Black Images in an Age of Spectacle

So, it’s Black History Month, and it feels time to revisit some ideas from my time at EMCC.

This post emerges from a Harlem Renaissance lecture. In Philly, I was introduced to Guy Debord and his consumer spectacle frameworkIn Society of the Spectacle, he claims:

“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalization of the social division of labor, the formation of classes, had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning.

The sacred has justified the cosmic and ontological order which corresponded to the interests of the masters; it ha[s] explained and embellished that which society could not do…

The modern spectacle, on the contrary, expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible. The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence.”

So, the “sacred” which had previously been used to justify and normalize social relations is replaced in secular 20th century western society with the “spectacle:” the mass media-driven productions which justify and normalize contemporary social relationships. This is noticeable through the promotion of select Black celebrities by mass media sources.

Louis Armstrong is very prominent black entertainers of the early 20th century. Armstrong initially made his name as a blues trumpeter in Chicago, Eventually, he transitioned into film and became a star in Hollywood. Louis Armstrong was dogged his entire career by accusations of Uncle Tom-ism for his cozy relationship with whites–even when he had to accept perceived racial slights to retain access to institutions (like the movie industry) antagonistic to black Americans. In many ways, his power arose from his acceptability and entrenchment within white power circles.

Jack Johnson literally drove distraught white Americans to incite race riots after beating white boxer James J. Jefferies during the “fight of the century” on July 4, 1910. His domination of the boxing world was seen by many as a threat to white supremacy. He was eventually sent to prison for travelling across state lines with his soon-to-be second wife (his white girlfriend) under the terms of the Mann ActThe lengths which white authorities went to imprison Johnson reflects his notoriety among white American boxing fans.

So, despite efforts of black publishers like T. Thomas Fortune to report on the educated entrepreneurs and professionals who increasingly began to comprise the black elite, the most well-known black celebrities in the white community at the turn of the 20th century were musicians and athletes. These roles reflected the limited opportunity for black Americans to break into the white-dominated culture industry–Armstrong was an exceptional talent who played limited roles in films because the culture industry rarely developed starring roles for black talent; Johnson drew thousands of additional spectators to boxing because he was caricatured as a dangerous threat to racial order that white boxers had to defeat; their public personas justified and normalized the subjugation of the black community to the desires of whites and the American state.

In some ways, the Harlem Renaissance challenges this characterization of black culture within the spectacle of mass media as describe by Debord. At a time when most blacks lacked formal education, the literary figures who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance were erudite and cosmopolitan; however, the Renaissance was split between those who sought to demonstrate the best of respectable black society and those who claimed to represent the authentic experience of the black working class.

However, just like contemporary black artists who work within the culture industry, these two viewpoints were put in competition with one another once within the narrative framework of the larger societal spectacle. Elite artists who sought to prove black respectability were horrified by what they deemed to be vulgar, uncouth artistic renditions of black cultural life. On the other side, elite artists who sought to accurate reflect a broader experience of black life bristled at the rigidity of their peers who could not see the value in including base representations of Blacks in the broader culture.

During the Harlem Renaissance, there were a couple thousand of college graduates in the country, yet the significant majority of participants in the Renaissance had college education. Whether their work was interested in respectability or not, works like “City of Refuge” by Rudolph Fisher reflect an interpretation of the black working-class which appealed to assumptions white Americans had about the nature of black Americans.

While some argue that Renaissance participants were unconcerned with creating art to please white OR black interests, but competition over resources necessitated that Black artists developed work which would be of interest to consumers of the mass media spectacle, and elite black artists often appropriated the voices of less visible members in the community to complicate the narratives shown within the segregated spectacle. In short, art created for a mainstream audience reflect the sensibilities of the clientele.