We live in a media-saturated world and our brains are constantly influenced and bombarded by mass and popular culture media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and, of course, television. As N. Katherine Hayles has recently argued, we even read and think differently due to this saturation: “[W]e think through, with, and alongside media” (1). Indeed, our brains slowly may be merging with these media and creating (for better or worse) unique symbiotic fusions between wetware (our brain and its functioning), software, and hardware. This issue of MELUS examines how various media—novels and poetry, but also film, television, political cartoons, performance, freak shows, and music—impact the creation as well as the mediation of ethnicity. In general, mass media(s) in the past have tended to promote a reductive conception of ethnic identity, as several of these essays show. Yet does this have to be the case? Can media—and in particular, mass media—create new formulations of ethnicity that are more generative than confining? How does the presentation of ethnicity within various media(s) reshape our conceptualizations and comprehension of ethnicity itself?
Our issue begins with Elizabeth McNeil’s essay, “Un-‘Freak’ing Black Female Selfhood: Grotesque-Erotic Agency and Ecofeminist Unity in Sapphire’s Push.” Noting that black women’s bodies have been objectified and rendered grotesque in the past through the medium of the nineteenth-century freak show, McNeil posits that Sapphire’s controversial novel about a rape/incest survivor named Precious Jones—itself a media sensation, and made into a successful film—attempts to “un-‘freak’” this body through an erotic counter-agency that resides within female sexuality: “Asserting black female agency through her grotesque-erotic counternarrative, Sapphire furthers the literary project begun during slavery of confrontationally un-‘freak’ing black female bodies.” Push also links what McNeil calls the “grotesque-erotic” to spiritual empowerment, political resistance, and civic action. The freak show mediated ethnicity so that it was grotesque, but the form and content of Sapphire’s novel create new [End Page 5] paradigms for the mediation and remediation of black feminine sexuality and selfhood.
The themes of McNeil’s essay are complemented by the next piece in our issue, Marq Wilson’s “‘A Push out of Chaos’: An Interview with Sapphire,” in which Sapphire explains some of her motivations for writing Push. Sapphire writes for dual audiences—both the battered women she portrays and the academics who might understand the place of this novel in the tradition of African American women’s literature. Yet, as she states, not all people are interested in her novel:
After the novel was published, I had copies sent to prisons, literacy programs, and battered women’s shelters. I also sent copies to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to heads of university education departments. I sent a copy to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and to other prestigious and powerful people. The prestigious and powerful did not respond. . . . I wrote for both groups, all people, but all people were not equally interested in the book or the subjects that it delves into: poverty, literacy, early childhood education, HIV, child abuse, urban devastation, and food as abuse.
Yet given the recent increase in essays about the novel and the production of a movie based on it, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009), it would seem that at least some “prestigious and powerful” individuals have become aware of its message as it has proliferated into new media.
The next essay in this issue also illustrates that the most effective medium is not always a socially empowered one—and that sometimes empowerment works through circuitous means. In “The Art of Intervention: The Humor of Sojourner Truth and the Antebellum Political Cartoon,” Ellen J. Goldner examines how the medium of the political cartoon influences Sojourner Truth’s rhetorical style. Sojourner Truth has become an icon for many different political movements, and some have questioned whether mass media’s appropriation of her image serves anything but its own ends. Goldner argues that Truth was aware that she had...