Professor examines image of black male body

Cassandra Jackson, associate professor of English, gave a presentation called ‘Violence, Visual Culture and the Black Male Body,’ reading from her book of the same name, during last week’s Brown Bag Series. (Janika Berridge / Staff Photographer)

Visuals of violence inflicted on black males wasn’t only the topic of Thursday afternoon’s discussion. It is also the subject of associate professor of English Cassandra Jackson’s book and the vision behind the art gallery featured in the Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building.

Cassandra Jackson emphasized imagery during her lecture on Thursday, April 7, which was the latest installment of the Brown Bag Series. She focused on figures from modern rap culture.

As she stood on the stage in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall, Jackson began with an excerpt from her book.

Reading from her book’s opening “gives a sense of where the project comes from, but also a sense of where I’m coming from with this project,” she said, explaining how she first was inspired to explore the topic when she learned of her uncle’s escape from a lynching in 1956.

She began to question her own connection to the violent past of our society, that although it seems to be behind us, still resonates in our culture, especially through current images in the realm of hip-hop rappers.

One image in particular stood out as influential for Jackson. A 19th century visual of a vulnerable male slave, with scars across his back, is what she classified as probably the most circulated image of the abolitionist movement.

She spoke of the “intersection of the photo as a commodity, and the slave body as a commodity,” describing the “erotic indications” of the image, as it provides intimate access to his body, she said, by showing us his back that even he is unable to see.

The conversation became contemporary as Jackson projected pictures of 50 Cent and Nas on the screen, drawing similarities between Nas’ untitled album cover from 2008 and the very image that she first showed of the whip-scarred slave.

“Why is Nas, this millionaire rapper, embedding his body in this complicated history?” she asked.

She explained the story behind Nas’ scarred back, where an “N” is made out of lash marks. According to Jackson, the rapper originally wanted to name his album “Nigger,” to convey how the word has affected him and what it means in his life.

When he was discouraged from using this as the title, he found a new way to convey the very same message of a racially scarred past; the end result was the photo that Jackson shared.

Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, has been shot nine times, and Jackson views him as important because he has “repeatedly visually reenacted his own attempted murder” and doesn’t shy away from discussing violence.

He has been quoted as saying that he wants people to look at his body’s ability to heal and remember the wounds of those who never were able to heal, Jackson explained.

Throughout the lecture, Jackson also brought up the trend of rappers portraying themselves in religious reenacments, like Kanye West posing as Christ in crucifixion images on the cover of Rolling Stone and Nas being on a cross in his “Hate Me Now” music video.

When speaking of her subjects, she said, “I was particularly interested in who had popular audiences and who causes the most controversy.”

The underlying message of the discussion was a focus on the fact that violence has become a part of the black male identity, as Jackson aimed to address the “legacy of a violent, racial past that still shapes us.”

Jamie Primeau can be reached at primeau2@tcnj.edu.