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Don’t Blame the Strawberries…

As a native Louisianian, I appreciate a good festival. Spring or fall, if you’re in the mood for parades and throws, street dancing and live music, arts and crafts and cuisine, you’ll find them in abundance at any of a number of small-town festivals around the state. Many of the festivals celebrate the local agriculture industries, which assures you of divine one-of-a-kind culinary pleasures that highlight the labor of the local farm.

I grew up in New Iberia, home of the Sugarcane Festival. It’s held at the end of September, which coincides with my birthday, so I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the festival that seemed to celebrate all that sweet about me! ūüėȬ†Now that I’m older, though, I appreciate the local flavor of these festivals more and more, and the rapidity with which we can share our experiences in local contexts on a larger stage through social media means that more and more people have the chance to come into contact with pockets of my home state they may not otherwise experience.

Of course, when this is the image that represents a pocket, I temper my enthusiasm.

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In this image you see the royalty and, I presume, planners for the 2015 Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival at the unveiling of this year’s festival poster. The poster was designed by¬†Kalle Siekkinen, an artist from Southern Louisiana who works primarily in recycled materials and claims Bill Hemmerling, a Chicago native who moved to Pontchatoula and found inspiration in the local culture,¬†as his primary influence and inspiration. i say these things so that you can understand that I understand that there is a lineage at play here and an artist who is making the art he feels compelled to make. Having said that…

Festival posters are not single objects. They are commercial products, designed to represent the festival in question. They are collectors items, produced in mass quantity and sold to people who wish to frame them and display them in their homes. The official poster design shows up frequently on official t-shirts, postcards, stickers, programs. It’s an advertisement that doubles as art, and getting a¬†talented local artist to design your poster is a way to celebrate the local culture, a marriage of the thing the festival celebrates and the area that celebrates it. I love festival posters, although I don’t collect them; I appreciate the care that committees and communities take to support local artists and to honor their work.

Having said that, I can neither support nor defend this image for many of the same reasons I’m still trying to calm down from the sight yesterday of this one:

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This image appeared on the cover of a continuing education catalog¬†distributed to the community surrounding¬†the University of North Georgia. The brochure advertises community education classes, and the copy surrounding the image (which I believe may be¬†a stock photo) gives you the message the University likely intended to portray: the idea that attending courses offered through this program would better prepare you to win the race for success. There is, of course, outcry over this image, and for good reason; if you need an explication of the image to help you see the problem, leave a comment and I’ll oblige the first request. I trust, though, that you can see the issue for yourself.

In the course of two days, then, I’ve seen two outrageously inappropriate uses of imagery to support what should be positive community enterprises, and I just keep asking myself: how does this keep happening? These are the two today, but I have no doubt that two or twenty or two hundred more will surface or are out there waiting to be found if I’m willing to do a quick google search. At the most basic level of institutional image and self-preservation, why are people in the positions to produce, select, and distribute these images not rhetorically aware enough to at least anticipate that someone in the target audience might be so negatively put off as to harness the awesome power of the internet to expose their organization to undesired anger and ridicule?

Which is not to downplay the really serious issue about these images as representations of organizational mission/character–if you know me, you know that I am outraged by these images because they perpetuate negative stereotypes and reinforce racist perceptions. Representation MATTERS on so many levels, and being attentive to your representational choices is a critical element of being an effective communicator because I, as your audience, don’t want to listen to anything you have to say if the first thing you do is hurt me or those I love.

It’s not enough, though, to simply represent.¬†Simple representation is what’s happening here: there are black people and women in these two images, aren’t there? I’ve read many responses online to both images, and I’ve read an equal number of laudatory and condemnatory remarks. Those who condemn–well, let’s not waste our time on that. Those who laud? Their arguments range from the sublime (these are artistic or thoughtful creations that celebrate the beauty of the human spirit) to the ridiculous (this type of art is hot right now!) to the strange (don’t you see that the image is actually exposing the way the world really works, that black men and white women are held back in our society, and that the University is acknowledging reality?). There’s also a healthy amount of colorblindness at work (I just see two beautiful children enjoying their strawberries!). Simple minds. Simple representation.

You want to depict black children enjoying strawberries for your festival poster? Go right ahead, but don’t forget that there are entirely reasonable responses to the visual equations:

Black children/people + agriculture = slavery

Very dark skinned black people + very red lips = pickanninies

And for the UNG image:

Black man stumbling + white woman running behind + 2 white guys in suits reaching the finish line nearly simultaneously = a pretty good celebration of white male privilege

Pictures are worth 1000 words. I’ve just passed that mark on this post, and I could go on and on and on, but I won’t. This isn’t the last time we’ll see some employment of these simple representations, and I anticipate that each subsequent employment by whoever is up next for a bit of #representationfail will elicit the same simple supportive arguments that I’ve been reading for the last couple of days, months, years…you get the picture.

Demand better representation, especially from those organizations and communities with which you engage. Just because folks are your neighbors or work colleagues doesn’t mean they get a pass because you know they “don’t mean that.” Chasing after the authentically local is fine, but ask yourself if what is authentic to your locality is healthy or respectful for all of your neighbors. Don’t celebrate your history to the extent that you are willfully blind to your past.

Images trigger stories in our hearts and minds; shouldn’t the ones we invite be the most complex and humane we can conjure?

3 thoughts on “Don’t Blame the Strawberries…”

  1. Like you, I was appalled at this image! Being a resident of Ponchatoula for 39 years, this will be the first time ever my family & I will not be going and never will again!!! Mayor Zabbia and the Festival planners (which are lily white) have lost their damn minds!!! This is disgusting! By the way my great aunt was the ONLY black farmer in Ponchatoula with a strawberry field and had WHITE pickers! Go look it up, she’s the only black on the memorial………

  2. I just don’t believe in this day and age this foolishness is still going on but I know it does. What were they thinking to use this negative depiction of African Americans for their festival image. They have lost their minds down there and not expect any negative backlash really? Anita, I love your article thanks for writing it i’m standing in agreement with you. Peace and Love

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