Legacy: Alligator Bait, Civil Rights, and Art

For most African Americans – whether child or adult – not even the cuteness of a cherubic face and genuine innocence could provide refuge from the legal persecution or casual viciousness of white racism. The Florida Tourism Board’s practice of distributing these “alligator bait” postcards (well into the 20th century) speaks to this issue most profoundly. It is probably fair to argue that these images would have never been interrogated up until this point if it had not been for the intervention of African American visual rhetors who sought to reverse the inhumane effects of American US racism.

By the time the United States was founded, Africans enslaved in America were forced by physical and legal sanction to watch their every word and action for fear of punishment or death. This is important to contrast this with the fact that whites, on the other hand, had complete freedom – were actually encouraged – to reveal their vilest racial feelings. The need to express the slightest decorum for the expression of racist opinions was non-existent – least of all in the public square. During slavery and Jim Crow it was a commonplace assumption made by many whites that no black could be trusted – not even with the knowledge of the alphabet. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that anyone who was considered black, no matter what, was subject to being demonized and treated accordingly. As a matter of basic everyday existence, blacks were to be denied the fundamental virtue of innocence from the cradle to the grave. Any public injunction by American courts for the forthright expressions of racist behaviors and practices was not to occur for many decades. This issue continues to haunt black existence.

Fast forward to June 1964, when a group of black and white protesters sought to integrate a public recreational space by jumping into the swimming pool at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, the owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool, endangering the lives of peacefully frolicking demonstrators. Luckily, a photograph of this heinous incident was captured and broadcasted around the world.This photo has since become among the most famous images from the Civil Rights Movement.

A few years ago Brian Owens, an Orlando based sculptor, was commissioned to commemorate the historic event and pay homage to the brave citizens who risked their lives for equality and a refreshing swim on a hot Florida day. Entitled, “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers,” here is a picture of the memorial sculpture, which rests today in the heart of the town square.

Carrying on a proud legacy is something Owens knows a lot about, as he is the son of the late African American graphic illustrator and portraitist, Carl Owens.  Here is a link to Brian Owens’s flicker stream showing the process behind his painstaking craft.

February 7, 2012. Tags: . African Americans, art, babies, Carl Owens, children, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, design, Disney, education, history, play, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, sculpture, slavery, space, space & spatiality, temporality, time & temporality. 4 comments.

Here Comes BarbieB!tch!

It’s really not a surprise that cuteness is the preferred design characteristic of super-commodity merchandise and is therefore the chief brand aesthetic of multinational mega-corporations like the Disney media empire and the Mattel toy company.  The predominance of soft rounded plastics makes it so.  Known for their pop culture icons, Mickey and Barbie, you’d be hard pressed to come up with examples of more successful and durable branding.

And along comes cute hip-hopper, Nicki Minaj fashioning herself as a Japanese street Barbie. Her name both rhymes and alliterates with Mickey’s. I think she’s brilliant.

Toys can have different characteristics and don’t always have to be cute, per se.  Toys can be quaint like wooden blocks or like cloth teddy bears or Raggedy Ann & Andie. Different kinds of toys definitely have different auras. What I’m talking about in terms of Minaj is a plastic aurality, bereft of all sentimental value, simultaneously stripped and sealed.  Not only does Minaj perform the strip/tease, but she does so through offering herself up as a sealed object — almost hermetically so.  And in true hip-hop tradition, she’s the first to brag about how airtight her entourage is.

Her über lavish lamé and latex costuming makes her seem impossible to undress. Just go ahead and try and get her out of her clothes. She’s tightly corseted, though nothing like a genteel Victorian.  She’s walking around literally sheathed in rubber, her gear is like… well, like a condom.  Her stylized plasticity seems to be almost hygienically engineered. The overly shellacked make-up and wigs seal the deal. (Get it? seal the deal? like sealed… oh never mind.)  It seems like whatever they try to hurl, spit, or squirt at her, it just instantly wipes off.  All antibacterial and whatnot.

Yep. Nicki Minaj is pretty much awesome.

January 7, 2011. Tags: , , , , , . Barbie, cute, Disney, dolls, fashion, gender, harajuku, hip-hop, Mickey Mouse, Nicki Minaj, sex & sexuality, toys. 1 comment.

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