The revolution will not be sold! We’re back with the first episode Season 2! In today’s episode, Brendane and Alyssa share what they got up to over the summer break and then jump right into the episode unpacking the philosophical concept of Aesthetics and how it is bound up in politics and power. In the What We’re Reading segment, the pair discuss Angela Davis’ 1994 essay “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia” to think about the ways society refashions the revolutionary past – in this instance how Davis’ afro goes from symbol of resistance to fashion statement, evacuating her contribution to Black radicalism through commodification. In What In the World?! Brendane and Alyssa discuss Tiffany’s new “About Love” campaign that features Jay-Z, Beyonce, a rarely viewed Basquiat, and a priceless blood diamond. Finally, they touch on the issues and contradictions of the activist-influencer industrial complex through the recent events with the Jessica Natale (formerly @soyouwanttotalkabout on IG) and bestselling author Ijeoma Oluo.
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season Two, Episode One
Co-Hosts: Brendane Tynes and Alyssa A.L. James
Title: Liberation Don’t cost a Thang
Total Length 1:31:57
[00:00:17] AJ: Hey everyone, welcome back to Zora’s Daughters. The podcast where we discuss popular culture with a Black feminist anthropological lens. I’m Alyssa, and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[00:00:27] BT: Hey everybody! I’m Brendane, and I use she/her/hers pronouns as well.
[00:00:32] AJ: Yes, we are back for season two, your sophomore course in—I don’t even know what. If Zora’s Daughters had a major, what would it be?
[00:00:46] BT: I don’t know. Tell us.
[00:00:48] AJ: Yeah, you all tell us, because we have no idea [laughter]. Anyways, we had a solid two-month break, what did you get up to Brendane?
[00:00:57] BT: Hmm. Well, this summer I turned twenty-eight, you know, started my Saturn return and it’s came in swinging honey.
[00:01:10] AJ: Yeah. Ohh, when I tell you and when I tell you [laughter].
[00:01:15] BT: On a high note, though, I started my ethnographic interviews after the panini press suspended all research activities. In July, I took a break from that to commemorate my father’s life. For those of you who don’t follow us on social media, my father passed away this summer. He transitioned at the end of Zoom—June, oh my god Zoom—June, after a long battle with cancer. And during all of that, I also moved out of my house into an apartment! So now, finally settling into September, getting ready to write my dissertation. I finally feel like I’m making progress towards graduation after like a year and a half.
[00:02:02] AJ: Yes, yes. There have been some definite transitions for you and the folks in your life, so I am just so proud to see—I hate the word proud, but you know what I mean. If it didn’t imply that I did something [laughter].
[00:02:18] BT: I love you, thank you.
[00:02:19] AJ: I’m just so impressed to see how you’ve been pushing through everything that’s been going on. Yeah, also your new apartment is dope, I love it. I been there y’all.
[00:02:34] BT: Aw, thank you. Yes, first time, first time visit.
[00:02:39] AJ: Yes, I finally made it up to Baltimore, had my first crab boil. What an experience, what a thing. Oh yeah, I’m not vegetarian anymore [laughter]. I’m not vegetarian anymore. Um, I have been—I had been struggling just with feeling tired all the time and I would be midsentence and couldn’t remember things. I would have a conversation; I wouldn’t remember all of it later. And then one day I had a craving for oxtail, the wonderful, delicious, Jamaican dish, and I said, “you know what, forget, I’m just gonna eat the oxtail.” And I woke up the next day and it was like the clouds had parted, I could see the sunlight. I had before just been in this haze for like two years and I am back to eating all types of meat. And no, my stomach didn’t hurt. People always ask that [laughter]. I did not have any gastrointestinal issues.
[00:03:37] BT: Oxtail came through, saved the day. [Laughter] I love it, I love it.
[00:03:44] AJ: But yeah, for my summer, I basically just chilled, you know, I read a little bit. I watched quite a bit of television as I have been wont to do. I did submit a grant application, which I was very proud about because it is one of the more demanding ones in terms of all of the things that you have to submit with it. Personally, I’ve been working on my penmanship. I bought this little handwriting book and I practice in it. It’s really cute and I was just like, you know, I’ve been journaling a lot and I look at my handwriting and I’ve been writing cards and things like that because you’re not seeing people as often and you want to send them things. And I’m like, “ugh, I don’t like my handwriting.” [Laughter]
[00:04:24] BT: Well, it’s not better time than now to change it so—
[00:04:28] AJ: Listen that is not going to serve me in the apocalypse [laughter]. When the asteroid comes down, it’s not gonna serve me at all.
[00:04:37] BT: Look. Come now. Come now, asteroid. Come now, please.
[00:04:43] AJ: Not to where we’re living though, elsewhere. Yeah, I’m really excited about what we have in store this year. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to go to Martinique to get started on my fieldwork.
[00:04:54] BT: Fingers crossed.
[00:04:55] AJ: I’ll be recording from there, so that’s gonna be kinda cool. But yeah, here we are.
[00:05:02] BT: That’s right. Well, this is us. Feel free to catch up with us on IG or Twitter. Let us know how your summer went, if you had a summer. But we’re gonna go ahead and get started. On today’s episode we are talking about aesthetics. We’re talking about the activist-influencer “movement,” and how now, more than ever y’all, we need a radical Black feminist practice and thought to create the world that we want to see. So, let’s get right into it, Alyssa, what’s the word for today?
[00:05:34] AJ: Alright, our word for today is aesthetics, of course, um phew, what a word. Just wanna preface this and say that we are not experts, we do not [laughter] specialize in aesthetics or aesthetic thought. But it does sound really cool to say that you are [laughter]. So y’all hit us up if we got something wrong but we—I just wanted to start with something general. So, as a gloss, it’s a branch of philosophy and philosophy is the study of the most fundamental, most basic, questions, you know, some that sound like they have obvious answers but are actually pretty complicated. Like, what is reality? Someone might say, well reality is something I can touch but then, what about sound? Can you touch sound? No, you can’t, but is it real? There you go, I don’t know. You just—it’s just—philosophy is going down the rabbit hole [laughter].
The field can be broken down into different areas and depending on who you ask, there are five—there may be twelve branches of philosophy. It’s all a debate but I think for social scientists, we tend to engage with about five of them, I would say. Maybe you could add one or two more but typically we’ll be thinking about, thinking through, you know, philosophers who work on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. For those of you who are like but what about ontology? [Laughter] [Unclear] Everyone’s all about the ontological turn and all this stuff.
[00:07:09] BT: Yeah, everyone’s favorite word.
[00:07:12] AJ: Mm hmm, it’s a favorite. Ontology is actually a subfield of metaphysics and metaphysics deals with the nature of reality and existence. And ontology deals with the nature of being, so that follows under that category. It aims to answer questions like What is reality? Is there a supreme being? Questions like that. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and that subfield will work through questions like, what is knowledge? How do we know what we know? Ethics is the study of action, of right and wrong. Questions like, what should I do? What ought I do? The “ought” is the—[laughter]
[00:07:52] BT: Very philosopher, “what ought I do?”
[00:07:55] AJ: What ought I do? [laughter] Folks who were in my first semester theory class will know why I’m stressing the “ought” so hard [laughter]. But also questions like, how do I judge what’s right and wrong? Politics then inquires into questions of force, of power, and society. What can or cannot be done? How should we govern? And then finally, aesthetics is interested in beauty, taste, and art, and thinks through questions like, what is beauty? What is art? Is art subjective? Is art objective? Is beauty always subjective, can it be objective? Things like that.
[00:08:35] BT: Yeah, exactly. Keep in mind these branches of philosophy are not mutually exclusive, so they can have overlap. You can think about politics and aesthetics like we’re going to do today, right. Western philosophers have written about a variety of these branches. So, Plato—which many of us know the philosopher, Greek, I believe—has ideas—I’m like yeah, one of those—has ideas about aesthetics but he also wrote about political philosophy. Also, contemporary philosophers might specialize in a particular branch like Kantian ethics or Platonic political philosophy. But back to the aesthetic, right. It’s generally agreed that there are three ways of thinking about the aesthetic: form, as in art itself; aesthetic properties, as in ways we describe or judge the aesthetic; and the aesthetic experience, so things like desire, pleasure, or any activity undertaken for its own sake rather than some practical purpose.
[00:09:39] AJ: Right. And the other thing that we wanted to say is that we’re speaking specifically about Western philosophers. Of course, there are other groups of people who also philosophize—is that a word [laughter]—who engage in questions of thought in different ways. We’re using this particular structure of philosophy. And of course, people do think about what could be called aesthetics but through a different kind of framework, through a different kind of epistemology—if you wanna call it that. So, we do make aesthetic judgements all the time. When we call something beautiful, joyful, or serene, it’s all about our experience, what we’re experiencing and that connection between the outside and the inside. The inside being within us, our feelings, our emotions, our affects. And so, these concepts are more than just perceiving and so to make these judgements requires another level of cognition, it’s said. I prefer to say attunement, because I don’t necessarily reason out whether I like a piece of art, or whether I like this music, I kinda just feel it and then maybe I’ll think about it and try to reason out why. But the truth is we probably don’t actually know why we like the things we like, just make up some reason or some logic behind it [laughter].
[00:11:02] BT: I mean yeah, that sounds about right to me [laughter].
[00:11:06] AJ: But really, so the reason we really wanted to talk about aesthetics is to think about the way that it’s bound up with politics and political movements. So, the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, he was someone who drew our attention to this in his book The Politics of Aesthetics. Here he argues that politics itself is a fight for recognition and for what is permissible to say or to show in the world, in society, and those latter things are themselves aesthetic. So, one thing I wanna talk about—have you heard of the Overton window?
[00:11:42] BT: No, the only Overton I know is on Living Single. So, please, please, teach me something today [laughter].
[00:11:49] AJ: Yeah, not that guy [laughter]. Although I’m sure if I knew in living—oh, I was gonna say in living single, but no in living color—Living Single, if I knew it better, I probably would have an example from that but the example that I’m thinking of because over the break, I watched the TV show Billions. It’s a stressful show, but I liked it.
[00:12:12] BT: Okay. Oh gosh, [laughter] okay. I’ll put it on my list of things.
[00:12:16] AJ: Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know. If you like Suits, it’s like Suits but with traders. Um, so it’s kinda like that. And so one of the main characters, he’s played by Paul Giamatti, he’s running for Attorney General of New York and in a press conference where he’s supposed to step down, he instead decides to reveal that he was being pressured to back out because his detractors were going to leak photos of him consensually engaging in BDSM. So, in the end, he wins the election and in a later episode, the speech that he gave, it’s discussed by an Ivy League sociology professor who’s played by Julianna Margulies. And so, they talk about how he shifted the Overton window which, of course, was facilitated by his aesthetic in the show, being a wealthy, white man.
But the Overton window it’s essentially the range of what is acceptable to the mainstream population at any given time. And so, it’s typically used to refer to policy, like political policies, legal policies, but I’ve also seen it applied to general ideas. There is a range—this is how the—I think he actually went to—he was a Columbia professor in social theory or something like that. And so, he has a range between policy—so what’s currently existing as policy—and the unthinkable. And right before the unthinkable is the radical. And so theoretically, politicians, people in the law, they have to detect where the window is, but they can’t actually shift it themselves. So, they can only ever—I mean this isn’t entirely true but in order to maintain their popularity or to maintain their position—they only ever propose law or policies that fall within the Overton window. So, something that’s sensible, that’s acceptable, never radical.
[00:14:20] BT: I feel like that’s more than politicians, but you know.
[00:14:23] AJ: Mm hmm. Definitely. It’s really, really about politicians and policy but I mean you can think about it with like corporations who last summer went from—departments who went from, “Oh, Black Lives Matter is radical,” to, you know, committing funds to Black Lives Matter movements, committing funds to Black organizations and things like that. So Black Lives Matter went from radical to more or less politically acceptable. And that was based on the climate of public opinion and not because like these corporations or politicians or policy makers were pushing forward any kind of legislation or ideas. It was because the public opinion changed. So, to bring that back to aesthetics, whereas it was considered radical for someone to say, “Black lives matter,” or to show images of Colin Kaepernick kneeling, society is now kind of at this point where this statement is recognized within the established order. It’s not an aberration for a company to say, “Black lives matter,” whereas it would have been unthinkable two years ago. Or it was like a company that people would then see as radical, now it’s kind of like this is expected.
And so, Ranciere argues that politics and aesthetics have overlap. Aesthetics itself can have subversive power. If you think about art that is meant to kind of speak truth to power, or something like that, because it mobilizes our imagination to make things possible, to make things thinkable. And then politics has been used to make certain images unacceptable or to demonize certain groups of people.
[00:16:12] BT: Right. Like every organization has their Black Lives Matter statement unless, you know, they truly do not believe that Black lives matter. But you know, that’s a debate for another time.
[00:16:26] AJ: Yeah, before it would say something that, if you had the statement, and now it says something if you don’t. And that’s aesthetic, right? That’s aesthetic. It’s what’s shown or what’s being said, what’s possible to say.
[00:16:43] BT: What’s possible to say, what’s being shown, what’s being done. All these things operate at different levels. But yeah, to bring it back to aesthetics and its connection to politics, we also wanna talk about Walter Benjamin, who wrote about the aestheticization of politics, particularly in fascist regimes. So, we witnessed in the 20th century and the 21st century how closely aligned aesthetics and politics are. And he wrote that “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their rights, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” So, in considering this, right, we think about how the powers that be like to consolidate and keep their power, right? So, it’s “oh, we’re not actually gonna change property relations but we’re gonna give you the appearance that things have changed by shifting who is seen as owners of property.
[00:17:52] AJ: Hmm. Remember that for our What in the World.
[00:17:55] BT: Oh yeah, keep that. [Laughter] Really in reading this, I know the glaring example of fascism that people always point to, right, is Hitler’s third Reich, all of that. And it reminds me a lot about what we learned in high school about how Hitler actually rose to power. And how he used a lot of these images of Aryans, ones that he created of course because most German people did not look like the Aryan race that he imagined, right. And he used these images and kind of put them forth in public space to begin to push forward his eugenicist agenda. So, he solidified this aesthetic of Aryan purity and said that that would be the goal, part of the political goal. And the underbelly of that was also an economic consolidation too, taking away property from Jewish people, gay people, and things like that under the assumption of creating this pure Aryan aesthetic. All so he could effectively legislate the deaths of millions of people. And so, German citizens would hold up signs that had like pictures of what a typical, what a real German citizen looks like. And they could say, “oh, my neighbor’s nose is a little too long,” if they wanted to claim their neighbor’s shop across the street. They could say, you’re your nose is actually a little too long,” or “I saw you sneaking away from the synagogue the other day,” or whatever, and actually sentence their neighbors to death essentially based on how they appeared and how they lived their lives. And so, we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but we all know that Germany’s genocidal movement—that they talk about in the 20th century—finds its roots in the U.S. where race, class, gender, and other markers of identity being made visible, being given an aesthetic, became essential for white property owners to claim and to justify their political power.
[00:20:00] AJ: Right. I think that’s a really good example of how aesthetics can be mobilized to achieve political ends. And those political ends can be positive, they can be negative. So, we use a variety of aesthetic elements to change minds and change society through protest and pollical movements. You know, the aesthetic, what is does is, as I said, kind of mediates the inside and the outside. So, what it does is it evokes particular emotions, particular affects, and then encourages people to use their imagination, right. Imagining different worlds, you can start thinking about the world differently to create a different world. So, Hitler was basically making something up. He was just like, “oh, this whole Aryan thing, this is real, I’m think about the world differently in order to create a different world.” So, he wanted to—
[00:20:56] BT: I’m gonna create a whole aesthetic that I don’t even fit into. [Laughter] Right, like that my momma don’t even fit into [crosstalk].
[00:21:03] AJ: Let’s look at the world differently. Let’s look at it differently so that I can make that thing real. It’s an awful, awful example [laughter]. Let’s [unclear]. That is what people do. That’s where it starts. So in terms of protests, I mean, you can think about song, you can think about placards, you can think about the way people dress, and other things that appeal to the aesthetic beyond just the sense of the beautiful, the formal, the sublime, or the funny. What he was doing was what was creating a kind of consistency in imagery. So, I’ll give folx two examples. One of the things that I often think about when it comes to aesthetics and politics is Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, right. His perceived attractiveness—and everyone loved to talk about that, “oh, he’s the hot prime minister—”
[00:21:56] BT: Oh yeah, hey big head.
[00:21:56] AJ: Mm hmm. And then it became a trend where people were talking about heads of state who are really hot, you know. His perceived attractiveness actually masks or—I’m gonna make this word up but—beauty washes all of the messed-up stuff he’s done, like Blackface, like pushing forward pipelines on Indigenous land, and all of this stuff that people are like, “oh no, he couldn’t do anything wrong because just look at how good looking he is.” People trust and believe in him. So, there’s kind of an aestheticization of his position rather than actually paying attention to his actual politics. And then, on the other hand, you know, thinking about aesthetics as coherence—so consistency in appearance and messaging to demand social and political change.
One of the images I think about is in 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto they stopped the Toronto Pride Parade to demand changes from the Pride administration. And so, they were kind of inspired by the Black Panther Party, they dressed in all black and then they set off colorful smoke bombs and stopped the parade until their demands were met. And the demands were about like creating safe spaces for Black queer and trans folx and funding their events and organizations, their suborganizations, equally. And so, you know, the photos in the newspaper in the following days, they just were so—it was such an aesthetic, right. It was like you knew that this was Black Lives Matter Toronto. It was coherent, it was cohesive, it depicted power and self-possession, some pastness by kind of reflecting the Black Panther Party but also this futurity because they had all of the sparkles and stuff on their face, and things like that. So, this—
[00:23:53] BT: I’m gonna have to look this up. I wanna see some of these pictures.
[00:23:56] AJ: So, you know, politicizing aesthetics can be a revolutionary praxis whereas the aestheticization of politics, as with Trudeau, or with—oh man, I don’t even like saying his name [laughter] why are we using him as an example—anyways, so those are ways of creating a myth about the political. So, I think that brings us nicely into what we’re reading today! Brendane, what are we reading?
[00:24:22] BT: So, we are bringing back our first repeat author! We are reading Angela Davis’s essay “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” which was published in Critical Inquiry in 1994. So, if you’re new here, let me introduce you to Dr. Angela Davis. She is an Aquarius—and that’s important [laughter] it’s important to me at least—who is an activist, scholar, and writer who has authored twelve books and counting. I’m sure she will continue writing that pen forever. She is best known for her activism during the Black Power Movement during the 1970s. And on a real personal note, I met her like twice. She’s always been amazing. And I admire her life and her legacy so much, and so I think this essay really has some keen insights that can be applied to what we call activism today, so I’m just more than excited to read this essay with y’all.
[00:25:30] AJ: Yes. This is great. This essay was also me in my bag! I mean, it depends on the angle you approach the essay from. You know, she is talking about this aestheticization of the political, like what better way to defang the revolution than to sell it? And hold on to that question because it’ll be important in our next segment. But for me, this essay really spoke to my interest in the way that we refashion the past, particularly in ways that decontextualize and depoliticize it.
[00:26:00] BT: Okay. Are we bringing the research to the podcast?
[00:26:05] AJ: No. [Laughter]
[00:26:08] BT: It’s inside joke, y’all. [Laugher]
[00:26:10] AJ: We never, never talk about our research [laughter] You get to talk about yours more than mine.
[00:26:18] BT: That’s real. [Laughter] Hmm, we gonna have to do something about that.
[00:26:23] AJ: Is it a problem with the podcast or is it a problem with my research? I don’t know [laughter].
[00:26:24] BT: Is that a philosophical question or [laughter]?
[00:26:30] AJ: Probably.
[00:26:31] BT: [Laughter] Oh goodness. Yeah. So, this essay’s very short, so I feel like y’all could just pick it up, read it in about 25 minutes. But we’re gonna give y’all a very nice synopsis of it today. So, she begins with a short anecdote about her encounter with incarcerated women and performers at a performance in San Francisco. After the show, because she knew some of the performers, she wanted to congratulate them, so she went backstage. One of the incarcerated women introduced Davis to her brother, who did not recognize her until he recognized her afro. So, we’re thrown into this scene and then she then pens this line—which, y’all this line, I was like shook, this spoke to me deeply. And she said, “Such responses I find hardly exceptional, and it is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion; it is humbling because such encounters with the younger generation demonstrate the fragility and mutability of historical images, particularly those associated with African American history.”
[00:27:58] AJ: so, Davis continues by giving examples of moments in which her legacy was reduced to the iconic image of her afro but says that is not the only reason that she is frustrated. Her popularity as an icon from the Black Power era is largely due to what she names a “particular economy of journalistic images” in which hers has survived for decades. So the question is why hers? Why?
[00:28:26] BT: Mm hm, we got some theories.
[00:28:27] AJ: Of all the people [laughter]. But this economy of images that solidified her reputation as one of the most wanted Black revolutionaries in the history of the United States then serves as the basis for consumerist revolutionary fashion in later generations. The photos that endangered Angela Davis’s life and other Black women’s lives are continuously recreated to sustain a capitalist industry while being detached from their historical context. And so, as I hinted at earlier, I think it’s important for us to consider why her image—the afro—has sustained, has maintained, has built around all of these years later even while her actual revolutionary work is erased. One reason could be her role as an intellectual. She has her PhD, and she has studied in Europe. Angela Davis’s class background might be one factor. Another could be colorism, which, you know, we’ve talked about multiple times on the podcast. Maybe the circulation of the image of a light skinned Black woman intellectual with an afro and raised fist, that just fared better in the media than the image of what might have been a dark-skinned Black woman. And so, Davis doesn’t talk directly about the impact of colorism here, but I think it’s important to note.
[00:29:46] BT: Yeah. I agree. I think it’s—I mean, one of the critiques of Davis is that she does not necessarily pay attention to colorism in some of her work, and how that impacts [her work]. So, I’m like, yeah when I read her stuff now, I’m always like yeah, like why you still around, you know? [Laughter]
[00:30:06] AJ: Honestly, whew, I don’t know if we should leave this in here, but I have the same question. One of the few from that era.
[00:30:18] BT: From that era. Like might be the only one who’s free from that era. And so, yeah, lots of people have questions and yeah [laughter].
[00:30:31] AJ: Only questions no answers, okay [laughter].
[00:30:33]BT: Only questions, no answers. I hope she takes it to her grave honey. [Laughter] Davis does point us to the impact of the circulation of images of Black people. So, she says on one hand, we can commemorate, look back upon, moments from the older generations, we can recall older Black movements, but on the other hand, we can separate that image from its true historical memory. And so, what that does is it’s actually like, it’s not like you look at a picture and there’s no memory, right. The memory is actually supplanted by a memory that can be ahistorical and apolitical. The example in this essay being Angela Davis’ memory being moved from this radical, dangerous revolutionary woman who participated in a cop shoot out to a fashion icon. Like how does that happen, you know? This reminds me of—uh, I’mma say it and y’all, I mean if you know me for real, you know I’m not a fan, so you know this is not new or what. But this reminded me a lot of like Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance, where everyone was like, “oh my gosh, this is revolutionary like first of all that she’s out here dressed like a Black Panther. The Black Panthers were definitely interpellated through the leather jackets and the studs and the afros that everybody else had on. Beyoncé didn’t have an afro but we’re gonna get to that later. [Laughter] But a certain memory of the party was called forth, but it was for the purpose of entertainment at the Superbowl. Which is—and we know the tenets of the Black Panther party, right, they were explicitly anti-capitalist and the Superbowl is one of the largest capitalist events of the year. So, as much as we as a collective love Beyoncé, we gotta ask the question, what does Huey, what does the Black Panther Party got to do with football? And I think, after reading this essay, right, Davis would definitely call that “revolutionary glamor.”
[00:32:50] AJ: Yeah. I think you’re touching on what is probably in most circles, I’d say, an unpopular opinion. Because everybody thought this was all you know, like this is, like they said, revolutionary, this is her representing for Black folx, you know really showing our history. But then it’s like who she showing it to?
[00:33:17] BT: For whomst?
[00:33:18] AJ: For whomst?
[00:33:19] BT: For whomst, honey? I just wanna know for whomst. You know, I have a lot of unpopular opinions but, I digress.
[00:33:29] AJ: I like it. That’s why this podcast is so great. [Laughter]
[00:33:32] BT: I digress. One of them we’ll get to later on, yeah.
[00:33:40] AJ: Perfect. Alright, so Davis explains that with the circulation of the image—and there are a lot of ideas about the image, you know, the image is not the thing but the evocation of the thing and all of this kind of stuff. We won’t get into that. Like I said, not our wheelhouse.
[00:33:54] BT: Are we anthropologists or [laughter]?
[00:34:00] AJ: We’re not visual anthropologists. I think visual anthropologists would have more to say on it. But, you know, even with the circulation of the image it’s not only removed from the context, but it takes on a completely new meaning. Right? It takes, just this history dehistoricized all of these things. And for me, growing up in Toronto we did celebrate Black History Month—at least at one of my schools from what I can remember—and I do remember seeing images of Angela Davis, right? You know, definitely the afro, the raised fist, all of those kinds of things but I honestly had no idea what became of her. I don’t remember what I thought but I probably thought that she was dead. Or at least in jail. [Laughter] I didn’t even know that she was released.
[00:34:50] BT: That’s wild that they didn’t even teach y’all. They just was like, “oh, this is Black History Month, here’s a Black person.” No context.
[00:34:55] AJ: Mm hmm. Basically. I mean we watched—we used to—I remember sitting—y’all won’t know about this some of you all—but they used to wheel in the tv into the gym [laughter].
[00:35:09] BT: Oh yes, for the assemblies.
[00:35:10] AJ: Half the school would sit in the gym.
[00:35:11] BT: The little thirty-inch tv with the big back on it.
[00:35:15] AJ: Mm hmm. Yep, and we would watch like a movie or something. So I think we watched Selma Lord Selma one year, that’s the one thing that I remember. Anyways, if you all follow Tressie McMillan Cottom, she tweeted recently, I mean just the other day, that this child that she loves that she was hanging out with, he was playing NBA Live and asked how old Michael Jordan would be if he was still alive. And I was like, oh [laughter] man just had a documentary [laughter]. I cried a little bit inside. I was just like, “I have officially crossed over.” [Laughter] And so I say that to say I think it was the same thing for me with Angela Davis, right. Because of the circulation of this singular image, you know, she seemed stuck in time. It was like she wasn’t an author, professor, advocate, and all the other great things that she is. Present tense because she’s very much alive. You know, that says something about the idea of photographic, or videographic, or even textual, capture. It’s something that we as anthropologists have been critiqued for, have critiqued in our work. You know, the way ethnographies and our writing and photos, you know, it others our subjects by capturing them or fixing them as spatially and temporally separate from us. You know what, I just remembered that Angela Davis came to my school, my university when I was in undergrad, and I wasn’t able to go to the talk. I remember the event was called EXAO, Expression Against Depression. She was there and the image of her on the poster was like a kind of silhouette but of that old picture. So, for me when I finally did see Angela Davis present tense, I was like, “Oh wow, she’s a lot older [laughter] than I expected.” Even though it’s sixty years earlier, I was still expecting this young woman, big afro or something, but that’s not. She still has an afro—
[00:37:28] BT: And she’s using different hair products now and everything. Like her afro is definitely a curly ‘fro now as opposed to what it was back then. But it’s—
[00:37:39] AJ: Yeah, I was surprised. Surprised.
[00:37:42] BT: Yeah. As anthropologist we are really always dealing with the question of how do we move away from earlier depictions of ethnographic work that had this like, the writing of the “primitive.” The person who’s sitting in front of you in the present but is always already written about as if they’re doing things that are happening in the past. And so, I know you talk about theory class, I know that was one of the first things that we read about and talked about in theory classes. How do we resist that? And Davis actually gives us some clues on how we can resist this. She talks about, thinking about photos in their living context, so these images—yeah, lemme not say photos, lemme say images—in their living context. So, videos, photos, other forms of representation of folx, right. And we do that by thinking about the conditions, the historical conditions but also the present conditions that bring this image to life. And I was thinking about this as like a thought exercise—which ugh, makes me sound like someone we both know—to think about how our social media feeds would look if folx couldn’t just post a picture with a witty caption for likes. How could we bring living context to our images to illuminate the conditions that we’re in/have always been in? Because for me, the other question that lingers behind this, as a Black woman right, is how much of the past is truly the past? How much of a picture of me, as a Black woman experiencing something is present as well as an indication or an interpellation of something me ancestors went through? And like, even looking at my IG profile today in preparing for this, I was like, “what if I had to explain the historical and present conditions of my posts?” Like what if I had to be like, you know, posing here in Miami and I had to make sure I turned my head to the left so that way you could see the certain angle of my jaw so it wouldn’t call in fatphobic assumptions about Black women. You know? Like what if I had to do that every time I posted? Would that change how people interact with what I post? Would that then be a way to speak truth to power?
[00:40:22] AJ: Hmm, I think so. I absolutely would think so. I think the other—that’s interesting to think about the way you’re contextualizing it. I think the other thing is about the intention of the photo, right? Images, they can tell so many different stories. If I were to look at my Instagram, am I like, is this just a page full of thirst traps or do they tell another story of say celebrating Black beauty? And then that then begs questions of how am I representation of that. Is it solely because of my Blackness or is it that I also have features or characteristics that are considered acceptable in mainstream society? So, there are questions there. I mean for me I’d say it’s definitely just the former [laugher].
[00:41:19] BT: [Laughter] I mean, you look good, so.
[00:41:19] AJ: Right. Because I think your intentions matter when you’re taking a photo. The exact same image, exactly the same, you know, could say different things depending on why it was taken and why it was chosen. One of my pictures could say “She was enjoying vacation” and “She was challenging the stereotype of the angry Black woman” kind of thing. Who knows? I don’t know. We’ll have to work on that one.
[00:41:47] BT: Yeah. Maybe that will be part of the Zora’s Daughters research [laughter].
[00:41:56] AJ: Some part of it. Images. But I wanted to go back to what I said earlier about the way these images endangered her and other Black women’s lives. She explains that the wanted poster and the images of her in her afro, you know, it made other women with afros, light skinned or dark skinned—which she actually did mention in the essay—it made them the target of repression. And so, as I mentioned earlier, the focus on the aesthetic it allows coherence but it also kind of allows this conflation, right. So, some women told her that they wore an afro so that they could serve as a decoy, so they knew they were making use of this idea that this coherence meant that people would mistake them for her, and they could protect her in a sense. But then the appropriation of this aesthetic as fashion, it can also mask these histories and these dangers.
[00:42:55] BT: Right. And like one of those histories being you rightfully assuming that someone’s gonna be like all Black women with afros look alike and are the same. Which is dangerous and calls back to anti-Black histories for sure. And yeah, even thinking about the afro was and is—and I’mma put a real emphasis on the is in kind of a quizzical kinda way—a political statement that opposes this Eurocentric standard of straight, silky hair. Black natural hair is still contested in workplaces, school places, and homes around the world. Its depoliticization—which it being the afro—and glamourization as a fashion statement simultaneously calls in that history and present violence while erasing it for younger generations. So, younger generations might encounter images of people with afros and be like, “oh it’s normal,” right but not necessarily understand the entire history and present of violence. And so, in this essay, Davis talks about how she spent the two months underground wondering how the FBI would represent her publicly so that she could create a disguise. Which I thought was interesting that she let us into that. Her disguise was a typical glamour look—which I would say particularly for a cis[gender] het[erosexual] Black woman, right—kind of straight hair, makeup, pressed blouses. So, for her to see her revolutionary look, which is the afro, barefaced, with glasses, then be turned into this kind of revolutionary glamour was like appalling.
[00:44:47] AJ: Right, right. And so, the way that it was turned into the revolutionary glamour is it became a fashion spread in Vibe magazine, what they call “docufashion.” And Vibe magazine, for the folx who have not crossed over as I—
[00:45:04] BT: I am in that number. Remember Vibe magazine.
[00:45:07] AJ: It was the Black magazine—one of the Black magazines, Vibe, Jet, you know all of those, Essence. And so that again, that there shows the way even Black people are implicated in the erasure of history as well. They were just trying to capitalize on some fashion. Capitalism is not gonna save us. And so, for her she says that that fashion spread is “the most blatant example of the way the particular history of [her] legal case is emptied of all content so that it can serve as a commodified backdrop for advertising.” Does that sound familiar in the year of our Lorde—with and E—2021?
[00:45:50] BT: It shole do, honey, it shole do. I think that is a perfect way to segue into our next segment, which is What in the World—
[00:46:04] AJ: What in the world?
[00:46:04] BT: —is going on? Truly
[00:46:06] AJ: I think the first thing we need to talk about is the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Tiffany ad.
[00:46:14] BT: I mean [sigh] let’s do it. Let’s do it.
[00:46:16] AJ: Alright. [Laughter] The hive is coming for us. To get everyone up to speed, last week the jewelry brand Tiffany released a new “About Love” campaign which featured Jay-Z, Beyoncé, a Basquiat painting and the famous 128.54 carat yellow diamond that was “discovered” in South Africa in 1877.
[00:46:46] BT: That’s wow.
[00:46:46] AJ: That’s huge. If y’all are like, “I don’t really know anything about carats” but 128 carats—
[00:46:52] BT: I’m like there are more carats in the diamond than dollars in my bank account. [Laughter] That is where I’m at.
[00:47:00] AJ: Drop that 54 cents too. [Laughter] So on social media, the company, Tiffany, proudly stated that Beyoncé is only the fourth woman and first Black woman to wear the diamond. Okay so, she follows Audrey Hepburn—is it Audrey or Katherine, I always forget, I always confuse them—Lady Gaga, folx like that. While Tiffany thought that they were celebrating American racial progress, the real ones knew we were just seeing another example of the legacy of colonialism. Of course, if you just pay attention to the aesthetics, you see a “beautiful, statuesque, Black”—I’m gonna put those in quotes for Brendane’s sake because I know she’s gonna have something to say about it [laughter]—Black woman wearing a huge diamond necklace. She’s our fearless leader. You feel pride in seeing your reflection honored in such a way. That’s the aesthetics, right. But then that erases the politics, particularly when you consider the context of 1870s South Africa. This was, at the time, a mining industry mired in conflict and discrimination that basically created the conditions for apartheid. So then, you realize that Beyoncé, Miss Black is King, is wearing a priceless blood diamond. And I say priceless not because of its carat weight, but because it is the product of enslaved labor and a system, a war that killed 70,000 people at least, left several maimed traumatized, millions of people displaced. Yeah, no you can’t put a price on that.
[00:48:59] BT: You can’t but somebody will try. I think, at best, they did a horrible job of reading the room. Like, come on, it’s a global panoramic. That the death toll increases every day. Niggas and non-niggas are homeless, out on the street, being evicted. What felt like this was the time? Hmm? I’m asking both sides. And even though she has sung about Black beauty and strength and waxed lyrical about her love for the continent, we know that that couple bottom line fundamentally capitalist. I already said what I could say about her Superbowl performance. I’m not gonna say nothing else because I don’t want nobody putting my address on the internet. [Laughter] We already know how we feel about her husband as well. Nikole Hannah-Jones just critiqued Jay-Z, along with Will Smith, for backing a rent-to-own housing program for low-income families. And so, if y’all don’t know what rent-to-own housing programs are, they’re basically scams. Just ending up, you know, where people tend to—usually it’s lower income folx who don’t have the credit or income to get loans from banks, so they enter into shady agreements with landowners, landlords to say, “oh I’m renting to own the house.” And the landlord—there’s no set term like you would have in a mortgage, there’s no set really rent, depending on what kind of landlord you have. And so, for these two men to be backing a rent-to-own housing program is just like, okay, what you doing. But Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted and said “Credit counseling is not what will take low-income renters to homeowners, wealth will. All this program does is charge struggling people additional fees for being poor, which is what every other predatory lender does.” And so, we’ve talked about it. Like Black capitalism, it’s not gonna save us.
[00:51:11] AJ: Nope. Nope. But maybe charity will [laughter]. So, for context for my comment, Tiffany announced they’re gonna donate two million dollars to HBCUs—historically Black colleges and universities—which is great, right. You know, I’m not knocking donating some money to universities, to education.
[00:51:37] BT: That’s like two million dollars.
[00:51:40] AJ: There’s definitely that. That’s a drop in the bucket.
[00:51:41] BT: Literally.
[00:51:42] AJ: Well, let’s see, they’re under the LVMH company, which is like the Louis Vuitton House. So yeah, they own Fenty, they just bought Tiffany, they own Louis Vuitton, all of these fashion and beauty brands. They make billions, okay. So, the two million dollars, drop in the bucket. Probably even a drop in the bucket from what they’re gonna earn having Beyoncé and Jay-Z be their ambassadors. So, as a counterpoint to that two million dollars and to charity, there is an article in the Washington Post. It showed that following the murder of George Floyd, corporations pledged $4.2 billion in grants, okay. They pledged other money in terms of loans and things like that, but in terms of grants to organizations it was 4.2 billion. This was about fifty companies and mind you, makes up less than one percent of those companies’ combined net income.
[00:52:47] BT: That’s wild. [Laughter] It’s wild how much money that is.
[00:52:49] AJ: But yes, it’s like oh, 4.2 billion, that’s a lot of money. Those companies combined are worth like 450 something billion dollars, something, 500 and something billion dollars. Um, so, yeah. Half of it now, half of that money was pledged to groups focused on economic equality. Okay, so like there was, I think, they pledged to like Black banks and things like that. And then, you know, most of the rest of it went to what we could call more safe causes like education, and health, and culture. And then a tiny fraction of that amount, something in the millions, like seven million, went towards criminal justice reform. So, we all were like, oh my gosh, this was this huge tragedy what happened to George Floyd but not that much money went towards criminal justice reform, abolition. Of course, not abolition, that’s definitely outside of the Overton window at this point. But like, okay, don’t ask me why but this morning I was listening to some Black conservative talks and John McWhorter [laughter]—
[00:54:00] BT: I’m not gonna ask you why, I’m just gonna assume it’s an Aquarius thing. Honestly
[00:54:03] AJ: Yeah. You know what, it was someone else who was like, “do you know about this guy, a Columbia student who’s like a Black conservative and this other guy?” And he was like, “I listen to their stuff because to know what the other side is saying.” Because I think technically, I think McWhorter considers himself a centrist liberal. Anyway, so what he said in a lecture was that the way to solve educational disparity among Black folx is to fight the war on drugs. Because the reason that students aren’t doing well in school is because their fathers aren’t in the home, because their fathers are in prison. And so, what we need to do to fight inequality is to fight the war on drugs and the laws that uphold it. So maybe, [laughter] so maybe—
[00:55:08] BT: I’m trying to keep a straight face, oh my God.
[00:55:13] AJ: I feel like we need to have a talk with them or something. Just to be like where are we, where is this?
[00:55:18] BT: Look, I’mma have the aspirin ready to go after, oh my God.
[00:55:23] AJ: So, you know maybe they might actually agree that these companies aren’t actually invested in Black liberation. Because a beautiful shiny diamond on a Black woman is supposed to make us forget, we get representation but not any actual change. In fact, we get the same old shit, as Basquiat would say. Or tag on a wall.
[00:55:50] BT: Right. Right. I—going back to what you said earlier about the “Black” I wanted to tease apart, right, this claim of representation in the Tiffany ad because I would argue, right, that in this instance it’s not necessarily Beyoncé herself. Yes, Beyoncé is a Black woman. Now I’m gonna say this, yes, Beyoncé is a Black woman, right. But I don’t think in the ad she’s represented as “black” per se. Like if you look, especially at the picture—the image that we’re talking about in particular which has Jay-Z in the background looking at the Basquiat. Like her hair is straight, it’s put up in this–what you call it—bouffant kinda up-do thing; her skin is extremely pale and it’s like who was on photoshop for this one; they made her look real slender; and even the features on her face are, to me, I was like oh this is giving something else. I’m not sure if this is how Beyoncé looks now. So, I would argue that the Black in the picture comes through her husband, his hair, his freeform locks and the Basquiat painting, but I don’t wanna go too far down that road. What I’ll end it in saying, like what does it say when Beyoncé is the first and only Black woman that’s able to do something? What does that say about the kind of Black person that’s able to enter into spaces? We’ve said plenty of times, right, that integration is not activism. Representation is not activism. So, I just don’t know who on Beyoncé’s team and who on Tiffany’s took a look around at this anti-Black world and said this is what we need in this moment, right. To show Beyoncé wearing a diamond nobody can afford. [Laughter] Like who?
[00:57:55] AJ: Not a soul
[00:57:56] BT: Not a soul. Like again.
[00:58:00] AJ: So, I did want to, because you mentioned this earlier, in one of our text chats, and I was just like you know I wanna fight around this one a bit.
[00:58:10] BT: Fight me.
[00:58:11] AJ: Or maybe it was that actually—maybe you tweeted it.
[00:58:14] BT: Oh yeah, I tweeted it. I was being spicy, you know.
[00:58:18] AJ: And I wanted to fight you a little bit on this. I mean—
[00:58:20] BT: Fight me.
[00:58:21] AJ: What about? I feel like we have been—Black people—we have been saying like Black people are multiple. There are many different ways and looks of Blackness, right. So why come for this particular aspect of Beyoncé’s representation in this ad?
[00:58:47] BT: Hmm. I think for me it doesn’t necessarily preclude her from being Black. Like again, Beyoncé’s always gonna be Black no matter what. I think, thinking back to like our Afropessimism episode I think this shows the limit. Right. Like there’s the whiteness spectrum okay, then Blackness. And then there’s—I think Beyoncé is right up there. Cuz at first when I saw the image I was like, “who is that?” Like you have to look. And there’s several other images of Beyoncé where if you look too quickly, she looks like a white woman. Especially when she’s got her straight lace front on, you know? So, I’m like—
[00:59:32] AJ: Everyone knows she’s Black. Everyone knows it’s Beyoncé and knows that she’s Black right?
[00:59:36] BT: Yeah, but it’s also just like—idk if you saw that SNL skit where you know how white people got into a whole thing when Formation came out. And it was like, “oh yeah Beyoncé is black.” Again, the Superbowl performance reminded everyone that Beyoncé is Black. So, I think—
[00:59:59] AJ: Right. Yes. I see what you’re saying. There is a way in which Beyoncé because—well actually, let me say what I was going to say—there is a way in which Beyoncé transcends Blackness or “the Black,” right? And that is of course facilitated by the way she looks.
[01:00:20] BT: Yeah. Yeah.
[01:00:22] AJ: I see what you’re saying.
[01:00:22] BT: I think that’s what I meant. I’m troubling the representation in that way of just like, okay, how black is this moment, right?
[01:0036] AJ: Maybe she should have worn an afro [laughter].
[01:00:38] BT: Yo. If that—Tiffany’s–would Tiffany have run that though? Tiffany would not have run that.
[01:00:44] AJ: No, because an afro is not luxury or glamour
[01:00:50] BT: Mm mm, it’s revolutionary glamour [laughter].
[01:00:53] AJ: Look at us, bringing things around. [Laughter] But then that then begs the question, what is it about Jay-Z that allows him to be in the ad even though he has this—he has the free formed locks and, you know, he does have those like typically expected features of Blackness. I mean, he’s also kinda brown and light skin but [laughter] the other parts of him definitely. So, what allows him to be in the ad?
[01:01:29] BT: Beyoncé. I feel like she was like, “y’all not about to have me out here being a single lady. I’mma have my boo.” You know how she be dragging him along.
[01:01:40] AJ: [Laughter] Um, I’m sorry to admit this but I listen to Kevin Samuels ironically. If y’all don’t know who that is, he’s like the high value man person. And [laughter] he always talks about oh what do women bring to the table. What do you bring to the table for a high value man?
[01:02:05] BT: Nothing.
[01:02:06] AJ: And, you know, women would be like, “well, I’m smart, I got my career, I have connections.” He’s like a high value man doesn’t need that. A high value man doesn’t need your intelligence, doesn’t need this, doesn’t need that. And so, Bae and I were trying to figure out what exactly does a woman, in his mind, need to bring to the table for a high value man. And the thing that we came to a conclusion of is that basically, she needs to be able to be someone who can spend time in a room with wealthy white people and not embarrass him. And that is why when Black men [laughter] are on the come up they have wives who look like Beyoncé or Becky, who come from a particular class. Y’all this is spicy, I’m about to get roasted. Oh my God, I’m never getting a job [laughter]!
[01:03:03] BT: No, I don’t think, I really don’t think that what you’re saying is like, “Oh my gosh, this is gonna–!”, like, “Oh my gosh, this is so horrible!” I think it’s true. It makes me think about this book I read a long time ago about colorism when I was in high school and doing research projects because I was born a nerd. One of the authors, Ronald Hall I think, talked about how he interviewed Black men and he was just like, you know, “why did you chose your wife?” And a lot of them cited that as their reason, just like, “Oh I’m in certain social circles and I need someone who knows certain types of etiquette.” And if we think about the history in the U.S., where etiquette classes and debutante balls and all these things were basically lighter skinned black people, creole people seeing white society and basically parodying white society in order to keep their bloodlines pure, whatever the hell that means.
[01:04:25] AJ: Creole literally means mixed, but okay. [Crosstalk] It’s like blended—[crosstalk]
[01:04:26] BT: I mean basically keep the bloodline as white as possible, um. Yeah, it makes all these things trickle down so it makes sense that the only thing that a woman can bring to high value men is being as close to white, if not white, you know—
[01:04:46] AJ: If not in looks, then in other forms of aesthetics, right. How your hair looks, how you dress, how you speak, the kind of topics that you know to speak about. Absolutely your body because one of the things he always says is, how much do you weigh, and how tall are you? You know?
[01:05:00] BT: You know? I’m so glad [crosstalk] I don’t bring nothing to that table. I’m so glad that I am not a high value woman. I’mma just say that.
[01:05:10] AJ: Oh lord. So, all of that to say is that Beyoncé is what allows Jay-Z to be in that ad. Her.
[01:05:20] BT: Her.
[01:05:21] AJ: Okay, so the last topic we wanted to talk about on this particular subject was of course, the art, because we’ve been talking about aesthetics. The images, the photos, they feature a rarely seen piece from Jean Michel Basquiat and it’s from his private collection called “Equals Pi”. I’m not going to speak for Basquiat, cause people have said he would be rolling in his grave from this “homage.” Some say he was anti-establishment, some of his work definitely spoke to anti-capitalism. But others say he wouldn’t mind the commercialization of his art because he was like friends with Andy Warhol or whatever. Friends [laughter]. But for me on this front, what really gets on my nerves is that I believe everyone should have access to art and to museums, right? Like, in London most museums are free. In D.C. the museums and galleries are free. Not the case so much in New York. But anyways a lot of work throughout history has been bought up by wealthy people or it’s been plundered from the continent or from other countries and hung up in Europe, and in the United States and Canada, you know, and a few people actually get to see it and to commune with it as I like to do. To me it just seems so selfish. And then to just put it in this ad like, “here I am with this very rare Basquiat and I’m just looking at it and appreciating it.” And of course, it’s only him looking at the painting. I think that says a lot. I went to the first ever Basquiat retrospective at the Barbican in London, which was not free [laughter]. And you know, a lot of his work—I remember looking at the little title cards and stuff—and a lot of them would be like, private collection Switzerland, private collection Switzerland. So, it was held in someone or another’s private collection and I’m like, “huh? He was a graffiti artist. His stuff was made for the publics.”
[01:07:42] BT: On purpose. And yet, I mean, we talked about that. That article of that person who like bought air basically, or like the people you auctioned off air. Did we talk about that?
[01:07:55] AJ: I don’t think so.
[01:07:56] BT: Oh, it was like an artist selling something at an art gallery and it was nothing, but people were buying it.
[01:08:02] AJ: Yeah, they auctioned it. What I think is crazy is that you can buy air rights in New York. So if you build a building you can buy the air rights around it so nobody can build within that airspace so that you can maintain your view.
[01:08:19] BT: Have you seen the Christina Aguilera movie? They talk about it in that one. The one where she’s like—[crosstalk]
[01:08:24] AJ: I know that movie [laughter].
[01:08:26] BT: Oh my god, I love that movie. It’s so dramatic, I love it so much. Um, oh my God, what is it called? Burlesque.
[01:08:35] AJ: Was this like pre-Blackified Christina Aguilera or post?
[01:08:42] BT: Post. This was like 2010, so yeah that was post Black. She was not quite in her, “oh, I’m a Latina” phase either [laughter]. She was like resting in the whiteness
[01:08:59] AJ: In the ether [laughter].
[01:09:00] BT: Resting in the whiteness [laughter]. Talking about air rights, Cher’s in it. I love it because it’s such a dramatic movie [laughter]. Well, my ex and I, we went to see because they really liked Basquiat. We went to see Basquiat at Guggenheim—
[01:09:24] AJ: Me too!
[01:09:24] BT: —and the read that I got—Oh, yay!—the read that I got from his shit was yeah, it was definitely anti-establishment. A lot of his work was painted on buildings and other non-normative places to display art. And, even if he were friends with Andy Warhol, you gotta ask were they friends or were they—uh insert whatever word you wanna insert here. Basquiat was a queer, young Black man who lived with addiction. That is the context that we—the living context that we need to bring to this art. He would not be able to access the places that his art hangs today. I think about that a lot. So, I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to imagine he’s rolling in his grave. Honestly.
[01:10:16] AJ: I think that was perfect callback to what we read today. But I think let’s move on because we definitely know that while Jay-Z and Beyoncé have influence, they’re not activists and that’s something that we wanted to touch on. So, over the last few years, we’ve witnessed the rise of the activist-influencer, people who get paid to create content about social justice. In the spirit of full transparency, we do not get paid by any brands.
[01:10:53] BT: No [laughter].
[01:10:54] AJ: We have received donations and grants for our work, but we are not professional radicals.
[01:11:01] BT: Mm mm we still professional students y’all.
[01:11:03] AJ: Absolutely. That is what we get paid for. This is our side project that does a lot of really great work. And so, we’ve also agreed between ourselves in other discussions that we wouldn’t advertise or sell anything because one, it makes podcasts really inauthentic and frankly, kind of annoying, and two, we’re not capitalists, alright. So, like—and of course we buy things, and we spend money and we earn money because we recognize that we need money to live in this here world insert asteroid [laughter].
[01:11:37] BT: Insert asteroid [laughter].
[01:11:40] AJ: But we are not trying to sell you all anything. Alright, so anyways, these activist-influencers who apparently don’t want to be called that anymore are essentially individuals—although you do see siblings, friends, couples, things like that—with a large platform whose main sphere of influence is online. And so, in a sense, it’s kind of democratized popularity and celebrity. You know, it’s also democratized knowledge sharing, for better or for worse. I definitely have my unpopular opinion on that one. This activist-influencer model has blurred a lot of lines between like the expert and the amateur and you know, it’s not always a bad thing but a lot of the time it is [laughter].
[01:12:36] BT: It’s not. A lot of the time it’s not great [laughter].
[01:12:38] AJ: I know. I have nothing against the autodidact or anything like that. I just think that—and I’m also not like, oh yeah you must have an institutional stamp in order to do something.
[01:12:51] But I do think part of what you’re talking about is in order for you to be popular in these platforms, so certain way you have to kind of scale down knowledge or in like simplify things. Take away the context of things in order for it to be something that’s aesthetically pleasing, and something that’s like easily circulated. So, you know, that I think I have the issue with for sure.
[01:13:20] AJ: It’s because of slacktivism, y’all [laughter]. We are just like people who want to feel good about the things that we do, but we don’t actually want to like put a lot of effort into it. It’s like a natural human thing, but it’s not working for liberation, UM, so yes. So, one of the things that you know we’ve talked about before and like our group chat and stuff is? Should activist influencers be making money, right? Like people have been critiquing Tamika Mallory, DeRay, the Black Lives Matter Global Network. They’re engaging in racial justice capitalism, profiting from what is supposed to be non-profit work. What do you think?
[01:14:06] BT: Whew. What don’t I think? I think is the question [laughter]. I think there are multiple layers to this discussion. As a Gemini, I’m like oh let me put on one hat in one moment and another hat in another. So, I’m just gonna pull a couple for time’s sake. Uhm, I think people always get on Black people for having—especially Black women—for having nice things and making a lot of money. But then they also feel like folks like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates earn their fortunes and should continue to hoard their wealth, right. So, people—we as a society, right, we think that service workers, social workers, counselors, teachers, etcetera don’t deserve to make a lot of money because they should be rewarded from the goodness of their actions. But I’m gonna tell y’all a little secret, goodness don’t pay bills. BG&E do not take my good work and keep my lights on, you know. And I think that just shows a few things. As a society, we think it’s natural for white men on Wall Street to make six figures while organizers who are actually doing positive change in their communities work two jobs to make ends meet. So, we have to let go of this—and I’mma name it, it’s a Christian notion, I’mma name it—that good deeds have their reward in Heaven or some shit like that. I also do believe that one of the problems here is, that I will say is a very salient critique of Black activist-influencer, is this accumulation of money, power, and status that then overpowers the political work of the movement. Which Davis talks about in thinking about the aestheticization as something that overpowers what the movement actually is here to do. So, I would say personally, I have no problem with Tamika Mallory or Patrisse Cullors buying the home of their dreams with their money. That’s they business. That’s your business, honey, right. You got your money, buy your home. I have an issue when the message becomes, which is particularly in Tamika Mallory’s case, where she’s on a Cadillac commercial and the message then becomes that buying a Cadillac is somehow tied to Black liberation.
[01:16:38] AJ: And that’s the aesthetic message. That’s not what they actually said, right? But that’s what one might expect to take away from that.
[01:16:48] BT: Right. In the commercial in particular was like tryna show this generational ascension, basically. So, like basically my ancestors worked for me to be able to own a Cadillac. Um, what? [Laughter] What? I don’t think that’s it, right. And so—
[01:17:05] AJ: A Cadillac isn’t freedom. I mean maybe if it lets you drive it around. But it’s not the Cadillac in and of itself.
[01:17:11] BT: I don’t know. I mean, lemme ask my ancestors if that’s all they want for me. I mean, it’s a Cadillac, maybe I might get surprised, who knows? But yeah, like, I think people need to really think about—I been thinking about this a lot lately. I think people really don’t know how deep their misogynoir and anti-Blackness runs, and how deeply they hold Black women to separate standards than everyone else. When this becomes a topic of debate in particular. We all sell our bodies to this capitalist system to survive. There’s not any of us who doesn’t have to do that in order to like work and survive. The folks who choose not to are usually demonized and/or incarcerated.
[01:17:57] AJ: Unless they are super wealthy.
[01:18:00] BT: Unless they are super wealthy and then it’s like natural.
[01:18:04] AJ: If you’re poor, you’re lazy. If you’re rich, you earned a break.
[01:18:08] BT: You’re gifted. You’re blessed. But I will say that even though we all have to sell our bodies in this system, that does not mean that we have to re-commodify that dead Black boy, girl, woman, nonbinary person, Black man in order to make a living. So, I do think that that is where the critique holds the most for me, is at that point.
[01:18:36] AJ: Mmm, right. Yes, goodness doesn’t pay the bills and, you know what, neither do the wealthy! They don’t pay bills; they don’t spend their own money; they leverage other people’s. They don’t even pay their fair share of taxes. And so, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is why is there this idea that a true activist or organizer has to be broke? Why does that seem to connote authenticity? Why can’t it be both and? Why is it that if you’re not struggling, you’re not really for the cause? Of if you were struggling and now, you’re not struggling anymore, you’re a sellout.
[01:19:20] BT: Right. Like, y’all thought that Martin Luther King Jr. was out here eating out of cans? [Laughter] I wasn’t gonna say what I wanted to say but [laughter] I’mma move on. I think though, that it does stem back to, like I said, this Christian ideology. You know, I haven’t been in seminary school in like sixteen years, but I remember learning there about how the rich won’t see Heaven.
[01:19:50] AJ: Yeah. I believe the line is something like, “a camel is more likely to fit through a pinhole than the rich are to enter the gates of heaven.” Something like that.
[01:20:03] BT: Yeah. It’s like yeah, the camel through an eye of a needle or something. [Crosstalk] And you know, Jesus, Yeshua, however you know this particular figure in the Bible, was talking about releasing wealth as a standard of status, right. Understanding that you need to not hoard wealth. But people take that and run with all these different interpretations. But I say that to say, this whole thing about ethic and hard work, and how, if you’re working hard, and doing good things, that should be your reward might stem from these biblical teachings that were used to justify the exploitation of people around the world in colonialism. They had to somehow get colonized people to believe that working all day for either next to nothing or absolutely nothing, while Europe and the US got rich was the right and Godly thing to do. And so I feel like also today, a lot of good work, like service work, teaching, organizing, etcetera, is feminized as “care work,” so patriarchy could also be foundational to this. Women are property. Property cannot own anything. Furthermore, it’s your duty and your purpose to perform this labor, so the reward is that you get to live to do it [laughter]. Which is sad. And like another thing I think about too is that when we paint these billionaire and other wealth-hoarding jobs as acts of merit and luck, that also justifies them in a capitalist mind frame, right. If you work hard enough, you make the money. But we all know that that’s not the case.
[01:21:55] AJ: I definitely find myself fighting my own internalized capitalism, things like that, but it’s a whole process. It’s a whole process. And I definitely have been like, “Mom no, it’s not the case that so-and-so people are lazy and so-and-so smarter than other people.” That’s really not how that goes [laughter]. Anyhow, [laughter] on the note of the activist-influencer industrial complex, there was of course the recent controversy with Jessica Natale, formerly known as soyouwanttotalkabout on Instagram. This account had nearly—or it actually still has but it’s changed its name—um, it has almost three million followers. She created the account in February 2020, quickly amassed millions of followers, many of whom believed the account was associated with Ijeoma Oluo, the other of the New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race. So, Natale was anonymous until, I think, April or something and she announced her upcoming book—that is now shelved—and that announcement revealed that she’s white. Oluo said that the graphics misled people into believing that the account was associated with her and her book, which it was not. So, it was misleading, and she said that the whole account and all of the posts are simplifications of anti-racist and social justice work. And she said, “I am not interested in making this over 400-year-old complex system simple for white people to digest.” And so the messed up thing—I mean, one of the messed up things [laughter]—is that Oluo actually contacted Natale in 2020 and instead of responding, she just put a disclaimer on her page saying she was not associated with So You Want to Talk About Race. So, now that she’s changed her name, she’s taken off the disclaimer. But of course, Instagram is an excessively visual medium, so there is an expectation of a consistency of aesthetic. She kinda has these simplified graphics, they’re very neutral colored, you know, the whites and yellows—I don’t know about yellow—white, pink, beige, black. Those are kind of the colors that she would use. I think she said that she was trying to speak to people who drink mimosas, mimosa drinking women, like corporate mimosa drinking women [laughter].
[01:24:47] BT: Oh, so in between your sips of mimosa, you’re scrolling?
[01:24:53] AJ: Yeah, basically. And so, this aesthetic that she chose is, of course, a simplification of real social justice work, which is again this aestheticization of politics that creates these myths that basically mask all of the nuance and complexity of these issues. And so, she was making people feel like they were learning. People were like, “Oh, I’m learning something because I read this post about white-splaining.”—I remember that was one of her posts.
[01:25:28] BT: Oh yeah, in between my brunch mimosas [laughter].
[01:25:31] AJ: [Laughter] In between my mimosas. But as Oluo pointed out, they weren’t learning anything because after she came out and said, “Hey, this account is not associated with me and this is kind of trash,” a lot of Natale’s followers slid into Oluo’s DMs and they were like, “Are you sure you have the legal right over the name of this page? Blah, blah, blah. Are you sure that this is your work?” [Laughter] And it’s like, if you’re following this person who’s supposed to be doing social justice work, sliding into a Black woman’s DMs and asking her if she has the rights to her own work, probably means that you haven’t learned a thing.
[01:26:17] BT: Nada. I mean, I don’t know, how much can you learn on champagne and orange juice? I don’t know. [Laughter] I can’t drink champagne anymore, so I really don’t know. It gives me a headache; I don’t like it. But they really do—all this to say—they stay stealing Black women’s clout, intellectual property, names, just all of that, to make a platform for themselves. Some days, some mornings, when I’m reflecting, I’m like how people wake up with the level of audacity that they do and go about their lives? But I also know that in order for me to have the answer to that question, I would have to switch up my whole situation and I’m not trying to do that, if you get what I’m saying. I mean, we could also take this moment to pause and refer our listeners back to a controversy that we got called into earlier this year with Dr. Kiona, whose platform also truly visualizes this activist-influencer conundrum. And we won’t belabor it, I’ll just say listen to our episode “The Empire Claps Back” to learn more because that was a wild ride [laughter].
[01:27:44] AJ: And we’re still on it [laughter].
[01:27:46] BT: We’re still on it y’all. Literally months later, we’re still on it.
[01:27:52] AJ: Um, yeah, alright. Well, just to wrap things up, you know, we’ve basically gone from Angela Davis’ image of revolution and dissidence being appropriated as “docufashion” into this infographic industrial complex where there is more emphasis placed on aesthetics over substance. So right now, were we’re at in this social media landscape, activism just means throwing up a black square. It means something that’s marketable and profitable and packaged up conveniently for consumption. And you know, maybe even we are guilty of that, right. Even when we say we’re hoping that it encourages people to seek out more information for themselves. Does it? I don’t know. Are we doing the right thing? I don’t know, time will tell.
[01:28:55] BT: Time will tell. If somebody gets on their Instagram platform and says, “Zora’s Daughters said this,” and it’s something real wrong, then we would really have to think about that. Do we have the right to our name? Anyway [laughter]. In all seriousness right now, speaking of a world that is just in chaos in the moment, we wanted to make sure that we note that we are holding folks in Haiti in our hearts. Even as Haiti has drifted out of the Overton window in this moment—I don’t know if I’m using that correctly or not—
[01:29:40] AJ: No [laughter]. I think you meant the news cycle.
[01:29:42] BT: News cycle. That’s exactly what I meant. Has drifted out of the news cycle. And folks in Louisiana and Mississippi who are impacted by Ida and will be, and continue to be, affected by these “natural disasters.” We wanna say that we are holding you all in our hearts and our prayers and the ways that Zora’s Daughters is out here supporting folks. So, if you all know ways that we can help in mutual aid, please let us know.
[01:30:16] AJ: Yes, and please keep going through our Back-to-School giveaway. We are purchasing things from people’s Amazon wish list for students and teachers so, you know, even once we close the comments on that you all can keep going through and bless someone with a little gift from their wish list. Alright, well that is our episode for today! We are back, we did the thing [imitates gunshot sounds] pow, pow.
[01:30:50] BT: I’m telling you we need to get that sound effect on the slate [laughter].
[01:30:52] AJ: Oh, I have it, I could do it [laughter].
[01:20:57] BT: It’s okay, I’mma keep doing it.
[01:20:58] AJ: [Laughter] Alright, thank you all for listening. This episode was produced by Alyssa James, that’s me, and Brendane Tynes, that’s her, and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts & Science Graduate Council and donations from listeners just like you.
[01:31:21] BT: Yes, thank you all for the support! If you like this episode, please think of at least two friends who might like it too and tell them about our podcast. We would love to hear what you have to say about the episode, so be sure to follow us on Instagram at zorasdaughters and on Twitter at Zoras_Daughters. And for transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or donate, visit our website zorasdaughters.com
[01:31:49] AJ: We got that brand on lock right there.
[01:31:51] BT: On lock. And it’s about to be on [unclear] soon [laughter].
[01:31:57] AJ: Alright, be kind to yourselves. Bye!
[01:31:59] BT: Bye!