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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.
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