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Jacqueline Goldsby Lecture

About Face: the Cultural Politics of Dust Jackets & the Meanings of Mid-Century Black Authorship
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
4:00-6:00 PM
3222 Angell Hall Map
Please join us for a lecture by Jacqueline Goldsby (Yale)

At mid-century, a great migration (of a different sort) transformed the history of the book in the United States. Author portraits migrated from the interior frontispiece to the rear flaps and back covers of dust jackets. At this same time--when Jim Crow segregation reached its repressive heights--African American novels, poetry, drama, and prose non-fiction became prize-winning and best-selling books in the mainstream marketplace. Though they may strike us now as staid, kitsch, or even banal photographs, African American author portraits from the 1940s and 1950s bristle with a fusion of visual grammars: racial uplift image-making meets the Hollywood glam shot and noir chiaroscuro. My talk explores the paradoxes this image-archive presents. How should we understand the violent restriction of Black bodies in social space, on the one hand, compared to the widespread circulation of African American writers’ exuberant, boldly styled books, on the other? What cultural work did dust jackets, author portraits, and their design perform for mid-century Black writing--to what ends, with what consequences, for what reading publics?

Drawing on history of the book studies, cultural histories of post-WWII photography, theories of authorship, celebrity, and performance, and my own on-going efforts to archive first edition dust jackets, I argue that the paratextual placement of author portraits require us to reconceive African American literature’s aesthetic imperatives and social contract at mid-century. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) and Gwendolyn Brooks' Annie Allen (1949) serve as my exemplars, because those works’ famous aesthetic difficulties, together with Ellison's and Brooks' portraits on the books’ dust jackets, set forth the signal development that distinguishes mid-century African American authorship: namely, the turn away from writing as indexical of Black personhood to the practice of writing as expressive of Black pluralities, or personae. Put another way, by foregrounding alterity rather than authenticity as the threshold where readers meet and interpret Black literature as works of art, the dust jacket portraits of Ellison and Brooks enact a cultural politics of their own. Not only do they archive the vitality and variety of Black writing at mid-century. Their fragility and mere survival as material artifacts remind us how precarious the history of Black writing and its writers can be.


Jacqueline Goldsby is Professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. She currently chairs Yale’s Department of African American Studies.

She is the author of the prizewinning A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2006) and other articles about African American literature and book history during the long century of Jim Crow segregation, from 1865-1965. In 2015, she edited the Norton Critical Edition of James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. And she’s currently at work finishing The Art of Being Difficult: African American Literary Culture of the 1940s and 1950s.

The research required to launch The Art of Being Difficult led Goldsby to co-design and direct "Mapping the Stacks: A Guide to Black Chicago's Hidden Archives." She managed that project from 2005-10, while she taught at the University of Chicago. “Mapping the Stacks” helped transform the practice of archival recovery and description in Chicago and across the U.S, as the project became the model for the Council on Library and Information Resources’ $27.5 million grant program, “Cataloguing Hidden Collections and Archives” (2008-14). Her work in library-archival recovery and knowledge-organization continues: she’s co-directing the Black Bibliography Project with Meredith McGill of Rutgers. Goldsby and McGill are forging national partnerships with librarians, curators, cataloguers and history of the book scholars, to revive (and transform) descriptive bibliography for Black print culture materials.
Building: Angell Hall
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: African American, Literature, Media
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Department of English Language and Literature, History of Art, Department for Afroamerican and African Studies, Department of American Culture, Department of History