Double Duty: Black History Month & Photoshop

This week in my Public History and New Media class we were tasked with grasping the basics of Photoshop. Photoshop is familiar to many. For those unfamiliar, it is a computer program used to edit images. It’s used to change images that you see everyday in print media and online. Seeing isn’t always believing. Yet, the cliche is still true: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. If anyone doubts the power of an image then they haven’t taken time to realize how visually saturated American culture is.

This month is Black History Month and honestly I have little to say about it. It might be weird because I’m a historian who happens to be African American but I’m not a historian of African American history. The majority of my history interests are situated in race and ethnicity in American history. In fact my undergraduate study was more about Latino and Asian Americans but I digress. Well this month I found out about something called Black History memes. They use real historical images of black people but with humorous comments…well sometimes. Some of them are a bit funny and other ones just perpetrate tired stereotypes about African Americans. One such meme poses civil rights activist Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) as a dead beat dad, just one small example of how edited images get out of hand.

There is a reason places like the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia exists; they know about the power of an image. The museum has postcards, advertisements, and other objects that chronicle the racist imagery of African Americans from Reconstruction to present. We all need to remember these images because they’re still have an effect at present time. Don’t believe me? I suggest you simply pay attention during Halloween in America when some ignorant, culturally insensitive white frat boy decides his costume will be “a black guy” (or Arab or Native American…). I’ve come to find that a number of people my age don’t even know what blackface is.

You may be wondering, “What’s this have to do with Photoshop?” Well I’ve edited some images that show a brief example of the history of African American caricatures. Mind you, my skills are very basic. Also, know that those people who do have skills in Photoshop have the incredible ability to change images into almost anything they want.

This image is public domain and the original image is from Wikipedia/Wikimedia. Click the image for that link.

This image is public domain and the original image is from Wikipedia/Wikimedia. Click the image for that link.


Bert Williams was a Bahamian and one of the most successful black Vaudville starts of the 1920s. He actually looked like this.

This is an edited version of an original image provided by This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode]. Click the image for a link to the original.

This is an edited version of an original image provided by This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode]. Click the image for a link to the original.


This is a page from a music score for “Jim Crow Jubilee,” published in Boston in 1847.

This edited image is public domain and the original image is from the Library of Congress. Click the image for the link.

This edited image is public domain and the original image is from the Library of Congress. Click the image for the link.


Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee, 1900. Classic blackface.

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5 thoughts on “Double Duty: Black History Month & Photoshop

  1. I am glad that you brought light to this, blackface is something that needs to be discussed more than it is. Do digital and social media offer “new” ways for public historians to bring light to this issue and its history?

    • I think that digital media does make it much easier to access these images and use them in educational settings. I think it’s especially helpful for teachers and museum educators alike. At the same time, you may not find these images or their context if you aren’t looking. It brings me back to the Black History memes that I mentioned. The images that are used are of some significant historical figures but instead the images are taken out of context for what some people call “humor”. What we get instead is a bunch of prejudiced caricatures. My answer to that is more people using the images for positivity and education, hopefully drowning out ignorance.

  2. Pingback: Photoshop: Apply the Learning Curve | ReMix MashUp PublicHistorian

  3. Like Sam, I’m glad that you addressed issues about blackface and perpetuating racist stereotypes. I think that the ethical side of image alteration is often ignored. It also makes me think about image creators/changers who rely on the nature of the web (large potential audiences and relative anonymity, though many are just openly racist) to spread images with messages of hate. I wonder how and when (and if) these sorts of racist images will be subject to the same kinds of laws that govern the physical world.

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