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Reviewed by:
  • Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor by Tanya Sheehan
  • Margaret D. Stetz (bio)
Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor. By Tanya Sheehan. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. 216 pp.

Perhaps coincidentally, the year 2018 saw the publication not only of Tanya Sheehan's examination of the links between humor and racism in nineteenth-century American visual culture but of a second study covering related ground. That other volume might have seemed an unlikely candidate for such a task—Michèle Mendelssohn's Making Oscar Wilde—about the early career and transatlantic reputation building of the poet and future playwright. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn's examination of Wilde's almost one-year-long lecture tour across America began with an image that brought readers face-to-face with this nation's ugly history of race hatred in the guise of comedy: a color poster, printed in 1882 by Currier and Ives, titled "The Aesthetic Craze." It depicts, according to Mendelssohn, a caricature of Wilde not as a white Irishman but as "brown-skinned and thick-lipped" with "spiky [End Page 188] Afro hair" and in the company of two black women, one in a "lovey-dovey" posture. As Mendelssohn establishes at the outset, the animus behind such an image might be clear, but making sense today of the comic perspective, of its targets, and of its purpose proves a vexing historical exercise, for the "racist gag felt obsolete, like a joke of the you-had-to-be-there variety. Who was the butt supposed to be? Wilde, or the women, or all three?".1 The past, along with the humor it generated, is sometimes inscrutable.

Like Making Oscar Wilde, Tanya Sheehan's volume opens with a visual artifact created and circulated near the end of the nineteenth century. The title of Sheehan's critical work derives from this stereoscopic postcard (labeled by its anonymous maker as "A Study in Black and White" and identified as having been produced "ca. 1900") of two African American babies seated in the foreground amid piles of cotton and with a rural landscape in the background. It is an image that epitomizes the phenomenon that Sheehan wishes to explore—that is, the cultural and political significance of photography that used racist comedy to appeal to white audiences. As Mendelssohn does in her monograph, we might ask, "Who was the butt supposed to be?" The answer may be farther reaching and more multisided than Sheehan suggests. When unpacking this object, she is clear as to what she does see in it: "To laugh with the photograph was to focus"—literally, when we consider the role of the camera—"on the play of opposites … at a time when blackness connoted filth and ugliness" and "everything whiteness was not" (1). "Humorous" to its intended white viewers, "too, would have been the application of a refined aesthetic term (a study) to … African Americans" and to the "backbreaking labor" associated with cotton picking (1).

But is that all? Surely Mendelssohn's work is helpful here in suggesting a further possibility. The humor of A Study in Black and White does not lie merely in its use of incongruity between a "refined aesthetic term" and the popular white racist understanding of black subjects in order to ridicule the latter; it is also an example of laughter directed against late nineteenth-century Aestheticism (with a capital "A") itself. Here, the still controversial British and European art movement—exemplified not only by Oscar Wilde but by the dandified transatlantic figure of J. M. Whistler, who was known for giving his paintings titles such as Arrangement in Grey and Black—appears to be an additional target of burlesque. Because "burlesque" means comedy produced by recasting a "high" [End Page 189] subject in "low" terms, the joke still depends upon the racism that Sheehan identifies, for it demands that African Americans be seen as representing a "low" context. Nonetheless, because the Aesthetic painters who created Studies in color were mostly white artists, we can find the comedy of the postcard's title cutting in several directions simultaneously, with issues of class hostility and nationalism also being invoked. To explore these...