Venerating the Icon: The Hidden Face of Oppression

I’ve been contemplating the word “icon” lately, intensely since the death of Nelson Mandela but really since sometime early last fall. I’m not sure what triggered it initially, but as the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King came around earlier this week and the national holiday in his honor approaches on Monday, I feel compelled to address the nature of making icons and how it relates to oppression. 

What is an icon? According to Google (the fount of all knowledge), it’s primary definition is religious, particularly Christian – a painting of some holy figure used as an aid to devotion.  More generally, it is defined as “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something.” Of course these days, it’s computing denotation is perhaps uppermost in some minds, but it still is a “symbol or graphic representation of a program, option, or window.” In linguistics, icon is used to reference “a sign whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies, for example the word snarl pronounced in a snarling way.” It’s origins are from the Greek (eikon: likeness or image) and then came into Latin in the mid-16th century though Google says its current meanings date from the mid-19th century and later. What I found particularly fascinating was its usage over time. It was apparently used sparingly in the written texts that have been digitized from the 1800s through the 1950s when the usage of the word icon takes off reaching a zenith around the mid to late-00s. I imagine that much of this rapid increase in usage can be traced to the development of computing adoptions.  However, I think it seems also likely that its usage to denote a person who is thought to be a “representative symbol of something” has also greatly increased as our society has become more secularized and previously exclusively religious language makes its way into common parlance.

It’s not the designation of someone as an icon that has troubled my mind, but rather what we have taken that to mean in a global society that is rapidly erasing or at least blurring the lines between deities and mortals while perhaps forgetting why we created such distinctions in the first place.  We make icons of the living and the heroic dead and as we do so, we freeze them in carbonite – like Han Solo in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – perhaps still alive but no longer capable of change, movement, or development. 

When I teach our Student Development Theory course at Bowling Green State University, sometime during the very first session, I have the students read a short story by Sandra Cisneros title Eleven. It’s a powerful story about a little girl who turns 11 and realizes that she still carries with her all the previous ages she’s been.  I pair this with a quote from Anais Lin that expresses a similar idea.  The point I want students to come away with as we begin the semester, before they fill their heads with a bunch of theoretical models and stages and processes and positions and levels that they are tempted to reduce to rigid, linear approaches to development, is this:

We are, at once, all we will ever be and have been, and something we have yet to see.

Icons don’t develop or change or grow. We see them as fully formed and forged in stone or wood.  This is another face of oppression.  Iris Marion Young discussed five faces of oppression (originally published in 1990 in her text Justice and the Politics of Difference, pp. 39-65; reprinted as a chapter in Henderson and Waterstone, Oppression, Privilege, & Resistance, Routledge, 2009): exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (physical and psychic). Oppression can be thought of as “when people reduce the potential for other people to be fully human.” She then goes on to explain the concept of a social group: “a collective of persons differentiated from at least one other group by cultural forms, practices, or way of life” who have an “affinity” with one another due to their similarities.  However, by defining those who are members of a particular social group, social groups also can work to limit the range of expression of those members within their group. 

So when we make icons of people, humans, we inevitably steal this dynamic growth from them while they are living and erase it from their lives in death.  Consequently, Nelson Mandela becomes an icon of tolerance and forgiveness, ignoring and erasing his lifelong commitment to social justice by assertive action and insistence upon structural change.  Similarly Dr. King’s beloved community, one which embraced peace over militarism and economic justice over free-market capitalism and informed by religious pluralism, is reduced to an interracial festival of benevolent action. In this way, this business of making icons of people can reflect dominant groups’ attempts to maintain power and control over marginalized groups. But this is not the only way icons work.

Oppressed social groups also make their own icons.  In doing so, they also sometimes cooperate with dominant groups’ cultural imperialism or exploitation that limits someone’s potential to be fully human – to develop, to grow, to change – to be all they will ever be and have been and something they have yet to see. What happens to the person made to be an icon, the epitome of same-gender loving, who allows themselves to fall in love with a person of the opposite sex? The icon for “traditional” marriage who becomes a staunch advocate for marriage equality? The “race man” or woman who feels pressured perhaps to leave their interracial partnership to be more “authentically” the symbol of the movement?

I stipulate that icon-making is another face of oppression, hidden because it is thought and intended to be an act of reverence and honor.  Despite these intentions, the impact is more oppressive than liberating.  I hope I never become an icon.  I would rather just be human, that carbonite is lethal.  Instead of making icons, perhaps we should remember that we are humans living among other humans who are all still becoming and being human.



Lessons from Zora

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” Zora Neale Hurston.

Today is Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday. She was an anthropologist, folklorist, poet, short story writer and novelist, black cultural critic, suspicious of racial integration, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc, a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance, a co-conspirator with Langston Hughes, a Black queer woman, and an all-around bad ass. I imagine her to be the ideological mother of women like Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison. She is one of my favorite authors and I celebrate her life and her legacy today.

A couple of my sister-friends are also,  and one in particular has been posting quotes from her work all morning. They are all fabulous, but the one that opens this post hit me square in the chest with the power of its truth.

Too many people – too often I have been in the number – are silent about our pain. We keep our mouths shut for various reasons: to “protect” someone else’s feelings, to keep the “peace,” to maintain “control,” or just because we are afraid of what will happen next if we speak our whole truth – pain included.

But Zora’s truth-telling is liberating. When we don’t share the truth of our pain, we actually surrender control to someone else to author our story. We protect power, oppression, and dominance. We erect an uncomfortable peace, that really is no peace at all. Like the woman attempting to rest on a pile of mattresses, the “pea” of our pain discomforts us, no matter how deeply we attempt to bury it. We cripple our authenticity by holding in our pain, allowing it to rot us from the inside out.

It’s one of the motivations for my research on the college experiences of African Americans and other Blacks who attended elite, small, private, liberal arts colleges in the Great Lakes region between 1945 and 1965. To reveal the whole stories of these young adults, including whatever pain was there, so that others can no longer pretend that all was well with them and they just “enjoyed” it. But this isn’t the only resonance this quote had for me.

Today’s reading in my online devotional run by a group of Jesuit priests (I don’t have to follow all their dogma to appreciate their approach to worship and creating “sacred space”) was from the biblical account in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4 where the writer tells of Jesus’s early ministry in Galilee, his hometown. In the passage, the reader is told that Jesus healed all manner of diseases and illnesses, that people came from even “beyond the Jordan” (really far away) to be healed. Jesus is reported to have preached a message of repentance and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

I wondered why all this talk of healing diseases was so central to the author’s introduction of who Jesus was and what he did on earth. You all reading this are probably wondering what this has to do with Zora and her quote. Metaphorically (and often literally), disease is painful. Our pain – physical, psychological, spiritual, mental – inhibits our healthy functioning.  Sometimes the effects are barely noticeable, but left ignored and unspoken, pain begins to affect us more and more until we have to radically alter our daily lives just to be alive. Or it kills us and death comes metaphorically as the quenching of our own fire. We move about, zombie-like, posing as human and devouring other people who get too close.

In order to seek Jesus for healing, they had to be open about their pain: where it hurt and for how long, perhaps what happened to bring about the onset of their pain, the effects of their pain. All this had to be put on display. Even if they never spoke it aloud before their healing (thinking of the woman who was healed touching the hem of Jesus’s garment), they had to acknowledge it loudly to themselves.

Everybody who was ever sick didn’t get healed by Jesus. Not everybody came to Jesus. Perhaps they didn’t come because they hadn’t heard. Or maybe because they weren’t ready to tell this stranger Jesus all about their troubles. Or because they had shared their pain with someone before and been rebuked, laughed at, told it wasn’t that bad. And so they kept their pain to themselves and maybe people around them figured it really wasn’t that bad and maybe that they even liked being that way.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

This is truth. And. In order to be loud about your pain, you have to ignore the critics, hope past the old rejections, and see – in the first place – that you are indeed in pain.

In honor of Zora’s birthday today (she would have been 123 years old, born in 1891, died in 1960), dare to feel your pain and tell it. Tell it. Tell the truth and shame the devil who tells you that you like being this way, and who at your death will boldly lie and say you enjoyed it.

Happy birthday Zora, happy birthday.

The Official Website of Zora Neale Hurston