Dorothy Roberts is an acclaimed scholar of race and gender, whose groundbreaking work in law and public policy focuses on contemporary issues in health, social justice and bioethics.
Dorothy Roberts is an acclaimed scholar of race and gender, whose groundbreaking work in law and public policy focuses on contemporary issues in health, social justice and bioethics.

The Venus Hottentot Cake Incident.

It sounds like a Nancy Drew mystery or a new indie band, but the reality isn't so lighthearted.

In April 2012, the Swedish National Artists' Organization celebrated World Art Day with a cake in the shape of a life-sized female torso. The torso, cartoonishly curvy a la the Venus of Willendorf, consisted of bright red sponge cake iced with glossy black frosting. At its neck was a hole cut into the table, which allowed its creator-Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde, made up in minstrel blackface-to scream every time someone cut a slice.

The art cake was intended to celebrate freedom of expression and to draw attention to female circumcision and genital mutilation, but among the smiles and titters of an all-white audience of Sweden's elite (presided over by Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth), the message was ambiguous. The event sparked outrage around the globe and provided yet another culturally confused and insensitive depiction of the black female body.

Whatever else it is, the image of the Venus Hottentot cake is shocking and divisive. How and why images like these cause controversy is the subject of Luther College's 10th annual Black History Month Conference, a commemoration of African American contributions to world culture and an exploration of significant topics that relate to black culture and American life, which will be held Feb. 6-7, on the Luther campus in Decorah.

This year's conference, Body Politic: Cultural Identities and Representations of Black Women's Sexuality, recognizes that representing black women's bodies is a political undertaking. The conference will foster a conversation, asking: Should consumers of popular culture consider how certain images affect black women's sense of self? How are artists and other public figures challenging degrading depictions of black sexuality? Are there situations in which black women exploit degrading stereotypes to their advantage and why? What can we learn more broadly about globalization and culture by studying how black women are culturally portrayed?

The conference begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, on Luther's Center for Faith and Life main stage with a plenary lecture by Dorothy Roberts, acclaimed scholar of race and gender, whose groundbreaking work in law and public policy focuses on contemporary issues in health, social justice and bioethics.

Conference events Thursday, Feb. 7, begin at 9:40 a.m. with a movement piece, directed by Jane Hawley, Luther associate professor of dance, and performed by Christie Owens, Luther class of 2016, celebrating Lena Horne (1917-2010), this year's conference honoree. An African American actress and recording artist, Horne illustrates the relationship of race and gender to the entertainment business. Well known because of her illustrious career, which spanned eight decades, she was equally influential as a civil rights activist.

In addition to two moderated panels on Feb. 7, the conference will include an exhibit and gallery talk with photographer Danielle Scruggs, whose work includes intimate self-portrait and portrait series of people of African descent. Scruggs has exhibited in Washington, Baltimore and Switzerland, and her photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, PBS MediaShift and F-Stop magazine, among other publications.

Her work is on display in the Center for Faith and Life Feb. 1 through March 22.

The first panel Feb. 7 begins at 11 a.m. in the CFL recital hall and includes speakers Abby Dobson of Wormser, Kiely, Galef and Jacobs LLP, New York City; Richard Merritt and Scott Hurley, both of Luther College; and Fredrick Douglass Dixon of Kennedy King College, Chicago.

The second moderated panel, also in the recital hall, begins at 2:30 p.m. and includes speakers Paul A. Williams and Owen Mordaunt, both of the University of Nebraska at Omaha; Kendra Janelle Ross of the New School, New York City; and Ben Mchie of the African American Registry.

For a complete schedule of events, visit luther.edu/diversity/blackhistory/Agenda/.