Hateful Things: Racist Postcards c. 1900-1960s
In 2005 and 2006, as I was intensively updating my research on West African textile arts, assisted by a brief sabbatical leave from Marygrove College, I found that, depending on the online search terms I used, I would encounter information and images related to cotton manufacture in the U.S. southern states. At times, these images were either subtly or overtly racist; many of the images were imprinted on postal cards.
I decided to undertake this tangential search for further racist postcard images, and discovered a veritable cornucopia of 4 x 6 demeaning stereotypes, hatred, terrorism, and even pedophilia and death-wishes. These cards were created and sent primarily during the “Jim Crow” period of U.S. history, from around 1900-1910, when postcards became wildly popular, until the mid-1960s, when the Civil Rights Act sent the most overtly racist forms of popular culture underground.
As difficult as it was (and is) to confront so many hateful images, studying their recurrent themes helped me to answer a question I’ve wanted to answer since my youth: how were (and are) so many white Americans convinced of the truth of racist propaganda, even when they themselves benefit little or not at all from the social economy that propaganda supports?
Not wishing to reward people selling these cards, either reproductions or the original versions, I downloaded a few dozen digital images into a PowerPoint slide show presentation for purely educational purposes, used to instruct students in Humanities, Black Film, and Cultural Geography courses.
Educational collections of actual postcards are maintained by David Pilgrim at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan), and by Khalid el-Hakim, a former student of Pilgrim, at his Black History 101 Mobile Museum based in Detroit, Michigan.
A brilliant 1987 documentary by Marlon Riggs, Ethnic Notions, positions such postcards within a wider culture of popular daily and household objects supporting white supremacy (e.g., cookie jars, ashtrays, sheet music, children’s songs and games, political cartoons, animated children’s cartoons, and Hollywood films). A 5-minute clip from Ethnic Notions is available at California Newsreel, which sells the dvd, and the complete text transcript is also available online. Unfortunately, we lost Marlon Riggs to AIDS in 1994; Ethnic Notions as well as his other documentaries, Color Adjustment and Black Is–Black Ain’t are his still vibrant legacy.
Those seeking to understand the use of popular culture to advance white supremacy may also benefit from the 1997 bell hooks documentary, Cultural Criticism and Transformation, available at amazon.com and on YouTube.
Here is the link to my PowerPoint slide show, last updated in April, 2011.