Invisible Man: Relentless Whiteness

Invisibility was one of the most troubling aspects of African American representation in visual culture during the civil rights era. While black characters and subjects were celebrated in Negro periodicals and in the work of African American artists and filmmakers, they were mostly ignored in the mainstream.

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the preeminent novel of the civil rights era, the war against racism is seen, in great part, as a fight to overcome society’s pervasive need to obscure or obliterate the realities of race. One of the book’s central metaphors is the power of visibility—of making visible the unseen and unacknowledged.

The modern civil rights movement was intent on challenging the invisibility of race in America—from the bigotry, both virulent and passive, that most white people refused to see to the erasure of black people from the culture at large. These Cold War-era public service posters and films typify this exclusion in their offer of an American dream or a promise of safety available only to white people.


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Where Every Boy Can Dream of Being President (from the series This Is America), 1942
Where Every Boy Can Dream of Being President (from the series This Is America), 1942
Where Every Boy Can Dream of Being President (from the series This Is America), 1942
Photomechanical lithograph (facsimile)
37 1/8 x 24 1/16 in.
Courtesy Sheldon-Claire Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution
Black Out—Whiteness, Safety, and the Cold War, 2009
Black Out—Whiteness, Safety, and the Cold War, 2009
Black-and-white and color 16mm, transferred to DVD
1 min., 27 sec.
Researcher: Althea Wasow
Film Editor: Niger Miles, Editor
Produced by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

About Fallout, 1955
Office of Civil Defense

Medical Aspects of Radiation, 1950
U.S. Armed Forces Special Weapons Project

The House in the Middle, 1954
National Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Bureau

Operation Cue, 1964
U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration