Today we feature a guest post from Historiann friend and colleague Zara Anishanslin (@ZaraAnishanslin), an Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World will be published by Yale University Press in September 2016. An expert in eighteenth-century British and American material culture, Anishanslin pulls some of the threads of contemporary conversations about African American women’s words and bodies, and finds many suggestive connections to colonial America and the early U.S. republic. In this lavishly illustrated post, she asks how were the images and ideas of African American women appropriated or deployed by others to their own economic and political ends? Why is it still so difficult for black women to be heard and to represent themselves? And finally, what does this say about the racialized and gendered nature of politics in the U.S. even now?
So reporter April Ryan challenged, in a televised discussion on Monday, July 18, day one of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Ryan was responding to the remarks by her co-panelist on an MSNBC morning interview, Republican congressman Steve King. King, in a WTF moment for the ages, had just questioned what non-white “subgroups” had done to further western “civilization.” Ryan’s challenge was the last word she got in before MSNBC host Chris Hayes (who along with Esquire’s Charlie Pierce had been talking over her), went to commercial break. On a Periscope video Ryan posted on Twitter, Chris Hayes announced his regret at not letting Ryan speak, but he had shut Ryan up when it mattered most.
That same day, Melania Trump, wife of presidential candidate Donald Trump, gave a plagiarized speech with word-for-word copies of one given by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2008. The two events occurred on the same day, in the same place, in the shared context of the Republican National Convention. But they have something more fundamental in common.
Ryan and Obama are black women; King, Hayes, Pierce, and Trump are all white, and most are men. In both televised cases, millions of viewers saw white people talking over, or appropriating without consent, the voices of black women. Both were examples that offered viewers televised examples of white people denying, silencing, or stealing, the creative contributions of black women. Although the Trump campaign is notable for its naked racism, what happened to Ryan and Obama is nothing new. Instead, it is part of a very long American history of white people’s sustained attempts to silence black women’s voices and to control black women’s bodies. Continue reading