The problem of black ephemera

Should offensive images be consigned to history? On Wednesday 4 July, we host a unique conference that will examine how black people have been visually portrayed in printed material from the 1800s to the 21st century, organised by the Centre for Ephemera Studies and Hackney councillor and cultural historian Patrick Vernon.

An accompanying display of everyday printed items, including packaging, advertising, postcards, and sheet music, will offer insights into the ways in which black people of African descent have been depicted over the years, typically through stereotypes that we now recognise as offensive. Delegates will hear from historians of black culture and design, curators and collectors of ephemera.

Professor Michael Twyman, Director of the University’s Centre for Ephemera Studies said: “Facial, bodily, and behavioural stereotyping was so deeply embedded when artists depicted black people that even those with no particular racial agenda fell into the trap. But others wilfully played on such stereotypical traits for the purpose of advertising, humour, or in order to make political or social points. This conference will ask if we should sweep such images under the carpet as too obnoxious for viewing, or whether there is value in reminding ourselves of the dangers of any persistent kind of graphic stereotyping.

“Some themes, particularly ones contrasting black and white or clean and dirty, were endemic in advertising. The study day will reflect the many ways and numerous situations in which stereotypes of black people have been disseminated from the days of slavery through to recent times.”

Patrick Vernon said: “Black ephemera provides the opportunity for people of African descent to reclaim and revisit this period in the life of black communities after slavery, but before the civil rights movement and the struggle for independence in Africa and the Caribbean. When one looks at a range of black ephemera from postcards, trade cards/advertising, photographs and newspapers, most of these images tend to be racist and stereotypical. Tens of thousands of these negative images are still in circulation today up and down the country at postcard, book/ephemera fairs and in the possession of private dealers.”

The study day, ‘Black ephemera: depictions of people of African descent’ – 11.00 to 18.30, costs £50 (including lunch and drinks). Applications and enquiries to Diane Bilbey