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Black Politics/Anti-Black Pornography: Media and American Racial Terrorism

Sat, September 2, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Hilton Union Square, Nob Hill 8 & 9


The advents of smartphone technology, social media platforms and the 24-hour cable news cycle has made violent images of Black death and dying ubiquitous. The public consumes these images unremittingly and a multitude of activists connected to the Black Lives Matter movement have used these images to highlight the vulnerable character of Black life. In response, we are presently witnessing the exponential expansion of Black media institutions with independent journalists, scholars, and activists creating new platforms in hopes of galvanizing support for criminal justice reform by exposing what they see as undeniably true. However, questions remain as to whether these images work as tools for populist politicization or as sources of entertainment for viewers unsympathetic to the various politics expressed by BLM. To paraphrase political theorist Richard Iton, are these images a form of politics or a form of pornography?

Often lost in the consideration of these questions is the fact that Blacks in America have been here before, asking these same questions in the face of systemized racial terrorism. At various points in American history, Black activists have used advances in media technology to reveal the “truth” of the Black condition and have grappled with how best to advocate for the respect of Black humanity in a new media climate. The most apt comparative case to that of Black Lives Matter is the anti-lynching campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Black actors created various forms of media to galvanize support for anti-lynching legislation. They did so in a climate where the images of Black lynching victims were entertainment for White Americans determined to maintain the standing racial order.

This essay turns to this period of American history to address Richard Iton’s concern. It begins by establishing the comparative case between the anti-lynching movement and Black Lives Matter. It then turns to a comparative analysis of different publications: the academic journal Opportunity founded by Alain Locke; The Crisis magazine founded and edited by W.E.B. DuBois; and the expansive investigative journalism of Ida B. Wells as published in Southern Horrors and The Red Record. Each publication offers a different critical lens and different political commitments as established by its author/editor. Using various scholars of truth-making theory as interlocutors, my analysis unpacks the discursive debate between these “truthbearers” about the appropriate role of Black-made media in combating racial terrorism. Accordingly, I reveal their “truth-making” processes and analyze how their commitments changed throughout the movement. Finally, I fold my analysis back onto the Black Lives Matter movement to engage Iton’s concerns in the contemporary moment and to question of the role of BLM truthbearers in advancing Black politics. In doing so, this essay offers some guidance as inferred from Locke, DuBois, and Wells to contemporary activists as they center what is true as in their political commitments and activism.