The Atlantic

The Risky Business of Branding Black Pain

The commodification of civil-rights activism may appear revolutionary, but it can undermine the basic tenets of social movements. Colin Kaepernick's Nike campaign illustrates this conundrum perfectly.
Source: Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty

“It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo.”

These are words from the Black Power icon and lifelong activist Angela Davis’s 1994 essay, “.” In the years following her emergence as a Communist, a revolutionary for black freedom, an enemy of the state, and an enduring voice of prison abolition, Davis’s image—one that is considered by many to be synonymous with black liberation and the social-resistance movements of the 1960s, such as apparel and collectibles, in which the entirety of her scholarship, activism, and the larger political effortshe represents are mostly reduced to a logolike image of her Afro. Davis was greatly disturbed by how her likeness was used as a backdrop for advertising, and by how little control she had over her own image. In her writings, she laments that she was reinterpreted asa “fashion influencer,” and the ways this undermined her message, her activism, and her anti-capitalist principles. Davis is, for many, a living legend, but for others she is the blueprint for how to merchandise a movement.

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