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Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow by Elizabeth Abel (review)
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Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow. By Elizabeth Abel. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2010.

In the introduction to her engaging and intellectually stimulating, if somewhat jargon-heavy, study of the semiotics of photography depicting Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. from the late 19th century to the Civil Rights movement, Elizabeth Abel stresses the importance of tracing spatial dimensions of race in an only seemingly post-racial society after the election of Barack Obama. As Abel puts it, “I have sought to complicate cultural memory with a more nuanced and inclusive visual record that might constitute an enduring facet of the American social landscape” (24). Abel goes beyond a simple reading of “whites only” signs and has amassed an impressive archive of Jim Crow photography (the book features 85 images), which she meticulously analyzes in this first comprehensive study on the topic. Drawing on key theorists like Paul Gilroy, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Abel unveils the messiness behind the binary of race in photos, cartoons, and movies of segregation in the U.S.

In the first part of the book, Abel looks at the material history of Jim Crow signs, at their depiction through the language of photography, and the circulation of these photographs. Abel acknowledges complex discursive practices such as collecting these signs and the agency of African Americans in “messing” with them (as in putting up “For Colored Only” signs). The second part of the book discusses the gendered aspects of built environment through depictions of water fountains and restroom signs. Abel takes a bit of a left turn in the third part of her book with a lengthy analysis of one scene in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in an otherwise [End Page 156] engaging discussion of the intersection of gazes (through the still camera connecting with the cinematic camera) and of segregation in the movie theater where blacks had to sit in the balcony. In the fourth part of her book, Abel looks at depictions of the breaking down of racial boundaries during the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights era. Finally, in the epilogue Abel shows how the semiotics of Jim Crow have been utilized by Affirmative Action supporters, by the Hollywood movie Pleasantville, and by the artist Emory Biko.

While Signs of the Times engages in a close reading of visual images that occasionally borders on over-interpretation, Elizabeth Abel’s book provides an important addition to studies of lynching photographs or visual representations of Civil Rights struggles in mapping out a “geography of power” (16). Abel could have engaged in more sustained transnational comparisons (Nazi Germany and South African apartheid come to mind), and it is unfortunate that some of the images discussed in the second half of the book are missing (presumably for copyright reasons), but overall, Abel, in her effort to “read (. . .) these signs in order to replace them” (300), has done invaluable work for a society that is still far from being “post Civil Rights.”

Ulrich Adelt
University of Wyoming
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