The Amistad Research Center is host to two collections that offer visual representations of Africa through postcards. The first is the Ida Vera Simonton postcards and the second is the Warren Boudreaux collection. While the postcards of Simonton and Boudreaux depict scenes of continental Africa, this is where the similarities end and the images encapsulated in both begin to diverge. The backgrounds of Simonton and Boudreaux, including their relationship to continental Africa, may have influenced their choices in postcards.
According to Jeremy Rich’s article, “Ida Vera Simonton’s Imperial Masquerades: Intersections of Gender, Race and African Expertise in Progressive-Era America,” Simonton came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family and ascended into public infamy during the 1906 trial of her friend, Harry Thaw. Thaw murdered famed architect Stanford White due to jealousy over his relationship with Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. Simonton was a potential witness due to her proximity to all three individuals. However, her family sent her to Gabon in Central Africa to dodge testifying in the case.
The postcards from Simonton’s time in Africa depict the continent in a manner that many white Americans, including Simonton, imagined it to be in the early 20th century – a desolate place full of primitive people with strange and uncivilized customs. These beliefs were evoked through the images on the postcards and within her messages, all addressed to a George Siebel at the Gazette Times in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On one card she wrote, “I arrived here [in Gabon] on the 10th after a most exciting camel voyage with a cannibal crew.” In a second postcard, Africans are displayed as appendages to Europeans who are either travelers or colonizers. Simonton’s cards to Siebel was an entry into having her experiences in Africa published. She eventually capitalized on her travels in a book entitled Hell’s Playground, a copy of which is also located at the Center. It was first published in 1912 after Simonton’s return to America. While Simonton criticized French colonialism in Africa in her novel, she still projected negative stereotypes of Africans to her readers.
Warren Boudreaux’s reasons for visiting Africa were less sensational than Simonton’s. Boudreaux was an African American teacher born in Louisiana in 1926. He lived in Ethiopia from 1952-1955 and taught at the Haile Selassie Day School in Addis Ababa. Marvin and Darryl, Boudreaux’s brothers, joined him in Ethiopia where they also taught at Selassie. Boudreaux traveled throughout Eastern Africa during his stay. His postcards illustrated a more nuanced portrait of Africa as a continent of demographic diversity with images of the Masai, Gishu, and Somali ethnic groups. Africa is depicted as a modern urbanized center of culture and commerce. There is beautiful imagery of landscapes, buildings, and village life. Pictures of subservient Africans catering to the whims of European colonizers and barren environments are absent from Boudreaux’s postcards. Many of the stereotypes about Africa that existed in Simonton’s time were still circulating half a century later when Boudreaux arrived in Ethiopia. However, Boudreaux chose images of Africa that were largely positive.
His postcards reflected a mid-20th century Africa that was poised to engage in self-governance, free from European intervention. Some of his postcards portrayed Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, on a throne with his political supporters surrounding him. The images provided a powerful portrayal of African capability to self-rule. There were no writings on Boudreaux’s postcards but a typescript by Vladimir Soloduhin titled “Ethiopia’s Neighbors and Boundaries,” housed in the Boudreaux collection, signaled an interest in gaining an understanding of the economic, social, and political systems he was living in. Boudreaux did not seem to be interested in capitalizing on African stereotypes to sell sensational stories. His reasons for being in Ethiopia were far more benevolent than Simonton’s, which may have influenced the types of images he chose for his postcards. By viewing Simonton and Boudreaux’s postcards one can certainly gain insight into the visual representation of Africa and the types of images that were sold to and distributed by visitors to the continent.
Posted by Chianta Dorsey
Images from the Ida Vera Simonton postcards and the Warren Boudreaux collection. Not to be reproduced without permission.