Black Ephemera

Retroism is becoming a growing fashionable trend where styles, images, music, manufactured products and fashion of bygone years are now recreated for a discerning X and Y generation of consumers. The reinvention of cultural and historical modernity often raises challenges especially around the depiction of people of African descent.

The recent global history of African people and the diaspora people living in Europe, North America, Caribbean and South America have over the last 400 years experienced the impact the negative dimensions of ephemera images particularly through post cards, advertising hand bills, newspapers, political pamphlets, articles and official documentation.


A number of racist and stereotypical assumptions from the 18th century were developed and manufactured based around the following beliefs and values systems:

  • Christian perspectives from the interpretation of the Bible that Black people or of African descent according to the curse of Ham were born to be in servitude thus justifying the slavery and the slave trade;
  • Racial science based evolutionary/eugenics theories based around Darwinism perceived Black people did not achieved full development as human beings and thus having low intelligence and but with the propensity for physical labour and child like naiveté fun entertainment;
  • Enlightenment school of philosophy (e.g. Locke, Hegel) saw that black people had not made any significant contribution to world history and mankind/woman and thus people of African descent only had a primitive/savage existence only European civilisation is they key to their survival.

The earliest examples of European construction of black ephemera are the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. It has been estimated between 15 to 20 million Africans were captured and enslaved as part of the transatlantic trade and sold to plantations in Caribbean, South America and North America. The enslavement and treatment of African people as chattel was reflected in a range of documentation created as part of this enterprise in cotton, sugar, rum, shipping and plantation estates and the criminal justice system.

However, with the rise of the abolition and anti slavery movement a range of publications, hand bills were produced to challenge and lobby the government against the trade and slavery in general. Although the slave trade was abolished by the UK Parliament in 1807, slavery still continued on the various plantations in Caribbean, North America and in Africa.

However it was the growth and development of the post card and newspaper industry between 1860s to 1940s along with social entertainment such as music hall, popular sports and the rise in consumerism we enter a new era of promulgation of racist images into popular culture (radio, film & television also played an important contribution).

The diffusion of negative racist and stereotypes images were based on the perception, experiences and value judgments of colonial expatriates based in Africa (teachers, administrators, soldiers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, settlers, explorers, and anthropologists) and the legacy of slavery and plantation societies in North America, Caribbean and South America.

The depictions of these images in ephemera can be reflected for instance in popular advertising, music song sheets and post cards can be categorized in the following stereotypes:

  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 subordinates(pictures of Missionaries, 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/lazy often eating melons);
  6. The Good Negro (subservient and passive black people such as Aunt Jemma and Uncle Tom);
  7. Grateful Children (images of either black child or black and white children playing with captions that question the identity of the black child or reinforcing their loyalty to the white child);
  8. Minstrels (either black entertainers or white entertainers ‘blacking up’);
  9. Aggressive Black Buck/Cannibal (where black men seen as full of rage and a violent streak/cannibalistic propensity but also with a lust for white women);
  10. Fetish/Exoticism of either black men or women seen as exotic and over sexed (Hottentots Venus).