While controversy in Richmond about slave burial grounds has quieted down since last year, author Tom Burrell wants to address a different type of slavery that he argues is still alive.
“Slavery came in two forms,” Burrell said. “Slavery was, in America, physical enslavement, but in order to justify it in a democracy (it became) psychological enslavement.”
Burrell said that this psychological enslavement is still a part of many African-Americans’ psyches and can indirectly affect the behavior of those affected by it, specifically in relation to their habits as consumers.
Burrell will visit Richmond on Feb. 22 as part of VCU Libraries’ Black History Month Lecture Series to elaborate on some of these issues as they affect the marketing field.
Burrell’s lecture will focus on problems he addresses in his most recent work, a book titled “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.”
Burrell, often hailed as an advertising visionary, examines marketing techniques that he argues sell the idea of black inferiority through negative black media messages. Ultimately, Burrell claims this creates a new kind of slavery.
“We may say that we have been freed of the physical chains, but there are still psychological chains that keep us in a slave-like attitude,” Burrell said.
The 40-year veteran of the advertising and marketing fields said that he noticed patterns among African-American consumers that were somewhat puzzling, including brand choice and on which types of products African-Americans were choosing to spend money.
“I was (thinking) things like … why is it that black people, despite being at the lower rung of the economic scale, tend to spend more money on material goods? Why do, among those material goods, we tend to prefer the most premium-type products?”
While Burrell’s professional background is in advertising, he said he is often asked to comment on topics like race relations.
“I primarily focus on how black people have been conditioned to think about themselves, how white people have been conditioned to think about themselves, and we need to address that issue before we start thinking about how we address each other,” he said.
VCU’s Black History Month Lecture Series is 10 years old, and last year’s event featured political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry. VCU’s university librarian John Ulmschneider, who helps organize the event, said Burrell’s visit this year was a logical follow-up to Harris-Perry’s visit.
“(Harris-Perry) talked a lot about how contemporary politics and how the African-American community works within the contemporary political structure,” Ulmschneider said. “We thought this would be a great compliment: a national level speaker and someone who can talk about the images and stereotypes that surround … African-American people in contemporary culture and how we try to improve that.”
The lecture series was developed in order to help engage minority and activist communities in Richmond in modern-day issues, Ulmschneider said.
“We wanted to have a program that reflected our commitment to reaching out to the community around Richmond to help us build our collections and the history of African-American minority and activist communities and to show our commitment not just to collecting those materials but to making them available and helping people understand the issues of the day,” he said.