Roland Barthes, a Fabric Flower, and a Freedom Rider

Originally published in the photo collection Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freed Riders, this archival police photograph of then 19 year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has been making the rounds. There is much debate about what troubling discourses of race and beauty might be operating in its reception right now, as there should be — the manifold dangers in conflating beauty with truth, or in attributing to whiteness a special heroism, are real and run deep.

But I admit that I keep looking too. Why? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s notion of the photograph’s punctum, “that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Camera Lucida, of course). For me, it’s the flower on her lapel catching in its petals the chain from the police identification board hanging around her neck, after her arrest. Evoking both vulnerability and defiance, that “minor”  sartorial detail, as Barthes puts it, bruises me, is poignant to me, even as I am wary of those other dangers.



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  1. the manifold dangers in conflating beauty with truth, or in attributing to whiteness a special heroism, are real and run deep.

    Reading this really, really struck me and got me thinking about the ways in which I as a young white woman engage with images like this as well as narratives of white people engaging in social justice work and direct action. I currently work full-time in higher ed in a private university’s “Center for Service and Social Action” where I facilitate community service experiences for a predominantly white student body in predominantly black communities — the racial dynamics of my work are something very real and very troubling to me and this post was a powerful reminder that I need to work actively to prevent myself from perpetuating “special heroism” among my white students and help them to reconceptualize the work that they are doing when they are out in the community. I wrote a lot more about this on my tumblr, but will spare you my rambling. Thanks again for this post & for blogging so diligently — threadbared is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs!

  2. A little while ago I watched a movie about the Baader Meinhof Gang that got me thinking about whether it’s important/moral for political movements to use physical/sartorial attractiveness to draw converts. It seems to me, looking back to my childhood and teen years, that a lot of us were attracted to the hippie movement, Che Guevara, Black Panthers, punk, etc. because their adherents looked/acted cool/beautiful. I think a lot of kids rejected feminism/socialism and various minority movements because they thought the adherents were unattractive/lacking style.
    I think this picture is making the rounds because the girl in it is beautiful and romantically dressed. It’s like an ad that says, “This could be you.” There are good and bad things about that.

  3. Kips, I’ve also been thinking about the sartorial decisions of political or countercultural movements and how these become part of their appeal, and I think you’re right about the photograph and its circulation — she’s beautiful but also “ordinary” (and in some ways we can read this as part of her conventional trappings of white femininity), and yes, “there are good and bad things about that.” More later — I have to make breakfast!

  4. Your post in response to the photograph is so thoughtful — and useful. I’m glad that I got to read it.

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