Popular phrases in the vernacular. New dance steps. Toys and games. Fashion. Hair and makeup. Music and television. Public intellectual discourse. These are all areas where black influencers wield significant cultural power.
In Buy Black: How Black Women Transformed American Pop Culture, author and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, Aria S. Halliday details the history of this rise in influence, popularity and subsequent finances, the use of the image and likeness of black women in the arts and entertainment. She explains why much of what we consume today and over the past few decades has been created or filtered through a dark lens. She also dissects the tension between culture created by and for a community and culture created for global export.
“Black women can be said to have influenced every aspect of popular culture since they were brought on slave ships,” says Halliday. “Black women have both cooked – creating a popular cuisine that many places around the world covet – and created new kinds of musical, dress and stylistic traditions, as well as vernacular sayings since the 1700s. ‘there are many notable black women, such as Sojourner Truth, who have actively moved intellectual debates through speeches, I would probably call Ida B. Wells-Barnett the first “popular” influencer because her writings and speeches not only circulated in the United States, but also globally.
Key to Halliday’s research is a discussion of toys, music, hip hop, and cartoons, and the impact black dolls had on the direction of Hollywood imagery and subsequent toy markets for American consumers. For Halliday, the book began with a desire to better understand the princess culture offered and widely embraced by Gen Xers and older millennials as children.
“I feel like I missed the Barbie moment. There are all these academics talking about the rise of princess culture in the United States in the 1990s, with little girls being inundated with this idea that ‘they want to be princesses, dresses and clothes,” Halliday explains. “It’s a consumption goldmine if you’re a capitalist; if you sell the products.
Halliday’s book links this capitalist goldmine to the influence of black culture on all of American culture, which is one of the country’s greatest exports. She details how the movement for black imagery in dolls is linked to the rise of today’s black mega superstars – from Rihanna and Nicki Minaj to Oprah and Beyonce – who continually create and change and influence the direction of culture. pop as we know it. The book is published by University of Illinois Press and is part of a larger series on feminist media studies edited by Rebecca Wanzo.
Here’s what else Halliday had to say.
ASG: Can you quantify the impact of black women on pop culture? If so, how?
Halliday: It’s hard to quantify the impact, mainly because the contribution of black women has mostly been misattributed to other people or downplayed as a contribution. Perhaps one way to quantify the impact of black women would be to track a particular contribution like the popularization of a word and a dance like “twerk” that black women had been performing since the 1990s, but which became popular via Miley Cyrus in 2015 and is now in the dictionary. There are very few places you would go in the United States (or the western world) now without someone knowing what twerking is.
ASG: What is a takeaway from your book?
Halliday: It’s not the main conclusion, but I’ve learned that there are black women who were born long before me who are Barbie collectors because they doesn’t have access to a black Barbie doll when they were children. There are black women I talk about in the book who are becoming designers, who are actively making decisions about what black women look like in all their guises. A lot of times it’s usually black women at the table making those decisions, advocating a certain conversation, advocating a certain look [in toys or film]. It’s us.
Discuss the tension between symbolism and true representation.
remember the movie Harriet?
ASG: Yes. On Harriet Tubman.
Halliday: Well, for example, [when pundits discussed the film] we sit here fighting for the “best way” to represent black people. Black women especially, but we need talk about why there is only a movie about Harriet Tubman.
So if we have 50 examples, we could have terrible ones and others that relate to black British, black Caribbean and black Asian, right? Like we could have the range, but right now we have [just a few.]
ASG: So we need more representation to get it right? Or more of a variety of stories?
Halliday: Representation and culture are only going to give us extremes. This will only give us one set of examples.
ASG: Let’s talk about your take on Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” mentioned in your book. What impact has this had on pop culture?
Halliday: I think it’s great for black girls and women and other people who care about princesses to have that example. I think it’s great that it’s making money and that other black women have been able to create. I’m talking about Lisa Price and she had like a Princess and Frog line of hair products from her daughter Carol. I think it’s great because black people are actively starting a conversation about what it looks like, what it means to look like a princess as a black person, and then other black people are able to make money in this vein.
But do we stop there or do we make other films like this?
The more we have is a good thing. We can’t expect a princess to look like what everyone wants her to look like.
What entertainment company harnesses the power of black female creators without using symbolism?
Halliday: Hmm. HBO. HBO is used to doing things about black people with black people who are consultants, directors, actors. So they get it. Even if it’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show” or “Insecure”.
When did we get to a place where black imagery moved the pop culture market?
Halliday: Thinks we’re starting to see a change happen where companies learn like when Mattel
Who are the most influential black women in pop culture today?
Oprah would be the first person to roll your tongue. But I think today is also Beyoncé. Michelle Obama is super influential in general. And for young people, they really like Zendaya.
Why is it important to document the contribution of black women to pop culture?
Documenting the contributions of black women is important because for many years American society has misattributed or minimized how black people, but especially black women, have helped build and shape this country. I believe that a better understanding of how black women have contributed so typically and regularly to popular culture can provide a better sense of who and what we are as a nation.