Skip to main content

Blackness: Representations and Reception


It makes me glad you gonna have things that I never had
When out of men's heart all hate is hurled
Sweetie you gonna live in a better world
Brown baby brown baby brown baby

                                                         — Nina Simone


Representations of blackness and black protest have taken a variety of forms over time.  The following curated items represent the manifold ways that mainstream and alternative media both reinforce and resist stereotypes of blackness in American culture. This part of the exhibit includes television, film, music, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, alternative publications, and even personal scrapbooks. "Blackness: Representations and Reception" is by no means a comprehensive examination of images of blackness, but we hope that our selection of artifacts offer a small sample of the diverse arrays of representation and methods of protests in media. Our curated items span a period beginning in the early twentieth century with the advent of feature-length motion pictures, which encoded problematic portrayals of black skin in mainstream cinematic tradition. This collection ends in the twenty-first century by examining contemporary echoes of that tradition in American culture.

Artists, directors, writers, and activists have used various media forms and technologies to depict blackness in particular ways. In the early twentieth century, media publications regularly portrayed black skin as menacing and dangerous. Other stereotypical portrayals include the comic "coon" figure in minstrelsy. Alternatively, some creators resisted these caricatures with personal experiences, social critiques, and countercultural publications. Our exhibit places a variety of curated items in conversation with one another, connecting these artifacts with common themes in hopes of helping viewers to recognize some of the cultural meanings and historical contexts of black protest.