What does it tell us when an ostensible defender of Michelle Obama creates a graphic that plays on the deepest racial and sexual fault lines of the American psyche? If you saw the now-removed post at the Daily Kos that depicted Obama's critics as a KKK-robed lynch mob stringing her up, you know what I'm talking about. Not only were they stringing her up in the image, but Obama is depicted in pearl earrings and a strapless red gown that has been ripped open to expose her back -- a back that is about to be branded "Uppity Liberal" by a poker wielded by one of her tormentors. Take a look at it -- I'll wait.
There are lots of layers here. Start with perplexed disgust. BlogHer Contributing Editor Megan Smith, who first alerted us to the post and the controversy it's engendered, has some questions
How is it that someone decided this was something acceptable to post? Could it be because whoever decided to post it isn't a black woman, and possibly doesn't know or care about any black women? Is it possible they thought the message was so important that the controversy was worth it? Or did they crassly decide the controversy would stir up more hits and that was all that counted?
Megan first read about this image at What About Our Daughters? Here's part of their take:
I get the point they were trying to make, Michelle Obama is being criticized by the GOP for numerous things, but really what was going to your mind when you imagined Michelle Obama being tortured by the Klan? SECURITY CALLING SECURITY! To be clear, REPUBLICANS did not create this,a liberal "progressive" blogger created this foolishness.
Mrs. Grapevine thinks it's a case of liberal excess. Racewire thinks it's specifically a case of white liberal cluelessness (although I haven't come across any definitive identification of the race of the image's creator.)
Of course, it isn't only black women who are attacked online. Last year, when tech blogger Kathy Sierra disclosed the online harassments and threats against her, BlogHer co-founder Lisa Stone noted that misogyny is alive and well across the Internet:
I have no idea how many women have emailed and telephoned me about attacks via IM, IRC chat, message boards, email and blog comments. These attacks use language that describes detailed rape, dismemberment, profanity and indescribably sick images. The goal? Abuse and humiliation of women.
But don't miss this -- many of the African American bloggers commenting on the image say that the image frightens them. Megan described "a grapefruit-sized knot in the pit of my stomach." Others see a real and present danger in the historical ignorance reflected in the image. In an online chat with me, Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb commented:
No one who has an iota of understanding of the history of lynching, rape or violence in general could think that this was appropriate -- even to make an ironic point about racism.
For example, commenter msladydeborah at What About Our Daughters notes the significance of the red dress in the image:
A black woman in a red dress symbolizes the traditional belief about our sexuality. We are loose no matter what station in life we hold.
Princeton University political science professor Melissa Harris Lacewell explains why the image "terrorizes" her:
After September 11, African Americans mourned along with the rest of the country. But many black Americans also harbored a secret knowledge that this was not the first time that Americans had faced terrorism.
We remember Emmett Till’s broken body and distorted face. We remember four little girls murdered in a church basement. We remember grandmothers who dared to register to vote being visited in the dead of night by masked white men bearing torches and crosses. We remember slain leaders and know that strange fruit hung from American trees too recently to be discounted as archaic history. While the memory of racial terrorism is fresh for many, it has been completely absent from public conversations about terrorism over the past seven years.
University of Pennsylvania professor Marc Lamont Hill adds:
Although the site was attempting to critique the recent onslaught of Republican attacks, I worry that the normalization of such images will have a dangerous impact on the public imagination. The last thing we need is the normalization of images depicting the abuse of black female bodies. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that such tactics would be used against any of the other potential First Ladies. Can you imagineBill O'Reilly talking about lynching Nancy Reagan?
It doesn't help that this image hit the blogosphere not long after a Roswell, Georgia magazine published a cover showing Sen. Obama in a rifle's cross-hairs. And Sen. Clinton's unfortunate reference to Sen. Robert Kennedy's assassination as part of her explanation for why she's staying in the race for the Democratic nomination further poisons the atmosphere in the minds of many. (BlogHer CE Erin Kotecki-Vest condemns Clinton's comments here.)
Two final layers. This image flips and merges two of the most emblematic images in our tragic racial history: the black (usually) male victim suffering unjustly at the hands of white racists, and the fragile woman (historically white) being violated by brutish (black, and often imaginary) men. In a provocative 2001 book, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to OJ Simpson, UC Berkely professor Linda Williams argued that racial melodrama sets the terms of our debates over equality. What we may be witnessing in part, is just how poorly those terms fit our current situation.
Last thing. As I pondered the image, I thought about Sen. Obama's recent call for an end to the attacks on his wife. Bowling Green Daily News columnist Kathleen Parker derided his comments, along with his recent gaffe when he called a woman reporter "sweetie." But look at that image again, and think of another historical echo. During and after slavery and Jim Crow, black women were routinely sexually violated by white men -- and their husbands, fathers and other family members were powerless to defend them.
And indeed, in this image, Michelle Obama's husband is nowhere to be found. As I pondered the image, I could not help but be reminded of "On the Coming of John" WEB Du Bois' short story from his 1903 landmark work, The Souls of Black Folk. In his definitive biography of Du Bois, noted historian David Levering Lewis said "Of the Coming of John" described the dilemma of the black intellectual. That dilemma, essentially is that an educated black person would natuarlly assume the full privileges of citizenship. In the story, that assumption leads an educated black man to kill a white man who is trying to rape his sister. While a white man who did the same thing might have been found to have committed justifiable homicide, the protagonist in this story decides to take his own life as a lynch mob bears down on him.
In many ways, we are clearly a long way from 1903. However, it is equally clear that we are struggling to assimilate and articulate the new reality in which we find ourselves. And in moments such as these, one can be forgiven for fearing that we have not come as far as many of us would like to believe.
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