Thursday, July 31, 2008
It's true...a Black woman's booty makes everything more interesting
As you may have noticed, I generally tend to blog whenever I come across something so crazy, so completely flabbergasting that I have no choice but to complain about it in cyberspace. After 7 years of living in Austin, I think it is safe to consider myself a naturalized Austinite; as a Black woman this is not always an easy existence but generally speaking I am more happy with Austin than I am dissatisfied. Like other Austinites, a week rarely goes by when I don't read The Austin Chronicle, the capitol city's version of The Village Voice. With artwork and articles that cover local news, art, and events with a satirical, tongue-in-cheek manner, The Austin Chronicle provides a smart, welcome contrast to our city's less interesting, more stodgy daily The Austin-American Statesman.
Sometimes, edgy and tongue-in-cheek can go too far. Or, hell, I'll just say it -- when it comes to racial, gendered, and sexual politics, there's a fine line between edgy and problematic. And this Thursday The Chronicle totally crossed it.
When I first saw the cover I paused and then grimaced. Why, one might wonder, would The Chronicle have a photo of a Black woman holding an avocado placed suggestively just below her ass on the cover of the paper as the art for a story that has nothing to do with Black women, nudity, or art? Follow that up with the fact that the teaser for the article stated "The Avocado: A Backstory," with extra emphasis on the "back". Now I know racism and sexism when I see it and given the American fascination with Black women's booties (just look at the pop culture empire Beyoncé has built on hers) it's hard not to read racism into things. First of all, I would be offended if the model had not been black -- why are women's bodies always being appropriated to advertise or sell things that have nothing to do with the item (or in this case, article) that is being hawked. Having said that, I don't think it is a coincidence that the photo focuses on her ass and the avocado placed teasingly beneath it.
Images of Black women's asses have been a part of American popular culture since the 19th century; during slavery it was argued that Black women's exaggerated womanly endowments actually proved scientifically that we had a greater proclivity for sexual intercourse than white woman and were biologically insatiable (a convenient explanation for all the white slave masters who couldn't resist tipping out to the slave quarters). The Black woman's behind taps into an entire repository of collective cultural memory and meaning that we may not consciously think about in our daily lives but that shapes our perceptions of the Other on a daily basis. From Sarah Baartman to Josephine Baker to JLo, White America still just can't get enough of dat ass.
Still, not wanting to believe the worst (my homegirl Juli teases me constantly about my relentess optimism and willingness to give folks the benefit of the doubt), I didn't pick up the paper, but walked away and said to myself, "Damn, I really hope this story justifies the cover."
Well, it doesn't.
It's a story about avocados -- that's it. The article is about the avocado, the whole avocado, and nothing but the avocado. It explores the untold story of the avocado from its history as a wonderous fruit that fascinated the Spanish conquistadores to its contemporary prodution and widespread popularity all the way down to how much of it is consumed around the world (not surprisingly, Mexico wins handsdown -- 20 lbs. of avocado per person each year -- !Que Viva!) So why this Black woman's ass? What in the hell was The Chronicle thinking?
Well, apparently someone else must have been thinking the same thing, because by the time I got home to blog my grievance, the picture was not on the site. Gone was the visually arresting, but deeply problematic image of a Black woman's derriere, and in its place was a much more suitable, if less interesting image of workers in a Dole factory, presumably stocking avocados.
Does this mean that a reader pulled The Chronicle's coattails before I could or did someone in the newsroom have the sense to call this photo out for what it was: a cheap play on tired ass stereotypes to push an uninteresting story on readers who would not have given it the time of day had they not hoped to see more of this woman's booty (and it is a pretty pleasing ass...but I digress).
My advice to The Chronicle: stick to smart news coverage and politically edgy and intelligent art. Don't stoop. There's really no need to reproduce racism and sexism in your pages when the work you usually do sells it self. Don't use me or my sisters to reach out to or enhance your readership, just do good work. There's no need to exploit our bodies, leave that to wack music videos and King Magazine, don't bring it into the news. I don't want to feel assaulted reading the local weekly when all I came to do was get my news fix.