Discussions about, toward,
around, and alongside the
New England American Studies
Association's Fall 2011 Conference.
See the schedule at the bottom of
the page, and please add your voice
and perspective to the mix!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Race and Region in Currier and Ives

I'd like to start with a quick shout-out to my classmate (and fellow renter) Marieke Van Der Steenhoven and her epic week of homeownership and its discontents. In response to Marieke’s query concerning the future of renting and owning I’ll give a brief quotation from everyone’s favorite New England summer tourist Teddie Adorno:

“Whoever flees into genuine but purchased historical housing, embalms themselves alive.”

You're welcome, Marieke.

Although my own presentation is part of the “Arts and Identity” panel on Friday afternoon and has nothing to do with homeownership, it does concern the persistence of American identity narratives that inscribe and normalize rules of national belonging. As my co-presenter Bonnie Miller suggested in her post, the images circulating through public consciousness can give immediate and convincing testimony in favor of governmental policy, whether in the 19th or in the 21st century.

“A Staple Winter Article of Not the Usual Kind”: Currier and Ives’ Darktown in the Northern Winter” examines the relationship between two parallax views of New England in late 19th century visual culture, embodied in the familiar “Old New England” scenes and the once-popular Darktown series. The thought processes that makes these prints legible cannot be separated from policy making of the same period, the 1880s and 1890s, which includes Plessy v. Ferguson and the codification of Jim Crow laws.  Here you're looking at "The Road, Winter," based on a drawing of Nat Currier and his wife near their home in Amesbury, Massachussetts, and the Darktown "A Team Fast on the Snow."

The Darktown series catalogs a staggering number of African American failures at a wide range of activities from firefighting to picnicking. Illustrator Thomas Worth’s vociferous version of the racist comic idiom long used in genre paintings, minstrel shows and cartoons will make most contemporary viewers extremely uncomfortable.

This had not always been the case at Currier and Ives, where in 1872 the printers had expected to make a profit from the serious, respectful group portrait The First Colored Senator and Representatives, in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States. In a similar manner, the widely distributed lithograph of Mathew Brady's photograph of Hiram Revels, a Mississippi senator, offered Northern viewers a rhetorically powerful image of an African American politician. "Whatever may be the prejudices of those who may look upon it," wrote Frederick Douglass about this photograph, "they will be compelled to admit that the Mississippi Senator is man."


Rachel Miller, University of Southern Maine

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