Strata–gies
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Strata–gies

StereoTYPOGRAPHIC: An Investigation of Representations of Race in the United States

JARED DALCOURT

We have to look back to 1796 to unearth the first uses of the term stéréotype, stereotype printing, as developed by Francis Didot.¹ The Frenchman coined the word as a “method of printing from a solid plate,” and it evolved to mean “fix firmly or unchangeable” in a more figurative sense. During the stereotype print process, a single metal plate was cast from a mold of set type. The system of stereotyping was developed to save the typesetter from having to reset the page for each reprint. This also freed up limited typesetting materials. Whenever a published piece became popular enough for multiple reprints, it would justify the higher costs of printing. It was rigorous work involving first hand-setting in the initial line, and then making multiple molds from this original to create several casts, allowing for multiple impressions to be run simultaneously on different presses. A stereotype plate is much stronger and more durable under the press run.

There’s another meaning of stereotype, however, In The Spectacle of the Other, Stuart Hall discusses stereotypes as visual representations taking center stage, where the representation as a concept and practice mobilizes fears and anxieties.² In the most common usage today, stereotypes are understood as “widely held but fixed and oversimplified images or ideas of a particular type of person or thing.” Walter Lippmann popularized the term as a metaphor in his 1922 book Public Opinion. He saw stereotypes as pictures in our heads that simplify reality: “[Stereotypes] may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted.”³ He recognized that stereotypes have the ability to create a recognizable or iconic figure and, through making multiple copies, to imprint this image on the mind of the public. During the early 20th century, racial stereotypes were furthered via racialized texts and images, and through technologies of the art of mechanical reproduction, including film and literature, which formulated the image of the “brute negro,” and solidified this subject as spectacle.

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Andrew Delbanco writes in his book, The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, “In 1841, when Charles Dickens came to the United States on a bookselling tour, he was struck by the many newspaper notices . . . in which slave owners offered rewards for return of their runaways.”⁴ This is exemplified by a specimen of typographic woodcut ornamentation of a fugitive slave produced by the New England Type Foundry in 1854. The fugitive man depicted, while dressed neatly, has been mobilized across pages of printed ephemera permanently codified as an enslaved, and dangerous man on the run. Mobilized across broadsides, the black blot of ink, a fugitive figure in the shape of an escapee, is permanently situated and operates in a system of mass reproduction. This typecast representation of black masculinity is a literal and figurative stereotype.

How could something so beautifully and diligently laid out perpetuate such perversions of humanity? How could expanses of white space, punctuated by elegant initial capitals in black Didot, meant to arrest the public’s gaze, lead to the arrest of someone’s body? The power of typography is how. Letterforms arranged on the page have power. Typography is a material of language that has embedded negative visual representations of black men as “brutes,” as central to visual culture in the United States; this “black brute” caricature is the most dangerous yet most monetizable stereotype, and still undergirds American sentiment and personal safety to this day.

[1] Elena Vilinbakhova, “The Notion of Stereotype in Language Study,” History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences (History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences, May 22, 2013), https://hiphilangsci. net/2013/05/22/the-notion-of-stereotype-in-language-study/.

[2] Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other,’” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall (London: SAGE, 1997), 223.

[3] Lippmann, W. (1922). Stereotypes as defense. In W. Lippmann, Public opinion (pp. 95–103).

[4] Steven Heller, “The Printing Cut That Tore the Union Asunder,” Design Observer (Observer Omnimedia, January 8, 2020), https:// designobserver.com/feature/the-printing-cut-that-tore-the-union-asunder/40166.

JARED DALCOURT (he/him) is a multi-hyphenate designer whose written work focuses on popular American culture and contemporary black male identity. A graduate of Morehouse College, alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jared frames and critiques history and design through a unique lens and experience

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SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

We’re a two-semester MA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City dedicated to the study of design, its contexts and consequences. Aka DCrit. ✏️🔍💡