UW News

October 5, 2022

New faculty books: Black womanhood and corporate branding, reexamining Indigenous earthworks and more

Three book covers on a wooden table

Recent and upcoming books from UW faculty include those from the Department of Communication, the Department of English and the Division of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the UW Tacoma.

When starting her latest book, Timeka N. Tounsel set out to write a cultural history of “Essence” — the first mainstream, glossy magazine aimed at Black American women. She wanted to explore “Essence” as a brand, making sense of how it started and evolved.

But during her research, “Branding Black Womanhood: Media Citizenship from Black Power to Black Girl Magic” blossomed into something much more comprehensive.

“Really it’s about when United States corporations started to understand Black women as a unique consumer niche,” said Tounsel, assistant professor of Black studies in communication at the University of Washington. “As I realized that was really the story I was telling, that’s what led me to this concept of Black Girl Magic.

Woman smiling with arms crossed

Timeka Tounsel

“The book looks at how Black womanhood has been branded. How have images of Black women been monetized from this moment of Black Power, which is late 1960s, to this moment of Black Girl Magic, the moment that we’re in right now?”

“Branding Black Womanhood” was published in June by Rutgers University Press.

CaShawn Thompson, an author, social media influencer and educator, started #BlackGirlMagic in 2013 when she noticed how Black women and girls were being denigrated on Twitter. She wanted to establish a hashtag as a counter narrative, Tounsel said.

“Then it took off,” Tounsel said. “I compare it in the book to Black is Beautiful, which is another motto that we’ve seen get monetized and used by corporations to draw in a particular consumer market.”

A few years after its creation, two companies — Essence and a media organization called Black Girls Rock — tried to get the trademark to Black Girl Magic.

“The woman who actually came up with the hashtag is completely left out of this legal dispute,” Tounsel said. “CaShawn Thompson said it beautifully and I quote her in the book: ‘Black Girl Magic went from being something that you are to something that you own. It went from being this empowerment narrative to a commodity.’

“That is something that happens with all kinds of iconic images and mottos, especially when we’re thinking about consumer markets that are constituted by people from marginalized groups. Companies don’t really know how to talk to us. They tend to just regurgitate whatever they can pick up on.”

The founders of Essence showed companies how to talk to Black women, Tounsel said.

“They were the guardians of Black women as a consumer niche,” she said. “The other interesting thing is that Essence in and of itself is the precursor to Black Girl Magic. Essence set about creating the ‘Essence woman,’ and her granddaughter is Black Girl Magic. These two ideas are reflective of a certain type of glamorous, consuming Black woman figure who understands that her most empowered self is facilitated through purchases.”

Despite her critique, Tounsel said she understands the joy Black women experience from seeing a wider range of images that reflect them.

“There is nothing wrong with that, but that’s not political power,” Tounsel said. “That is a form of recognition and I think it’s important and could perhaps be marshalled to impact the conditions that Black girls and women live in. Being called ‘magic’ may make you feel good, but it doesn’t change your material reality.”’

For more information, contact Tounsel at timeka@uw.edu.

Reexamining Indigenous mounds through Native voices

In “Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts,” Chadwick Allen reexamines Indigenous mounds by centering Native American voices.

Allen, professor of English at the UW, worked alongside Native writers, artists and intellectuals to highlight the accomplishments of North America’s mound-building cultures and draw attention to new earthworks.

The idea for the book stemmed from Allen’s first academic job as a professor at Ohio State University. He wanted to bring ancient Indigenous earthworks – burial, civic and ceremonial structures – into his literary studies classroom. He started looking for texts, artwork and performance pieces that engaged mounds and the principles that uphold their construction and use.

“Eventually, I also started actively looking for Indigenous engagements with mounds through built environments,” Allen said.

Head shot of man

Chadwick Allen

The result was “Earthworks Rising,” published in March by University of Minnesota Press. Each section of the book is organized around a descriptive category for Indigenous earthworks, which are effigy mounds, platform mounds and burial mounds. The sections also align with the three-worlds theory of mound-building cultures: an upper world, a surface world and a lower world.

“Constructed mounds can be understood as markers of highly structured Indigenous civilizations and as locations of concentrated political, social and spiritual power,” Allen said.  “They can also be understood as portals that enable contact between ancestors and descendants, the living and the dead.”

In the book’s introduction, Allen considers how earthworks were perceived by non-Indigenous commentators. Even though the creation of the mounds required sophisticated planning, design and construction, these accomplishments were devalued or ignored. Earthworks represent profound achievements in mathematics, design, engineering and astronomy.

“Hundreds or thousands of years ago, mounds were purposely located and specifically designed to cite connections,” Allen said. “These connections were to ancient ancestors, past locations of dwelling or ceremonies, entities emanating from the cosmos and the origins of the community or the land.”

For more information, contact Allen at callen3@uw.edu. 

On friendship and mangos in Mauritania

Katie Baird’s memoir “Growing Mangos in the Desert” documents four decades of life in a Mauritanian village, beginning when she joined the Peace Corps in 1984 and was posted to the village of Cive, Mauritania.

The book was published in June by Apprentice House Press.

“It’s a story that’s been with me for a long time,” said Baird, professor of economics at UW Tacoma. “My time in the Peace Corps was such an incredible experience. I have been back to the village a couple of times and every time I go back, my understanding of it changes because I have more information and can see what transpired with the passage of time.”

Head shot of smiling woman

Katie Baird

Mauritania gained independence in 1960, so it was a relatively new country when Baird first arrived. At the time, the village was going through a horrific drought that lasted decades, and villages were converting from rain-fed cereal grains to irrigated rice.

The death of Mamadou Konate, a man Baird worked most closely with while living in Cive, prompted her to write the book. Konate, who died in 2012, was a farmer from the slave caste who forms a central part of the book.

“He was sort of the de facto village chief,” Baird said. “I imagined he saw me as somebody who wasn’t going to last more than a couple months. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know anything about irrigated rice, but I was there as the ‘irrigated rice expert’ from the government. I was extremely insecure about what I was doing in this village.”

Baird stayed, growing confidence as she learned the language, formed friendships and talked more with Konate. He wanted to acquire mango trees, which are drought tolerant and thrive in warm weather. Baird had attended a seminar about mangos, so the two collaborated to bring trees to the village – a move that inspired the title of the book.

“It took me 10 years to write this book,” Baird said. “For me, part of the story was learning how to write a very different genre than I’m used to. My interest in writing the book was not at all to talk about myself. It took me a long time to put myself in it and find my voice.”

For more information, contact Baird at kebaird@uw.edu.