Race and the Design of American Life: African Americans in Twentieth-Century Commercial Art

Curated by Chris Dingwall, PhD Candidate, Department of History at the University of Chicago

Images of African Americans have adorned a wide variety of consumer goods throughout the twentieth century, from Aunt Jemima's pancakes to the Air Jordan basketball shoe. But these images did more than sell things: they put questions of race and racism in the heart of the American dream. Drawing from collections of food packaging, advertisements, children's books, album covers, and other household goods, this exhibit traces the vexed history of African Americans in commercial art—as images and as makers of their own image—and their vital role in shaping the rise and establishment of our modern consumer society.

Industries, entrepreneurs, and commercial artists capitalized on and gave powerful form to widely-held racist attitudes among white Americans throughout the twentieth century. Gradually, however, African Americans used commercial art as an instrument to claim a place in American society—from the nadir of Jim Crow racial segregation to the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. As a marketing tool, an aesthetic practice, and a language of visual communication, graphic design was a tangible and often intimate form that wove the politics of race into the fabric of everyday life.

Racial imagery has shaped the meaning and practice of American consumerism in a multitude of ways: as brands for mass produced industrial goods; as consumables for the decoration of American bodies and homes; as faces for the commercialization of African American culture; and as declarations of African American claims for consumer rights and identity. By exploring these modes, this exhibit traces a broad historical arc in which the graphic design of race—in no small part due to the work of African American designers and consumers—changed from hateful racist caricature to models of black aspiration. Yet it also highlights the tensions between race and consumerism that bear upon our present day. The otherwise ordinary stuff here illuminates the complex and often ambiguous ways that racial imagery continues to be associated with our dreams of the "good life."

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