“The Liberation of T.O”

By: Neha Embar and Kiran Varadarajan



“The Liberation of T.O” is a work by Hank Willis Thomas created in 2003 in order to address the racial stereotypes that lie within advertising and the sports industry. In the image, we see the football player Terrell Owens running from a crowd in a market. The people in the background are seen rioting and visibly angry with T.O. This image is a part of Thomas’ Unbranded series which focuses on the racial stereotypes propagated by advertising by removing the text of advertisements thereby revealing what the advertisement is really selling. His work often exposes signals of prejudice that readers would not have noticed otherwise. This allows the reader to have a more stripped-back and realistic depiction of these advertisements and the age-old stereotypes that they continue to promote. Thomas capitalizes a lot on the rhetoric of visual advertising. The message needs to be conveyed quickly and effectively in order for a person to be able to understand the meaning of the work in the amount of time that they view the image. In making each piece, Thomas makes decisions about what aspects can be emphasized to convey a message in the most powerful way that is also convincing and easy to understand.

Historical and Cultural Context:


Hank Willis Thomas received his education in photography and Africana Studies. Afterwards, he went on to create numerous pieces inspired by African Americans as they are perceived in modern society. He rose to fame with the creation of his Branded series. Currently, Thomas is currently delving more into the political atmosphere and creating works that critique our current government. Thomas’ works portray the rampant racism that still pervades the advertising industry. Thomas began his artistic career with a work based on a MasterCard advertisement. Thomas had a very personal connection to this work as it was based off of the death of his cousin. He used photographs of his own family at the funeral and in doing so is able to draw more emotion out of the viewers of his work.


In terms of the actual artwork, a lot of the context is based on the setting of the photograph in that it takes place in Oakland, California, which is a predominantly African American community.  Terrell Owens, the football player featured in this work, famously played for the San Francisco 49ers. In this work, Thomas draws comparisons between the neighboring towns and their differences in race and socioeconomic status. In comparison to Oakland, San Francisco is a much more affluent area of California. Oakland also has a larger African American population than San Francisco.  He uses Terrell Owens as an example of a successful black man creating a bridge between the two towns.

In the image we see T.O. running away from Oakland and given his attire, stance, and history with the 49ers, it is safe to assume that he is running toward San Francisco. At the same time, we see a black man who is dressed in a football uniform, a sport that was traditionally all-white. This man is running away from a white man who is dressed in “street wear” or basketball clothes, a sport that is now considered a predominantly black. Thomas uses their difference in apparel to emphasize the role reversal that is happening in the picture and in daily life. The white man is angry with T.O. for taking what is, in his opinion, “his”. He uses T.O. as a symbol of black excellence, and the man in the background as a representation of society’s objection to this. This idea is echoed in the extended title: “I’m not goin back ta’ work for massa in dat’ darn field”. In this analogy, Thomas likens the relationship between the people in the background and T.O. to that of a slave and his master. Terrell Owens is “escaping” the town of Oakland to play for San Francisco. The white man in the background is upset with Owens for his newfound freedom and success, like a master with his slave. Thomas uses this artwork to depict the changing roles of African-Americans in society and how this has affected the dynamic between white and black Americans.

Themes and Style:

Most commonly, Thomas’ artwork is a photograph that has already been produced and distributed, but instead has just been edited by Thomas. Instead of creating new work to share his message, he exposes the stereotypes that already exist in advertising and media. For example, instead of making a piece of art featuring T.O., he manipulates an advertisement featuring the football player. By simply “exposing” the truth that already lies within modern media, he almost heightens the effect of the racism and makes it more powerful than if he had created the art himself.  In turn, it gives the reader a sense of unease by showing them that this sort of racism has existed under their noses this whole time. While people may not realize how pervasive these age-old stereotypes are, Thomas’ work helps readers understand that certain racist ideas are deeply ingrained in our sense of self, so much so that they make up a huge sector of our economy. Furthermore, the use of an advertisement as his form of media emphasizes the presence of racism in consumerism. These stereotypes are often the foundation of advertisements and marketing campaigns everywhere – meaning companies make large amounts of money off of this racism. The use of advertisements gives a harsher spin to the reality of these stereotypes.

Hank Willis’ Thomas style is as mentioned above, heavily based in advertisements and media. However, most of his advertisements originate from the 70s and 80s. His work also reaches past African-Americans in media and delves into modern femininity: stewardesses smoking cigarettes, black women with large afros holding their children, and rosy cheeked women pulling muffins out of an oven. He uses these “retro” seeming advertisements to draw out a sense of nostalgia from his readers. As most of his readers are around his age, they too grew up seeing these advertisements and therefore, grew up seeing these harmful stereotypes propagated. These small instances of racism served as the foundation for their childhood. Again, this makes audiences even more aware of the racism that surrounds them: even the images they grew up with are tainted with harmful and ignorant ideas. It makes them question every aspect of their daily life and how pervasive slavery-era stereotypes are.



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His other series is the opposite of Unbranded-instead titled “Branded”. In this series, he takes slavery era symbols and weaves them into images of modern Black America. For example, he has an image of the Nike image branded onto a black man’s head. Another image features two basketball players dunking into a noose. This is a recurring theme of Thomas’: infusing the everyday with slavery-era in order to expose the pervasiveness of racism.  His Branded series works in the same way as Unbranded, showing people how connected these stereotypes are to our everyday life.

Critical Conversation:

Our piece touches on controversial topics both in sports and in advertising. Race has historically been a central point of advertising in that the message is able to be conveyed quickly and effectively. As Bristor et al mentions, racial stereotypes in advertising are often depicted from a white perspective which emphasizes the stereotypes even more. The article by Bristor et al discusses the ways that race and African American stereotypes have pervaded so much of American television and culture in general. This gives us a better perspective into the advertising aspect of stereotypes. It also gives us better historical representation as to how stereotypes have been propagated throughout time and throughout popular culture.

Dipti Desai, in her article, talks about the different ways that race relations have changed over time and specifically the ways that race relations have changed after President Obama took office. While all stereotypes are not necessarily negative, there are many instances of popular stereotypes that have been referenced throughout history. These stereotypes even extend to advertisements with celebrities as Desai mentions one in particular with athlete Lebron James carrying the famous supermodel Gisele Bundchen in an “ape-like stance,” according to Desai. This stereotype of African American men as a “black beast” is one that has been unnecessarily maintained throughout time in advertising, war propaganda, and advertising. Techniques such as this one have been repeated time and time again and the techniques extend to even television. Thomas himself describes his art on the “problematic state of race in America.” He chooses specifically to emphasize certain aspects of advertisements that highlight these stereotypes. It is no secret that race and racial stereotypes  have been used as a major factor in advertising.

In his interview with Thomas, writer Andrew Goldstein discusses the ways that Thomas’ art is a form of social commentary. Thomas’ art uses the techniques of advertising to emphasize the stereotypes that are propagated. Jonze is a writer from The Guardian that interviewed Thomas personally about his work and the contribution that he thinks it has in today’s political and social climate. Jonze’s article also discusses the ways that Thomas’ works are a commentary of the race relations of today. He explains how Thomas ties together the ideas of political polarization with racial themes in artwork. The article goes further in depth to describe the impact of sports as it contributes to race and specifically states that, “‘[f]ootball is often a proxy for war.’” We see this idea further explored in the work itself in that we see the politics of sports as it contributes to race and the perceptions of each race. Thomas’ emphasis of sports as it plays into race has been a huge source of influence in his art and has been shown throughout both the Branded and Unbranded series.


Works Cited

Bristor, Julia M, et al. “Race and Ideology: African-American Images in Television Advertising.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, vol. 14, no. 1, 1995. JSTOR [JSTOR], http://www.jstor.org/stable/30000378.

Desai, Dipti. “THE CHALLENGE OF NEW COLORBLIND RACISM IN ART EDUCATION.” Art Education, vol. 63, no. 5, Sept. 2010, www.jstor.org/stable/20799833.

Goldstein, Andrew M. “Hank Willis Thomas on the Art of Talking About Race.” Hank Willis Thomas on the Art of Talking About Race, Artspace, 20 Feb. 2012.

Jonze, Tim. “Hank Willis Thomas: Why Does America’s Great Protest Artist Think Things Are Better under Trump?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Oct. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/10/hank-willis-thomas-the-beautiful-game-ben-brown-fine-arts-london-football-art-trump-race.

Further Reading

Bay Area Census — San Francisco City and County, Bay Area Census, http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/counties/SanFranciscoCounty.htm.

Shainman, Jack. “Hank Willis Thomas.” Hank Willis Thomas – Jack Shainman Gallery, www.jackshainman.com/artists/hankwillis-thomas/.

Thomas, Hank. “Bio.” “Works.” Hank Willis Thomas, www.hankwillisthomas.com/.

Website Services & Coordination Staff. “US Census Bureau 2010 Census Interactive Population Map.” Visit Census.gov, 5 May 2011, http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap/ipmtext.php?fl=06:0653000.



Hank Willis Thomas

Branded Series

Unbranded Series

Terrell Owens

Afterlives of Slavery

Racism in Advertising