Section: Arts

Cohen ’16 traces racial representations in picture books

Cohen ’16 traces racial representations in picture books

by Elana Spivack

With advertisements bombarding the eye on a daily basis, it’s no surprise people sometimes associate images with certain products or ad campaigns. Iconic images pervade much more than media and culture, however. They sink into the brain, beginning even with the picture books one reads as a child.

American studies major Anna Cohen ’16, working with Austin Porter, professor of art history and postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of American Democracy, designed an independent study in which she examined the evolution of racial imagery in 19th- and 20th-century American picture books. This research will serve as a foundation for Cohen’s senior exercise project in the spring.

Her findings thus far culminated in a Common Hour talk Tuesday, “Representations of Blackness in Picturebooks,” in which she analyzed influential works such as Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, published in 1899, and author-illustrator Inez Hogan’s Nicodemus series. Students, professors and community members ensured the Ringwalt Room in Olin and Chalmers Libraries was standing-room only.

Porter taught Cohen in a seminar last year in which she seemed motivated and expressed intellectual curiosity, especially regarding children’s books, he said.

“Specifically, [Cohen is] interested in race, but she’s also interested in books and how these publications evolve over time, through their narrative and through the formal qualities that they have,” Porter said. He  suggested at the course’s start that Cohen should eventually publicly present her reaserch.

Though Porter’s area of expertise lies in 20th-century advertising and media imagery, Cohen, who also works in Olin as a reference desk intern and is interested in printed works, sees a valuable overlap. “We both have background in black history but he has more contextual understanding of the way that other forms of media … mirror or inform the stuff I’m looking at,” she said.

The independent study allowed Cohen to explore the impact and influence of children’s books. “It’s exploring the way that children learn from picture books,” Cohen said. “Children are particularly impressionable, but we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the media that they’re consuming.”

Her findings have led her to see a surprising relationship between the development of picture books and that of the cultural, stereotypical images of African-Americans. “I didn’t expect to end up with this sort of theory that they are so closely related,” Cohen said.

It hasn’t been easy to find all the information she’s looking for. Hogan, “one of the main author-illustrators that I’m looking at, who’s extremely prolific and very popular, nobody has written anything about her, and the authorial motivation she has is very important to me,” Cohen said. “So not being able to have access to that has been really difficult.” She plans to look at documents on Hogan at the University of Oregon over winter break.

Bailey Blaker contributed reporting.


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