Black Beauty and the Archive: Studio Portraiture, Gender, and the Image of Postcolonial Black Britain

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM
Imperial Ballroom A (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Kennetta Hammond Perry, East Carolina University
With few exceptions, little has been written about the everyday lives of Black
women in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, an era marked by the social and cultural
politics of decolonization and the growing presence of a largely Afro-Caribbean migrant
population in British cities including London and Birmingham. Although Afro-
Caribbean men seeking employment opportunities initially dominated this particular
Commonwealth migration stream, by 1958, Afro-Caribbean women began to outnumber
their male counterparts as they too sought jobs, family reunification and greater degrees
of economic mobility and prosperity in Britain. In addition to offering a critique of the
historical silences surrounding Black women’s experiences and representations of Black
femininity in discourses about the so-called “colour problem” that Black newcomers
embodied and exacerbated, this paper focuses on the viability of studio portraiture as a
archive that lends itself to quite literally seeing Black women in the historical landscapes
of of postcolonial Black Britain. Focusing largely on photographs remaining in the
archived collections of Harry Jacobs, a Jewish photographer who became somewhat of a
local institution among Brixton’s Black communities beginning in the late 1950s, this
paper showcases how Black women used portraiture as a means of framing an image of
Black beauty, femininity and female sexuality. Moreover, I argue that the various
configurations of Black beauty depicted in these photographs, as both a marketable
product for Black women consumers and as a type of aesthetic that could register style,
respectability, intimacy, self-possession and belonging, serve as a useful point of
departure for raising new questions and writing more nuanced histories of postcolonial
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