Black Moses Barbie and the Humor of Black Trauma

Curator's Note

 The very idea of “slave action figures” might sound absurd, but it’s an idea that conceptual videographer Pierre Bennu depicts in his “Black Moses Barbie” trilogy--a series of mock commercials featuring the fictitious “Black Moses” Barbie Doll.  In the first commercial “Runaway Ken” and “Runaway Christie” (in a nod to the Black Barbie doll that was introduced by Mattel in 1968) are confronted by the Underground Railroad’s famous conductor Harriet Tubman—“Black Moses” Barbie—with “motivational freedom rifle” in tow. 

From a historical standpoint, the mock commercial is a reminder of the kind of discipline that Tubman demanded within her ranks, where anyone who broke from those ranks, could threaten the safety of the others in the group; That “motivational rifle” was how Tubman kept the ranks tight. Yet we’re left with the absurdity of the story of American slavery being told via the flagship product of one of the most popular corporate brands in the world; it’s not difficult to imagine some enterprising ad executive wondering aloud if Mattel could increase their Black share using Barbie to tell the story of American slavery (likely the same guy responsible for that “Crispy Chicken” ad for Mary J. Blige). 

“The Black Moses Barbie” series creates a discomfort in some viewers, when confronted by their own desires to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all; Indeed we’ve all been socialized to hold a reverence for such examples of group trauma. Bennu’s work is also in response to a media system that he describes as a “disgusting, gross, slow moving machine,” as he creates media that is “so tiny, so viral” that it has the capacity to undermine the Machine. According to Carpio, that Bennu does so with a healthy dose of humor, should not be surprising, noting that the Black liberation movement of the 1960s “produced tacit forms of censorship that resulted in the suppression of stereotyped-based humor” by Black Americans, hence the reaction to some aspects of Tyler Perry’s films as causes of social panic.  Here Bennu is playing against all sides: a media structure resistant to inclusion, Black American gatekeepers committed to a politics of Black respectability, and Black cultural hardliners invested in rigid realist interpretations of “the Black Experience.”


I derived a lot of joy from reading your post. Good job, Mark! I do confess that I confronted the same dilemma when I was watching this commercial. I felt that the video is too absurd to be treated seriously, and I just couldn't help laughing out loud. What makes me think deeper is why this phenomenon happens. Maybe we are getting used to this since everything in this era is "dramatized" to some degree. Maybe the African American people are gaining more confidence so that they won't feel hurt by this types of commercial mockeries anymore. Or, maybe our ideas are exhausted so that we have to "consume" something that are supposed to be revered or unmentioned. I don't know the reason, but I am curious to know how other people think about this video, especially how the African American think about this one.

Brilliant entry Mark - and the link to the interview with the Bennus on Left of Black is really useful. I like Bennu's point that social media enables micro-scale production that irritates the mainstream audio-visual industries on so many levels - your post opens up a whole new area of discussion for academic videography and its audiences. Great finish to a fabulous theme week.

The Black Barbie series and the interview with the Bennus are fascinating. I liked how the Bennus pointed out the amount of content being produced on social media; mix of voices being heard; and yet there is also ambiguity in defining “democracy”. Great to see the discussion on intellectual property – Translating and transforming digital data that exist. And yes, I agree with Bennu’s “It’s about the work being out there”. Great post to finish the Open Source Academia discussion this week, Mark!

Mark - great finale for the week. That interview with the Bennus raises a ton of interesting points. Pierre's comment about fine art living on the internet certainly applies to scholarship (like your interview with him) as well - that putting it on the internet allows accessibility that this sort of content has never had - but it's next to a video of a girl falling down the stairs. That certainly has its obvious benefits and limitations. I think one of the key elements of both fine art and scholarship is the dialogue that it calls up. However, the nature and culture of internet comment threads potentially makes that dialogue difficult (in that it makes it so easy). As this week has shown, it's increasingly easy for artists and scholars to reach some form of audience. How that audience reacts is a different story. How are we to respond?

Thanks, Mark, this is an excellent wrap up to the week's conversation, as it brings us back around to the potentials of "writing" in a variety of forms that resonate with (and reverberate within, as Michael notes above with his discussion of comments) the language of vernacular video online. I especially love this description of creating something "that is 'so tiny, so viral' that it has the capacity to undermine the Machine," and the revaluation of virality that accompanies this idea. It's something I think we all strive to do in our classes and in our work, but reconsidering our strategies of how to most effectively accomplish that is essential, and may require a more robust attention to both form and platform.

To echo others, great end to a great week of posts. I like the type of allegory going on in your discussion of the Black Barbies and Tubman's "motivational rifle." It seems like a satirical video like this that challenges notions of a fixed 'Black experience' acts in many ways like that "motivational rifle." In other words it acts as a powerful paradox that on the one side threatens stability and on the other promises a way out. The problem comes when mosquitoes such as this are deployed on behalf of the Machine, and when they are in fact used as distractions for US - as scholars, media-makers, fans - to swat at, keeping our attention off the road and elsewhere. I think there is a place in that instance for a motivational rifle, and as Suzanne puts it in her eloquent comment, it is up to us as a collective community to work with and think about form and platform as much as we do content (i.e. find the "rifle" for our "motivation").

Mark, Thanks so much for your post on Pierre Bennu’s work and his “Black Moses Barbie” series. Bennu offers those of us trying to work against the representations of “disgusting, gross, slow moving machine” of contemporary media, a model for resistance. Bennu gives us work that is accessible, disruptive, and incisive, and explodes any assumptions regarding the possibilities of “positive” models within the “machine” as “Runaway Ken” and “Runaway Christie” visual and historical incongruity make clear. Mark, your interview with Bennu was particularly inspiring and his move from gallery to online/public space suggests a parallel opportunity and path for scholars.

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