Picturing Diversity: I Am Stereotype (part 2b)

Esteemed author and cultural critic Ilan Stavans, will be writing a series of ten essays specifically for our photographic journal, Nueva Luz and our blog. ‘I Am Stereotype’ is the first article in the ‘Picturing Diversity’ series, which will later become a book on photography. In discussing how the medium has changed, Stavans challenges assumptions on how society sees the world and how we view each other. It is a pleasure to be able to bring this exciting series to our readers.

For Part 2-A of this article, please visit : Part 2-A: I Am Stereotype.

Thomas delivers another parody in “The Liberation of T.O: I’m Not Goin’ Back to Work for Massa’ in Dat Darned Field!” It is about a young black man with a football in his hand who is desperately getting out of his neighborhood through his athletic talent. But the traditional message of triumph versus adversity is turned upside down. The setting is clearly New York City and the protagonist, in his flee, leaves havoc behind. Some of those around him (everyone is black) are eager to embrace him. Others have collapsed on the street and are dead. But this young man is undeterred. He won’t look back. His dreams are what he is chasing.

Hank Willis Thomas, The Liberation of T.O.: I'm Not Goin' Back to Work for Massa' in Dat Darned Field!, Unbranded series, 2003/2005. Lambda photograph, original photograph by Charlie White, 57 x 50
Hank Willis Thomas, The Liberation of T.O.: I’m Not Goin’ Back to Work for Massa’ in Dat Darned Field!, Unbranded series, 2003/2005. Lambda photograph, original photograph by Charlie White, 57 x 50″

Is this a critique of minority collectivism? Is the black athlete an individualist? Or is the photograph commenting on how much hope the community deposits on its young, to the degree of blinding itself to everything else?

In a dramatically-different approach, Adál, in the photograph Conceptual Jíbaro Art, part of a series called I Was a Schizophrenic Mambo Dancer for the FBI, uses parody to invoke a long-standing tradition of self-portraits that reaches back to Rembrandt and in recent times has been pushed to its limits by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and, notably, Lee Friedlander, Lucas Samaras, and Cindy Sherman.

What do we see when we see ourselves? When the viewer is from a minority, the answer is a stereotype. We are what others project in us, what they want to see in us, what they make of us.

Adal, Conceptual Jibaro Art, I was a Schizophrenic Mambo Dancer for the FBI series, 1990. Gelatin silver print, 12 x 12
Adal, Conceptual Jibaro Art, I was a Schizophrenic Mambo Dancer for the FBI series, 1990. Gelatin silver print, 12 x 12″

In mentioning Willis Thomas and Adál, I said that one of them is black and the other Puerto Rican. Would I have done the same had I been talking about Warhol, whose lineage was Czech? Would I have talked of Rembrandt as stereotypically Dutch? Surely not… Therein lies my point: minorities cannot escape being representatives of their breed. Nobody in Puerto Rico cares that Adál is Puerto Rican, but in the United States his condition is that of an outsider, a rara avis. As a photographer, he makes use of this plight: he pictures himself as normal yet abnormal, a stereotype whose differences he doesn’t want to erase but, instead, enjoys aggrandizing.

-Ilan Stavans

Next Article, TBA.

Ilan Stavans, one of today’s preeminent essayists, cultural critics, and translators, is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College-Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish(2003), Love and Language (2007), and Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years (2010), Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots (Rutgers, 2012), and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic, 2012, with Steve Sheinkin). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), The Poetry of Pablo Neruda(2003), the 3-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories (2004), Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (2009), The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), and The FSG Books of 20th-Century Latin American Poetry (2011), and a guest writer for Nueva Luz, volume 10#1 (2004).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s