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  • Teaching Analysis and Agency Using Racist and Sexist Imagery: Implications for Cultural Studies in the College Classroom
  • Donna J. Nicol (bio)


Black Women in America is an upper-division elective course for students majoring in African American or women’s studies at California State University Fullerton (CSUF). Students can also take the course for general education credit (GEC) to fulfill the disciplinary learning requirement in the social sciences category. I have taught this course at CSUF at least once a year since 2002 and have changed the course readings, lectures, and assignments on a regular basis. In April 2007, however, when American radio personality Don Imus created a national controversy by referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team, whose players were predominantly Black, as a group of “nappy-headed hos,” I was provoked to completely overhaul my approach to teaching this course. It was clear that my students did not fully understand the complicated cultural issues raised by Imus’s comments. This article describes how I incorporated visual images of Black women in media and culture to help my students challenge narrow, false, and distorted depictions of Black women’s daily lives. It further explains my intellectual rationale for the particular course goals, objectives, and pedagogical tools I took up using a three-pronged approach to cultural studies analysis. Finally, this article showcases some of my students’ work, which demonstrates how students can use their analytical skills to promote Black women’s agency.

A Shock Jock Transforms the Classroom

The class debate pertaining to Imus’s comments pitted students against one another. One group voiced outrage over the commentary while others felt that the public should just expect radio “shock jocks” like Imus to say something provocative and controversial. As I facilitated the discussion between the two groups, I asked students who were clearly upset about the racial aspects of Imus’s comments why this was their primary concern. Comments ranged from “saying someone is nappy-headed IS [emphasis mine] racist” to “when Imus talked about the other team, Tennessee, he said they were all cute . . . as if being cute is not a reality for Black women.” I probed further [End Page 89] and asked, “Where is the outrage over the use of the term ‘ho’? Why aren’t all the women in this room upset about that?” After an uneasy silence, I continued. “Little, if any, attention is paid to the fact that Imus insulted all women on the team when he referred to the group as ‘hos,’ but because he prefaced his misogyny with the racial qualifier of ‘nappy-headed,’ I suppose many people believe he was only reserving his insult specifically for Black women. Are Black women not women too?”

Unable to Make the Case for the “Hottentot Venus”

After the heated debates over Imus’s comments died down, I took a closer look at the content of the course. I concluded that I needed to spend more class time focusing on the representation of Black women’s bodies and sexuality in popular culture. The old ideologies about Black women as aggressive, lustful, and unlady-like were simply being remanufactured and presented as fact in film, television, and media in general. As hesitant as I was about focusing the course on “sexuality feminism” and body politics, I found it necessary to meet the students where they were. For many of my students, their only interactions with Black women have been through television (primarily “reality” shows) and music videos. I was curious to find out what types of assumptions and beliefs students had about Black women’s daily lives if their interactions with these women were limited to the imagery presented on television, movies, and music videos.

Equipped with a newly revised set of readings and assignments, including Janell Hobson’s Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, I started the Fall 2007 term by telling the students that we would be exploring the economic, political, and social position of Black women in America, paying particular attention to how issues of body and sexual politics positively and negatively impact societal views of Black women, as well as Black women’s self-perceptions. (Hobson...


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pp. 89-107
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