"The Unwritten History": Alexander Gumby's African America

Gumby's Culture > Introduction

Pictured at right:
A page from Gumby's scrapbook, "The Negro in Baseball."
See: Baseball for more information.

One way of understanding Gumby's scrapbook project as a whole is to view it as his attempt to use tangible objects to represent intangible ideas. If those objects are the building blocks of history, it is only because they represent the experiences of the people who lived that history. This is certainly the case in the many volumes that Gumby devoted to individuals, whose lives and cultural impacts were undoubtedly more than the sum of the work they produced, the photographs and other mementos they left behind, or the journalism reported about them. Similarly, Gumby used the publications and ephemera produced by particular institutions to stand in for both the activities and the purposes of those institutions, and he presented events both noteworthy and unexceptional as elements that help to build but do not fully comprise longer histories that extend well beyond their internal time frames.

This metonymic approach is no more clearly on display in Gumby's scrapbook collection than it is in the many volumes and individual pages in which he attempted to capture a sense of the culture of his era rather than simply record its events or chronicle its individuals' accomplishments. Thus Gumby brought together, for example, multiple clippings from disparate and unrelated sources in order to give a general sense of a developing debate over the propriety of certain language referencing African Americans. Even as he documented particular instances of lynch mobs in action, Gumby similarly created pages like the one reproduced here, in which multiple poems on the theme of lynch violence show how those individual events created a cultural element that was both related to and transcendent of them. If the overall goal of Gumby's scrapbook project was to provide the elements that could be combined in order to write a US history that included African Americans, these pages and volumes devoted to culture suggest in miniature how this might be done. By identifying the common themes that generated both popular and artistic cultural production, one might begin to understand how the disparate individuals, institutions, and events of the past worked to create the context that defined the present.


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