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Vol. LXIV, No. 41
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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Scholar Examines Jim Crow Era Images in Terms of “Visibility, Legibility, Materiality”

Ellen Gilbert

“But I’m not — I got this tan at the beach,” exclaims a woman in a 1946 Chicago Defender newspaper cartoon after boarding a bus and directed to the section marked “From here back for Negroes.”

University of California at Berkeley Professor of English Elizabeth Abel apologized at the outset of her recent talk for having “to display these offensive signs.” History is history, however, and she proceeded deftly with her well-attended talk on September 29, entitled “Visibility, Legibility, Materiality: Reading Racial Signs.” It was sponsored by Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies, Program in the Study of Woman and Gender, and The Program in American Studies.

The “segregation signs” that characterized the Jim Crow era (1876 to 1965) in America were “transparent tools” said Ms. Ebel, who received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 1975. Her recent book, Signs of the Times (University of California Press), is replete with photographs and examples of the “interchangeable” Jim Crow signs that reflected the “prevailing understanding of how race works.” It was an era, she noted, that was surprisingly not well-documented, despite the fact that these “pieces of writing tacked to walls around the nation,” at drinking fountains, lunch counters, and movie theaters, “made race visible.”

Displaying a 1921 photograph of a sign outside the the Lenox Theater in August, Georgia, that read “Colored only. No whites allowed,” Ms. Abel observed that “race-making” signs were not limited to the “whites only” ilk. Their mutability, she emphasized, extended to linguistic, spatial, and visual considerations, in a context where “subservience was pervaded by ambiguity.”

Produced in a variety of media in “every conceivable shape” from wood to neon, Jim Crow signs were created by “many hands,” from authorized municipal authorities to anonymous individuals. The latter, Ms. Abel noted, “teased pockets of covert racism out of hiding.” Their signs took on additional meaning according to the physical structures to which they were attached, misspellings, and other contextual clues.

“Abel complements stunning photos of a sometimes forgotten world — where ‘White Only’ and ‘Colored Only’ signs were a disturbing legal and social reality — with an in-depth scholarly examination,” said the San Francisco Chronicle’s review of Signs of the Times. Ms. Abel’s previous work includes the book Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis.

At the end of her talk, Ms. Abel, who has received numerous teaching and writing awards, expressed regret at the current proliferation of “racist language” in America. “The meanings don’t cohere,” she observed.

The Center for African American Studies website,, offers news of upcoming events, as well as a video of Van Jones’s recent lecture, “Beyond Green Jobs: The Next American Economy and the Politics of Hope.” Mr. Jones is the former Special Advisor on Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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