not literal, “final frontier” of black self-consciousness. Claiming himself a native of the planet Saturn, Sun Ra cultivated what scholar Daniel Kreiss calls a “‘mythic consciousness’ of technologically empowered racial identity that would enable blacks to recreate and invent technologies and construct utopian societies on outer space landscapes.”[9]

sun ra_outer nothingness

Covert art, Sun Ra, “Outer Nothingness,” The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. One, 1965

Yet for Ra in particular and Afrofuturists in general, such consciousness is by no means a form of escapism or an ahistorical longing for life elsewhere. Indeed, it refuses historical forgetting and in fact serves as a means of reconstructing society as if it were an “outer space landscape”; in other words, it grounds the spaced out “elsewhere” of Afrodiasporic utopian imagining in reality on the ground. Indeed, Afrofuturism asks the pointed question: “Why is the black subject to so beset?”[10]

À la the black power inflected cultural politics of Sun Ra, Afrofuturism calls for the radical transformation of the black mind, body and spirit by re-articulating Afrodiasporic social narratives of liberation and empowerment through the lens of science fiction.[11] Themes of re-birth and self-possession emerge as key tropes in such “fiction”—understood more broadly as cultural work—that seeks to rewrite history from the perspective of the earth’s “wretched.”

Afrofuturism as Counter-narrative to White Supremacy

In this regard, Afrofuturism offers a counternarrative to white supremacist and Eurocentric constructions of history. As Lisa Yaszek puts it her article “An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Afrofuturism puts a “‘black face on the future’” and, in so doing, “‘combats those whitewashed visions of tomorrow generated by a global ‘futures industry’ that equates blackness with the failure of progress and technological catastrophe.’”[12]

It is therefore concerned with bridging the so-called “digital divide”—“a phrase that has been used to describe gaps in technological access that [have to do with prejudices concerning] race, gender, region, and ability but has mostly become a code word for the tech inequities that exist between blacks and whites”[13]. As a black way of being, doing, and thinking in the world, Afrofuturism frees black subjects from the mire of white liberal subjectivity[14] that undergirds, to echo scholar J. Griffith Rollefson, “Western universalism, rationalism, empiricism, logocentrism and their standard-bearer: white supremacy.”[15]

It is with this in mind that Sun Ra, in an interview recorded for the 1981 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, implicitly denounces Eurocentric constructions of history (pronouncing it “his story”) in favor of upholding “my story” (punning on the term mystery), as refracted through the sound of his own music. He says:

In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things. No two songs tell the same story. They say history repeats itself. History is only ‘his story.’ You haven’t heard my story yet. My story is different from his story. My story is not part of history. Because history repeats itself. But my story is endless. It never repeats itself. Why should it? A sunset does not repeat itself. Neither does the sun rise. Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?[16]

Here Sun Ra speaks directly to the Afrofuturist aim of reclaiming personal and collective black history—a collection of “my-stories”—in light of a past that has “been deliberately rubbed out”[17] by the displacements of the slave trade and institutionalized racism in the form of slavery, a failed Reconstruction project, de facto segregation, and, most recently, post-industrial urban blight.

Speaking to this issue in an American context, Delany tells Dery matter-of-factly in the interview referenced above: “When, indeed, we say that this country was founded on slavery, we must remember that we mean, specifically, that it was founded on the systematic, conscientious, and massive destruction of African cultural remnants.”[18] He adds, “That some musical rhythms endured, that certain religious attitudes and structures seems to have persisted, is quite astonishing, when you study the efforts of the white, slave-importing machinery to wipe them out.”[19]

Afrofuturism is one such enduring “musical rhythm” and “religious attitude” in its own right, which works to combat whiteness as it operates in the neo-colonial processes of capitalism that secure white privilege and power while excluding non-Whites from participation in the political sphere. As Dery makes clear in his introductory remarks to the interviews with Delany et al., the state of the future is no less precarious than the slave past, as it remains fixed firmly in the hands of white “technocrats, futurologists, streamliners and set designers” who have a stake in engineering our “collective fantasies” of things to come.[20]

nubians of plutonia

Cover art, Sun Ra, The Nubians of Plutonia, 1966

Because of this, Rollefson states, the “Afrofuturist project also focuses on the past [sic] through its tactical recovery of black soul.”[21] This is not to essentialize blackness–that is, argue for the existence of blackness as a kind of bodily essence, which further perpetuates stereotypes of the black body by dint of differences in skin color–nor posit it as an identity marker defined strictly as anti-white opposition. Rather, it is to define black subjectivity as an historically rooted and culturally constituted experience that is  shaped by what Michael Omi and Howard Winant would call “racial formation”–the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories [such as ‘blackness’] are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed” (see Racial Formation in the United States, 1994: 55).

Playing on race as a socially constructed category of difference that has been used historically to solidify conceptions of white superiority and black inferiority in the (white) popular imagination, Afrofuturism reclaims blackness and black subjectivity itself so as to profess black power. It does so by involving blackness in the (re)construction of history with the mythic dimensions of a black past located in Africa and a black present located in the contemporary context. In this way, Afrofuturism lays the groundwork for the creation of a new “‘uni-versal’ humanity”[22] on what Ra would call “spaceship earth. ” It does so by utilizing technology and/or themes involving technology inherent in science fiction to imagine new ways of black communal belonging that are fundamentally rooted in the experiences of what it means to be black in what history has thus far rendered a white planet.

In the next installment of this series, we will consider the ways in which a “language of redress” enables the Afrofuturist project to conceive of as well as think and talk about a “new creation” predicated on black self-determination.

 

[1] As this subtextual analysis of Badu’s album art hopes to make clear, Badu is depicted in both super and sub-human forms. However, it is still her own black female body that Emek is inscribing into these depictions, and it is as Afrofuturist variations on her black female body that I read them.

[2] In positing this, I want to acknowledge that it is Emek who is responsible for creating the art itself. However, for the purposes of this blog series, I treat the art as an object of Badu’s deployment and thus foreground her as primary agent in the album cover’s engagement with Afrofuturism and the “rhetoric of redress.” In other words, I read the album cover as a performance of her own self-image as a self-proclaimed “analogue girl in a digital world” (see lyrics, “On & On,” Baduizm, CD, Universal, 1997) for which Badu is ultimately responsible in her collaboration with Emek. This is not to discredit Emek, nor deny the fact that he has a hand in helping Badu perform her self-image. Rather, it is to give space and place to the subject of black female performativity and, in this, emphasize that it is finally Badu who exercises creative control over what she produces. Moreover, to date, I have found nothing of note on Badu and Emek’s collaborative process in conceiving the conceptual frame for the cover art. That said, it is outside the reach of this blog series to address the details of this collective effort beyond making a nod toward Emek. For more on Emek’s hand drawn and, as one critic on www.sleevage.com describes it, “heavily layered” mashing of “the political and personal; the organic and the intellectual,” see http://www.emek.net/. See also http://sleevage.com/?s=Erykah+Badu&key=Musical+Artist. For a close-up of the album art itself see: http://www.erykah-badu.com/gallery/displayimage.php?album=2&pid=10#top_display_media.

[3] Riffing on Huey Copeland, “Solar Ethics,” (paper delivered at University California Berkeley, Department of Art History, October 22, 2013). See also: http://arthistory.berkeley.edu/events/event/1785566-huey-copeland-solar-ethics

[4] A term which those within and outside of black cultural studies have used to designate as an alternative to traditional (black) humanism. In the context of black cultural studies, it serves as a theoretical model for the rejection of blackness as a “unitary subject position” (See Marlo David, “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music,” in “Post-Soul Aesthetic,” African American Review 41, no. 4, [Winter, 2007]: 695). For the purposes of this discussion, it signifies the loss of (black) corporeality in an increasingly digitized world—“a universe governed by ones and zeroes”—where “the body cease to matter, thereby fracturing and finally dissolving ties to a racialized subjectivity, positionality, and [more generally a] ‘self’” (ibid).

[5] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in “Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture,” South Atlantic Quarterly 94, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 736.

[6] Ibid., 736.

[7] See Alondra Nelson, “Afrofuturism definition,” http://afrofuturism.com/text/about.html (accessed December 7, 2013). See also Nelson, “Introduction: Future Texts,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 9.

[8] See Calvin Forbes, “Sun Ra: From Negro to Black,” in Sun Ra: Traveling the Spaceways: The Astro Black and Other Solar Myths, edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis, 61-65 (Chicago: WhiteWalls, 2010): 64.

[9] Daniel Kreiss, “Appropriating the Master’s Tools: Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, and Black Consciousness, 1952-1973,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 58.

[10] Riffing on Forbes, op. cit., 64.

[11] Kreiss, op. cit., 61.

[12] Quoted in J. Griffith Rollefson, “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” op cit., 84.

[13] Nelson, op. cit., 1.

[14] See Alexander Weheliye, “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 30.

[15] See Rollefson, op. cit.

[16] Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, DVD, directed by Robert Mugge (Baltimore; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.: Winstar, 2006).

[17] Dery, op. cit.

[18] Ibid., 747.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 736.

[21] Rollefson, op. cit., 85.

[22] Ibid., 94-95.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

In Erykah Badu’s music video for “Window Seat,”[1] a song off of her 2010 LP New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, the African-American R & B singer reclaims black, female subjectivity through bodily performance. She uses her own flesh to protest the threat that “groupthink”[2] poses to authentic and embodied self-expression. In this way Badu accomplishes a task that black feminist and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady commissions the cultural worker to take up in her work; that is, to (re)inscribe the black, female body with new meaning and purpose in order to liberate it from the colonizing  claims of patriarchy and racism on its freedom as a site of agency, autonomy, and movement.[3]

Badu portrays herself in the video as a non-descript pedestrian walking through the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination—the Dealey Plaza Historic District of Downtown Dallas, Texas. The video begins with an image of a white, Lincoln Continental pulling into a parking space alongside the sidewalk bordering Elm Street. A sound recording of the televised broadcast documenting Kennedy’s motorcade to the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon with local politicians and business leaders plays as a kind of introduction to the song itself, which starts to the pattering roll of drumsticks against the snare’s canvas.  To mark the transition from sound footage to song, as well as to structure the video itself as a visual narrative, the camera shows a textual frame that reads: “A Story by Erykah Badu.”  The title sequence then segues into the short film, displaying a frontal view of Badu’s body, almost entirely concealed in clothing, as the singer strides confidently down the historic sidewalk. The camera lens meanwhile blurs the background against which Badu’s body is set like a human bas relief, obscuring images of seemingly perplexed spectators who witness the singer’s gradual denuding by the choice and power of her own will to reveal.

By the time Badu has stripped down to her black underwear, the camera angle shifts and we are presented a picture of Badu’s body from the perspective of both posterior and side views. Scrawled across the top of her back, between her shoulder blades, is the word evolve, written in black, capitalized letters. The song meanwhile progresses towards its final refrain when Badu’s undressed, moving body halts suddenly to the sound of gunfire, and falls to the ground after a back-bending thrust of convulsion at being a bullet’s marked target. As her body lay strewn across the concrete surface at the edge of a grassy knoll, a blue liquid substance spills like blood from her skull, forming the word groupthink.

This is accompanied by the amplified utterance of a male voice shouting the word, “Groupthink!” This sequence segues into a sermonizing coda that Badu offers as a way to thematize and, ultimately, close the piece: “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 an individual. A single person within her circumstance can move one to change, to love herself, to evolve.” As this disembodied voice of narration speaks, the camera pans around to show the Dealey Plaza skyline, including a fleeting image of an American flag hanging limply from the top of a tall metal pole. The frame then returns to an image of a resurrected Badu, smiling beneath a braided hairpiece bedecked in jewels, gleaming as though a goddess come down to, or emerging from, earth.

As the video—with its interplay of soundtrack, text, and speech—attests, authentic social critique is a matter of embodied self-expression, something that O’Grady, echoing Indian literary theorist Gayatri Spivak argues is central to the act of deconstruction.[4] By putting her body “on the line” in such a way, as a matter of public display, Badu casts a critical eye on a society that has historically exploited the black (female) body as a means to define racial difference and, ultimately, racial (read: black) inferiority.

Cultural critic Lisa Gail Collins does well to unpack this social phenomenon in her investigation of the “Hottentot Venus”[5]—a derogatory term that references 19th century French zoologist Goerge Cuvier’s exploitative use of South African-born American slave Saartjie Baartman’s body as evidence of difference between the white and black races. Like the African and African-American women Collins’ uplifts in her assessment of various, critical artistic responses (such as that of Tracey Rose below) to the denigration of Baartman’s rotund body—at once contained, observed, dissected and labeled in a manner of “scientific” exploration and pornographic entertainment—Badu resituates and recontexualizes the “Hottentot Venus” as a signifier of radical insubordination of, versus subjection to, the white supremacist logic of racial superiority.

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

She does so by placing herself in the position of Baartman, personifying a 21st century black Venus through the visual medium of music video—a kind of moving portraiture (as filmic picture)—that asserts black, female individuality despite threats of its erasure by “representational colonialism.”[6]

A term coined by cultural critic Brian Wallis, it references the white supremacist gaze to which the black, female body has been held captive in a history of sexual exploitation

that is typified by the 19th century phenomenon of slave photography. Exercised as a way to type and order bodies according to a hierarchy of being in which the Caucasian body—representing the classical Greek ideal of beauty set forth by Enlightenment era art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann[7] –slave photography made use of pictures, originally called “daguerreotypes,” to demarcate the races and generalize the racialized “other” according to features that became associated with inferiority. In this, the myth of white superiority was established as an essentially historical fact through the semblance of realism that photographs portray.[8]

Tracey Rose, Venus Baartman, 2001

Tracey Rose, Venus Baartman, 2001. In this “performance photograph” South African visual artist Tracey Rose, as Nicole Fleetwood notes in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness, “attempts to render a visual depiction of Western fantasies of black femlae savagery and exoticism that were projected onto the body of Baartman” in the 19th century (118ff).

That said, Badu’s bodily performance in the music video functions as an anti-colonial/colonizing stance that restores voice and vision, privilege and power, to the objectified black body. And like Henry “Box” Brown—the ex-slave and Abolitionist made famous for his traveling panorama Mirror of Slavery[9]—Badu plays the role of activist-as-magician in a vanishing act by which she reappears at video’s end as a restored body, moving unabashedly naked in a public space where a political leader sympathetic to the African-American freedom struggle was slain. As cultural inheritor of that struggle, Badu associates herself with the assassinated to highlight the risk involved in speaking truth to power, particularly when it comes to matters of race, gender and sexuality (to say nothing of class). In the end, she uses her performance as an agency claim, conflating body, text, speech, and song as a way to bring a new center of black, female subjectivity into being and ultimately give her that longed-for chance to “fly away.”


[1] For lyrics of and commentary on the song, see: http://rapgenius.com/Erykah-badu-window-seat-lyrics

[2] A term signifying the loss of individual creativity, or sense of personal responsibility, in light of group (or social) interaction. Irving Janis, a research psychologist out of Yale University, is responsible for much of the initial research on this social phenomenon.

[3] See Lorraine O’Grady, “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” Afterimage 2 (1992): 1-23. The full version of “Olympia’s Maid” has since been anthologized several times, most recently in Amelia Jones’s  The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, publ. Routledge. Those wishing to read the article in full may also download it from the WRITING section of O’Grady’s website: http://www.lorraineogrady.com.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] See Lisa Gail Collins, “Historical Retrievals: Confronting Visual Evidence and the Imaging of Truth,” The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 12-36.

[6] See Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1995), 54.

[7] See ibid., 52.

[8] See ibid., 48. According to Wallis, author Roland Barthes calls this the “reality effect.”

[9] For more information, see Daphne Brooks, “Escape Artist,” Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006): 66-130.