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.
Bert Williams was a Bahamian and one of the most successful black Vaudville starts of the 1920s. He actually looked like this.
This is a page from a music score for “Jim Crow Jubilee,” published in Boston in 1847.
Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee, 1900. Classic blackface.