Academic journal article American Studies

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow

Academic journal article American Studies

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow

Article excerpt

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow. By Elizabeth Abel. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2010.

In the introduction to her engaging and intellectually stimulating, if somewhat jargon-heavy, study of the semiotics of photography depicting Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. from the late 19th century to the Civil Rights movement, Elizabeth Abel stresses the importance of tracing spatial dimensions of race in an only seemingly post-racial society after the election of Barack Obama. As Abel puts it, "I have sought to complicate cultural memory with a more nuanced and inclusive visual record that might constitute an enduring facet of the American social landscape" (24). Abel goes beyond a simple reading of "whites only" signs and has amassed an impressive archive of Jim Crow photography (the book features 85 images), which she meticulously analyzes in this first comprehensive study on the topic. Drawing on key theorists like Paul Gilroy, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Abel unveils the messiness behind the binary of race in photos, cartoons, and movies of segregation in the U.S.

In the first part of the book, Abel looks at the material history of Jim Crow signs, at their depiction through the language of photography, and the circulation of these photographs. Abel acknowledges complex discursive practices such as collecting these signs and the agency of African Americans in "messing" with them (as in putting up "For Colored Only" signs). The second part of the book discusses the gendered aspects of built environment through depictions of water fountains and restroom signs. …

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