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White Lies and White Lights: -- a Review of Krista Thompson’s “Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice”

 

Reviewed by Shakeel Harris | with thanks to  NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Monday, December 18, 2017.

 

Light conventionally has a way of exposing and making one aware in spaces of darkness. Krista Thompson’s Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Duke University Press) analyzes and ultimately critiques the relationship that light has with Black bodies throughout the African diaspora. Utilizing case studies found in Jamaica, the Bahamas and America, Thompson argues that light wielded by subjugated Black bodies contributes to their increased albeit problematic visibility. Thompson’s work implicitly suggests that the Black body’s fascination and subjugation of light translates directly to its political struggle with whiteness itself.


“Visual technologies...are central among African diasporic communities.”[i] Black people and modern technologies of the visual are inseparable. Thompson astutely uncovers the origins of this bond by evoking images of the western, capitalist project’s earliest encounters with Black bodies and its emphasis on (visual) aesthetic appeal . Moreover, prior to slave transactions, “slave traders actually greased the bodies of enslaved Africans, using sweet oil or greasy water...Many buyers’ assessments of slaves came through visual inspection in the pens.”[ii] That Black people have a foundational template in interacting with whites that grounds their value in the visual is a fact that cannot be overstated and that frankly haunts the Black world today. Commodification was the birthing canal that brought Black bodies into the white, western world. And its legacies will not be severed anywhere in the near future.

 

Thompson’s (main image) work begins by literally taking it to the streets. Street photography in America and the Caribbean and their constitutive aesthetic choices translate to the Black working class’s relationship with white society. In countless street photography backdrops images of material wealth and exotic locations abound. Thompson asserts, “[B]lack urban populations use these contemporary picturing practices to present, indeed to emblazon, their images of personhood, prestige, and pictorial immortality.”[iii] Lurking behind innumerable images of opulent sports cars, glimmering rims and supersized bottles of liquor is the signification by the Black working class on the capitalist system. “These supersized representations of consumer products, which appear like architectural structures, give visual form to their overblown exchange value.”[iv]

 

Images of backdrops not only operate as a signifying space, they serve the additional purpose of establishing Black boundaries and ‘legitimate’ gender performance. Black women use this space to “reanimate the objectifying poses seen in [Hip-Hop] videos, they also arrange their bodies in certain formations to affirm their connection to each other through shared gestures and clothing.”[v] As for the Black men, they tend to “stare directly at the photographer, their heads slightly elevated and tilted to the side, their arms folded protectively and assertively across their chests.” [vi] In addition to critiquing capitalism and erecting gender roles, backdrops ultimately toy with time and space. Images of the dead and elaborate portraits of cities like New York allow Black bodies to undermine death and/or the lack of financial means needed to travel to the cities with which they are pictured.

      

After leaving the streets Thompson makes a daring getaway to the land of Jamaica. Traversing the dancehalls of Jamaica, Thompson discovers that local patrons often “vie to be illuminated by the camera’s bright white light, which can be seen and felt as it saturates the visual senses of congregants.”[vii] This space is nothing more than a proverbial boxing ring in which the winner is awarded attention by whiteness. It is in white light that dancehall frequenters attempt get to reveal another version of themselves. Accustomed to living lives in which they are socially invisible, these light-hungry participants go so far as to bleach their skin so that their skin will have a certain aesthetic appeal on camera. “Video light and skin bleaching are expression[s] that relate to these social practices of seeking visibility and recognition as citizens in [B]lack public spheres in Jamaica and beyond…”[viii] The prevalence of the these practices cannot be discussed without bringing the impact of economic policies into the conversation.

 

As Thompson acknowledges, the neoliberal policies implemented by the Jamaica Labour Party “intensified the implementation of structural adjustment policies” and ignited a “fascination with consumer culture in the dancehalls [in] line with the changing neoliberal landscape of the island…”[ix] The blinding white light of lurching cameras in Jamaican dancehalls invites Black bodies into the realm of illumination—an invitation they seemingly cannot refuse. While others may interpret the Black chase after whiteness (light) and bleaching of the skin as immense self-hate, Thompson argues that bleaching “the body’s surface has been interpreted as a response to the cultural memory of skin color prejudice, or colorism [which] privilege[s] whiteness…”[x]

 

This light that Black bodies crave in Jamaica ultimately “transform[s] them into commodities that could be sold locally and transnationally.”[xi] Social ascendance is tethered to being aesthetically appealing (brighter, whiter) on video camera much like passing has been for ‘fair’-skinned Blacks in American history. Bahamian Blacks are also guilty of being enamored by white ways of living and being. The young Jamaican girls mimicking the “female-choreographed performance of rescue and romance,”[xii] found in many fairy tales, in their extremely visible (conspicuously consumptive) prom entrances serve as but one example.

 

The African diasporic community’s investment in brightness and visual practices that have been shrouded and made synonymous with ‘Hip-Hop culture’ (which have really been around since at least the days of King Henry VIII[xiii] and “seventeenth-century Baroque pictorial traditions”[xiv]) have been given mythic origins by white, hegemonic forces. Fascination with “bling, bling” and material excess is not a Black phenomena. Furthermore, the perceived investment that Black bodies feel they have in bling-age directly correlates with the oft-sighted (and ill-fated) Black investment in whiteness and white consumption practices to feel seen and heard.

 

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Shakeel Harris is an M.Div candidate at Duke Divinity School where he focuses on the intersectionality of Christianity and American slavery. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 


[i] Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Durham: Duke University, 2015), 2.           main image by Duke University Press.

[ii] Ibid., 233. Emphasis added.

[iii] Ibid., 49.

[iv] Ibid., 57.

[v] Ibid., 65.

[vi] Ibid., 67.         

[vii] Ibid., 113.

[viii] Ibid., 115.

[ix] Ibid., 120.

[x] Ibid., 141.

[xi] Ibid., 149.

[xii] Ibid., 184.     

[xiii] Ibid., 230.

[xiv] Ibid., 258.

 

White Lies and White Lights: -- a Review of Krista Thompson’s “Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in

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