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Branded

IN THE PHOTOGRAPH Branded Head (2003), the shape of a black man’s clean-shaven head gracefully curves against a plain white background. The subject’s face—and with it all the features that might have identified him—is outside of the frame. The viewer’s attention is drawn instead to a keloid several inches above his ear in the shape of the Nike swoosh. The man is branded.

The portrait is a searing critique of what its creator, artist Hank Willis Thomas, calls a commodifiable blackness. “Young African American men especially”, Thomas observes, “have been known to pay to become the best advertisers anyone could ask for.” Without the Nike swoosh, Thomas’s subject would be entirely anonymous, a faceless black body. Branded, he becomes recognizable—yet in a way that accepts commodification as the source of his identity.

For Thomas, Branded Head speaks to how little has changed across the different eras of racial capitalism. “Slaves”, he explains, “were branded as a sign of ownership and … today so many of us brand ourselves.” In the first instance, branding was a mark of lost agency, a conversion of the body into a commodity object. Now branding—commodification—ironically restores value, in a postindustrial era that so often construes the black body as lacking any intrinsic value.

It is undeniable that our culture’s obsession with branding cuts across race and gender. Nonetheless there is something unique about how black men participate in it, and that speaks to their location within the structure of racial capitalism. For much of capitalism’s history, after all, its protagonists—the property owners and wage laborers who, as Marx would say, were destined to “make history”—were all white men. This legacy of entitlement persists in the inequalities we see today, which so often render black and male as inherently contradictory, the fact of black abjection set irreconcilably against the anticipation of male privilege. This contradiction should be an opening to critique capitalism’s persuasive ideology that reduces individual worth to monetary value. But as Branded Head implies, hegemony is in effect: even for men inhibited from achieving normative masculinities rooted in work, economic agency remains integral to their identities. Consumerism and commodification—brands and branding—thus become occult expressions of capitalist success that emerge as alternatives to conventional success within the labor economy. Through them, black men paradoxically are transformed into iconic figures of success within the fantasy of late capitalism.

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Paperback, 130 pages Racist Logic tackles how racist thinking can be found in surprising—and often overlooked—places. In the forum's lead essay, historian Donna Murch traces the origins of the opioid epidemic to Big Pharma's aggressive marketing to white suburbanites. The result, Murch shows, has been to construct a legal world of white drug addiction alongside an illicit drug war that has disproportionately targeted people of color. Other essays examine how the global surrogacy industry incentivizes the reproduction of whiteness while relying on the exploited labor of women of color, how black masculinity is commodified in racial capitalism, and how Wall Street exploited Caribbean populations to bankroll U.S. imperialism. Racist logic, this issue shows, continues to pervade our society, including its nominally colorblind business practices. Contributors not only explore the institutional structures that profit from black suffering, but also point the way to racial justice. Forum Lead essay by Donna Murch. Responses by Max Mishler, Britt Rusert, Julie Netherland, Helena Hansen, David Herzberg, Michael Collins, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Jonathan Kahn, L.A. Kauffman, and Donna Murch. Essays Peter Hudson, Jordanna Matlon, Alys Weinbaum, and Richard Ford.