First Looks and Second Glances: Exploring the Amalia Amaki Papers and the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection

Stephanie Rambo is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University. She specializes in African American literature, Black Girlhood Studies, Diasporic Black theory, and Women and Gender Studies. She is currently working on her first a book monograph which examines literary and visual depictions of Black girlhood in African American literature.

This past December I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library where I engaged both the Amalia Amaki Papers and the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection. My book monograph in progress interrogates spatial and visual politics of Black girlhood in African American literature from slave narratives to young adult fiction, and images of Black girls at the turn of the 20th century inform the overall arc of the project. Though these collections are vastly different, a common item that emerged from both was postcards. While I was searching for images of Black girls, particularly photographs, postcards allowed me to consider another important intersection of early print and visual culture—the proliferation of earlier images as a form of visual narratives.

Figure 1. Seven Black Girls Standing Side by Side. Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection.

In the Robert Langmuir Photography Collection, I viewed an 1898 postcard of seven Black girls standing side by side (see fig. one).[i] Most of the girls are holding books and standing outside of a building, possibly a school. At first glance, this image could easily be considered a school photograph. However, two elements quickly remind viewers that it is not: the label “Private Mailing Card” and the caption below the photograph. While “postcard” and “private mailing card” appear to be interchangeable, there is a difference between the two. According to the Smithsonian’s “Postcard History,” Private Mailing Card “distinguished privately printed cards from government printed cards. Messages were not allowed on the address side of the private mailing cards… However, if the front of the postcard did not contain an image, it could bear a message. If the front did have an image, then a small space was left on the front for a message.”[ii] Ironically, this card contains an image and the caption “What Shall We Do With Them?” Though the question seems innocuous, this query presumes they have no agency. Put another way, rather than doing something themselves, some anonymous “we” presumes to do something with them. So though there is space to include a note, the caption provided sends a rather pernicious message of its own. 

As I continued my search, I came across a similar postcard from the Rotograph Company. On the left, a Black girl sits smiling and posing for a picture while on the right, language inscribes her as a caricature (see fig. two).[iii] The caption reads:

“There was a careless picaninny

Who sat with toes turned in,

Until it really grew to be

Her most besetting sin.

What cured her of this dreadful trick

You scarcely could surmise

An instantaneous photograph

Which took her by surprise.”

Figure 2. Black Girl Sitting on Steps Smiling. Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection.

“Careless picaninny” and “besetting sin” evoke the character Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and renditions of the figure throughout American popular culture. And though undated, the Rotograph Company produced postcards from 1904 to 1911. So almost fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, this postcard demonstrates the proliferation of pejorative racial inscriptions and visual narratives in the early 20th century. While this photograph is “instantaneous,” the words reverberate and reinscribe racial difference that objectified and dehumanized Black children.

Differently, Amaki’s collection included a copy image from the 1903 postcard Le Cake Walk Danse au Nouveau Cirque, Les Enfants Nègres. Roughly translated “The Cake Walk Danced at the New Circus, Negro Children,” the card features Rudy and Fredy Walker, a sibling dance duo who toured throughout Europe. Amaki famously uses the image in her mixed media artwork and installation “I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz,” where she incorporates buttons, beads, photographs, and other materials, creating a multilayer, palimpsest collage. In Pamela Blume Leonard’s review of the work, also included in Amaki’s papers, she focuses on Rudy and writes: “She’s leaning way back in a youthful vogueing pose: She’s having fun, and she looks straight in your eye so engagingly…[and] the strips of snapshot-size photos and buttons surrounding her still have a protective purpose—they carve out a safe space for her shenanigans. This little girl is going about the serious business of learning how far she can go in the social dance.”[iv] Like Leonard, I too was drawn to her gaze as well as Amaki’s accoutrements that not only embellish the piece but bring her further into focus. In many ways then, Amaki’s piece is instructive as she reimagines images and provides a different visual narrative. Amaki’s embellishments illume Rudy and her pensive gaze and remind us that she too looks back at viewers. Notably, Amaki’s artistry parallels literary depictions I examine of Black girl protagonists who integrate photography and everyday materials in their collages to create their own visual narratives while subverting harmful ones. Thinking about the visual and the literary, I was left pondering how we might imagine and read Black girls and women beyond overt and covert inscriptions? And what other visual narratives are there to be told?

By the end of my visit, I returned, once again, to the “What Shall We Do With Them?” postcard and gave it a second glance. Looking beyond the caption this time, I noticed one girl covering her face with her hand. Maybe she is simply shielding the sun, but thinking critically about her gaze left me to consider and wonder if, perhaps, she was blocking the flash from the camera to get a better look.



[i] What Shall We Do with Them?: Seven African American Girls Standing in a Row. Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Box 72. Emory University.

[ii] “Postcard History.” Smithsonian Institution Archives.,slight%20variations%20of%20this%20phrase. Accessed 7 December 2023.

[iii] Rotograph Co. [Pickaninnies]: an African American girl sitting on stone steps. unknown. “Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection.” New York,. Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Emory University.

[iv] Leonard, Pamela Blume. “Shining Shrines Put Women in the Center.” The Atlanta Constitution. 21 Mar. 1997, pp. 23. Due to copyright restrictions, images from the installation are not included, but I encourage others to visit the collection in person.