The BLACK paPR Report

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PR from an African American Perspective

That Bad Eartha

Sexy she was and sexy she will forever be known …

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On Christmas day, I was stunned to learn that the incomparable Eartha Kitt had passed away. Seconds before reading a status update on Facebook memorializing her, I’d just listened to Miss Kitt sing Santa Baby. Talk about ironies, not merely that I’d just heard the song she was probably most famous for, but that she’d die during a time when the song would be most played and heard. (Funny how we remember the people who die on Christmas like James Brown and Gerald Ford, as if we would ever forget them.)  

 Miss Kitt will never be forgotten. She not only represents the end of an era, where sexy was a good thing – part subtle and classy – but also for her image as an African American woman in the entertainment industry. Few people will not know her name; I think it’s safe to assume she was a “household” name, easily recognized across racial and socio-economic borders but also across national and international borders. Will Beyoncé ever achieve the same type of icon status of an Eartha Kitt?

 Would Beyoncé be willing to stand on a chair at a White House luncheon and loudly proclaim her dissatisfaction with presidential policy and the war in Iraq? Would she refuse to perform in places known to practice discrimination? Would she endure being blackballed and CIA-investigated for her views?

Probably not, but Beyoncé probably wouldn’t have need to or impetus. And she most likely wouldn’t have to fabricate a story of being born out of the rape of a black woman by a white man like Miss Kitt did.

Miss Eartha Kitt is the product of the Hollywood machine era, when lies and illusions helped build careers and make millions of dollars for entertainment moguls. Miss Kitt’s image was crafted by both illusion and lies and we bought that image. Eartha Kitt the sexy ingénue was every bit as sexy in her latter years. And every bit as memorable.

“I do not have an act. I just do Eartha Kitt.” ~ Eartha Kitt (1927- 2008)

 

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Filed under: African Americans, Mass-Mediated Images, Uncategorized, , , , , ,

A New Image

It’s been almost ten years since I stood in a college classroom to teach mass-mediated images of African Americans. The subject is one I love but have few instances where I can discuss my knowledge of black images. That is until Michelle and Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, June 3, the world was a witness to Barack Obama taking center stage at a rally in Minnesota with Michelle by his side. She looked elegant, strong and extremely supportive. He looked confident, secure and if I can share my bias, he looked quite presidential. In my mind, the world caught a gander of our nation’s next president and first lady. 

The thing that struck me as more beautiful than their appearance, in and of itself, was the sight of Michelle and Barack giving one another dap, pounding their fists together in a symbol of unity. And as she walked away, he came centimeters close to patting her on the behind, another symbol — a symbol of love and affection.

Some of the scholarship I’ve read posited that the image of a healthy black love relationship was missing in our movies, television programs and in our literature. My students — black, white, Asian and Hispanic — always dismissed that fact until they were given the task of disproving it. The only example most could find were Claire and Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show. That was it in a nutshell.

Fast forward, ten years later, the story remains the same with a few more examples. The most recent example would be Barack and Michelle.

They don’t want their relationship on a pedestal, which is wise. Anyone free to hold up the pedestal is also free to kick it from underneath them. Still, they, albeit inadvertently, represent an image — a model — of love in any color that is healthy and long overdue for most black people.

Pounding fists didn’t occur between two lawyers but rather between two people who obviously like one another. Two people who share a history and perhaps, a secret or two. The fists colliding represented the words we’ll never hear. 

“I’ve got your back.”

“We did it!”

“Let’s do this…”

My hope is that art begins to imitate life and we begin to embrace the stories of a real black love (and like) between a man and a woman. No more TV shows with widower black men raising kids on their own, or men whose wives are on crack, or sisters who have baby daddies and no husband, or bitter single black women who refuse to support a black man. 

It’s time for a change in images we can believe in, too. 

As a PR professional, how will you commit to making those images happen?

Best, Robin

robin@thejstandard.com

Filed under: African Americans, Mass-Mediated Images, Public Relations, , , , , , , , , ,

Image is Everything

I’m an image geek who can trace my addiction to mass-mediated images of African Americans back to my childhood. Television wasn’t just TV, the fun thing, it was a learning tool. I can recall questioning why Buckwheat didn’t comb his hair and why Stymie never went off on Alfafa or Spanky. I had issues like that.

With fondness I remember taking my Sunday evening bath early, just so I could sit on the floor in my PJs, with a snack and drink, to watch The Ed Sullivan Show when a black act was featured. And I can remember stopping play with friends to run into the house on Saturdays to watch The Dick Clark Show whenever one of my favorite R&B groups or singers was featured.

Those images meant a lot to me.

A few years ago, I went to a rural flea market and indulged my love for vintage Ebony magazines. I purchased about $20 worth of those magazines and continued looking on every table for things of interest. One table contained some items that made my blood curdle and my heart stop. On that table were old slave shackles and I was too scared to touch them. My eyes merely rested on them as I thought of the slave or slaves who wore those bracelets. Unfortunately, those weren’t the only things on that table to upset my equilibrium. The vendor had a number of souvenirs from the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany. Those were the Olympic games, where Hitler refused to shake gold medalist Jesse Owens’s hand.

I moved away from that table fast.

We can always put the past into a context somewhere back there. But once we have a tangible reminder of it, something shifts inside, and we realize the significance of those moments and how they shape the world we live in today. To paraphrase philosopher Franz Fanon, we never notice the absence of something until we see that one thing that challenges our senses and intellect. (Bless Fanon, I could never do him any real justice.)

My grandparents never questioned the absence of black faces on television until the first one appeared. And once they noticed, they made it a point to make me cognizant of them, thus my humble beginnings as a purveyor of the mass-mediated image of African Americans.

For years I studied these images from the earliest known stereotypes to the most recent in popular culture. (Yes, they still exist.) For years I taught and lectured about these images. But my greatest challenge would come in taking all of that book knowledge and applying it to my profession as a PR consultant and publicist.

Last night, I watched some of the most beautiful images of African Americans I’ve ever seen. These were real images, nothing contrived like a sit-com or movie. A wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend spoke to a crowd of millions, and she spoke eloquently and she appeared elegantly. Obviously, from the context of American history, we’ve never seen anything like it. So, from my perspective as a purveyor/consumer and negotiator of image, I was impressed and honestly wished we could see more of that — more of what I love about my people.

As a practitioner, I’m challenged everyday in how to present the images I love to a big world without appearing exploitive or careless. And I am challenged to care when others do not.

Do you care about the image of your African American clients? If so, how? If not, dang, and read these books:

(We will revisit this subject later.)
Best, Robin
robin@thejstandard.com

Filed under: African Americans, Mass-Mediated Images, Public Relations, Stereotypes, , , , , , , , ,

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