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Brenna Wynn Greer’94 speaks about new book on black imagemakers

The 2019 installment of Beloit College’s Richardson Lecture Series featured Dr. Brenna Wynn Greer’94, the Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and assistant professor of history at Wellesley College. On Mon., Oct. 21, Greer spoke in Richardson Auditorium about her book “Represented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African American Citizenship,” which was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press earlier this year.

Greer dedicated her lecture to the late Anita Andrew, who was a visiting professor of history at Beloit College while Greer was a student here. Andrew was the first mentor to help Greer understand that the field of history “was a discipline, let alone a career,” she explained, piquing an interest that led to a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011 and the publication of “Represented.” Andrew passed away unexpectedly in December 2018; her husband, John Rapp, was a professor of Political Science at Beloit from 1986 until the end of the past academic year.

Through her scholarship for “Represented,” Greer sought to answer the question “does the experience of ‘freedom’ in the US require going through and shoring up institutions of oppression [such as capitalism]?” which she also posed to her audience in Richardson on Oct. 21. Focusing on black capitalists and their role in the civil rights movement—specifically John H. Johnson, who published the magazines Ebony and Jet; and Moss H. Kendrix, Coca-Cola’s first black marketing consultant—was “surprising, especially to me,” Greer said.

“We don’t like capitalists in our civil rights stories,” she observed, noting that a Google image search for “civil rights movement” yields almost exclusively photographs of protestors and activists. However, the movement had many faces, explained Greer, and scholars cannot ignore that some of those belonged to black figures who were more interested in gaining wealth than in gaining justice. Greer feels that it is time to allow “for some messy, complicated, conflicted, complicit people of color in the scholarship.”

She went on to illustrate the importance of two such people, in what the author and activist bell hooks has called the “struggle over images,” that characterizes the history of black liberation movements in the United States. When today’s fully saturated visual culture was emerging during the 1930s, Greer told the audience, black people had no control over their own portrayal in news media and advertising, and rarely saw themselves represented outside of caricatures.

When John H. Johnson founded Ebony Magazine in 1945, billing it as an “antidote” to Life Magazine, the amount of negative representation that Johnson’s intended audience had endured until that point ensured that they were eager to give their money to anything offering positive representation, said Greer. Johnson founded a series of “antidotes” to print entertainment and news media aimed at white audiences, and business boomed.

Meanwhile, marketing consultant Moss H. Kendrix successfully billed himself as an “expert of the Negro market” and was hired by Coca-Cola. Since the 20th century, United States identity has been profoundly informed by representations in media and advertising, said Greer. Lacking that representation meant that black and brown Americans were not granted an identity in the same way that white Americans were.

In 1953, Kendrix spearheaded the “Family Favorite” campaign through Coca-Cola, the first mainstream advertising campaign to depict black consumers as “average” people. Images of black families drinking Coca-Cola while cooking, watching television, and dancing circulated in Ebony and other publications that targeted black consumers. The photos in these advertisements exactly mimicked photos of white families in previous Coca-Cola campaigns, Greer noted, establishing the perception that black and white consumers were “identical but separate.” Although the “Family Favorite” campaign was the way that many black Americans first felt visible in advertising, they were also strategically rendered invisible in the same stride.

As the 2019 Richardson lecturer, Greer spent several days on campus visiting classes and meeting students. The Richardson Lecture Series was established through a fund honoring former Professor of History Robert “Dickie” Richardson.

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