T. Hasan Johnson, Cultural Studies, Claremont Graduate Studies

"[Re]Membering Liberation, Future, and the Outlaw[ed] Black Goddess: Excavating Typological Iconographies of Assata Shakur in the Africana Imaginary"

In his doctoral dissertation project, T. Hasan Johnson develops a sophisticated methodology for studying icon construction. Johnson defines icons as people, concepts, and depictions that are transformed into public symbols and used to relate messages, ideas, narratives, values, and ideologies.

In his Brown Bag presentation, he used the example of Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur, who has become a cultural icon due to her political activism and compelling life story. After acquittals, a hung jury, and two dismissals of other charges, Shakur was found guilty of aiding and abetting, assault, and attempted murder in the 1973 killing of a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike. The court gave her a prison sentence of life plus thirty-three years. In 1979, however, she escaped from prison and Fidel Castro helped her flee to Cuba. In the 1990s, the U.S. government deemed her an escaped terrorist.

Shakur’s iconic status is nothing less than contested; communities use and construct her as an icon in various and competing ways. After her prison escape, families in the New York and New Jersey area hanged signs that welcomed her and into their homes for safe haven. In 2007, FBI Wanted posters continue to portray her as an “armed and extremely dangerous” criminal, and they use Shakur’s birth name, Joanne Deborah Chesimard, instead of her taken name. In opposition, activist organizations have promoted and commodified the “Free Assata” and “Hands Off Assata” slogans. Hip-hop artists such as Common and Dead Prez have immortalized her in song, and Assata is associated with the legacy of her godson, the late music industry superstar Tupac Shakur.

To analyze icons like Assata Shakur, Johnson has developed two integrated research models for studying icons: iconographic construction (IC) theory and iconographic construction (IC) historiography. The former treats icons as text constitutive of cultural identity that influence and are influenced by societal concepts. Icons are social constructions rather than natural categories. IC historiography, on the other hand, studies icon construction over time, recognizes that media productions influence public perception, and evaluates mythic metanarrative structures that undergird historical production.

After initial icon construction-the creation of shorthands that link concepts to images-several cultural mechanisms come into play. The icon’s narrative is related to other popular and universal (transcultural) narratives. As in the case of Shakur, these narratives are read differently by different groups. Local narratives feed universal narratives, and vice versa. For instance, Shakur’s iconography (local/particular) is messianic and martyrological, mapped onto a Jesus narrative (universal). In the pantheon of black historical resistance, the figure of Jesus is a prototype icon used to engineer societies and practices and, in some cases, to symbolize wealth and privilege. Assata Shakur is also sometimes considered the “Mother of the Revolution,” a Virgin Mary framework.

Icons are socially imagined in relation to one another in order to create and normalize particular value systems. Johnson terms this phenomenon imagined cartographic typology. Here, he mentions that Shakur’s life can be made a touchstone connected to the cultural-historical complex of U.S. slavery, with Shakur representing an escaped slave. Icons allow past historical moments to be reimagined. Then, the merged past and present iconographies are made to buttress future-oriented imaginations, which Johnson terms contemplative projections.

The goal of Johnson’s project is the development of a conceptual language to talk about icons and practices. He argues that normative socio-cultural practices shape icons and determine which events operate formatively. Through iconic constructs and construction, groups and individuals make sense of, embrace, and reject ideas in society. Conversely, social values influence iconic construction.

We conclude this summary where Johnson began his presentation: with his first exposure to Malcolm X through the son Michael on the 1970s television sitcom “Good Times.” The character’s youth enabled his politics to be used comedically rather than in a serious way. Johnson then related that his undergraduate students are most familiar with the Black nationalist leader through Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X. Students were intimidated, rather than inspired, by actor Denzel Washington’s portrayal. Through this anecdote, Johnson illustrated both IC theory and IC historiography. Constantly renegotiated power of media productions helps us to remember and re-member historical figures and seminal moments.

As Dr. Wimbush noted in the discussion following Johnson’s presentation, icons and text offer both fixity and fluidity. The iconography offers in one sense a distillation of complex experience, but that compacted set of signifiers can be deployed to various ends, and indeed it is itself always in flux. Do scriptures offer a similar utility-some fixity and some fluidity-for social formation? If so, could scriptures be understood as a subcategory of icons, or vice versa?

Is iconic construction as a cultural tradition unique, or is it in evidence-perhaps differently inflected and with different histories-in cultures around the world? What might uniqueness or universality suggest about iconic construction, scripturalizing, and their relationship to one another?

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