Black History Conference


10th Annual Black History Conference

February 6-7, 2013

Luther College

Decorah, IA

Body Politic: Cultural Identities and Representations of Black Women’s Sexuality

The 10th Annual Black History Conference explores how black women’s life experiences are shaped by both social aggressions and resistances that form around representations of race and human sexuality. To illustrate the importance of this conference, two exhibits are provided.  Each exhibit demonstrates that cultural representations of black women exploit symbols, tropes, and metaphors of race and gender.  How and why these images cause controversy is the subject of this conference.  Exhibit A (see Lena Adelsohn- Liljeroth pictured right) generated a letter of protest, a portion of which is displayed below. The letter suggests how women of color often respond to what they perceive as the ritual denigration of their bodies.

April 20, 2012 “We the undersigned women of African/African descent and our supporters wish to address the Venus Hottentot Cake Incident. . . (in connection with) World Art Day . . . (sponsored by the) Swedish Arts Organization (Stockholm’s Modern Art Museum) . . . The event was launched with Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, cutting the first piece of cake from a dark ruby red velvet filling with black icing . . . whose head forms that of a black woman that is seen with a blacken face screaming with pain each time a guest cuts a slice from the cake. Rather disturbingly for many African women, the minister is pictured laughing as she cuts the metaphorical cake. . . the gaze of the predominately white Swedish crowd is on Lijeroth who is positioned at the crotch end (of the cake)  as she becomes part of the performance a re-enactment of FGM on a cake made in the image of a disembodied African woman. . .”

Signed Dr. Claudette Carr, Director Jethro Institute for Good Governance, Barbara Mhangami, Samantha Asumadu (and many other women who logged on to [email protected] or tweeted @honestlyAbroad or @Jigginstitute and added their names to this letter.

Representing black women’s bodies is a political act.  Its meaning can spark controversy even when the symbols of the black female body are produced with a different intent.  For example, according to the Makode Linde (pictured right), the artist of the Venus Hottentot cake, the art instillation was intended to highlight the problem of female circumcision.

 “A lot of people saw the images online and took them out of context and they accused me and the culture minister (of being) racist,” the artist said in a video interview with Al Jazeera. According to Linde, “the people who have been upset about the art piece or about the images they’ve seen . . . misunderstood the intention or agenda of me as an artist.” The controversy, Linde explains, “is all a misunderstanding.” 

In response to Linde’s interview, Kitimbwa Sabuni, head of the African Swedish National Association and a signatory to the open letter stated:

 “How Linde’s art piece was supposed to highlight this problem with a cake that depicts a racist caricature of a black woman … is unclear”

The Swedish Modern Art Museum issued the following response:

“Moderna Museet (the renowned Stockholm art collection) understands and respects that people find the pictures and video clips from World Art Day upsetting, especially when they are shown out of context. The intention (of the museum) and Makode Linde was to draw attention to and discuss today’s racism, not to reinforce it,” the museum said. (video of cake on display)


Exhibit B. consists of two photographs (pictured to right) and two versions of a story reported about a new species of horsefly that the scientist who made the discovery named after Beyoncé, the pop music icon. The two versions of the story are excerpted below.

"It was the unique dense golden hairs on the fly's abdomen that led me to name this fly in honor of the performer Beyoncé as well as giving me the chance to demonstrate the fun side of taxonomy — the naming of species," Bryan Lessard said in a statement

Posting the picture of Beyonce featured on the right, NBC on-line reported the horsefly story as follows:  “Beyonce may be one of the biggest pop divas out there, but she isn't the only diva with that name. . . . a previously unnamed species of horse fly with a glamorous golden rear end has been named Beyonce because it is the "all-time diva of flies."

Science on, January 13, 2012

 Feministwire reported the story differently:

A newly discovered species of horse fly was named Beyoncé by Australian scientist Bryan Lessard. Describing this new species as ‘bootylicious’ because of its ‘golden-haired bum,” Lessard . .. explained that his name choice came about because the fly was the ‘all time diva of files.” Lessard’s inclination to name this golden-haired bum insect after Beyoncé is a throwback or a longing for a racist past when bodies of black women were commodities; available to anyone white who could afford to pay the price. . .”

A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé by David Leonard and Kristal Moore Clemons, the Feministwire, January 23, 2012.

Exhibit B. illustrates the need to explore topics related to the ways that cultural representations of black women reflect racially coded and sexualized cultural identities. 

Body Politic: Cultural Identities and Representations of Black Women’s Sexuality seeks to explore how cultural representations of black women’s sexuality can be used to normalize prevailing attitudes about black women.  Its purpose is to explore the Africana women’s perspective on how black women’s sexuality is defined in world culture. The conference is also dedicated to contrasting the expressions of sexual identity, expression, and desire created by others with the images that black women create to depict themselves. The conference topic seeks to explore the politics surrounding the black women’s body and engage participants in discussions about the ways in which race is gendered.

Papers can explore questions such as the following:

1. Should consumers of popular cultural representations of black women’s sexuality consider how certain images affect the construction of black women’s identities?

2. Are hyper-sexualized images of black men and women toxic to black self-actualization?

3. How are artists, cultural theorists and public intellectuals challenging degrading depictions of black women’s sexuality?

4. To advance their careers, are black women exploiting degrading stereotypes? Are others engaged in these practices?

5. What can we learn more broadly about globalization and cultural production by studying how black women are consumed culturally?

6.Does sexual representation operate similarly in other cultural contexts?

Legacy Honoree

The Black History conference’s legacy honoree is chosen to exemplify the conference theme and to honor what African-Americans have contributed to American heritage. This year’s conference commemorates Lena Horne whose Hollywood career illustrates how race and gender influenced Hollywood and the entertainment business. 

Lena Horne (June 30, 1917-May 9, 2010) was an American, actress, and dancer whose film, night club, Broadway, and recording career spanned eight decades and was matched  only by her civil rights activism and her determination to be respected as a black woman artist (see Horne pictured right).  Horne began her career when she joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of sixteen and became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood, where she had small parts in numerous movies, and better parts in the race films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Horne was outspoken about American racism and found that she was unable to get work in Hollywood during the Red Scare era of the 1950s.  As a result, Horne left Hollywood and continued a successful career in both nightclubs and on television. She also released popular recordings. In 1981, Horne starred in a one-woman show, titled Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.  The show ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway and earned numerous awards and accolades. She continued recording and performing sporadically into the 1990s.

Horne was involved in the civil rights activism. For example, in WWII, she entertained the troops for the USO but refused to perform on military bases where German POWs were seated in front of African-American servicemen.  In the 50s, she appeared with Paul Robeson, and in the l960s, she met with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi two days before his assassination to support voter registration in the state.  She also performed benefit concerts on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC, and the National Council of Negro Women. (Lena Horne performance)

Plenary Speaker

Dorothy Roberts is an acclaimed scholar of race, gender, and the law.  She is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her groundbreaking work in law and public policy focuses on contemporary issues in health, bioethics and social justice, especially as they impact the lives of women, children and African-Americans.  Her major books includeKilling the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty and Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century.   Of Roberts, University of Pennsylvania Provost Vincent Price said: “Roberts’ work brings together a wide range of disciplines to illuminate some of the most fundamental challengers of our time.”


Gallery Exhibit

Danielle Scruggs (pictured to the right) is a photo essayist, curator, writer, and photographer working in the Washington, DC area.

She has exhibited in Washington, Baltimore, and Switzerland.  Her photos have also appeared in The Washington Post, PBS MediaShift, East of the River Magazine, N'DIGO, and numerous other publications.  For the Luther College Gallery program exhibit, Danielle will select photographs that exemplify the everyday beauty of black women.  Her exhibit will be shown at the CFL Gallery.  A Gallery Reception in Danielle’s honor will be held during the event. (Home website)

 Conference Location

Luther College is a Phi Beta Kappa institution of approximately 2,500 students.  One of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Luther is built on the rolling wooded hills and limestone bluffs of northeast Iowa.  The scenic Upper Iowa River flows through the lower portion of the 175-acre central campus.  Luther College is located in the town of Decorah, IA.

Submitting an Abstract

The Conference Committee invites proposals for papers and presentations.

Deadline for submission of a vitae and a maximum 300 word abstract is November 30, 2012.  To submit a proposal, please email a recent curriculum vitae and a one-page abstract about your proposed paper or presentation to Sheila Radford-Hill, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Diversity Center at [email protected] or Novian Whitsitt, Ph.D., Chair/Africana Studies Department at [email protected]  We are especially looking to provide an opportunity for younger scholars to address this topic. For more information, call (563) 382-1014.

Selection of conference papers

The Conference Committee will review all abstracts and select those related to the key questions regarding cultural representation, popular culture, and black women sexuality.  We highly encourage graduate and under-graduate students to submit abstracts. Participants will be notified by December 12, 2012.