Bamboozled: A Visual Culture Text for Looking at Cultural Practices of Racism

By Parks, Nancy S. | Art Education, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Bamboozled: A Visual Culture Text for Looking at Cultural Practices of Racism

Parks, Nancy S., Art Education

Over the past decade art educators have engaged in a dialogue about a reconceptualization of art education theory and practice. This reconceptualization has roots in cultural studies, anthropology, and critical theory. One focus has been on the notion of art as visual culture. Duncum (2001) describes this dramatic change taking place in art education.

The shift from art to visual culture appears to represent as fundamental a change in the orientation of our field as the shift from self-expression to a discipline base in the 1980s. (p. 101)

Duncum, Freedman, Bracey, Pearson, Chalmers, and Garber (2001) initiate a useful dialogue about the epistemology of art in On Knowing: Art and Visual Culture, by presenting individual position statements and responses to each other's respective positions based on questions central to art education. Is art something special and different from other forms of visual culture? What is art? What is art for? How do human beings know art? I find particularly useful the positions shared by Duncum, Freedman, Garber, and Chalmers, when teaching art and focusing on the concept of difference.

Duncum (2001, 2002) and Freedman (2001) share similar positions about the reconceptualization of art education that Duncum refers to as Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE). Chalmers (2001) suggests that "We get closer to 'knowing' art (broadly understood as 'visual culture') when we include the perspectives and lenses of a great variety of individuals and groups, across different cultures and time periods, who make 'art', sell it, collect it, steal it, study it, use it, display it, label it, hate it and enjoy it" (p. 86).

Garber (2001) borrows from literary theory to propose the use of the dialectic approach, which is often tied to "the context of narrative to signify 'interplay' between various voices, beliefs, roles or possible decisions" (p. 102). Regarding the dialectic approach, Garber states, "It takes in the dynamics between social and historical and individual, and the conflicts that arise" (p. 102). Referring to her own research, Garber points out that representing cultures outside of one's own tends to encourage a process of selectivity. She refers to Clifford (1988) who states, "We tend to rescue phenomena that we deem typical or 'traditional'-what by definition is opposed to modernity, from a complex historical reality (which includes current ethnographic encounters), the researcher or teacher selects what he or she thinks is important" (p. 231). It is through this process of selection that Garber contends we make other cultures different from our own. She continues by suggesting that "We fail to see the influences European-based cultures have had on them and they have had on European-based cultures" (p. 102).

A discussion about European-based cultures and how they have influenced perceptions of representation and racial difference have typically not been a part of educational practice in the United States. jagodzinski (1999) recognizes the need for such a conversation and proposes film as a vehicle. He states "To initiate a critical multicultural and cross-cultural art education, it is crucial that art teachers become versed in the skills of how the dominant society presents the Other in all forms of art, but especially film (and no less television) because of its ubiquitous nature as an art form" (p. 75). Such a conversation seems particularly important since as King (2000) notes, 90% of K-12 teachers are White while 36% of the national school population is comprised of students of color.

The remainder of this article is organized into four sections. The first section looks at the notion of representation and racialized looking. The second provides a discussion of Black identity and the process of signifying and reifying stereotypes of African Americans in American popular culture. Next, the article focuses on the film Bamboozled and finally, connections are provided between theory and practice as a means for examining racial difference and stereotypes.

Racialized Looking

European-based cultures have used what Hall (1997) refers to as a "regime of representation" which has relied on stereotypes and other racist strategies to portray Blacks. Said (1979), Clifford, (1988), Freedman, Stuhr, and Weinberg (1990), Carpenter (1999), Blandy and Congdon (1991), Desai (2000), and others have examined issues of representation like identity, difference, and obsession with "Otherness." The West has often depended on Eurocentric objects or images to interpret Other cultures, rather than the subjects of their own representational practices (Hall & Sealy, 2001). This Eurocentric gaze has resulted in a process of racialized looking. Sealy and Hall (2001) describe this process.

Profound differences of history, culture, and experience have often been reduced to a handful of stereotypical features, which are "read" as if they represent the truth of nature, somehow inscribed on the body. They are assumed to be 'real' because they can be seen-difference visible to the naked eye. (p. 4)

Similarly, Bennett (1999) describes the traditional curriculum in the United States as having a racist character, particularly related to Africa and African-American cultures. Racialized difference is associated in dominant practices of visual representation and has dramatic implications for preservice and inservice art teachers. European, White preservice and inservice art teachers sometimes struggle with representation of non-Western art and cultures, as reflected in products children create that trivialize aesthetic beliefs and practices of cultures outside their own (Chalmers, 1996, Stuhr, Petrovich-Mwaniki, and Wasson, 1992). Spike Lee's Bamboozled, is a useful vehicle for exploring such issues. Before this film is discussed as a dialectical tool in art education, an exploration of historical representations of African Americans in American popular culture is presented.

Black Identity Signified and Reified in American Popular Culture

Hall (1997) discusses major points of contact between Whites and Blacks and racial differences that have been signified and reified.

There are three major moments when the West encountered black people, giving rise to an avalanche of popular representations based on the marking of racial difference. The first began with the sixteenth-century contact between European Traders and the West African kingdoms, which provided a source of black slaves for three centuries. The second was the European colonization of Africa and the 'scramble' between the European powers for the control of territory, markets and raw materials in the period of 'high imperialism'. The third was the post-World War II migrations from the 'Third World' into Europe and North American. Western ideas about racial difference were profoundly shaped by those three fateful encounters (p. 239).

Material artifacts were created and produced to document, describe, and illustrate White explorers' adventures and encounters with the 'Other.' McClintock (as cited in Hall, 1997) states that "The gallery of imperial heroes and their masculine exploits in 'Darkest Africa' were immortalized on matchboxes, needle cases, toothpaste pots, pencil boxes, cigarette packets, board games, paperweights, sheet music" (p. 209). Images and material artifacts continued to personify racist beliefs and values in the United States throughout all three of these periods. Racial stereotypes have been used in marketing products like Aunt Jemima's pancake syrup and Uncle Ben's rice, for example. In 1989 the Quaker Oats Company decided to drop Aunt Jemima as a marketing tool due to its stereotypical nature (Images in Action, 2002). White Westerners produced the majority of these images and material artifacts.

Since the 1960s, African-American artists such as Faith Ringgold have explored racial difference, and since the 1990s, other artists such as Michael Ray Charles and Kara Walker have used racial stereotypes to explore the themes of identity and racism. Critics have charged Charles and Walker with perpetuating stereotypes, rather than promoting racial tolerance. Charles (as cited in PBS, Art 21) however, defends his use of stereotypes through these comments: "There is a fine line between questioning and perpetuating stereotypes and I am interested in questioning stereotypes of African Americans" (PBS, 2001).

The film industry has a history of promoting racial stereotypes of African Americans through minstrel shows. Whites portrayed African Americans wearing black face, and later, when African-American entertainers were in need of work, they took on the role of the minstrel themselves. More recently, some television sitcoms like The Jeffersons portray African Americans as silly and superficial (Riggs, M., 1987). According to Hall (1997), during the 1980s and 1990s, Black filmmakers Spike Lee, (Do the Right Thing), John Singleton (Boys 'n' the Hood), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) "put their own interpretations on the way Blacks figure within the 'American Experience'" (p.257).


Duncum (2002) points out that digital images, media, and film have become "naturalized" sources of visual culture for study in art education. Television and digital images, once considered interruptions to our lives, have now become "naturalized" (Duncum, 2002). Film has been "naturalized" within American culture and is an example of a meaningful cultural site in which to examine racial difference with preservice and inservice art teachers.

As the 20th century drew to a close, we were increasingly likely to encounter the cinema through other media-on television, home video, DVD, or the Internet. Media and industry convergences of the late 20th century were enacted in the rise of Home Box Office in the late 1970s, the emergence of home video in the 1980s, and the move from digital special effects to digital editing and projection across the last three decades. (Cartwright, 2002, p. 1)

Cartwright (2002) notes the convergence of film with other media in American culture and its infiltration into our daily lives. One such example is Spike Lee's film, Bamboozled.

The central story of Bamboozled focuses on Harvard educated, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an African-American television executive, who is underpressure from his White boss, Mr. Dunwitty, (Michael Rapaport) to develop a new "ratings grabber" series. Delacroix believes he will be fired for developing an idea he thinks his boss will find outrageous. Dunwitty, the Senior Vice President of the Entertainment Division of CNS Network, instead is thrilled with Delacroix's idea, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.

The show is billed as a comedy variety hour. [It is] About two poor, urban blacks who move to a southern watermelon patch to live a life of indolence and thievery. The performers wear traditional burnt-cork blackface. The house band is called the Alabama Porch Monkeys. The back up dancers are known as the Pickaninnys and include such stereotypical characters as Aunt Jemima and Sambo. Delacroix even recruits two street performers who busk in front of CNS headquarters, tap dancer Manray (Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk's sublime Savion Glover) and his partner Womack (Malcolm & Eddie's Tommy Davidson), to star in the series.

He promptly changes their names to the titular Mantan and the Stepin Fetchit-like moniker Steep 'N Eat (Grady, 2000, p. 1).

Dunwitty believes that because he is married to an African-American woman, is educated, and surrounds himself with African art and contemporary work by African-American artists, that he is Delacroix's "soul brother." The show evolves into a huge success, which only serves to seduce everyone involved with the series. Eventually, audiences embrace the concept of the show and even wear blackface in celebration. Throughout, the film makes references to Gansta rap as "the twenty-first century version of a minstrel show." The series includes commercials that take aim at White fashion designers like Tommy Hilfiger; a White man raps, "We keep it so real, we give you the bullet holes." The film suggests that slick commercials create a desire for clothing styles that stereotype African Americans.

Mantan is eventually kidnapped and murdered, and the event is broadcast on live television. Delacroix's denial and delusion that he can keep everything under control unravels as the film progresses, and he is overcome with guilt and shame. At the end of the film, [director] Lee provides a history lesson of racism in American entertainment. Television and film clips of Birth of a Nation and sitcoms like The Jeffersons are juxtaposed against provocative contemporary images that re-create stereotypes as a means to investigate and subvert the notion of a "Black identity."

Connecting Theory to Practice: Questions About Visualizing Race

Lee's (2000) Bamboozled is a satire of American television and film. It confronts the viewer about identity and the misrepresentation of African Americans in the entertainment industry. In Bamboozled, Lee confronts a "regime of representation" that misrepresents and stereotypes African Americans. Misrepresentation of African Americans is a means of signifying racial difference. This process involves the naturalizing of difference, a representational strategy that slave owners and others used to reduce differences between Blacks and Whites to a matter of nature, rather than culture.

To understand this dialectical process, preservice and inservice art teachers can examine Bamboozled and Delacroix's television series for examples of African Americans that have been borrowed from the past. In the film, racism and stereotypes in the United States are shown to have a long history that continues today, but in new forms. A critical question for both preservice and inservice art teachers to consider after viewing Bamboozled is whether Lee's film contributes to representations of African Americans that do not duplicate the past. A dialectical approach can be further implemented through a dialogue about identity, representation, and stereotypes, and by looking at how some of these issues relate to artists like Michael Ray Charles and Kara Walker. These suggestions are intended to stimulate thinking about classroom applications with preservice and inservice art teachers.

As Barrett (2003) demonstrates, an examination of Bamboozled as part of visual culture provides an opportunity to initiate dialogue among all preservice and inservice art teachers about racialized images and false notions of Black identity. Continued dialogue about this topic is necessary within art education scholarship.



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[Author Affiliation]

Nancy S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Art Education in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, & Planning at the University of Cincinnati.


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