Recovering Black Dignity for Serena and Naomi
Over the past week, Australian Mark Knight’s cartoon of Serena Williams stomping on her racket during her U.S. Open match has sparked international controversy. Critics accuse Knight — and the newspaper that published the cartoon, the Herald Sun — of perpetuating damaging racist stereotypes.
Supporters, on the other hand, argue that “political correctness” has made it impossible for people to take a joke and claim there was no racist intent in the image. The Herald Sun reiterated its position by reprinting Knight’s depiction of Williams alongside caricatures of other famous people on their front page with the headline: “Welcome to PC World.” Indeed, for many cultural conservatives, the outrage over this cartoon might seem unmerited. Why would an image, particularly one meant to poke fun, inspire such vitriol?
Knight’s cartoon provides a clear example of the power of our visual archive. Regardless of Knight’s claims about his intentions, the image does not exist in a vacuum. It makes meaning internally, simply as an image, but it also relies on our knowledge of past images in order to make its point. In doing so, it recirculates dehumanizing depictions of black women while subtly elevating a particular, narrow norm of womanhood. As Christians, we should recognize, condemn, and work to reverse this dehumanization wherever we find it. After all, the very image of God is at stake.
The Image Analyzed
So, first, how does this image’s internal logic create meaning? The cartoon is dominated by a huge, hulking figure on the left hand side of the composition. A dark-skinned woman, with exaggerated lips and a large, flat nose, appears to jump angrily while a wild spray of hair appears to erupt, like steam, from her head. Her pose, as well as her head shape, is more gorilla than human. On the ground beneath her is a battered tennis racket and a small blue pacifier; both objects were presumably discarded by the fuming woman.
Behind this figure, we see a tennis court, a crowd, and a thin man in a blue jacket perched on an umpire’s raised chair. He bends down to speak to a second woman, who is separated from us by the hip-high net. This woman — slender, with lightly tanned skin and a long, straight, blonde ponytail — looks up silently at the umpire as he asks, “Can you just let her win?”
Knight uses the composition to set up a clear visual contrast between the two women in the cartoon. The figure on the left — Knight’s depiction of Serena Williams — is giant, bestial, and even threatening in her physical rage. The figure on the right — Knight’s depiction of Naomi Osaka — is diminutive, contained, and passive. Furthermore, Williams’s dark skin and kinky hair contrast with Osaka’s paler skin and sleek, blonde ponytail. This visual binary suggests a more existential comparison as well. Williams is less desirable, less reliable, and, presumably, less moral than her counterpart.
The Image in the Archive
Already, then, the image is working to dehumanize Serena Williams. But this impact becomes even more clear when we consider the visual archive that Knight references. Although Knight is Australian, his work picks up on tropes from American visual culture that were disseminated widely from the beginning of the twentieth century. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, for example, contains dozens of objects from Australia that participate in familiar American stereotypes.
First, Knight depicts Williams as being a tantrum-throwing child. Such infantilization recalls the picaninny stereotype, famously characterized by Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Little Black Sambo in Helen Bannerman’s books of the same name. Often shown in the company of animals, picaninnies are depicted in popular culture as having large mouths and unkempt hair. They lack emotional control, often shown as either utterly carefree in their pleasure or completely undone in their rage. An ashtray from the early 20th century, depicting a fat black boy squatting naked on a chamberpot and squinting with his mouth wide open, suggests how this trope has been a common, even mundane, part of daily life for many Americans. Thus, when Knight characterizes Williams as a “crybaby,” he participates in a much longer history of delegitimizing the complexity and validity of African Americans’ emotional lives.
Second, Knight’s image positions Williams as an angry black woman, the “Sapphire” stereotype. “Sapphire” is short-tempered and sharp-tongued; she emasculates men with her irrational outbursts. A postcard from 1910, for example, depicts a wide-mouthed black woman with sagging, swinging breasts beating her cowering husband.
We need to take seriously the social role that these kinds of images have played historically. Developed during the Jim Crow era, such stereotypes were deployed as mechanisms of social control. Making fun, belittling, and otherwise dehumanizing African Americans who violated social norms functioned as a very real means of enforcing black passivity and servility.
But there is another black woman in this cartoon: Naomi Osaka, a biracial Japanese-Haitian. As some critics have observed, Knight seemingly depicts Osaka as a white woman. Although Osaka does have blonde-tipped hair, neither her ponytail nor her skin color or profile resemble Knight’s cartoon. Knight erased all visible signs of black identity.
The contrast between the animalistic Williams and the ladylike Osaka in this cartoon recalls a photograph from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In the image, taken by Will Counts, Elizabeth Eckford walks towards Little Rock High School in a neatly pressed shirt dress, clutching her books to her chest and shielded behind a large pair of sunglasses. Her expression is implacable and her attire is immaculate. Eckford’s contained, quiet femininity is contrasted with the snarling face of a white girl, Hazel Bryan, who strides behind her. The photograph was at least partially effective in drumming up white northern support for school integration because Eckford’s fresh-faced, poised appearance and attitude concurred with dominant cultural notions of what appropriate femininity — and appropriate blackness — should look like. Eckford looked more like a Sears catalogue model than a derogatory, racialized stereotype, and her perceived respectability was soothing to white supporters. Knight’s depiction of Osaka similarly suggests that there is an acceptable way to be a black woman…and that is to look and to act as much like a white woman as possible.
Once Knight’s cartoon was published — once it entered the public space — it became part of a much larger visual archive. The artist insists, “I drew her as she is, as an African-American woman.” And yet, Knight’s choices of how to draw Williams — what features to exaggerate, what proportions to use for her body, what contrasts to make between her and Osaka — are inevitably informed by the visual culture of the past. If it was not, the cartoon would not be so immediately legible.
The Image of God Restored
Given all of this, what do we do with this image? Do we censure Knight directly? Do we refuse to look at the cartoon altogether? I want to suggest, as I have before, that as Christians, we have a responsibility to recover the Imago Dei where it has been denied. That means that when we look at Knight’s cartoon, we must re-see the dignity of Williams and Osaka, women with powerful bodies, complex psychologies, emotional realities, and personal agency. In doing so, we might also ask ourselves what diminishing lies we have believed about black womanhood and what we may have lost along the way.
It might also mean that we proclaim this dignity to those in our social groups. Perhaps this means reposting the photograph of Williams embracing Osaka at the end of the match, choosing to circulate an image of black female solidarity instead of the more common photograph of Williams yelling. Perhaps this means asking someone what they actually see in Knight’s cartoon and talking through it with them, rather than allowing them to simply dismiss it as politicized bickering. Perhaps this means telling a black sister that you see the image of God in her when she is loud in her protest of injustice.
This takes real effort. It is actually far easier to simply dismiss the cartoon as “racist” than it is to do the work of restoring and affirming the image of God in these women. But with such high stakes, can we do anything less?