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The Black Female Body explores images of Black women from to 1800s to the present. (Click to purchase.)

Body Images, Then and Now

By Esther Iverem Editor

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Those of us who are—all in one body—a woman, a person of color and a person of working class or poor origin, already know about the discomforting gaze that seeks to consume or "objectify" us for prurient entertainment or derogatory judgment. Those of us who fancy ourselves members of the Black female intelligentsia may feel we know about even more—everything from Saartjie Baartman (the Venus Hottentot), who was displayed in 19th century Europe as a sexual freak, to rapper Lil' Kim, who uses the sexual freak badge as a modern marketing tool. But all of us, and all who care about representation and culture, must read "The Black Female Body: A Photographic History" (Temple University Press)," by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams.

Filled with carefully chosen images, many rare and some never produced for mass distribution, this 228-page volume is a groundbreaking, scholarly yet accessible analysis of how the Black female body has been represented in photography from its inception to the present. Using aesthetic, social as well as historical approaches, Willis and Williams illustrate how the photograph—which can create a false sense of reality and authenticity—has been a powerful means of reinforcing the European view that darker peoples of the world are inferior. As an extension, the images, especially those of nude, partially nude and undressed women, helped create a justification for colonialism, slavery and sexual abuse of Black women. They write: "Above all else, [the Black woman's] image, and especially her body, was understood to represent that which could be dominated and that which could be possessed, especially sexually."

It isn't always easy to look at this book. The 1850 images of two African American female slaves, Delia and Drana, made to strip to the waist for the camera are heartbreaking. While frontal and profile images seem designed to type the unsmiling women as ethnographic specimens, they actually mark the women's subjugation and humiliation. So while "The Black Female Body" is beautifully produced and the sort of volume usually considered a "coffee table book," I do not think it is the kind of book to lay around the home to be leafed through casually, especially by children. Many of the pictures, if allowed to speak for themselves, subvert the book's purpose and allow perpetuation of negative images without a deeper understanding of the manipulation behind them. Our children should see these images but only if we also explain to them what they are seeing. This book isn't all eye candy.

Williams and Willis, a MacArthur fellow, have compiled a tour de force of images and text that will make you think differently not only about African and African American history but also about the unique struggles that Black women have within that larger history. Depending on your relationship with your body, you may find yourself negotiating painful memory or a defiant new territory of freedom. By exploring also how Black photographers, and Black female photographers in particular, have reclaimed Black female images and bodies through their work, this book does not leave us in a state of victimization. In some sense, "The Black Female Body" is the antithesis of "Reflections in Black," the massive 1999 exhibit and book by Willis. By chronicling images taken of Black people by Black people, "Reflections in Black," lets the subjects speak. In contrast, images in "The Black Female Body," particularly those in the first sections devoted to "Colonial Conquest" and "The Cultural Body", often do not allow such voice. The focus here—while reaching to include supporting material from essays, films and even comedy—does not waver from the taboo and beautiful Black female body, and the various gazes upon it.

Esther Iverem's film reviews also appear on

-- May 24, 2002

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