Blackness and Media

Published by D. C. Burnite & Company (American, 1833–1886), African-American lady with tax revenue stamp, 1864–65. Albumen print, 10.2 × 6 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, FundAs early as the nineteenth century, African American cultural producers, critics, writers, consumers, and visual practitioners creatively confronted the vexed, and often exciting, relationship between race and media. This interplay was at the heart of my fall 2018 course “Blackness and Media” in the department of African American Studies, cross-listed in American Studies and English. The course was firmly rooted in the value of students’ firsthand engagement with visual media and works of art from the Museum’s collections.

Moving from the nineteenth century to the present, the course investigated the intersections of media, blackness, and social life. In naming blackness as one of its organizing terms, it engaged with key debates in the fields of Black Studies and Visual Studies, both of which understand blackness as a set of practices, rather than a biological fact. Instead of simply asking how images of blackness have either resisted or enforced racist paradigms, the class investigated how racial hierarchies are written into the technical workings of various media and what possibilities different media offer for (re)imagining blackness.

The course was divided into three units, each focusing on a different mode of visual dissemination: photography, film, and digital platforms. “Photographic Logics” explored how early photographic technologies—such as the daguerreotype and the stereoscope—developed in concert with American slavery, legitimating racial hierarchy and fastening race to the body as an indisputable and highly visible “fact.” The carte-de-visite showing slave pens in the Museum’s collection, for example, enabled discussion about how the logics of capture and arrest knit together photography and human captivity.

The second unit focused on filmic techniques and technologies—such as in the film work of the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and in the film Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) (2004) by the artist Yinka Shonibare (born 1962)—and examined the relationship between film and other means of artistic expression, including collage and costume. The final unit delved into the digital sphere, where black Twitter feeds, podcasts, Instagram accounts, memes, and blogs have dramatically changed how the public encounters blackness; these sites have also been the spaces where radical challenges to the very concept of race and blackness have been staged.

Throughout the semester students were attuned to the fact that the perception of race is always a multisensory and highly mediated experience. I was especially eager for students to examine the early photographic works since many of these were sold, owned, and held, much like the black body during this period. In the presence of art objects, students gained a deeper understanding of the ways that blackness and power structures are written into the material dimensions of the media itself.


Autumn Womack
Assistant Professor, Departments of African American Studies and English


The course “Blackness and Media” was funded by the Princeton University Art Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Faculty Innovation.