Navigating Racism in Nineteenth-Century Visual Satire

The very first time I looked at an issue of the 1825-1826 caricature periodical, the Glasgow Looking Glass, I experienced a mixture of emotions. I was entertained by the small images that conveyed so much humour. I was distracted by the detail of a print of the 1825 Glasgow Fair. I was disappointed by the racist stereotypes that populated the pages and clung to the visual characterisations of every portrayal of every person who wasn’t white.

As an academic who has fervently studied the long eighteenth/early nineteenth century for the past five years, I’ve grown used to seeing and reading racism in material objects of the time period. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still affect me. I am a researcher of history, I know what to expect. But I am also a biracial woman who is keenly aware that the racism and stereotypes we see in historical books and periodicals are not just our history. They are our present.

And so, when I decided I wanted to focus my PhD on the Glasgow Looking Glass, I refused to do so without properly acknowledging and analysing the presence of the periodical’s racist material. A few questions immediately arose from this: How does one properly do this? How do I ensure I, a biracial person but not a person of colour, am not re-victimising the marginalised people and communities stereotyped in this material? Am I even the right person to do this?

This is where the work of Dr Temi Odumosu comes in.

Dr Odumosu’s book, Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour, was published in 2017 and met with high praise, eventually winning the 2019 Book Award of the Historians of British Art. After reading it this past year, I couldn’t help but want to add my praise to the mix.

Throughout her text, Odumoso uses nearly one hundred individual images to explore the trajectory of British portrayals of Africans in satiric prints over the course of fifty years. Anyone in the field of caricature studies will recognise this amount for what it is: astounding. Rarely in a text, even ones solely dedicated to caricature prints, do we see this number of images matched with thorough analyses. No image was wasted, glossed over or thrown in for dramatic effect. In fact, Odumosu gives a sense of overwhelming respect for the images and their subjects. In Odumosu’s hands, these images are no longer just satiric, harmful reflections of events, people or places, but the key to reclaiming a marginalised community’s long-standing place in British society. Odumosu’s deep, yet sensitive, analyses of these images show that despite their overt racism and sexism, they succeeded in doing, perhaps unintentionally, what other forms of media during this time failed to do: they cemented the presence and activity of Black people in Britain into the archives, waiting for someone to find them and challenge the overly white academic narrative we often see today.

After five years of academic research with a never-ending reading list at my side, I can whole-heartedly say that Africans in English Caricature is the first academic text I’ve read that taught me more than the material it covered. Odumosu and her work taught me how to be a better academic because of who I am and not in spite of it. Her eloquent, yet firm words quite literally changed the way I now approach my own work: ‘It is a strange disjuncture in which you inhabit layered historical cartographies, and negotiate identity through external projections, in addition to just being who you are’ (203). For so long I’ve struggled with hearing seasoned academics say that we must separate ourselves from the material we study when I cannot separate myself from who I am. I cannot be an academic of the nineteenth century or a biracial person who has seen first-hand how nineteenth-century stereotypes have persisted and evolved today. I am and always will be both. And if it’s ok to look at nineteenth-century technological inventions and say ‘Ah, yes, look at how this has evolved into what we see today?’, then I don’t understand the problem with doing the same with the presence of racism. Because the truth is, no century, no time period, can be either one of marvelous advances and feats of mankind or one of horrific atrocities. They are and always will be both, and we owe it to ourselves, to the past, present and future, to at the very least acknowledge it.

Though Odumosu’s work and words have instilled me with more confidence, they haven’t erased those questions that first filled my mind when I started my PhD. But I think that is a good thing. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I think my academic experience or knowledge matches or overrides someone’s lived experiences. I don’t ever want to stop asking ‘Am I the right person to do this project?’, because sometimes that answer might be ‘no’ and I want to be prepared to accept that. I was reminded of this while reading Africans in English Prints because I firmly believe there is not a person in the field of caricature studies right now who could have written this book as respectfully and professionally as Odumosu has done.

For now, though, as I enter the last months of this particular project, I am thankful to have the work of Dr Odumosu to guide me. In the final lines of her text, Odumosu says that ‘the past always haunts the present’ (204). I agree, but I also hope the reverse is true. I hope my present, a biracial woman writing about material that wasn’t meant for a family like mine, haunted those in the past. Did they know their images would end up in the hands of people who are unafraid to call a spade a spade? Who are unafraid to take something that was wrong and use it to make something good? Because that is the energy Dr Temi Odumosu’s work exudes. It is the energy I want to fuel my own work with.

I owe Odumosu a debt of gratitude for reminding me that I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not in order not only to be a good academic, but to do good in a world that constantly tries to ignore the hauntings of its past.

Africans in English Prints 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour is published by Harvey Miller Publishers, an imprint of Brepols Publishers.

More information about the Glasgow Looking Glass periodical can be found here.

Featured photo by Ina RH on Unsplash

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