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  • On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination by Nicole R. Fleetwood
  • Rachel Brunner (bio)
Fleetwood, Nicole R. On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2015.

Nicole R. Fleetwood's On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination is a concise examination of the ways society and the media have iconized and vilified photographic representations of black Americans. Fleetwood's primary concern is with public interpretation of the "signifying" quality of racial images, and she questions the "representation currency" of these images in relation to historical documentation, and how they are perceived as means of understanding the current political, social, and cultural portrayals of minorities, specifically African Americans. As Fleetwood notes: "On Racial Icons is a meditation on how we—as a broad American public—fixate on certain images of race and nation, specifically the black icon" (1). Fleetwood's examination of current public figures, such as President Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin, celebrities such as Diana Ross, and sports figures like LeBron James and Serena Williams, demonstrates how photographic / visual media representation both conflicts with and shapes our understanding of the complexity of race and the public production, circulation, and interpretation of images.

Fleetwood begins her introduction to On Racial Icons by identifying her personal connection to the topic saying: „From early on, I was aware that my experience of being a young black girl was one of living in relationship to images of blackness and black subjects that circulated broadly in the public sphere" (1). This recognition of the way images are disseminated, as well as how they influence public perception of people of color, is the crux of Fleetwood's analysis, and establishes ethos, which is an opportunity that the author feels has been lacking. As she notes, "My hope is that this inquiry provides an opportunity to think with readers about race, nation, and American public culture through photographic representation" (2). In order to set the stage for such an inquiry, Fleetwood connects her "case study" to a "rich body of scholarship, art, and criticism on race and visual culture," and provides readers with a brief historical framework through which [End Page 101] she examines specific imagery (2). Fleetwood suggests that "the images chosen here are not simply supplements or illustrations of race but are part of the production and circulation of the racial narrative of this country" (3). Fleetwood challenges both production and circulation by examining how the public venerates or devalues black individuals based upon their media portrayals.

Prior to immersing readers in a close examination of four "types" of famous (or infamous) racial icons, Fleetwood provides a history of the concept of iconography, noting the term's religious roots and shifting connotations in the public sphere. As she puts it:

At moments, the icon connotes a commonsense usage: a notable public person who represents a set of attributes, traits, or talents valued by a given society. In popular culture, the icon often refers to a celebrity with staying power. In the arenas of politics and civil society, the icon tends to refer to a charismatic leader, a dedicated advocate, or a fearless trailblazer. In visual theory, the icon is an image, like a photographic representation, imbued with significant social and symbolic meaning, so much so that it needs little explication for the cultural reader to decode it. The icon in contemporary culture carries multiple meanings, but I contend that there remains the trace of worship and that the icon continues to gesture toward the sacred.


Fleetwood notes the way different sectors influence perception, and suggests that these differences are apparent in the reception and interpretation of these "iconic photographs." Although the term "icon" has been used in conjunction with such imagery before, the religiously-tinged "veneration" of such images is less typical, and it challenges the way viewers grapple with the production and circulation of such images. Fleetwood incorporates Robert Hairman and John Louis Lucaites' definition of icon as an image that is "widely recognized and remembered" and which has been "reproduced across a range of media" (9). Fleetwood's choice of images for her case study fit this definition, exemplifying the shifting...


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pp. 101-104
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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