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ISU Professor Researches How Visual Vernacular Reflects Contemporary Culture

Illinois State University
Illinois State University assistant professor Dr. Byron Craig has conducted research on visual vernacular and how it reveals the events of contemporary culture.

With the viral videos, images, and murals that capture defining moments of 2020, one Illinois State University professor is examining what these visuals reveal about contemporary culture.

Assistant professor Dr. Byron Craig studies visual vernacular, which is the way someone sees something and acts on it. 

Craig said an example that struck him was the remarks by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson who in 2014 fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man in Ferguson, Missouri.

“When he looked at Mike Brown, when he turned around, he looked like the devil. And that that was his defense for why he shot him,” Craig said. “That kind of invokes a whole bunch of different things. What is it about this young, Black male that looks like the devil for you? In my opinion, and in the research that I've done, one can only contend that that means he looks frightening because of these kind of tropes that he had about Black men.”

In May 2020, the video of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck widely circulated on social media and sparked a national outcry for social justice. Craig said the images of violence toward Black people are quite telling about the state of the country. Over the decades, racist stereotypes and tropes toward Black bodies are developed from these images.

“We can interpret the pain of Floyd at that moment. We can also interpret the kind of craziness going on with the cop, but we can also interpret what was going on at that moment in our culture,” said Craig.

He said the images, as they did with Floyd's death, can provoke movements for social justice. This year, hundreds of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to protest and call for justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry, and countless other Black victims of police brutality.

On the other hand, the inescapable images also can inflict trauma on the Black community, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD as they continuously see people who look like them in harsh, violent images. Craig said decades of these images depicting anti-Blackness in America reveal what ideals thrive in American culture and the generational trauma passed down in the Black community. 

“They can be very, very painful, but we need to talk about that. Why is it painful? What's it make you think? What's the trigger when you see these images, but then how do you deal with it?” 

We’ve heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but for Craig, images like the videos of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck should force people to interpret the actions that impacts how we recognize and accept the truth about events that happened at a particular time. 

“Part of that requires us to do that work,” Craig said. “We know that we were fighting to have defunding of the police. We know all these things are happening. But it can tell us a story. We can certainly tell a story from that image. And the image can tell us a story that we can then further create.”

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Darnysha Mitchell is an Illinois State University student and reporting and social media intern at WGLT.
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