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