bell hooks in Conversation with Thomas Jefferson

In the spirit of recursion, I’d like to go back to a text we covered in class on February 11th, “Notes on the State of Virginia.”  When we encountered this text, it was in reference to fugitive slave narratives.  We discussed the ways in which Thomas Jefferson compared the aesthetics, literary, cultural and physical, of African, European, and Indigenous peoples.  With a focus on the literature, we critiqued the way that Jefferson claimed that Africans were only able to “mimic” while Europeans represented original and refined works.  Borrowing these ideas of mimicry and originality, I’d like to shift the focus to the portrayal of African Americans in popular culture.

In my Feminism and Pornography class, we are finally starting to explore porn as it relates to different identities.  With the first half of the course focusing purely on white heterosexual pornography, we’ve now started to look at the intersections of race as it relates to porn.  As a Women’s and Gender Studies and English Literature double major, I’ve come to expect overlap in coursework.  

In a bell hooks chapter, “Selling Hot Pussy,” she discusses the ways in which black women are often represented in media as the “pornographic fantasy of the black female as wild sexual savage [which] emerged from the impact of a white patriarchally controlled media…” (126).  Within this piece she chronicles the rise of the black supermodel, citing examples Iman and Naomi Campbell. hooks argues that “when [magazines] began to include darker-skinned models” they had to “resemble as closely as possible their white counterparts…” (129).  Going back to Jefferson, who argued that Europeans were the standard for which people of other identities were to attempt to mimic. Here the central difference is that the non-white models are being made to mimic, whereas Jefferson claims this is all they are able to do.  One could and should argue that the tendency to mimic or assimilate is one that is often coerced rather than chosen consciously.

In “Notes on the State of Virginia” published around 1787, Thomas Jefferson made a variety of claims about the aesthetics of people of European, Indigenous, and African descent.  He argues that the primary “difference… is that of colour.” In his writing he argues that those aesthetics which should be deemed original and beautiful are thus associated with Europeans.  This idea is echoed in bell hooks’ chapter. She includes a statement included on a cover of Tweeds.  The Tweeds statement included in “Selling Hot Pussy” states that: “Whenever colors have that intelligence, subtlety, and nuance we tend to call them European…” (129)

The representative of Tweeds who wrote the statement carried similar beliefs as Thomas Jefferson arguing that color is “one of the most important barometers of character…” hooks points to the “racialized terminology,” but fails to reference the origins of these ideas.  I find it interesting yet unsurprising that the racialized ideologies of Thomas Jefferson reappear in different contexts and historical periods.

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