"Black Woman Redefined" Author Sophia A. Nelson Talks About Media Images Today
Dori J. Maynard
July 19, 2011
Yesterday a Summer's Eve ad was the talk of social media networks. Author and media commentator Sophia A. Nelson discusses the ad, black women's images in the media and why she was compelled to write the recently released "Black Woman Redefined".
Sophia, let's start by talking about this latest ad campaign. Can you describe it and let people know what you found disturbing about the ad?
I find two things very disturbing about the ad--First, that it compares black women's hair on our heads and how everyone knows we are very concerned about our hair, how we wash it, style it (whether that be natural or straight), and that we spend lots of time and money on hair care as black women with our need to care for our hair "wunder down under" (e.g., genitalia hair). That is just out of bounds offensive and frankly, disgusting. Secondly, the way the ad is done it uses a black female hand and a voice over that is clearly a black woman speaking the black woman's "vernacular". So they appeal to black women by talking about our hair on our heads and using a black woman voice to be the connection point.
This is not the first time in recent months you have questioned the portrayal of black women in the media. Can you tell us about some of the other recent "incidents?"
Yes I can. Let's go back to last year 2010 and there seemed to be "open season" on sisters from the Nightline show "Love, Marriage & a Baby Carriage" to "Why Can't a Successful Black Woman get a Man?" to "black marriage negotiations video" that went viral and most recently during this year's Superbowl there was a Pepsi ad that featured a married black couple--dark skinned sister, angry scowled face, smacking her man, kicking him, and hurling Pepsi cans at him (and ultimately at a young blonde white woman in short shorts looking at her man). Then there was the Bounce ad with the overweight black woman selling the product. This new ad is just the latest in a long line of very negative portrayals of us as black women to sell products or ratings.
From your perspective, what accounts for these distorted images of black women?
These images have been a long time in the making. What makes them so dangerous now is that we accept them as black women. We accept reality TV as part of our reality. We like being seen as "bad-ass bitches" who will take you out. We now laugh at ads that depict us in unflattering ways and shrug them off and say "get over it"-"who cares". The challenge with this of course is that stereotypes and images are not funny when they follow you everywhere (the workplace, relationships, houses of worship, etc.)
Some might argue that these are just random images, but what impact do you think these images have, both on black women and the wider audience?
What accounts for these images is what I mentioned above in my last answer--you are talking hundreds of years of mythology and images of us as black women that are not very truthful or on point. They have a great impact particularly on our young girls and women. Self-esteem is huge for women. If our girls are viewed as these angry, strident, unattractive, now "smelly" women who do not focus on personal hygiene while other women do that is a problem. It gives our young men and boys all the wrong images of what it means to be a black woman also and it makes them gravitate away from black women. Very troubling indeed.
What has the reaction to your book been, and has it differed across the fault lines of race and gender?
The reaction to my book has been strong, 10,000 copies sold in first 6 weeks, if we had not run out of stock (we are back ordered 2000 books) I would have likely made the New York Times list by now. We will get there (smiles). Yet, the book has not crossed over as I would have liked. Black media has made this book a success as well as black organizations who bought books in bulk, etc. I could not have done it without Essence Magazine, Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden, Roland Martin, Jacque Reid, and the black blogasphere. They have carried me. There has been a virtual black out of major newspapers, magazines, etc., who always cover the negative side of our issues, but will not cover a bonafide, research driven, groundbreaking book on African American women in this new age of our First Lady. I have been stunned at the number of white women editors at papers, etc., who say, "I don't get this book" or "this is not real" or "it's not for us". I mean WOW. Thank God for the black media.
What is the biggest takeaway you would like your book to leave us with?
This is more than a book. This is a Redefinition movement. I am asking sisters to change their lives, take hold of their health, fight for their right to be in corporate board rooms, production rooms, etc. I am asking our white counterparts who, by the way, were part of this research we commissioned, to open their eyes and realize that one of our great talent pools (black women) is still largely invisible and locked out of access in our country. I am asking black men to love sisters again, to adore us, to help us heal, to be our heroes once again. I am also giving myself and sisters permission to date outside the race if that is what it takes to find happiness and love. The book is deep-but it is a hit because it does not just state our problems it puts them into a context that humanizes us and forces folks to take a second look at who we truly are as black women.
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