BLACK HISTORY BOOK REVIEW: The Content of Our Caricature by Rebecca Wanzo

Dave Granlund 2017

By Haneen Aleid

4 stars

‘What happens when one takes the stereotype to challenge the representation?

One initially picks up Wanzo’s The Content of Our Caricature in sheer shock at the art on its covers and within its pages. Then, one learns that the caricatures on display tell a story of what it means to be Black and American. The impact of years of racism is traceable through comics and interpreted in this analytical body of work to reveal the reality of simultaneously belonging to and being excluded from an imperialist nation.

‘What happens when one takes the stereotype to challenge the representation?’ Wanzo asks. When she first began circulating racist caricatures online, even her acclaimed and cultivated peers began questioning her intentions. But in Wanzo’s eyes, at its root, caricatures simplify. They tell a political and social story the way it is. Very much similar to the work of Black comedians like Dave Chapelle, caricatures have stereotypes embedded in them- a ‘repetition of a generalized typology.’ When facing the horror of the points Wanzo and the featured Black cartoonists are plainly making, a picture you thought you knew reveals itself in even greater and more substantial colour.

Caricatures are rarely discussed in popular culture to reveal racist patterns. However, we often turn to other types of media to learn about the subject- we watch films and read literature about the African American identity, including the struggle for social and political belonging. I now wonder if we divert to the latter because they are gentler, less radical, than the bright and brash caricatures Wanzo displays.

For example, the cartoon by Sam Milai, ‘September Morn,’ is torn to pieces by Wanzo. ‘A satirical whiff,’ she calls it. A naked and shivering young woman is on display, she is vulnerable and entirely conscious of her visibility. Wanzo suggests that ‘not being aware of the gaze is its own kind of violence, but the Black woman’s knowledge suggests the impossibility of ignorance.’ The words which engulf her, both of Black power and white supremacy, can be equally damaging. To be Black is to be hyperaware of your presence. Wanzo concludes, ‘But the woman here is civil rights, so she is not an agent in relationship to the struggle.’

Wanzo also dissects cartoons of Martin Luther King Jr., the Anti-civil rights movement,  stereotypes of a ‘violent n*gro,’ ‘the ideal citizen’, and Marvel’s inclusivity or lack thereof. The writer strings out, in lasting detail, the power and struggle of the Black body in America.

Wanzo’s novel has left me resentful about the past, conscious of the present, and also grateful for art, comics, and those who take the time to interpret them. We can surely learn about how harmful social constructs escalate and the ideologies which tolerate them, simply by looking at what Wanzo describes as ‘a visual grammar of citizenship and hence American identity itself.’

The Content of Our Caricature was selected as part of Combined Academic Publisher’s KeY Reads collection for October 2022.

What is KeY Reads?

The CAP KeY Reads are a curated collection of the most celebrated and significant publications in academic publishing.

Chosen for their importance and foundational insight, a new set of KeY Reads is selected every month with a specific subject area focus. In line with Black History Month, the theme for October 2022 was Race & Ethnic studies.

As a KeY Read, throughout October 2022 The Content of Our Caricature eBook was available to buy with a 25% discount, or a 40% discount if you subscribe to the KeY Reads newsletter.

Learn more and become a subscriber at the CAP website: