Howard University Graduate School

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Professor Nicole Fleetwood, Rutgers University, Explores Imagery, Power, and Contradictions in On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination

By Gwendolyn S. Bethea, Ph.D.

On Racial Icons:  Blackness and the Public Imagination On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination

In her new book, On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination, Nicole R. Fleetwood, associate professor, Department of American Studies and director, Institute for Research on Women, Rutgers University, explores visual culture and race in the United States, in particular, the significance of photography in documenting black public life.

Recently, Professor Fleetwood provided further insight on her research on this book and her related publications. An interview with Professor Fleetwood appears below.

Q: What is a racial icon?
Fleetwood: In On Racial Icons, I define the racial icon as an idolized image or figure, that is simultaneously shrouded in the legacies of US racism and its devaluing of black life. The racial icon is a figure with which the American public is deeply familiar, in that he or she is both exceptional and common. She or he is exceptional as a symbol of overcoming racial inequality and perceived inferiority; she or he is common, given the American public's familiarity and investment in exhausted notions of race, nation, and (under)achievement. Whether a self-conscious and deliberate construction or a product of circumstance, the racial icon -- as image, political figure, celebrity, or sports hero -- conveys the weight of history and the power of the present moment, in which her or his presence marks the historical moment. To stand apart and to stand for are the jobs of the racial icon. It is a figure of contradiction, one that is part of a long tradition of iconic or sacred representation as well as one produced through the long and brutal history of racial violence toward black Americans. The racial icon is meant to represent a notion of American progress, and even transcendence of its racial past, while also being framed through that past and the enduring presence of racial injustice. The racial icon is both a venerated and denigrated figure.

Q: In your research, you document the significance of photography, specifically that of racial icons, in documenting black public life. Would you explain this significance today and in the past?
Fleetwood: Photography has been an important tool for black freedom struggles. It has also been a device used to promulgate some of the most egregious and violent ideas about blackness and black people. Black leaders and movements have been strategic about using photography to fight racist ideology and practices.

For example, in my new book, I show how Frederick Douglass's life overlaps with the creation and growth of still photography. Early on, Douglass claimed that photography had the potential of humanizing slaves in the eyes of the white American public and "for remaking the American imagination." Since photography's inception in the nineteenth century, it has served as an important medium for documenting progress for black Americans and the concerted efforts to be recognized as full-fledged U.S. citizens. It has also served as a brutal tool to surveil, criminalize, and devalue blacks. Like Douglass, many black Americans in the antebellum era saw promise in photography to produce a visual record of humanity that had been denied them in most spheres of American life. The medium also served as an important counterpoint for the dehumanizing imagery of slaves and black citizens that had been used to reinforce the racial state.

Scholars like Leigh Raiford and Deborah Willis have examined how photography was used by black leaders and activists during the civil rights and black power movements.

Q: What, if anything, has changed over the years?
Fleetwood: Photographic technology continues to serve important roles in documenting racial injustice and fighting for a better day, meaning viable and thriving lives for all. One of the powers of black freedom struggles is expansive reach to fight for justice for all. We can think of photography's contemporary use in the BlackLivesMatters activism and even the power of the image of Bree Newesome taking down the Confederate Flag from the state capitol building in South Carolina.

Moreover, think of the power of video technology to capture the recent string of police murders and brutality of black people.

So yes, there is a long and rich history of our photographic use to enact change on behalf of black Americans.

Q: How has and does this significance manifest itself in our perceptions of our icons? and what role does social media have in this manifestation?
Fleetwood: In the book, I spend time considering the power of Trayvon Martin's "selfie" in the hoodie and how it became iconic, in large because that photograph gets adopted by the Justice for Trayvon campaign. Social media platforms are central to widespread and multi-racial coalition building that took place around Martin as a posthumous icon, an icon who emerges through racial violence.

Martin's death remains absolutely a huge wound for many people, black and non-blacks. We mourn his death and we mourn the many others who have been injured, tortured, and murdered before and after him due to racial violence. Whenever I think of Martin, I always pause to honor his parents because they have so much to teach us all about the force and courage of love. It is their love and commitment to their son that made us aware of him and inspired us to demand recognition and justice in this case.

Q: Could you elaborate on the use of racial icons as a means of addressing collective or individual wounds from a history of oppression or as a way of glorifying images that somehow help to assuage emotional brokenness?
Fleetwood: Fleetwood: The book is a meditation on how we come together as a public around these images to celebrate, to mourn, and to protest. It is not about black people's fixation on black images but a broad, diverse spectrum of groups and individual's attachments to certain images of race in this country.

As many black activists and scholars have practiced and stated for centuries, one of the most radical acts that we can commit against systemic, structural, state-sanctioned racism is to love black people fully, publicly, and passionately. The book is an act of love. It is not a book about black people or black images but about how various sectors of American public are deeply attached to iconic representations of black individuals. I wrote to understand how this attachment, obsession even, with images of blacks fit into various understandings of the nation's past, present, and notions of a future of democratic possibilities.

Q: What or who are some of the icons that today's youth in general, African Americans specifically, or the larger society revere?
Fleetwood: Well, one icon I find so fascinating is Serena Williams, who is featured in chapter four of the book. Williams is masterful at self-fashioning and anticipating how various spectators and media commentators will respond to her, especially her body. She is totally inspiring at performing a type of freedom, command, and relishing her victories and exceptional skill on the court. Her body -- her incredible embodied presence -- is at the center of her iconic status; and at the same time, the media and cultural fixation on her body distracts from her ability to win at such high stakes in ways that deeply unsettle many whites and nonwhites.

Q: Can public discourse on specific negative imagery relative to certain racial icons be altered? If so, how can this be accomplished? If not, why not?
Fleetwood: This question gets at the heart of why black activists and educators have given so much attention to representation, historically and in the contemporary moment. In my book, I spend some time on Trayvon Martin's selfie in his hoodie, the iconic photograph of him that has been reproduced and circulated millions of times. The hoodie has been demonized for some time in dominant American media.

It gets interpreted as symbol of black criminality and I really work to challenge this reading in my study. Instead, I use the photograph of Martin posing in hoodie as a claim, a mode of self-recognition. I argue that it is part of the genre of self-portraiture, a mode of recognition of self and a claim to be recognized by others. I then look at how that powerful selfie of a teen boy becomes the iconic photograph of a movement of diverse constituents fighting against racial violence. It is such a beautiful and powerful photograph.

Q: Would you say there is more of an emphasis on music icons today than in the past?
Fleetwood: I think that musical and sports icons have long been important to the national imaginary and racial solidarity. There are a number of well-known black musicians and athletes who have also served as highly politicized and political figures in black solidarity and freedom struggles. Just a few musicians who come to mind include Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Abbey Lincoln. There are many, many others.

Q: How can one obtain your book and/or access more information about your research on racial icons and your other work of this nature?
Fleetwood: My book can be ordered on Barnes or Some university bookstores carry it as well. People can also learn more about my work on my Rutgers webpage.

Q: Do you wish to add any other comments?
Fleetwood: I really love these questions and appreciate your interest in my work. Thanks so much.

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