Cassandra Jackson, an associate professor of English at the College, understands the power of imagery — it was a single image that inspired her to write an entire book.
While she was on fellowship at Harvard Jackson went to the Peabody Museum to look at Louis Agassiz’s small, 3” x 5 inch” daguerreotypes, early forms of photography, which were held in a small glass case. Jackson recalled experiencing a strange sensation when she saw her own image reflected over the images from antebellum slavery, as if it were cast over top of it. It was in this moment that Jackson began contemplating the relationship between literature and photography.
“When I started, I was just looking at stuff,” she said. “It started with the image of a whip-scarred slave that was popularly distributed as part of the abolitionist movement. Then I ran across images of 50 Cent and started thinking about the intersection between the past and present. Why would contemporary black men be representing themselves this way? What is this saying about our history?”
Jackson recently published her second book “Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body,” in which she explores past images of black males victimized by violence and examines their influence in today’s society.
“I was interested in thinking about the ways in which images of violated black men have reverberated in our culture,” Jackson said. In her book, she focuses on the “whip-scarred slaves from the 19th century and bullet-riddled rappers from the 20th century.”
“I wanted to think critically about how this particular figure operates and its way of policing black men and their masculinity,” she said. “This image has permeated our culture and has become a part of it.”
She explained how today it is unsurprising to hear about black rappers being shot, and how violence against black males has become viewed as a norm.
“I was fascinated in the previous election when Obama was running for president and a number of publications discussed fear of him being assassinated,” she said. “Here we are in the 21st century, and there has to be this fear? Why is the inevitable result of his success violence against him?”
Such thoughts stuck with Jackson as the writing project, which started with a focus on 19th-century photography, evolved into something greater.
She also perused the photography collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.
It is not uncommon for rappers to emphasize how many times they have been shot or select images for magazine and album covers that depict themselves as victims of racial violence. Examples that she explores in her book include a Nas album cover where he has scarring across his back, which is eerily similar to the 19th-century slave photos.
“It’s a book about visual culture, and how we see and how that impacts and shapes ideology,” Jackson said. “A lot of the images (in the book) are grizzly. I included lynching photography. I had to think carefully about why I was writing about violence and I had the realization that an incident from when I was a little girl influenced this reserach.”
Delving into her own familial past, Jackson shared the story that played an integral role in inciting her interest.
“I had an uncle in St. Louis who I used to visit in the summer. It was always strange to me because my uncle was not an urban person. He wanted to always go fishing and seemed so out of place,” she said.
Through a discussion with her mother, Jackson learned that her uncle had been convicted of breaking miscegenation laws because he was in a relationship with a white woman in Alabama in the mid-1950s. Mobs formed and his life was in jeopardy after the woman admitted to loving him. He had no choice but to escape to St. Louis.
“I found myself wondering how many stories of black migration weren’t just about having a better life, but were about staying alive,” she said. “I was living with the trauma of that hanging over my family, and it has a lot to do with why I focused on these images. The history felt close to me. With this (book), I was working through that experience.”
Her family’s past was not the only catalyst in the book’s creation.
“Teaching and writing have become inseparable for me. They intersect at every level. The biggest influence on this book was the capstone courses of the English department. I’ve taught Violence, Visuality, and Race. So many conversations in that course have shaped my way of thinking about the violence and images,” Jackson said. “When writing, sometimes I thought to myself, ‘What would my class think?’ ”
Initially, Jackson was concerned about showing such horrific images to students and in her book. She worried that, in a way, she was perpetuating the violence.
Through speaking with her class, she attained reassurance and confidence in the fact that these photographs were necessary subjects of discussion.
“I took the students’ responses seriously, and it showed me that the images demanded intellectual investigation,” she said. “Had it not been for the experiences teaching when writing the book, it would have been an entirely different book. Or there may have not been a book.”