While Traveling the World Documenting Foodways of African Diaspora, Jessica B. Harris Has Been Collecting Vintage Postcards
TRAVELING THE WORLD for more than 50 years, Jessica B. Harris has been documenting the foodways of the African Diaspora surfacing Black history in the culture and traditions of food and the people who cultivate, sell, and cook it. Along the way, she’s collected recipes and vintage postcards. Turns out, the acclaimed culinary historian and cookbook author is also a deltiologist, which is a fancy name for a postcard collector.
After publishing numerous cookbooks, including “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America,” which was adapted into a new Netflix series, Harris wrote “Vintage Postcards From the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play.”
In the book, Harris pens three short essays chronicling how she became a collector; exploring the meaning and anthropological implications of the images; and citing the history of postcards.
She also provides a brief guide about how to date them, based on size, printing quality, and other specifications. Stamps, postmarks, and the contents of messages provide some evidence. Harris notes that none of the postcards in her collection were created later than the “White Border Period,” from 1915-1930.
The balance of the volume is 90 pages illustrated with postcards from the author’s collection along with detailed captions.
Organized geographically, sections are devoted to Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States with each featuring postcards grouped into four categories: The Farm, The Garden, and The Sea; The Marketplace; The Vendors and The Cooks; and Leisure, Entertainment, and Festivities. The book is a visual tour of the culture and history of the African World.
Harris, 73, has been interested in postcards since her teenage years. In the summer of 1963, when she traveled to Europe for the first time with her parents, she started accumulating souvenir postcards with typical tourist images of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, for example, and the Baptistery in Florence, Italy.
By the early 1970s, her collecting adventures had evolved. Harris was working on her doctoral dissertation about the French-speaking theater of Senegal. She became aware of Michel Renaudeau, a Frenchman who lived on Goree Island and had published several books based on his collection of antiquarian postcards, featuring West African scenes.
“I found a copy of one of the books in a Dakar bookstore, and with one glance I was hooked on the older postcards, realizing that they presented a vivid photograph(ic) memorial that documented the way things were as nothing else could,” Harris wrote. “Many were images taken by Francois-Edmond Fortier, a Frenchman whose name I did not know at the time. In his images, the dusty streets of Dakar’s past sprang vividly to life.”
As her penchant for vintage versions developed, Harris found postcards in markets and out-of-the-way bookshops around the world, in Dakar, Paris, and New Orleans, and from sellers on eBay.
When the author is “interrogating the images,” as she describes her analysis, a wide-range of culinary, cultural, and geographical history is revealed. Questions arise about photographer’s intent and the agency of subjects, or lack thereof, particularly with studio portraits. Racism, “ethnographic curiosity,” and “prevailing prejudices and predilections of their period” are also found. She has come across plenty of lynching images over the years, but she does not collect them.
When the author is “interrogating the images,” a wide-range of culinary, cultural, and geographical history is revealed. Racism, “ethnographic curiosity,” and “prevailing prejudices and predilections of their period” are also found.
103 – French Market, New Orleans, La. Back: Pub. by T.P. & CO, N.Y. (Divided Back). | Courtesy Jessica B. Harris, University Press of Mississippi
Harris culls an incredible amount of information from the postcard images and shares her insights with readers. She wrote:
- Other cards fascinated because they clearly illustrated specific points of culinary or cultural history. The cards surrounding peanut cultivation in Senegal are good examples. Peanut cultivation might seem to be a benign illustration of local industry. In fact, it was a massive enterprise, and Senegal was at the center of a vast peanut oil trade mandated by the French colonial powers complete with taxes and tariffs. The Senegalese people upon whom it was inflicted hated the trade. The seemingly innocuous card provides a textbook example of colonial exploitation. A card detailing the fish caught by Senegalese fishermen, with the caption that the fish would “make European fishermen dream,” reminds of the size and variety of fish caught in the warm waters off Dakar in the early twentieth century that are no longer available today.
- In my collecting I chose to focus not on the colonial eye, but instead on the details revealed in the images captured… The cards contained pictures of all aspects of material culture. In them, it is possible to see art, craft, and design. I found myself intrigued by the woven texture of a basket; shape of a pot or jar; and twist of a head-tie, or tignon; or delighting in recognizing the classic African double-hitch of a skirt and the angle of a hoe blade. The cards even show social norms and cultural references like the nursing goat in a card from Cuba that made every older Cuban I showed it to smile with recognition.
- As I collected, I was struck by similarities of pose and saw developing parallels among the categories: the market women in Senegal and their counterparts in Guadeloupe, Charleston, and Barbados. People preparing rice in Madagascar and in Senegal and kitchens large and small throughout the diaspora. There were other curiosities: an apparent fascination with bananas on the part of photographers yielded a raft of Caribbean cards depicting banana cultivation and vending, while sugar cane led to cards from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and New Orleans, all depicting he parallel scenes from planting to harvesting. Some of them are virtually interchangeable because the worlds of labor were so similar.
- Then there were those from the American South depicting African Americans at work and at play. These had a different feel usually from those of Europe. They were more vicious and visceral. Frederick Douglass stated, “Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists.” Indeed, cards of the American South of the early period can be particularly racist with stereotypical images of indomitable mammies, smiling cotton pickers, negro idlers [sic], and black babies providing bait for alligators in Florida. Most of them provide more than ample fodder for a well-deserved screed on the racism. However, they are representations of the prevailing national standards of the post-Reconstruction period and detail America’s prevailing racism toward African Americans.
“In my collecting I chose to focus not on the colonial eye, but instead on the details revealed in the images captured… The cards contained pictures of all aspects of material culture. In them, it is possible to see art, craft, and design.” — Jessica B. Harris
Griot. – St- Louis (Sénégal). HOSTALIER, St-Louis (Sénégal). Back: Carte Postale. Ce côté est exclusivement reserve à l’adresse [This side is reserved exclusively for the address]. (Undivided Back. Mailed 1904.) | Courtesy Jessica B. Harris, University Press of Mississippi
Harris is certainly not alone in her collecting of vintage postcards, even with her focus on the African diaspora. However, given her background, expertise, and career-long dedication to excavating and studying Black culture and food history, hers is a unique lens through which to view the images.
As a journalist in the 1970s, Harris began serving as the travel editor at Essence magazine, visiting destinations around the globe. For five decades, she taught in the English department at Queens College at the City University of New York (CUNY), where she is now a professor emerita. In 2019, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame, and received a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. She heads the Culinary Institute of America’s new African Diaspora Foodways initiative and serves as lead curator for “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” an exhibition from the Museum of Food and Drink in New York that will be on view in 2022.
She makes a point in the book to state that she is not a postcard scholar. Maybe not, but she is certainly a formidable scholar with a discerning collection of vintage postcards.
As a form of correspondence, postcards were introduced in the 1860s, becoming “wildly popular” by the early 20th century, according to Harris. “…Postcards and their images bear silent witness to just how times have changed even more than the messages they carry,” Harris wrote. “In the United States, they document the growth of cities after the Civil War. In Africa and the Caribbean, they parallel the apogee and decadence of colonialism. The small rectangular pasteboard souvenirs house memory; they are photographic witness to a world that was, and is, no more.” CT
TOP IMAGE: 151 Nègres au Café Maure [Blacks in a Moor-ish café]. “Oran 13 mai, 1904 and illegible signature.” Collections ND Phot. Back: Carte Postale. Ce côté est exclusivement reservé à l’adresse [This side is reserved exclusively for the address]. Etablissements Photographique de Neurdein Frères. – Paris. (Undivided Back. Mailed 1904). | ourtesy Jessica B. Harris, University Press of Mississippi
WATCH MORE about Jessica B. Harris’s latest projects, “High on the Hog,” on Netflix and the forthcoming “African/American” exhibition with the Museum of Food and Drink
Among the Orange Groves in Florida. 117. Back: “The orange, a native of Asiatic Countries, was brought to America by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The blossoms are exquisitely fragrant with delicious white petals. A tree in all of its golden glory of ripened fruit is a delight to see.” “Tichnor Quality Views” Tichnor Bros., Inc. Boston, Mass. (Divided Back). | Courtesy Jessica B. Harris, University Press of Mississippi
Southern Dinner Toter, Macon, Ga. | Courtesy Jessica B. Harris, University Press of Mississippi
Jessica B. Harris: “My two most recent post card purchases… highlight a question that I, and indeed most who look at the cards, have. What is the thing that the card is trying to explain or express? The first card was the usual type that I’d acquired over the years: a studio portrait of an adorable serious-faced young boy with a basket over his arm and what appears to be a dinner pail in another. His clothing is tattered and held together with a safety pin, and he has on a cap and the basket reads ” Mr. F. Patton.” The notation at the bottom of the card reads “Southern Dinner Toter, Macon, GA.”
49 Guadeloupe – Type de Femme [A type of woman]. Back: Carte Postale. Levy et Neurdien reunis, 44, rue Letellier Paris. (Divided Back). | Courtesy Jessica B. Harris, University Press of Mississippi
The Zapateo, Tipical [sic] Cuban Dance. Back: Union Postal Universal Post Card Republica de Cuba. (Divided Back). | Courtesy Jessica B. Harris, University Press of Mississippi
ALL IMAGES: Courtesy Jessica B. Harris, From “Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of their Play” by Jessica B. Harris, Copywright © 2020 by Jessica B. Harris, published by University Press of Mississippi
Jessica B. Harris recently wrote a book about her life. “My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir” explores her fascinating experiences and connections with boldface names including James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison, as well as Sam Floyd, a fabulous cook and fellow professor at Queens College, who introduced her to Baldwin. “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America” by Harris was made into a new Netflix series. She has published volumes on African cuisine, including “The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent” and “Iron Pots & Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking” and written about African American food traditions in “Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking,” “Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim,” and “Martha’s Vineyard Table.” Harris is also the author of “Sky Juice and Flying Fish: Traditional Caribbean Cooking.” She offers wisdom about the basics in “On the Side: More Than 100 Recipes for the Sides, Salads, and Condiments That Make the Meal” and compiles favorites in “Rum Drinks: 50 Caribbean Cocktails, from Cuba Libre to Rum Daisy.”
DISCLOSURE: Jessica B. Harris is among the generous supporters who have made donations to Culture Type. Contributions do not influence or dictate editorial coverage or content.