I’d like to start out by laying out a few background statements to take for granted in the interest of time. First, that Serena Williams is a remarkable figure in terms of dominance, significance, and public profile in the sport of tennis. Second, that Williams’ outsized public profile has largely been mediated by photography. And that these photographs have existed within an environment of toxic discourse on Williams’ appearance, in a pattern mirroring that of such other prominent black women as Michelle Obama and Leslie Jones.
I’ve been a Public Enemy fan for a long, long time. They were one of my primary gateways into hiphop. Loved the production, the politics, the interplay between Chuck’s and Flav’s voices, the whole package. And the aesthetic. Let’s not kid ourselves, Public Enemy has a very distinct aesthetic.
It’s a very militaristic aesthetic. Uniforms, military signifiers, a lot of berets. The guys in the berets, of course, are the S1Ws (for “Security of the First World” in PE parlance). Theoretically, they’re PE’s security force. Functionally, they dance at shows and look cool at press events.
Anyway, Public Enemy is a smart band and Chuck D is a smart guy in particular. This isn’t random. This resonant look came from somewhere. It’s naggingly familiar.
It’s naggingly familiar because it’s pretty much a direct visual quote of the distinct aesthetic of the Black Panthers. It’s clearly not an accident.
The Panthers, for what it’s worth, were very savvy about the use of imagery. They were great at mass communication; I’ve seen some fascinating presentations about their use of visual art in their newspaper.
So, OK. A militant rap group borrowed some visual tropes from a militant political group. So what?
Well, the interesting thing is that the Panthers pretty clearly borrowed a lot of elements of their look – the military signifiers, the regimentation – from the Nation of Islam. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know who the Nation of Islam are; if you don’t, they’re a major combination Black nationalist/religious group. They have supporters and detractors, but you can’t really minimize their importance in the history of 20th century America.
And here’s where it gets really interesting… the Nation of Islam, in their turn, clearly borrowed a lot of their imagery from Marcus Garvey, the pioneering pan-Africanist / Black nationalist who was active in the early part of the 20th century.
These pictures of Garvey are from 1924. The one on the right was taken by James Vanderzee, a prominent Harlem photographer.
So, OK, we can trace this thread of visual signifiers for Black militancy back to the 1920s. What of it?
Well, here are some paintings of heroes of the Haitian revolution, the only successful rebellion by African slaves. Pretty obvious thing to hearten back to if you’re Marcus Garvey.
Pictured above, we have Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Cristophe. Those uniforms look a lot like the uniform Marcus Garvey was wearing, which of course inspired everything after.
(By the way, do Michael Jackson’s bedazzled military uniforms make more sense now? They should)
So… Public Enemy is old news. Barely a band now. What does this have to do with today?
Well, Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show wasn’t that long ago.
And that freaked some people right the fuck out.
This imagery is obviously still present, and still powerful.