Book explores, honors powerful African American women

It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict Lakesia D. Johnson’s Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman (Baylor University Press) is headed for sustained popularity. It may take a minute, since college publishers don’t have the publicity machinery of big houses. But, once word gets around, Black women, more than a few White ones and brothas with the sense to be interested in what’s going on for sistahs are going to snatch this up like it’s tomorrow’s news.

The writing’s a bit clunky and on the academic side (after all, Johnson, J.D., Ph.D., is assistant professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies and gender, women’s and sexuality studies  at Grinnell College in Iowa). But, don’t hold that against this timely, at some points invaluable, study. Content surpasses context — engaging, entertaining, vitally enlightening.

“[Iconic] asks what it means to represent Black womanhood,” Johnson states, “and explores how these representations are connected in a long history of representational depictions and choices that communicate the role of Black women in social movements…

“[It] traces the numerous ways that African American women activists, actors, writers and musicians have negotiated, confronted and resisted stereotypical representations of Black womanhood by taking control of their public images and constructing iconic depictions of and narratives about African American womanhood.”


The book begins and ends with emphasis on

contemporary America’s ultimate image of

Black womanhood, First Lady Michelle Obama.



Any book that even attempts such an undertaking is well worth a read. Lakesia D. Johnson’s success with documenting a far-reaching overview makes it a must for the coffee table (not to mention a perfect item to pick up now and squirrel away for even that hardest-to-please friend on your Christmas shopping list).

Author Lakesia D. Johnson
Photos courtesy of

A fascinating section gives those of us who were there for the late 1960s and early ’70s a welcome opportunity to revisit the enormous impact Angela Davis had on society. She shook hell out of the complacently racist, ruthlessly oppressive right wing. And scared a few lip-service lefties as well who felt Black liberation was a wonderful thing — in moderation. For those too young to remember, it’s a compelling page — actually 20-plus with several captivating photos — out of African American history.

The section also devotes almost 10 pages to Kathleen Cleaver, thankfully acknowledging that Eldridge Cleaver’s wife was, in her own right, a committed member of the Black Panther Party. She later capitalized on her charismatic, highly photogenic presence to act in films like Brothers and Zabriskie Point, portraying with, of course, well-informed veracity, Black women in radical politics.

It was a virtual requisite that Johnson include the chapter, “Revolutionary Black Women in Film: Blaxploitation and the Legacy of Pam Grier.” Grier inarguably is the most culturally significant  Black female in the history of American cinema, having endured since the era of Foxy Brown and Coffy to transcend an image of brass and sassafras sexuality, prevailing as the all-this-and-brains-too protagonist of Jackie Brown.

The author puts her thinking cap on to come up with “Revolutionary Black Women and Music: The Hip-Hop Feminism of Erykah Badu and Me’Shell Ndegéocello.” Thankfully. Considering how prevalently hip hop promotes debilitating sexism, Iconic is due gratitude for honoring women in the genre who, as autonomous artists, instead of being debased as masturbatory reinforcement for the thug ego, have their own minds, expressing themselves with substantial dimension.

The book begins and ends with emphasis on contemporary America’s ultimate image of Black womanhood, First Lady Michelle Obama, in the chapters “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman: From Sojourner Truth to Michelle Obama” and “The Many Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman: Michelle Obama Reconsidered.”

Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman is not perfect. There’s a wearying reliance on rhetoric, and the tone is heavy-handed to the point of browbeating. However, it is well worth getting past that to appreciate how strongly Lakesia D. Johnson has sistahs’ backs in a day and age when, despite our supposedly new, superficially improved American society, Black women still have a ways to go in gaining the respect they’ve long since earned.


For more information about this book, go to

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.


2 Comments on “Book explores, honors powerful African American women”

  1. A wonderful and enlightning book in reference to our strong black women
    past and present.

  2. This book touch on so many unique issues. I enjoyed every minute I spent reading the book.

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