This is a free edition of the newsletter Unsettled Territory, but Atlantic subscribers get access to all posts. Those include explorations of the speculative fiction of W.E.B. DuBois, the back-history of Roe v. Wade, and the state of Florida orange groves.
On Monday, I delivered the keynote address for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. It was a beautiful event that featured officials from Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer to Representative Hakeem Jeffries and newly elected Mayor Eric Adams. The legendary vocalist Nona Hendryx performed. I was deeply moved by the opportunity to offer a few words on King as a historical figure and the history of the civil-rights movement. I encouraged my audience to reject the sanitized version of King that is generally presented by corporations and many politicians.
King held positions that would still be considered radical today. He was an anti-colonial, anti-militarist critic of capitalism who believed in a robust social safety net and a universal basic income. But at the same time, the hierarchical organizational structure to which he adhered has been subject to strong and meaningful criticisms for muting the voices of women and the people we often describe as the foot soldiers of the movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was far more challenging and far more complex than the standard story of his life allows. Mind you, the same could be said of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We have a habit of flattening figures in the service of national mythologies and heroic tales. And that habit has some grave consequences.
Last week, this habit was at the forefront of my mind as Ida B. Wells and Maya Angelou entered the news. I’ll start with Wells. Mattel announced the release of the Ida B. Wells Barbie doll as part of their “Inspiring Women” collection. This rendering of Wells—as a muckracking journalist who used her considerable intellect and courage to unmask the myth that lynching was about protecting white womanhood, and to reveal the truth that it was about racial domination—is beautiful.The doll shows Wells with a heart-shaped, cinnamon-brown face and a cottony Gibson Girl–esque updo. She wears a long navy dress and carries a copy of Wells’s newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech. They could have made her dress tattered and her hair askew, I guess, to capture the moment when she had to escape Memphis under threat of lynching. But for obvious reasons, it was wiser to depict her the way she chose to present herself: equal parts fiery and perfectly composed.
I would have been over the moon if this doll had been available in the 1980s when I was first reading about Ida B. Wells. As a child, my love for dolls was a close second to my love for books. And I had a collection of Black Barbies. In retrospect, I wholly agree with the decades of feminist criticism regarding the unrealistic Barbie body, an ideal that fuels eating disorders and body dysmorphia. But as a little Black girl, the power of representation trumped the sexism embedded in Barbie’s body. And to have had a lovely doll to go with the heroic vision I had of Wells would have been amazing.
That said, in the 21st century there are many sectors in which critics, including me, have noted that representation comes with costs. We have argued that the substance of representation matters more than the fact. We have noticed that “representation” in film, industry, politics, and the like is often offered instead of the substantive changes that are demanded. Ironies abound. The Alabama GOP shares images of Martin Luther King Jr. even as it actively dismantles voter rights, for example. We cannot be so sentimental that representation distracts us from real social and political issues. But that doesn’t make representation meaningless. My heart, at least, says it’s meaningful when it leaps a little at the Ida B. Wells doll.
When I noticed my uncritical reaction to this toy, I became a little less strident about another event last week: the release of the Maya Angelou quarter.
Some years ago, when the proposal for a Harriet Tubman $20 bill was floated, my knee-jerk response was to say, “She’s too good to be on our dirty money.” More sophisticated critics have argued that because enslaved people were used as a form of commerce, there is something unseemly about having Tubman, who fought tirelessly against slavery, on money. That line of argument has been extended to Maya Angelou, with critics asking some version of the question, “What use is this in a country that is still so profoundly economically unequal, one in which Black women sit at or near the bottom of every economic indicator?” For some, it amounts to an economic form of gaslighting.
I wouldn’t say they’re completely wrong. But I do understand the allure of the coin. Angelou, a survivor of childhood sexual violence, a dancer, singer, writer, and political organizer who was involved in global Black-liberation struggles, a seer for so many, a person who didn’t hide that she had been a sex worker, a woman who celebrated her deep voice and broad frame with elegance and grace, a person who was outspoken in her support for LBGTQ rights, is on U.S. money. There’s a “Wow!” to that. The image isn’t an exact likeness, but no face is precise on a coin. And there is something charming about her outstretched hands and raised face. It is a new posture to have on money. Plus, if you had told me there would be a Black woman with a head wrap on U.S. money even 10 years ago, I would have laughed for a good 10 minutes.
I don’t want to dismiss the criticism of the coin. And I don’t want to champion the doll, though I like it. What I’m trying to get at is what the sanitizing of King has taught me: An object, an image, an event, a holiday, doesn’t have inherent meaning. These things are imbued with meaning through our actions in relation to them. I am outraged about the misrepresentation of King because it becomes part of a lie about a dedicated life. A lie that serves to cut his work short or even dismantle it, rather than honor it. The problem is that the representation of him becomes a weapon of mass distortion. The saving grace is that many of us fight back against the distortion and for his legacy.
A significant concern I have with the Maya Angelou coin is that it might confuse people into thinking that this is a nation that values (no pun intended) women like Maya Angelou and the political work she did. But the coin itself doesn’t have to exist for that myth to proliferate. And we, living people, have the opportunity to argue against that myth and to extend her good work into the future. There are countries around the world that feature anti-colonial leaders on their money, and that are still dominated by Western corporations. I like to travel and see Black and brown faces on the money, but I know they never tell the full story of the economic and social realities of the place. The same will be true here, as representation continues to proliferate and inequality remains.
So we must not be too sanguine regarding symbolism even when it emotionally engages us. Our task is never to passively accept. We have to interpret the coins, critically rather than romantically, whether they show the face of George Washington or Maya Angelou. We must ask, what does this mean? What does it obscure? And far more significantly, beyond how it looks, what do I think about how money and wealth and opportunity are distributed in this country?
Finally, there’s this: Part of what I love about Ida B. Wells is that she was a brilliant intellectual writer and organizer, but she also hated to clean the house and was extremely vain (she loved a good photo of herself). She was extraordinary, and she was a regular flesh-and-blood person. Pleasures and idiosyncrasies are part of being human. So I, a 49-year-old Black leftist feminist intellectual, will be buying that very cute doll.