By: Esther Albert
This picture is iconic. Ruby Bridges, at age 6, was UNBOSSED.
Then we get THIS.
Let's talk about some of the reasons why this picture of Betsy DeLOSS is.SO. DISRESPECTFUL. Make sure to read Erian's Black Liberation Primer for some important terms before you read this.
In the Black liberation struggle, the struggle has always been a fight to be seen. Pictures, iconic imagery, and other visuals are tools of resistance.
Let’s start with just a little bit of the history of what it has historically meant for Blacks to be seen.
Black bodies have been “regulated” and controlled through surveillance and public display. Black suffering was (and often continues to be) a spectacle (“an event or scene regarded in terms of its visual impact.”) During the Jim Crow era, Black bodies were controlled through “spectacle lynching.” The name speaks for itself. Lynching was not “just” about murdering a person. It was also about visual impact. Spectacle lynching disciplined Blacks in two powerful ways: by the threat of being seen and by public display.
“The spectacle lynching was a highly ritualistic, public affair, often attended by hundreds or thousands, including families, and it frequently involved the castration or other forms of bodily mutilation of the lynching victim.”
At the same time, for Blacks in the liberation struggle visual recognition is central to the concept of humanity.
Visual recognition serves as public evidence.
In 1955, African-American teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. After his murder, the County Sheriff ordered the immediate burial of his body likely to prevent anyone from seeing how badly his body was mangled. Till’s body was so badly mangled and decomposed that he could only be identified by the ring on his right hand that had the initials of his father. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley decided to display her son’s body to the world.
Bradley stated that she wanted to “Let the world see what I’ve seen.”
She arranged for an open-casket funeral open to the public. During the funeral, she attached a smiling picture of Emmett, juxtaposing that image to the gruesome picture of Emmett in the coffin. As Courtney Baker states, Mamie Till Bradley seemed to understand the power of [spectacle] to do what words could not.
At trial, the defense denied that his body could be legally recognized arguing that no crime could be established and that no one perpetrated a crime because no one had been victimized by it. As Myisha Priest concludes, “the proof that facilitated the acquittal hinged on the incoherence, anonymity, and illegibility of the body.”
As was the case with Emmett Till, images have the potential to inspire a generation of Black activism. This is because despite an images potential failure in the courtroom, for many in the African American community, images still offer irrefutable evidence of their own lived experiences.
The importance of the public bearing witness to the truthful narratives that are frequently questioned and relegated to fiction is also evidenced in The Black Lives Matter Movement. BLM uses Twitter/FB live and other social media avenues to share powerful visual images.
There are centuries of negative images of African-Americans used to “justify” many of the actions activists try to make visible. If people participate in social movements to change society, they also become involved to alter self-conceptions and challenge negative group representations. Politics is always, in some sense, about identity. The visual field is a space to produce and project images that resist, debunk, and delegitimize stereotypical and racist narrative that continues to be used to justify violence against Black bodies. These deeply ingrained stereotypes are important because they frame Blacks as dangerous, impervious to pain and suffering, careless/carefree, and exempt from empathy, solidarity, or basic humanity.
Some of the images we hold dear serve to venerate & pay homage to Black bodies, and the larger struggle for Black liberation.
Trayvon Martin, died in part because his “look” rendered him suspicious.
Mike Brown, died in part because he “looked” like Hulk Hogan.
A woman held a Black baby doll in a coffin to scare Ruby Bridges into leaving a white school…because of how she looked.
In Black liberation movements, images, pictures, photographs are important.
To equate Betsy DeVos' experience to Ruby Bridges' is asinine. Resistance to Betsy DeLOSS has NOTHING to do with her oppression/liberation/ how.she.looked.
The “reimagining” of such an iconic picture (or better stated: the attempted erasure of such an important image/icon), is YET another attempt to render Black bodies and the Black experience as INVISIBLE. This DeLOSS picture is another reminder of WHY the Black liberation movement is intent on confronting all of the ways in which the realities of race in America are ignored, obscured and erased in society.