Chris Dingwall:

I am a cultural historian and curator. My work is in American and African American cultural history at the intersection of race and political economy. I have a PhD in History from the University of Chicago and have held an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto.

Right now I live and teach in Detroit. I am working on several projects for academic and public audiences that focus on toys, postcards, graphic design, and other arts of everyday life.




 

Current Projects:

Selling Slavery: Race and the Industry of American Culture

This is a book about how and why  culture industries invested so much in racism at the turn of the twentieth century and thus transformed how Americans experienced the emergence of mass consumer capitalism. Focusing on the popular icons of the mythic old plantation, each chapter details the labor and planning it took to bring racist ideology to life in a variety of popular cultural commodities: theatrical spectacle, decorated books, photographic postcards, and mechanical toys.

Yet selling slavery did not go uncontested. Essential to reproducing racist ideology on a mass scale, ironically, was the creative work of African American artists and performers, who sought to capitalize on the value of race in mass cultural marketplaces while bending the power of industrial capitalism toward the unfinished work of black emancipation. Their stories offer critical perspectives on the relationship between cultural industry and freedom—perspectives especially valuable in our age of digital media, global capitalism, and resurgent racism.

Selling Slavery is currently under contract at Cambridge University Press for its series, Slaveries Since Emancipation.
The Reconstruction of Culture

My new research project asks simply how the astonishing yet unfinished social revolution of slave emancipation transformed American culture during and following the Civil War. Although Reconstruction has been well-studied as a political, social, and legal history, I approach it as a significant cultural era when Americans sought to realize—and reverse—the nation’s “new birth of freedom.”

Taking the metaphor of “reconstruction” literally, I am conceptualizing Reconstruction as an impulse to remake the world, an impulse that animated cultural practices in the South, the North, and the frontier West, and an impulse expressed in myriad cultural practices. My research is focusing on designed products (toys, furniture, home décor) as well as texts (novels, correspondence, memoirs) to grasp how Americans engaged the futures opened up by emancipation.

Exhibits:

African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race
The exhibition highlights the work of African American commercial artists who shaped the racial politics of mass consumerism during the twentieth century. As co-curator, I helped tell this story by selecting a range of design work from manufactured products such as chairs and dolls to printed ephemera such as album covers and magazine advertising. My long essay on the social history of African American design in Chicago was freely distributed as an illustrated newspaper-style handout in the gallery space.

The exhibition, supported by the Terra Foundation of American Art, runs at the Chicago Cultural Center from October 2018 to March 2019.

A symposium on The Designs of African American Life celebrated the opening of the exhibition on November 3, 2018 with a group of leading scholars in African American studies who spoke on the themes of design, political economy, and politics.

The exhibition and symposium have received wonderful reviews in public and scholarly forums:





African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race, Chicago Cultural Center (October 2018-March 2019).

From top: exhibition view; Herbert Temple designs of Ebony, Negro Digest, and Black World; Charles Harrison chair and slide projector.

Exhibition design by David Hartt.


Race and the Design of American Life: African Americans in Twentieth-Century Commercial Art
This exhibit, which was held at the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago from October 2013 to January 2014, surveyed the ways in which African Americans shaped the visual iconography of consumer capitalism: as images and as makers and consumers of their own image. The exhibit text and a selection of images is preserved online here.
Race and the Design of American Life, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago (October 2013-January 2014)

Teaching:

My teaching concentrates on the history of the United States in an expanded field, from the era of colonial slavery to the present day, from the fine details of material artifacts to critical theories of large-scale sociohistorical transformation. Topics of particular interest include American mass culture, race and American material culture, and historical theory and method.

As a lecturer and as a discussion leader, I have developed a successful object-based pedagogy to teach students about American history as well as the craft of historical research. Often working in collaboration with local libraries and museums, I show students how archival artifacts—letters, postcards, toys, fabrics, wax cylinder phonographs, advertisements, beauty products—illuminate stories of large-scale historical change as well as intimate stories about the lives of people and communities.
In all of my courses, I encourage students to hone their intellectual skills through individual research projects and spirited classroom discussion.

I am pleased to share recent sample syllabuses and welcome inquiries about my current classes: