Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow

Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow

Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow

Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow


Signs of the Times traces the career of Jim Crow signs--simplified in cultural memory to the "colored/white" labels that demarcated the public spaces of the American South--from their intellectual and political origins in the second half of the nineteenth century through their dismantling by civil rights activists in the 1960s and '70s. In this beautifully written, meticulously researched book, Elizabeth Abel assembles a variegated archive of segregation signs and photographs that translated a set of regional practices into a national conversation about race. Abel also brilliantly investigates the semiotic system through which segregation worked to reveal how the signs functioned in particular spaces and contexts that shifted the grounds of race from the somatic to the social sphere.


From toiling as White House slaves to President-elect Barack Obama, we have
crossed the ultimate color line


Why a book about segregation signs in the early years of America’s first African American presidency? What is to be gained by looking back at these painful objects at the moment when they appear to have finally relinquished their grip? In the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory, it seemed as if a flood of joy and tears had melted away the divisions that are the subject of this study. It was tempting to embrace a narrative of progress in which dreams realized, however long deferred, could redeem the burdens and reward the struggles of the past. Surely that was the vision behind the headline with which the New York Times greeted Obama’s victory: “Racial Barrier Falls in Heavy Turnout.” Evoking an image of civil rights demonstrators massed against an almost tangible barrier, the headline situated the election in a history of protest movements: the end of the electoral race was the end of race, the crossing of the ultimate color line.

In Signs of the Times, I propose a more dynamic relation between our segregated past and our longed-for postracial present, a longing jeopardized by (among other events) the furor over Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s description of herself as a “wise Latina” and by the shocking arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, entangled in the color line implicitly drawn around his Cambridge home. I hope the book will provoke its readers less to draw comfort from the singular breakthroughs of electoral politics than to probe the continuities between the explicit racial laws and signs that traversed a surprisingly large swath of the nation for a surprisingly long time and the more insidious modes and sites of racialization that persist in the twenty-first century, the undeclared color lines that continue to delimit neighborhoods, prisons, barracks, places of worship, and schools. What modalities of racism still fracture the social landscape after the dismantling of Jim Crow? Where would the racial signs of our times be situated, and what language would they use?

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