Loaded Missives: Visual and Verbal Signifying in Various Caribbean Postcards
In this essay, I examine early to mid-twentieth century postcards that reproduce popular stereotypes of poor black Caribbean individuals. I explore the subversive humor that becomes apparent on closer examination. Equally important is the exhibition of productive agency by those historically subjected to scrutiny in this medium—the peasant and working poor. I analyze artists’ engagement with limiting stereotypes, and I question the extent to which the marginalized perpetuate and problematize such representations. I ask the question: what does it mean for the working poor to recreate and disseminate potentially offensive stereotypes? Class implications therefore become relevant. Using Henri Bergson’s notion of inversion, I explore the ways in which humor opens up a unique space for this critique. Instead of the laughing darky that dominated depictions of Black subjects in popular and print cultures until the early twentieth-century, the postcards’ explicit appropriation of Western imported stereotypes complicates interpretations of identity. Also evident is an idiosyncratic black folk humor, which embodies a level of agency that critics have not historically associated with such representations. Produced in early to mid-twentieth century at the emergence of neo-colonialism, the cards depict highly conscious subjects who question the conditions of their oppression and “talk back” to their oppressors. Laughter marks a permissive platform that serves as a safe space for poor, Caribbean individuals to voice vituperative critique or dissatisfaction. While humor in these images destabilizes Western norms of identity, norms that have historically undermined the value of Black diasporic peoples, savvy caricaturing of Caribbean icons simultaneously concretizes the absurdity of hegemonic ways of knowing. Furthermore, the use of images demands that humor is made accessible to audiences of differing levels of cultural knowledge.
Keywords: Visual Representation, Identity Construction, Diasporic Studies
Dr. Sam Vásquez
Assistant Professor, English, Dartmouth College