When art discussion comes up there is always the question posed of subjectivity and if you can take a work out of its context. We know when looking at Betye Saar’s work that this is not possible. Her works are largely based on her personal history, the historical period she grew up in, and her heritage. Betye Saar was born in Los Angeles in 1926 and became “a part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s, which engaged myths and stereotypes about race and femininity.” (wiki ***replace with scholarly and put in own words) Betye Saar’s works, backboned by her identity as a black woman growing up through the Civil Rights Era, calls American viewers to take a deeper look at their racist history and examine the future of black liberation, which she does by employing symbolism, intertextuality and creating adjustments to these references.
Betye Saar’s The Weight of Color requires Americans to look at how historically they oppressed African Americans even after slavery through the use of Jim Crow laws. Betye Saar created The Weight of Color in 2008, many years after the Civil Rights Act. However, she grew up in America as an African American when Jim Crow laws were still in place. Her identity in this way is the backbone of this piece and many of her other works. She felt the weight of the burden of Jim Crow laws first hand and when you bring the title into analysis she felt the “weight of color,” how being black in America meant carrying around a burden that you constantly had to fight to survive, let alone flourish.
Betye Saar requires Americans to look back at the use of Jim Crow laws in the subordination of black Americans by employing symbolism and intertextuality. The Weight of Color is a sculptural piece that consists of three main components: at the bottom is an old rusted weight scale, on top of that a cage with a stuffed black crow inside and the uppermost element is a mammy figurine. In Betye Saar’s piece she uses symbolism through the use of the stuffed crow, cage, and weight scale. The crow is much to large to fit in such a small cage, the beak pokes out through the bars in the top and the legs fork unnaturally to each side. The crow is used as a symbol for the Jim Crow laws, created in late 19th and early 20th century, these laws were to enforce segregation, continuing the systematic oppression of African Americans. Courtney Jordan, the online editor of American Artists articulates how the use of the cage on top of the scale shows how “the burden of the Jim Crow laws are forever being weighed,” (PG #). What Jordan means by this statement is that the cage being “weighed” by the scale is Saars way of symbolizes how Jim Crow laws not only caused segregation but they also kept blacks in a place of oppression, and those effects have resulted in blacks being at a state of disadvantage that is not reversible in any near future. This symbolism Saar created, of the burden of Jim Crow laws being never-endingly weight, also points to how American’s need to acknowledge the beliefs these laws perpetuated have bore their way into the American psyche, resulting in long-lasting racist beliefs towards blacks and in turn negative effects on African American’s own ideas of self. (go more into history and explain how these laws put them at disadvantage?) Saar continues this symbolism by choosing a cage too small for the crow and positioning the crow in an uncomfortable way to show how these laws were constraining and meant to hold blacks in this subordinate place where slavery started. The door to the cage is open minimally but has an oversized padlock, which Jordan believes, “is likely a reference to the false promise of the ‘separate but equal’ laws that offered blacks the semblance of equality but in reality provided nothing of the kind,” (PG #). Through this symbolism, Saar is asking the American viewers to look deeper into our past to discover the truth. Many believe that with the abolition of slavery, blacks had freedom and equality and that Jim Crow laws maintained “equality” but just continued separation. Saar’s use of he slight opening of the cage door combined with the heavy lock show how the Jim Crow laws didn’t actual provide equality, but instead restricted blacks to public facilities that weren’t as good as the ones allotted to whites, putting blacks behind whites on the road to success.
Saar employs intertextuality in The Weight of Color through the use of a Mammy figurine to get Americans to look at their creation of stereotype and the burden these resulted in for the blacks that had to live under a society perpetuated by the myths these stereotypes created. Cartoons started in the 1940s and these images continued to shape Americans’ feelings about race. The Black Mammy, a figure of the south, emerged as a defense of slavery. The Black Mammy was depicted as a fat, pitch-black woman who was happily obedient to her master. She was pictured as a docile, loyal, protector of the house, (Ethic Notions). “The mammy figure that sits atop the cage is much like the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back. Not only did black Americans at one time have to exist under the yoke of the Jim Crow laws, they also lived in a society where racist images and caricatures of blacks, like the mammy, had to be shouldered every day.” (Jordan #). What Jordan is alluding to here is how blacks have to constantly fight against the myths that were created from these stereotypes. However, without knowledge of the history of this figurine the message Saar is trying to convey with this intertextual reference would fall short. By employing intertextuality in this way Saar is requiring the viewer to find the true history that encompasses this figurine and question the reality of the stereotype and myth that insued from its creation. Saar continued to employ this intertextual reference of the Mammy and other racist stereotypes in much of her work.
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Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is dependent on intertextual knowledge of The Mammy, in the form of Aunt Jemima, continuing to make Americans look at how historically they oppressed blacks through racial myths and stereotypes. Saar’s repetition of the commercialized image of Aunt Jemima, in conjunction with the Mammy figurine makes American viewers not only take a deeper look into the history of racial myths and stereotypes but also question their presence within modern culture and our psyche. In the background of this piece Saar has created a wallpapering of pancake labels featuring their poster figure, Aunt Jemima; in conjunction with The Mammy figurine the viewer is required to draw the connection between the two. Kellie Jones, art historian, described the significance of the Aunt Jemima dissemination in the following way: “The wide circulation of derogatory images in advertising and popular culture established Aunt Jemima as the personification of the “cook, servant, mammy” of hospitality that are redolent of southern climes. Her joy of serving bespeaks love and devotion to the old South and its masters and is emblematic of nostalgia and fantasy for a status quo where the black servant signifies white luxury and power,” ( 113). What Jones is brining to light here is how Aunt Jemima’s modernized domestic role is an embodiment of the stereotype of the mammy, one happy in domestic devotion to masters. And this in turn is signifying that whites are the ones in a place of power and higher status and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Saar putting Aunt Jemima as a wallpaper background behind an actual Mammy figuring requires viewers to look at how this Aunt Jemima character was created and question the repercussions of it being reproduced so widely. With the use of repetition of these labels, indicating frequent broadcasting, Saar requires you to look even deeper into the popularity of images based in racial myths and stereotypes, how they were connected to consumerism, and how they have passed into modern culture and psyche. Ellen Tani, art historian, curator, and critic verbalized this issue, “…production of images and material goods that compressed the complicated landscape of black subjectivity into instantly recognizable physical types-Sambo, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, pickaninnies-satisfied a known consumer demand. Such demand abetted the persistent misrepresentation of black people in visual culture as exaggerated stereotypes,” (#). Tani is pointing out here how the consumer supply and demand of these stereotypes resulted in the continual misrepresentation of black people, and this misrepresentation can have a lot of negative effects. Saar grew up in a time where these physical stereotypes were widely present so she is drawing on her own personal history of struggling against them while creating a call to Americans to look into a past that we often choose to ignore.
Betye Saar’s employs adjustments of these intertextual references in her works to make American viewers not only look at the oppression and racism within their history but also examine the future of black and women’s liberation. “By manipulating the figure’s context and accoutrements, Saar repositioned the stereotype to allow for its liberation,” (“Old And New Negroes” 150). One way Betye Saar in The Liberation of Aunt Jemima adjusts the Mammy figurine is by inserting a postcard into the skirt which depicts a black woman holding a mixed-race child, making viewers question the history of sexual assault that white man enacted on black slaves. The Mammy figure was depicted as fat and with no sexual allure and was “presented almost as the antithesis of white lady… does not have the qualities of fragility and beauty which would make her valued in society,” (Ethnic Notions). This was done so because if the mammy was pictured as sexual then she would have been a threat to the mistress of home, and therefore a threat to the entire slavery system. However, the reality is oftentimes masters did desire slaves who worked in the house and many raped them, sometime producing offspring. Saar’s choice to put a postcard in of a woman holding a mixed-race child, “draws attention to the longstanding history of sexual abuse of black women and the black domestic worker’s uncomfortable proximity to the white male.” (“Old and New Negroes” 151). By using this postcard Saar opens our eyes to the history that men were often the aggressors of black women, not the other way around, breaking two common stereotypes: that black woman are sexless, and that they are also somehow dirty sexual deviants.
Betye Saar in The Liberation of Aunt Jemima also adjusts the Mammy figurine to holding guns as a way to take back this stereotype and change the future of its liberation. The figurine was originally meant to be a paperweight that holds a pencil, indicative of it being a very popular commercialized archetype. Saar instead fixes a rifle where the pencil should be and adds a pistol under the other arm that is holding the broom. The addition of guns gives this figure the power, turning into the revolutionary figure. Saar endowing this figure with power breaks the idea that woman of the past were powerless, subservient beings, and happy to be in that role. Betye Saar herself describes this transformation as one from “a negative, demeaning figure into a positive, empowered woman who stands confrontationally with one hand holding a broom and the other armed for battle. A warrior ready to combat servitude and racism,” (“Old and New Negroes” 149). The use of a shotgun and a pistol can also hint to slavery being a violent past that Americans need to look at, and how some slaves did rebel against their masters. By making this physical representation of a stereotype of black woman into a symbol of power, Saar is altering the meaning behind the character – showing that women weren’t happy in these domestic servitude positions and aren’t happy with the stereotypes that continue this myth. Saar shows us how simple adjustments can change the meaning of an intertextual reference, allowing it to be reclaimed, in this case for the future liberation of women – freeing them from this misconstrued ideal of domesticity and servitude.
In The Liberation of Aunt Jemima Betye Saar also adjusts the image to have a collaged black power fist, questioning the myth of black woman being powerless and turning the image into a symbol of black strength. On the postcard, baby swaddling fabric is hung over a picket fence, but Saar has collaged on top a black power fist, creating a literal visualization of black power and strength covering up the powerless, household role. “As Black Studies scholar George Lipsitz notes… “In her creative reconfiguration of racist images, Saar encourages reconciliation with previous generations for whom segregation contained and constrained the dignity and self-activity of Blacks” (Castro 167). What Lipsitz means here is Saar is helping previous generations take control of their dignity and power, and heal the wounds that segregation had caused to them. As Deborah Willis understands it, Saar is “reinterpreting the working-class woman” through her pieces,” (#). Willis is alluding to how creating these alterations to a once repressive and limiting stereotype, Saar is challenging them through the creation of a new representation of African American working-class women. Saar could have done this by creating a new character, but using an old repressive one and changing it creates direct conflict with the racist myths that have traveled from our past to our present in the form of these representations. Since Saar is a part of this generation who saw these physical stereotypes come into fruition, she is also healing her own wounds by taking control of the narrative of her own identity as a black working-class woman.
When you grow up in the United States you don’t often learn the violent, horrible truth to how we have arrived at the place we are now. Most history books don’t teach you that the United States is founded on genocide, slavery and the repression of whole races and cultures. Betye Saar makes American viewers confront this uncomfortable reality through her use of symbolism and intertextual references to stereotypes created to encourage oppression and segregation. Betye Saar’s pieces also draw on her own identity as a black woman growing up through the Civil Rights Era in America, as well as allow her to reclaim this identity by framing it the way she wants to be seen. Saar’s use of symbolism and intertextuality are enacted in her works to cause Americans to