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Signs of the Times

The Visual Politics of Jim Crow

Elizabeth Abel (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 416 pages
ISBN: 9780520261839
May 2010
$29.95, £24.00
Other Formats Available:
Signs of the Times traces the career of Jim Crow signs—simplified in cultural memory to the “colored/white” labels that demarcated the public spaces of the American South—from their intellectual and political origins in the second half of the nineteenth century through their dismantling by civil rights activists in the 1960s and ’70s. In this beautifully written, meticulously researched book, Elizabeth Abel assembles a variegated archive of segregation signs and photographs that translated a set of regional practices into a national conversation about race. Abel also brilliantly investigates the semiotic system through which segregation worked to reveal how the signs functioned in particular spaces and contexts that shifted the grounds of race from the somatic to the social sphere.
List of Illustrations

Introduction: Jim Crow’s Cultural Turns

Part I. Inscriptions

1. American Graffiti: The Social Life of Jim Crow Signs

2. The Signs of Race in the Language of Photography

3. Cultural Memory and the Conditions of Visibility: The Circulation of Jim Crow Photographs

Part II. Race and Space

4. Restroom Doors and Drinking Fountains: Perspective, Mobility, and the Fluid Grounds of Race and Gender

5. The Eyeball and the Wall: Eating, Seeing, and the Nation

Part III. Still and Motion Pictures

6. Double Take: Photography, Cinema, and the Segregated Theater

7. Upside Down and Inside Out: Camera Work, Spectatorship, and the Chronotope of the Colored Balcony

Part IV. Dismantling Jim Crow

8. Remaking Racial Signs: Activism and Photography in the Theater of the Sit-Ins

Afterword: Contemporary Turns

Select Bibliography
Elizabeth Abel is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author and editor of several books, including Writing and Sexual Difference, Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis, and (with Barbara Christian and Helene Moglen) Female Subjects in Black and White (UC Press).
“An impressive study of the visual politics of compulsory race segregation in the United States.”—African American Review
“Abel complements stunning photos of a sometimes forgotten world - where "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs were a disturbing legal and social reality - with an in-depth scholarly examination.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A rich contribution to American studies, Signs of the Times reanimates the critical conversation about racial formation by turning away from physiological signs and turning to literal ones.”—Melus
“Abel’s accomplishment is formidable, and all students of the American past owe her a tremendous debt for her careful work in creating this paradoxically striking ‘archive of the ordinary’.”—Left History
“Fine and thoughtful.”—New Books In History
“Engaging and intellectually stimulating. . . . [Abel] has done invaluable work.”—Ulrich Adelt, University of Wyoming American Studies
“As a themed collection of historical photographs, Abel’s work is outstanding.”—Journal Of Southern History
"This book marks a significant leap in our national discussion, both lay and academic, about the history and legacy of Jim Crow. Abel writes most incisively about what Jim Crow looked and looks like today. She makes an utterly convincing case that pictures were every bit as powerful as words, if not more so, in the many ages of Jim Crow. This brilliant new book gives new focus to our national dialogue on race and the difference it makes."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University

"The signs of 'Jim Crow,' just as the social and political regime for which they stood, have had their day. Today, Elizabeth Abel, one of our master teachers, points out here new dimensions of their meaning."—Hortense Spillers, Vanderbilt University

"Signs of the Times is a brilliant analysis of the seemingly straightforward semiotic system through which segregation worked—the binary 'white/colored' that structured the Jim Crow signs. Through Abel's 'thick description' of how the signs lived and functioned in particular spaces and contexts, we gain a new understanding about how race is produced, how racialization functions as a product of language and spatial organization, how it is inscribed not so much on the body but on social and public space, urban and rural."—Marianne Hirsch, author of Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory

"Elizabeth Abel's powerfully argued, meticulously researched, and beautifully written book traces the career of Jim Crow signs from their intellectual and political origins through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Signs of the Times will find a wide readership among scholars of cultural studies, media studies, American Studies, and African American Studies."—Valerie Smith, Princeton University

Honorable Mention for the John Hope Franklin Prize, American Studies Association

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