Iconographic records are not always a part of an historic research agenda. Yet images can provide a wealth of information that can not otherwise be derived from textual materials and therefore they are included in this guide since their use can often provide the key to rounding out a researcher's vision of her topic. The images of African-American women described in this section fall into two broad categories: documentary images and popular culture materials. Additional images of black women, particularly photographs, are contained in collections described elsewhere in the guide and can be located by consulting the index.
Documentary images refer to those which portray life in a realistic manner. These include studio portraits, snapshots of friends and family, and professional journalistic photographs taken expressly to document certain events or groups of people. Documentary photographs can provide a window into various aspects of African-American women's culture, such as clothing and dress, living conditions, educational and working environments, relationships with children and other family members, and community status none of which may be evident from the most intimate diaries and letters.
When interpreting any photograph for historic purposes it is important to consider the photographer's perspective and intent . Although documentary photographs appear to reflect reality, each extant image is the result of a series of decisions concerning what to frame, how it should be framed, at what moment the picture is snapped, which negatives are printed and which are kept. The relationship between the photographer and his/her subject should be taken into consideration when "reading" a photograph. Therefore, the researcher must be careful to ask whose reality the photograph reflects as a means of exploring the significance of the snapshot of a mother and daughter taken by a close friend, a white traveler taking a picture of black women working outside of their tenant houses, or the formal portraits of individuals who pose for the professional photographer in their community.
Popular culture materials and commercial images are a valuable tool for exploring the cultural constructs which framed the lives and experiences of African-American women. Because popular and commercial materials were created and disseminated to large segments of American culture, they served both to reflect and to perpetuate a range of race, gender, and class stereotypes and/or fears.
Popular images of African-American women can be found in a variety of forms such as advertisements, postcards, calendars, letterhead, popular art work, sheet music, post cards, greeting cards, and other ephemeral items. These types of materials may exist in specific collections such as those listed below, but ephemeral and popular materials are often standard component in most collections.
Nineteenth and early 20th century sheet music, postcards, and advertisements document the narrow stereotyping of African-American women as mammies, earth mothers, and seducers. More contemporary advertisements show African-American women as smart, successful, and still, very sexy. Earlier materials employ "humor" to exaggerate these stereotypes and to make statements about race relations and black life in general. Later materials use a more serious tone to lend credibility to racist and sexist messages.
As with documentary photographs, both the creator and the intended audience of the material must be considered when interpreting the significance of a particular image. Most popular images of African-American women were originally created by Anglo-Americans and intended for a white audience with buying power, which was largely female. Throughout the 20th century, the cross section of both creators and audiences of popular images have changed and the business of commercial imagery itself has become a more sophisticated craft to the extent that contemporary stereotypes of African-American women can be broader and more complex (although no more real) than their 19th century counterparts.
Although many of the materials described below contain virtually inrealistic and often derogatory images of African-American women, we have included them because the power they demonstrated in shaping public opinion of African-American women is all too real. These images can provide clues about the nature of African-American women's experiences within a culture possessing a predominately white perspective. A heightened sensitivity to some of the mythic constructs can be useful in interpreting other textual sources, such as diaries, letters, and literature, as well. These materials are also valuable research tools in that they inevitably force the researcher to examine her own notions of African-American women's experiences which ultimately affects the nature of historical inquiry.
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