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Signs of the Times

Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow

Elizabeth Abel
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Signs of the Times
    Book Description:

    Signs of the Timestraces 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94586-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. Introduction: Jim Crow’s Cultural Turns
    (pp. 1-30)

    To visit the “Field to Factory” exhibit at the National Museum of American History, you must pass through one of two doors: the one on the left, marked “White,” or the one on the right, marked “Colored.” There is an almost audible gasp as visitors stop in their tracks. For white museumgoers, the impasse is ethical: whether to pass beneath the sign of an undesired privilege or to appropriate a path one has not earned the right to walk. African American visitors confront a more excruciating choice between resubmitting to racism and repudiating race. What both groups share, I imagine,...


    • 1 American Graffiti: The Social Life of Jim Crow Signs
      (pp. 33-61)

      White . . . colored . . . white . . . colored:the shorthand for segregation. In Lillian Smith’s Southern Everytown, all Jim Crow signs are one master sign, a superscript over all social spaces and relations. Circumventing the channels of cognition, the signs write race directly on the body, which is programmed to dance to segregation’s piper. The choreography is various, the words invariant. Scarcely materialized in written form, their incantation appears to be intoned instead by a disembodied voice that speaks from beyond the historical scene, as if the language of Jim Crow bypassed graphic mediation to...

    • 2 The Signs of Race in the Language of Photography
      (pp. 62-102)

      If the biography of a thing encompasses its transformation into a commodity, perhaps its life story should be extended to embrace its translation into a visual form. Even to speak of “translation,” of course, is already to take a position in a series of debates about words and images, language and photography, a multifaceted and slippery set of relations that have a complex bearing on the production of race that Paul Gilroy characterizes as a synthesis of logos and icon. Gilroy has in mind the recruitment of the visual field to embody racial concepts, a function most fully realized in...

    • 3 Cultural Memory and the Conditions of Visibility: The Circulation of Jim Crow Photographs
      (pp. 103-120)

      Photographs do not emerge out of nowhere as solitary units bereft of context. Instead, they appear—when they do appear—in specific institutional and discursive frames that shape their legibility. These contexts of reception are often tied to contexts of production: the institutional mandates and political and commercial motives that call documentary photographs into being. Although some Jim Crow photographs were taken by private individuals determined to make a record of discrimination, the majority were driven by journalistic, administrative, or political assignments that both created and constrained their production and display.

      The puzzle posed by the scarcity and undercirculation of...


    • 4 Restroom Doors and Drinking Fountains: Perspective, Mobility, and the Fluid Grounds of Race and Gender
      (pp. 123-159)

      In a bold variation on its “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership designed a bumper sticker in the early 1950s—“Don’t BuyGasWhere You Can’t Use theRest Room”—that attempted to pressure white station owners into letting African American customers use the facilities. The campaign testified to the urgency of gaining access to public restrooms; its failure attested to white resistance to sharing not only intimate physical space but also the symbolic space of sexual difference that is fundamental to culture. The more aggressive tactics of the Freedom Riders in the...

    • 5 The Eyeball and the Wall: Eating, Seeing, and the Nation
      (pp. 160-192)

      Interracial eating and interracial sex: what joins this provocative pair? Writing two years after the first lunch counter sit-ins, Lerone Bennett Jr. understandably had restaurant discrimination on his mind; as senior editor ofEbonysince 1958, he covered the sit-in movement. Yet after his insight into these twin foundations of national whiteness, Bennett turned from the still-turbulent scene of eating to the more fixed and familiar turf of the sexual taboos that had long defended the white nation from the risks of miscegenation. What threat to white nationhood was posed by interracial eating? What anxieties of national incorporation were assuaged...


    • 6 Double Take: Photography, Cinema, and the Segregated Theater
      (pp. 195-216)

      Who is more captive in the movie theater: the African American spectators channeled from the side door to its segregated balcony, where, at a remove from the cinematic scene, they can exercise their opinions and their limbs, or the unmarked spectators in Jean-Louis Baudry’s scenario of isolation, at liberty to sit where they choose in the hermetically sealed and darkened cave in which they are severed from the outside world and chained to the flickering images on the screen? Or, to pose the question differently, why are boredom and bad movies imaginable only from the balcony?

      A signal theorist of...

    • 7 Upside Down and Inside Out: Camera Work, Spectatorship, and the Chronotope of the Colored Balcony
      (pp. 217-248)

      Balconies in Northern theaters were discreetly adapted to separate the races. The more stringent demands for segregation in the South generated more extreme solutions—packed upper galleries walled off from the rest of the theater and accessible only through an exterior flight of stairs—that were both fostered and brought to public attention by the hardships of the 1930s. The economic pressures of the Depression led to the closing of many of the black-owned movie theaters in the South and to the expanded use of a segregated uppermost balcony at previously all-white theaters struggling to maximize the use of theater...


    • 8 Remaking Racial Signs: Activism and Photography in the Theater of the Sit-Ins
      (pp. 251-291)

      The chant that thirty teenage members of the NAACP Youth Council directed at Mr. Wade, the owner of a downtown Oklahoma City lunch counter, put into circulation a signature trope of the sit-in movement: the cup of coffee whose passage across the counter would confer the national legitimacy that birthright had failed to bestow. This passage would also “redeem . . . our larger society” by incorporating multiple bloodlines into a single national cup. The Greensboro Coffee Party, the title conferred to honor the request that officially launched the sit-in movement in North Carolina in 1960, registers that event’s historic...

  11. Afterword: Contemporary Turns
    (pp. 292-300)

    During the NAACP’s “Parade for Victory” in 1944, four pallbearers in tuxedos solemnly carried a casket down a busy Detroit street. Above the casket stretched a banner proclaiming “Here Lies Jim Crow.” It was one of several such funeral celebrations, as Jim Crow had to be reburied after each new manifestation. Even after his legal demise, rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated. This did not dissuade photographers from documenting the public dismantling of his signs in the aftermath of legislation banning their display. Some of these photographs feature sober transportation officials unfastening the screws attaching signs to walls; others...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 301-356)
    (pp. 357-378)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 379-391)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 392-392)