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Black Moses Barbie and the Humor of Black Trauma

by Ethan Tussey

by Mark Anthony Neal for IN MEDIA RES

 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.”

Open Source and Blackness

Barbie Harriet Tubman Commercial

from Black Moses Barbie (Harriet Tubman Commercial) (1 of 3) (2011)
Creator: Pierre Bennu
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey