These Pictures Tell a Story


What art history can teach us about race and racism in America

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
September 9, 2020

Tanya Sheehan, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, has taught courses on race and representation throughout her career. She has also published widely in the field. Her latest book, Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor (Penn State University Press, 2018), explores how Americans communicated ideas about race through photography and humor in the 19th and 20th centuries. Sheehan responded to questions from Colby Magazine Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15.

Study in Black and White—tell us more about it.

The book takes a serious look at the prolific racial humor about and within the medium of photography in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This form of comedy was used in the United States and across the British Empire to express evolving ideas about race, Black emancipation, and civil rights. It took the form of comic illustrations, popular literature, blackface minstrel shows, staged commercial and amateur photographs, mass-produced postcards, and other ephemera. The book places historical examples in conversation with contemporary art that uses humor to critique racism—art by Walker, Fred Wilson, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, and Genevieve Grieves.

As I dug deeper into American racial humor, I began to appreciate and explore its transnational character. This led me to track a photographically themed minstrel show from the U.S. to the UK and across Australasia. In doing so, I learned a tremendous amount about how blackness and whiteness signify differently across national and cultural borders.

Joshua Johnson
Louisa Baggs Emory, 1814
Oil on canvas
23 3/4 x 20 1/4 in. (60.3 x 51.4 cm)
Gift of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld in honor of Peter and Paula Lunder
Accession Number: 2013.571

What do you hope to accomplish by exploring photography, race, and humor in your book?

I hope that Study in Black and White will serve as a model for approaching humor as complex social commentary. It also makes a specific intervention into the history of photography by revealing the racial politics of the medium’s most fundamental elements. The positive-negative process, for instance, has served as a ready metaphor for white-Black relations. And readers will be surprised to learn that the convention of the photographic smile emerged in the U.S. as white mimicry of Black caricature.

That’s surprising. Can you tell us a bit more about the historical context of the smile?

I presented this part of the book quite a bit before its publication because it really changed how people think about an everyday and seemingly apolitical practice. Scholars have assumed that smiling was impossible due to the long exposure times and stiff poses of early photography. But I found that the problem was social rather than technical. White Americans saw extreme expressions of happiness like the toothy grin as unbecoming of a lady or gentleman, and so they were absent from honorific portraits but often appeared in caricatures of African Americans. When whites did begin to broadly smile in photographs around 1900, they did so through racial humor. I collected countless examples of light-complexioned subjects holding to their lips an instrument of racist caricature: the watermelon slice. I also found that African Americans picked up watermelons in early snapshots in an effort to undermine the degrading stereotype. If readers pause to think about that complex history the next time they “say cheese,” then the book will have made an impact.

It took a decade to research and write Study in Black and White. How did your work on race and racism evolve over that period?

When sharing parts of the book with audiences, I was repeatedly asked how it felt, as a white woman, to study racist images. My responses could never fully capture the mix of feelings that came with living with racist humor and explaining it to my white son. Nor have I been able to express effectively the discomfort and self-doubt I often experienced when speaking publicly about racist images designed to amuse and reassure someone who looks like me. As the book took shape, I learned how crucial it was for me to acknowledge how my whiteness shapes my relationship to those images. It’s simply not the same thing for a Black artist and a white scholar to engage with white fantasies of blackness.

I also developed a deeper appreciation of how and why seeing a racist image outside of a robust critical context can cause harm. As I was beginning the book project, I presented my research at several institutions where people rightly challenged the inclusion of racial humor in the event publicity. Later, when the press was selecting images for the book’s cover, which would circulate widely, I insisted that it feature anti-racist photographs created by African Americans.

Much of your scholarly work, including Study in Black and White and an essay written with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., has focused on racist images. Why?

I’ve published widely about popular visual culture and how it communicates assumptions about race. In our essay in The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, Skip Gates and I critically surveyed the often degrading images of blackness that were popularized in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries and later subverted by artists of the African diaspora. Many of the historical images I’ve written about were not generally seen as racist when they were created, but we would certainly describe them that way now. That’s one reason why I study such images—to help people understand how the representations we consume every day are deeply embedded in racialized systems of power.

Why is it important to keep those images alive? And to understand their origins?

Any engagement with racist images today must be clearly framed by critical questions about the past and present. I have been inspired in this regard by the work of modern and contemporary Black artists who have incorporated racial stereotypes into powerful expressions of anti-racism. Kara Walker, who is represented by several artworks at the Colby Museum, is well-known for having challenged the art world with her frequent invocation of the mammy stereotype, blackface minstrelsy, and the violence of slavery. Her work has shown that racist images cannot simply be dismissed as things of the past. Some continue to circulate, like the figure of “Aunt Jemima” on pancake products, whose retirement was only announced this summer in response to the nationwide calls for racial justice. Even after its official removal, we need to be able to recognize how that image of Black womanhood operates in a collective, racial unconscious.

What lessons might your research offer to members of the Colby community who might be reflecting deeply on the history of racism for the first time in the wake of the recent racial violence and protests?

We can and should expect that work to be difficult, messy, and awkward. I certainly made many mistakes creating Study in Black and White, and I’m grateful to the countless colleagues and students who helped me learn from them. I hope that the book, in turn, can serve as a useful tool as more Americans come to understand systemic racism. Learn about how the things we do, see, and consume every day are tied to histories of race and racism in this country. Read widely and ask yourself how each of us is implicated in those histories, even if we are not conscious of them.

Read more about Sheehan’s earlier work as editor of the collection of essays titled Photography and Migration: