Tuesday, 26 November 2013



It seems that history has a funny habit of repeating itself and often reinventing cultural and historical experiences as a new perspective or contribution to modernity. The global history of black people living in western societies, Africa, Caribbean and South America is no exception to the rule.
Black Ephemera 1There is a strong link in the development of mass communication, particularly, growth of the postcard industry between 1870-1940s and the diffusion of negative racist and stereotypes images. These beliefs and attitudes reflected in cards were based by colonial expats based in Africa (teachers, administrators, soldiers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, explorers, and anthropologists) and the legacy of slavery and plantation societies in North America, Caribbean and South America.
Racist assumptions were based on the following beliefs and values about the role of black people from the 18th and 19th Century:
  • Black people were born to be in servitude (curse of Ham in the bible which was adopted to justify slavery on religious grounds);
  • Racial science based evolutionary/eugenics theories (e.g. Darwin) that black people have not achieved full development as human beings and thus low intelligence and but have a capacity for physical labour and child like naivete in making fun entertainment;
  • Enlightenment school of philosophy (e.g.Locke, Hegel) black people have not made any significant contribution to world history and mankind and thus they can only relate to a primitive/savage existence.
The growth and development of the Post Card industry between 1870-1940 laid the modern foundation of promulgation of racist images into popular culture (newspapers and film &television also played an important contribution).

Post cards were the equivalent of the email and the telephone as way of communicating through the generation ideas, thoughts and opinions.
Ephemera is the phrase used by collectors and dealers on items and subject matters on paper e.g. postcards, newspapers, trade/cigarette cards, posters, correspondence, documents, advertisements etc
Black Ephemera 2The concept of the postcard was developed in Germany in the 1860s however; it was not until the 1870s with the introduction of printing technology and the development of postage services that cards were available to the public to use as a form of communication. The growth of the industry was limited by regulations imposed by various countries regarding size of cards and postage rates. Nevertheless, after 1894 in USA and 1902 in UK these restrictions were lifted (a number of European countries were al ready advanced in this field).
The above results laid the foundation of the industry in USA and UK with the tremendous growth of picture postcards manufacturers and publishers almost equivalent to the dotcom expansion in the 1990s.

The industry was open to anyone start a business and used their own images or pictures or commission artist and photographers. In Britain most cards were printed in Germany as the cost were far cheaper for the new market
However, a number of companies dominated the industry with high quality and vast range of images and products: Valentine&Sons, Raphael Tuck&Sons, Detroit publishing,
1909 distributed over 860 million postcards every week in the British postal system. By end of the first world war postcards had achieved the status as a major mass communication vehicle for companies to promote and advertise their products and services; individuals to communicate in a personal way to friends, family and work colleagues locally and around the world (essential in a pre telephone age).
Black Ephemera 3In addition, postcards achieved the status as collector's items where publishers printed millions of cards for individual indulgence and pleasure.
The categories varied in subject matter ranging from actresses, rail disasters, churches, hospital wards, windmills, airships, shop fronts, advertising&propaganda, risque'obscene, topographical.
Novelty cards were also popular publishers used there creative ideas to (nearest comparison is the genre of reality TV programmes such as Big Brother and Survivor) excite and push imaginations of the public to new realms.

The depiction of black images in ephemera can be analysed in the following categories:
1. Topological country scenes of Africa,Caribbean,South America and Deep South of America (pictures and scenes of famous landmarks e.g. Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), Pyramids (Egypt), Panama Canal (Panama), Pitons (St Lucia)
2. Social history/life style(street/market scenes,people at work e.g. picking cotton, fishing, hunting
3. Family/village life e.g. images of families (typically chief and tribe members), warriors, children playing, people outside huts/shanty towns
4. Celebration of Empires, Colonies and Reconstruction period (USA) servitude of black surbodinates (pictures of Misionaries, Colonial administrators, Officers from armed forces, business men giving orders, directions or posing as superior beings to their black subjects)
5. Coon/Buffoons (humorous images of black men and boys as foolish/stupid/lazyand eating food like watermelons)
6. Children (images of either black child or black and white children playing with captions that question the identity of the black child)
7. Cleanliness (images of a mammy figure or a white child using a soap product to scrub hard a black child with captions referring to identity)
8. Lynching and Beatings (pictures of black men being lynched or being beating publicly as a spectators sport and family outings)
9. Entertainers and Sports Personalities (pictures of Jack Johnson, Josephine Baker, Samuel Coolridge Taylor and Kaffar Boys)
10. Women (erotica images of black women)
Black Ephemera 4However it must be said that some of the images all so have some positive perspective. The images gives an historical dimension of the life of black communities around the world after slavery and prior to the movement in Africa and the Caribbean and the lifestyle of the first black people came to Britain after WW2 and the Windrush.
All these assumptions and theories influenced popular culture and the perception of black people internationally. Postcards effectively diffused these perceptions in images to millions of white people around the world particularly in Europe where there was no or limited black population.
The historical process since the emancipation/abolition of slavery and the creation of colonial/post colonial states in Africa and the Caribbean along the development of multi cultural societies in Europe and North America.
The mainstreaming and the institutionalization of racist images, thoughts, perceptions and values which is currently reflected in negative stereotypes of black people in popular culture, science, medicine, media and the schooling and education of all young people.
With the duty under the Race Relations Amendment Act 2001 it is important that we promote and develop positive images, structures and challenge racist ideology in mainstream institutions if we are to ensure the next generation of black people living in Britain have respect and be value by society and ourselves.
Black Ephemera 5Black Ephemera is the forgotten and hidden history how black people have been transformed from chattel labour/colonial subjects to brands in popular culture and victims of mordenity by society (health inequality, mental illness, school exclusion, black and black violence e.g. domestic violence and gun crime).