The public gaze and visibility of race inevitably both dictate and are dictated by mass perception, systematic power, and resources. In this essay, the term public gaze directly refers to modes of public and private spaces, especially in regards to mass mainstream media. Public gaze also means spaces that are actively available, rather than just accessible. In specific, the public gaze will refer to representation in mass media platforms.
One of the earliest, key forms of visually representing African Americans on a mass scale was in the nineteenth century, with Minstrelsy. White performers attempted to superficially represent African Americans with blackface and often depended on racial stereotypes (lazy, unintelligent, barbaric, etc.) for comedy. By the end of the nineteenth century, with a new demand for “realism”, African Americans began adopting Minstrelsy by donning blackface and perpetuating blackface stereotypes (Krasner 2011, 101). Thus Minstrelsy and other racist caricatures were the key modes of mass visual representation of African Americans at the time.
In opposition to these one-dimensional, limited representations of blackness, W. E. B. DuBois complied a mass series of 32 charts, 500 photographs, maps, and plans to show the history, “present condition”, education, and literature of African Americans (Du Bois 1900). He presented this series as the “American Negro” Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition and successfully publicized the economic, social, and cultural nuances that defined the African American identity. Most importantly, this exhibit was created and compiled by African Americans, unlike the caricatures and Minstrelsy of the time which were dictated for and by the white gaze. The public consumed and examined the radically different narratives in each image, from aristocratic women to the medal-of-honor men in the army (Du Bois 1900).
Unfortunately, this nuanced representation of the African American and black bodies was largely overshadowed by the black body imagery of lynch postcards in the 20th Century. In 1902, British postal legislation allowed for the divided back postcard, which meant it was possible to write messages on the back of the postcard. Originally, the front of a postcard would have a lithographed image or drawing (primarily lithographed and printed in Germany) and the backside would be used for addresses. With the divided back postcard, the back of the postcard would have a line down it, designating one side for messages, and the other side for the address. Postcards therefore had messages written on them, without compromising the image in front; this available space led to increased postcard narrative and the mass purchasing/selling of postcards. The boom of the postcard industry, compounded with the alienation of German products due to World War I, led to the production of “real photo” postcards. “Real photo” postcards were popularized after the invention of the Kodak “postcard camera” which would take pictures and print out a postcard-sized negative of the photograph with a divided back. These postcards had clear images and were often event/local based. Since these postcards were actual photographs, postcard collecting, or deltiology, became extremely popular; people often sent postcards of events on the mass scale as an act of commemoration, proof of attendance, and collectible commodities (Elliott 2003; Petrulis; Gable 1974).
Lynch postcards were a result of this deltiological obsession with commemorating events and attendance. The image of the dead African American body became mass-produced, collected, sold, bought, and glorified. Beginning in the late 19th Century, lynching was already a mass public spectacle. Often times the black body was elevated and visually consumed as a communal activity and as public “entertainment” (Wood 2009, 73). With photography and the geographical freedom of these divided back postcards, the spectacular, tortured, dead black body as sensational entertainment was heightened to a new level. There were lynching mailing lists, where lynch postcards were sent once a month on average, and the visual consumption of these postcards were acts of “participation in the lynching itself” (Wood 2009, 186). The black body was established as a public symbol to be once again monetized, commodified, and consumed. This symbol of the black body once again was dictated by and would later dictate the perception of Blackness in America (Wood 2009).
Since the early 20th Century until World War II, racial tensions were on an exponential rise. The 1943 Detroit race riots marked a key moment in history when these tensions peaked, and racialized chaos consumed a city. During WWII, recruiters toured the South convincing laborers to head north for higher wages in war factories. This led to a massive influx of black laborers into northern land; this enormous influx led to the mass shortage of housing, facilities, transportation, and education. By 1943, the number of blacks in Detriot doubled from 100,000 in 1933 to over 200,000; living in brutual conditions, some blacks began protesting by starting a “bumping campaign,” by walking into whites on the street. Then, in June of 1943, 25,000 Packard plant workers stopped working in protest of three black men being promoted. This protest, coupled with the chaos and publicity of the media coverage of rumored black violence, led to a mass free-for-all. After 36 hours of rioting, 34 people were killed (25 black), 1,800 people were arrested for “looting” (over 85% black), and property damage was estimated at $32 million (mostly black property) (Baulch and Zacharias 2000).
This event was highly photographed and thus globally sensationalized. Since most photos depicted white mobs violently attacking black men or destroying property, there was widespread controversy as well. The visibility of the event led to mass criticism of whites at the time and also President Roosevelt. It had become increasingly evident that public media and photography needed to be controlled for social order (Baulch and Zacharias 2000).
The same issue of uncontained public gaze and social unrest was seen again, though to an even more intense degree, during the Vietnam War. It is undeniable that Vietnam War protests were the most publicized, widespread protests in America to this day – the frequency, passion, and “social locus” of the protest movement was unparalleled (Jennings 1981, 331). Protests were both on the individual level, for instance with draft evasion, and also on the mass, public level with boycotts, picket lines, marches, rallies, physical violence, and pitched confrontations with authorities. With the widespread use of photography and television media, not only was the Vietnam War (and its atrocities) documented live in Vietnam, but the mass social unrest was documented as well (Jennings 1981). For instance, on August 28th of 1968, the nation watched as hundreds of the thousands of protesters were clubbed down and violently arrested via photography, print, and television media. In order to prevent the level of social unrest seen during the Vietnam War, the government began strictly controlling and filtering images for the media (Anderson 2002).
Despite these attempts at managing the public gaze, there is still some slippage through the cracks. For instance, the raw footage of Rodney King’s beating caused massive social unrest. The Rodney King case also depicts the ways in which the media and law can reclaim the depiction of the black body. This reconstruction of events, despite clear footage, became known as the “framing of King” – there wan an intentional process of analyzing, denying, and diluting the beating, which resulted in the officers’ “not guilty” verdict. Not only was there constant diluting of information (e.g. the fact King had not been sober and had drugs in his system), the defense sliced up individual stills of the 81-second footage to whatever was convenient in their argument. They literally disembodied King’s body in the footage and framed the visibility of violence with these screenshots. The rhetoric of the defense changed to match this footage, such as referring to baton strikes as “strokes” or to King as a beast, thing, and threat (Gerrie 2006, 297). This framing of events, image, and violence largely depends on a preexisting rhetoric of otherness, and in this particular case, Blackness. For instance, previous depictions of the black body as being animalistic and beast-like have contributed to this image of King as an undomesticated (uncolonized) animal, continuously standing with his brute strength, immune to the beating (Gerrie 2006). Among many other issues, the Rodney King case brings up vital questions of image-control in the public, particularly on the part of mass media and the law.
These complications of image, presentation of self, and public gaze become magnified with the widespread use of the Internet. Social media platforms like LiveJournal and Blogger offered a sense of community, belonging, and solidarity for marginalized groups, and other platforms like MySpace, Facebook, and Instagram became places of self-identity and expression. Rather than feeling the pressure of double consciousness, or seeing oneself through the gaze of the dominant other, people are able to publicize and represent themselves on a mass scale. In a case study by Apryl Williams and Beatriz Marquez regarding selfies, gender, and race, they conclude that feelings towards selfies, especially as a means of expression, were highly dependent on racial and gendered demographics. Over half of Black and Latino participants said they had posted over 800 selfies, whereas all of the white participants had taken less than 50 or no selfies. This difference in selfie-taking is largely attributed to expression and cultural acceptability of selfies (Williams and Marquez 2015). The role of selfies and social media for race and gender is still highly complicated, since many argue selfies only continuously reproduce the same white male gaze; they see selfies as complicated and re-typifying the black or marginalized body for consumption. However, regardless of their outcomes, true to Du Bois, they are produced by marginalized people themselves, except on a mass scale. Even if they cannot offer social agency, they visually expose a multi-faceted marginalized identity (and face), ironically with their set perspectives (Leurs 2015).