An image is worth a thousand words, goes the old cliche. However, according to Dr. Kya Mangrum, we have instead priced some images based on the resulting derisive laughter.
Last Wednesday, the English Department’s Dr. Mangrum presented her Phi Kappa Phi lecture on the ways in which white audiences have ridiculed and misappropriated black images for their own amusement. Focusing on this “derisive play,” Dr. Mangrum explored the interwoven histories of photography and racism in America from the Civil War to the present day.
Photography began developing in the mid-19th century as dagauertypes. These fragile but clear images depicted the natural world in a way never before seen. Many of these portable pictures were taken for family and friends, but they were also heavily relied on by public figures. These figures included Frederick Douglass —the escaped slave, abolitionist and prolific writer — who Dr. Mangrum cited as being the most photographed man in the 19th century.
As seen with figures like Douglass, the daguerreotype became a way for African Americans to depict themselves in the ways that they actually saw themselves during the Civil War and Reconstruction. However, while some of these images were taken benevolently, Dr. Mangrum demonstrated how some were also used for “more nefarious purposes.”
White Americans often relied on these images for justification of their racism and for their own pleasure. Characters such as T. D. Rice’s “Jim Crow” entertained white audiences with their cartoonish grotesqueness and implicit derision of escaping from slavery. This white play, in its most violent form, is the mass consumption and enjoyment of lynchings, practiced during the Reconstruction era and up to today.
This lecture comes at a time when the Westmont community is struggling to understand its own relationship with racism. Because of last year’s White Jesus Movement — the latest student-led movement attempting to enact lasting racial justice on campus — Westmont has begun engaging the topic of race through lectures, chapel talks and training sessions.
Dr. Mangrum’s lecture, therefore, was another chance for students and faculty to think critically about the ways race pervades popular culture. Sophomore Maddy Simonsen, who attended the event, reflected in an interview that the lecture “challenged [the Westmont community] to be more intentional in combating those instances of derisive play.” Simonsen stressed that these issues cannot be ignored, and that listening is the first step.
Professor of Church History in the Religious Studies (RS) department Dr. Rhee also chimed in, reminding Westmont that the American Church has historically been complicit in derisive play. In an interview over email, Dr. Rhee explained that there were times when “churches made announcements on lynching and/or church services would end early so that their congregants would go and watch it as a public spectacle.”
Dr. Rhee affirmed that there are ways in which the Church and Westmont have experienced this derisive play, recalling the Tikok blackface incident involving a Westmont student this past summer. However, the RS professor also encouraged the community to respond to Dr. Mangrum’s lecture, articulating that: “we would do well to be not just individually but collectively vigilant and intentional in our use of social media toward anti-racism rather than preserving a status quo.”
Heavy and poignantly relevant, Dr. Mangrum’s lecture offered another lens from which to approach the campus’s current conversations on racism. Although this history of derisive play is monstrous, Dr. Mangrum concluded in her lecture that ultimately we need to “rely on the light of Christ” to illuminate our time.