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Media images of Black women: From soft porn to the invisible soldier

By Nisa Islam Muhammad
Staff Writer | Last updated: Oct 4, 2003 - 5:57:00 PM

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Congressional Black Caucus Chair Elijah Cummings(D-MD) takes a moment to pause with former prisoner of war Spc. Shoshana N. Johnson during the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Awards Dinner.
WASHINGTON ( - From singer Beyonce Knowles to Iraqi war hero Spc. Shoshana Johnson, the images of Black women in the media have reached an all time low ranging from "sexually seductive and available to any" to "be all you can be" but few, if any, will care.

How the world sees Black women, and more importantly how America sees Black women, is shaped and fashioned each day in executive suites and then spoon-fed like pabulum to the American public who unquestionably laps it up while developing an appetite for more.

"Imaging is a business," explained community activist Joe Madison, the host of "Radio One" talk show. "Your image must sell. Images impact public policy."

Mr. Madison told the audience at the "Media images of African-American women" workshop held September 27 during the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative conference how the Germans created negative images of the Jews for years before the Germans began to eliminate them.

According to Mr. Madison, by the time the Germans began, the people didn’t protest the injustices because their minds had been fashioned to see Jews in negative terms.

"The image of us (Black people) is pathological," said Mr. Madison. "The Southern Methodist College in Texas had a bake sale with price ranges from $1 if you were a White man to 25 cents if you were Black, as a protest to affirmative action. Why insult us this way?"

He added, "They have negative images of who we are, but we take the same tests and exams as they do. We get the same degrees."

Music videos
Mention the vileness of videos or the lewd and lascivious lyrics and most will say it’s the beat that draws them and the images are meaningless.

Sister 2 Sister magazine publisher Jamie Foster Brown disagrees. "The images are horrible. They are soft porn. My son told me, ‘The videos are programming me below my navel.’ We’re breastfeeding our children on sex and violence."

As if once was not enough to make her point, she repeated, "We are breastfeeding our children on sex and violence. The guys have on more clothes and the girls have on less. The girls must look like a ‘10’ while the men can look like they chew roaches and it doesn’t matter."

But it does matter to people like Ms. Brown who are concerned about the images of scantily clad Black women, gyrating before a camera with moves critics claim are best kept behind closed doors.

"These images are before us every day and Black women’s groups say nothing about what’s happening to our image," said Ms. Brown. "Why aren’t we speaking up? Where is the outcry?"

"Considering the images we are giving to the world, if we were put in concentration camps there wouldn’t be any outcry, because the world believes what they see about us."

"What we need is a Rosa Parks in the music industry," said Yemi Toure, the director of the Center on Blacks in the Media, a media-monitoring group. "We need her to come forward and sit down in the middle of a video shoot and say enough is enough. We need to start a new movement just like Rosa Parks did," he told The Final Call.

Prime-time television
Ashanti, Lil Kim and Maya may be the standard in music videos, but on dramatic television shows Black women fare a little better.

Tisha Campbell-Martin plays the loving wife and mother on "My Wife and Kids." She’s educated, presents well and is totally clothed. On "CSI-Miami," Khandi Alexander plays the "no nonsense" coroner Alexx Woods and Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon plays the intelligent assistant district attorney Valerie Haywood on "NYPD Blue."

"Congressional members of Capitol Hill look at our images when they decide money is going somewhere. They are influenced by the images they see on television," said Mr. Madison.

"The Army wanted to portray an image when they rounded up the marines to rescue Jessica Lynch. She had been in a car accident and was hospitalized. For her injuries, she’s receiving a $1 million book and a movie deal. Thank God the CBC is recognizing Shoshana Johnson."

What about Shoshana Johnson?
She’s a single mother who joined the Army to be all she could be, or at least get the training she wanted as a chef. Instead, she became a soldier in President Bush’s war in Iraq. While traveling with the 507th Maintenance Crew, they were ambushed, fought back and taken as POWs.

"She is truly an American hero," said Mr. Madison. "Think of the images that would be portrayed if she was given a movie or a book deal. Think of the young girls that could be inspired by ‘The Shoshana Johnson Story.’ But she wasn’t given a million-dollar book deal or a movie."

The world needs to see more images like the women of the Congressional Black Caucus according to Mr. Madison.

"Look at these beautiful and intelligent women. None of them are a b**** or a whore. Never have been and never will," he said.