Negative Times a Negative Equals a Positive:Turning Racial Art Into Symbols of Hope and Power

For my American History class, I had to write a short paper and give a presentation on something I read about Black History. I read a neat book called Betye Saar: In Service: A Version of Survival that I found very interesting.

Also, I though it would be neat to include the paper here for people to read.

Let me know what you think.

To find the original source of this photo, click here. 

There is a great deal of derogatory images exhibiting African Americans in the past, presented as icons like “mammies,” “uncles,” and “picaninnies.” These images, in 19th century America, could be found almost everywhere: Toothpaste ads, the media, cigarette boxes, and a number of other advertisements. “20th century white audiences,” writes Collins, “have no idea who “mammy” [and other icons] was.” (5). While reading the book Betye Saar: In Service: A Version of Survival, Collins tells the story of artist Betye Saar, pulling these images from obscurity and giving them a new, more positive twist.

For instance, Collins tells a story about several pieces of art found in Saar’s work. One, in particular, has shopping list boards of “mammies” who think shortly, with a confused demeanor, asking themselves, “We wants today,” “We needs,” and “Oh! I needs?’ The “mammies,” representing African American women, were supposed to represent the supposedly dumb, unsophisticated attitudes of African Americans who are only thinking of the task at hand and nothing else. Sarr, however, gives these degrading shopping boards a positive twist, with the word presented in front, “Equality.” Saar, Collins suggests, is saying that “each mammy really needs is recognition and equality for herself but these rights are not listed as options” (Collins 7). In this example, Saar successfully turns what was meant to be a degrading iconic images of  the “negro race” into an enlightening form of “black power” and fights for freedom.

In another interesting example, Saar presents an image of nicely dressed African American servants, waiting on their customers working for a hotel. Six of them are standing, one sitting, dressed nicely, wearing white gloves, patiently waiting on their customers. The icon is framed in a beautiful type of wood with a dark stain. The images were likely created to impress white folk who want to stay at a fancy hotel. Betye, Collins considers, that Saar says that they are not merely waiting on customers, but that they are “waiting” (i.e. patience) for an opportunity for better circumstances. “The “waiters” wait for their freedom from having to wait on someone else and wait for better opportunities in the workforce. As waiters, these men lived to serve and to provide others with physical comfort. Yet this position did not necessarily compromise their dignity” (Collins 5). Yet, another fascinating twist presented by Saar. Instead of, once more, presenting slanderous representations of African Americans, Saar presents distinguished men hoping for better circumstances. “Waiting” for their own fortune and their own glory.

To conclude, Saar took  racial art works of 19th century America that were meant to be belittling and derogatory, and turns them into symbols and images of “black power.” “Visual images are very powerful in establishing how we perceive ourselves and in Betye Saar’s art, through quick wit and manipulation, derogatory images are flipped into images of power.” (Collins 7). Saar successfully creates meaningful art that represents freedom and redemption. Perhaps people, black or white, can learn from Saar’s positive twists of reality: Turning horrible situations into moments of peace, hopes for redemption, and other glorious truths.


Works Cited

Collins, Lizzetta and Betye Saar. Betye Saar: In Service: A Version of Survival. New York:                       Michael Rosenfield Gallary, 2000.



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