#WeAllDeserveArts: Dena Robinson, Video Team Teacher and DEI Facilitator at Wide Angle Youth Media

#WeAllDeserveArts: Students deserve arts education now more than ever

July 31, 2020

On Making an Anti-Racist World Irresistible

Growing up, weekends were my favorite. I’d wake up to the smell of blueberry pancakes or my favorite, french toast. Every Saturday morning, we used Aunt Jemima syrup, a bottle with a happy-looking Black woman with a curly ‘fro. I used to smile and think “wow, she looks like me.”

About a decade later, I would feel ashamed.  When I was in college, my friends and I used to poke fun at one another – all in good spirits.  One day, a friend of color said “you look like Aunt Jemima with that scarf on your head.” My stomach dropped. And though I didn’t let on, I felt . . . ugly.  I shared that story recently in a Facebook post and was told by a white woman that I should be “honored” that a Black woman was hired to portray the original Aunt Jemima. Presumably, Aunt Jemima represents me. Here is why she doesn’t. 

In high school I learned that Aunt Jemima was a racist caricature steeped in white supremacist stereotypes. Aunt Jemima was a “mammy,” usually depicted as a dark-skinned, overweight Black woman, wearing a headwrap and shawl. Mammies worked for white families and were devoted to them. This is one of the most enduring racist stereotypes in this country’s history.  One need look no further than The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone With the Wind (1939) to see a Black mammy, an overweight, domestic, Black woman, fighting Black and Union soldiers whom she believed would threaten the white family she would die to protect. Because of white supremacy, for decades, Black women have been trapped in white people’s imaginations.

This historical context matters. When Hattie McDaniel, a Black woman, became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award, it was for depicting a mammy in Gone with the Wind.  Seven decades later, Octavia Spencer, who has played a mammy 21 times, would win an Oscar for her role in The Help. This caricature first peaked between 1906 and 1912, when white Americans longed for the days of slavery.  During this time, other racist caricatures came into being — the Sambo, the Jezebel, and the Sapphire. The Mammy was a maternal figure who justified the use of slavery. Mammies loved the white families they took care of. Mammies did not complain about being enslaved, they loved it so much they would not fight back or run to freedom.

What’s ironic is that it is highly likely that mammies did not exist. That’s right, mammies were a figment of the white imagination. Despite that, mammies have very real consequences for Black women. For instance, it is virtually impossible for a Black woman to have a career in the film industry without portraying a mammy first. I am not honored that a Black woman was hired to portray Aunt Jemima originally because that very image is rooted in racist tropes that continue to harm Black women today. We can change this reality. 

What does this have to do with you? Toni Cade Bambara, a Black feminist writer and organizer teaches us that “[t]he role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Do we as artists, writers, creatives, and media-makers have a responsibility to use our gifts to dream ourselves into an anti-racist future? Yes, we do.

Artists have the power to either perpetuate damaging narratives or to-re-vision new ones. Artists, especially musicians, have provided fuel for anti-racist movements. The American story of racism and white supremacy is really a story about narrative – it is a story about people dreaming themselves into the future at the exclusion of others. Art has primed folx to believe that Black people are dangerous, that Black people are ugly and undesirable, and that Black people should be feared. It does not have to be this way.

How will you use your art as a vehicle for anti-racism and how will you make an anti-racist revolution irresistible?

Dena Robinson is a queer, Jewish, first-generation Black woman. She serves as the Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. Appellate Advocacy Fellow at the Public Justice Center and as a Video Team teacher and DEI Facilitator at Wide Angle Youth Media. In Fall 2020, Dena will join the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division as a Trial Attorney through the Attorney General’s Honors Program. 

Dena graduated cum laude from the University of Maryland, Carey School of Law, with a certificate in health care law.  
She has built her career working at the intersections of race, gender, trauma, poverty, and education and spent several years in high school and college organizing around school lunch, HIV/AIDs healthcare access, and campus sexual assault. Dena also holds an M.S.Ed. from The Johns Hopkins University.  Before law school, Dena was an ESOL Educator and community organizer. Dena is the co-founder of Radical Roots, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Facilitation and Consulting practice. Radical Roots’ work 
spans the corporate and non-profit sectors where she has facilitated conversations for companies like Netflix as well as non-profit boards, staff, students, and community members.

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