BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE at the Black Portraitures II Conference in Florence was as great as we all expected. The featured members of  The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Faculty Seminar (@raceandvisual) did not disappoint! Kimberly Juanita Brown (Mt. Holyoke), Sandy Alexandre (MIT), Dell Hamilton (Harvard), and Christina Sharpe (Tufts) gave all of us so much to process. Once you begin a session with Dr. Alexandre playing Zebra Katz’s single “Ima Read” (2012), featuring Njena Reddd Foxxx, you know you’re in for a ride! I may be biased as a member of The Dark Room, but this was my favorite panel of the weekend (besides my own). This was one of many #blackgirlmagic moments throughout the weekend. (I’ll have more to say about how much black girls rock in my next post.)

BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE (adapted from the conference proceedings): This panel engaged blackness in the public sphere as a production of contingent negotiations: history, temporality, visuality, language, and corporeality. In this roundtable featuring members of the Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Studies Seminar, each speaker not only highlighted a particular aspect of the imagery of blackness as a function of the public sphere, but also considered both the aesthetic and sociopolitical implications of that public appearance. Taken together, the papers demonstrated their writers’ concerted commitment to examining one important question: What are the uses and misuses of blackness in the public sphere, and what work might analysis do in the service of stanching the tide of its appropriation and misappropriation?

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Sandy Alexandre: “Black and Read All Over: Hypervisibled People,” was at once a riff on and a modern-day attempt at expanding the important conversation about race and visuality in America that Ellison’s Invisible Man initiated a little over sixty years ago. Consequently, the theoretical exercise of my paper is prompted by two 21st-century moments: Zebra Katz’s single “Ima Read” (2012), featuring Njena Reddd Foxxx, and a line from Claudia Rankine’s most recent book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). ), which reads as follows: “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.” What work, if any, does the hurtful, yet often intentionally humorous language associated with “throwing shade”—of “reading and proofreading” fellow black people—do to relieve the daily stresses of being discernible and therefore susceptible to being labeled, described, and depicted? In other words does the wit and imaginativeness of such exploitive and hurtful language actually help deflect attention away from the person being subjected to a read? Conversely, when does the humbling or chastening intention of “a read” become a crippling? What, if anything, is the antidote to being returned to your body—returned to your physical presence—via disparaging language? Can anything, in the realm of language or beyond it, successfully fend off such a detailed description of your person?

Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Erykah Badu’s Ambulatory Acts”: In the 2010 music video for her song Window Seat, Erykah Badu uses the layers, the historical resonance, and the site-specific invocation of her native Dallas, Texas in order to locate her black female body against the public encroachments of race and gender. Endeavoring to possess the spectacle of her own flesh as a creative negotiation of meaning-making, Badu inhabits the path around Dealey Plaza, the location of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (grassy knoll and all) in order to reclaim her visibility and the import of her body’s utility in a fluid moving frame. Though it will eventually enter the public sphere as evidence of her transgression (the video is used by police in order to charge her later with disorderly conduct), the video as it stands is the performative engagement of a black artist entering the landscape in order to dismantle some of the power located there.

Dell Hamilton, “Trouble My Water: Public and Private Actions of Self-Performance”: This talk highlighted Hamilton’s art practice and how she regularly deploys her own body and personal memories to engage with the aftermath of trauma and its implications for understanding race, identity, gender, and citizenship. Also included in this discussion is a brief look at the work of several contemporary artists and scholars who critically influence the ongoing research and development of her work. Ultimately, she views her projects as vehicles of adaptation and re-invention that thoughtfully interrogate notions of the public and personal. As a result, these re-imagined spaces serve as fruitful sites for negotiating and examining the role of art and its socio-political relationship to power, belonging, and loss.

Christina Sharpe, “Black Lives: Annotated” Christina Sharpe relayed the demands of and on blackness’s circulations in public spheres. If portraiture is both the “art of creating portraits” and “graphic and detailed description,” how are desires to be seen and to participate in image making attempts to not accede to the deathly demands of the anti-black worlds in which we live and work and struggle to make visible all kinds of Black futures.

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