A sightation is a term I coined to refer to a visual reference, an optical echo that re-stages some primary, illustrated source. Angela Y. Davis has been one of the most eloquent critics of contemporary sightations of historical images that empty them of political content by substituting a distorted replication that represses radical resistance against systems of domination. In her case, Davis describes how contemporary representations of her lead many young people to associate the oppositional challenge she asserted against the United States as a police state for a hairstyle, an afro. Such historical oblivion erases the terror that Davis confronted during the time she was one of the FBI’s most wanted, as well as the terror greeting those black women with afros who were mistakenly identified as Davis.
Popular American culture continues to make these troubling sightations. Take this one of Jay Z and Kanye West, for example:
I see this as a clear sightation of this 1960 photograph of John F.Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy:
Perhaps Jay Z and Kanye West’s sightation of the 1960 photo seeks to call attention to their brotherhood, affluence, and power, but it fails to capture the turbulence that will mark their legacies. To me, the image of the Kennedy brothers as triumphant, which the original backdrop of JFK becoming the Democratic party nominee suggests, obscures the tragedies of their shocking assassinations in 1963 and 1968. Seems to me that before the contemporary brotherhood associates their Throne with the Kennedy legacy, they should more carefully read the history of their anguished fate.
A few days ago, I stumbled across another disturbing sightation. This photograph of Memphis rapper, Yo Gotti, situates him into a historical narrative that completely misses the point of the original :
The Withers photograph of the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike in 1968 has certainly become iconic. It depicts those workers whose demands Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed and whose spirits he sought to buoy as they faced the intransigence of city officials. King’s assassination at the Loraine Motel in Memphis also haunts this image. The strikers’ declaration of manhood highlighted their desire for adequate wages so that they could provide for themselves and for their families. Their declaration contained their need for better, safer working conditions. Their declaration also voiced their desire for independence from having perpetual adolescence thrust upon them due to the absence of a living wage that virtually guaranteed their dependence on government aid.
While I understand that the young people in the Gotti sightation may use the term gangsta to signify their toughness and their ability to make their way through a merciless and hostile terrain, it is oftentimes a weak social critique because it acts more as a complaint instead of an analysis of democracy and citizenship for black Americans. Too, hip hop cultures’ reading of gangster culture as portrayed in Coppola’s most famous and masterful trilogy, often cited as a great influence on rappers and their musical personas, misses the point of the films. Though The Godfather trilogy is beautifully told and beautifully executed as cinema, the overall story is tragic. The Don didn’t want Michael to be a gangster. Michael was supposed to attend college and marry a white, anglo saxon, protestant woman; they are supposed to have children and live in safety thereby living out the American dream. The Don is heartbroken when he learns of Michael’s involvement in the family’s retaliation for the assassination attempt against him. Early in part II, Michael reiterates his promise to Kay that he will leave gangsterism behind so that they can live safely as Americans through legitimate business practices. In the final film, Michael clearly says, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Michael didn’t want to be a gangster, an outlaw, he wanted to be an American.
Hank Willis Thomas offers a very striking meditation on the legacy of black American claims to manhood:
Thomas ends with a declaration regarding black humanity as he closes with, “so be it,” by divine right. I find it striking that not a single one of those placards in Yo Gotti’s sightation say anything about being a man and so self-sufficient and released from thug stereotypes reified through the criminal justice system. Gangsters reify American history and culture as the Hobbesian characterization of a state of nature wherein life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the last speech Dr. King gave on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination in Memphis, he offers a rejection of martyrdom: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.” Gangsterism advances brevity, a figurative boyhood and so stands in direct opposition to “I Am a Man.” The ostensible glamour of gangsterism, its sightation, is shortsighted.