Tuesday, November 28, 2023

African Americans as Portrayed on Playing Cards

 Rory Renick is a collector and historian. He built an amazing exhibit which I write about here. This article shows his exhibit at the 52PlusJoker Conference of his collection of playing cards which documents the portrayal of  some of the history of African Americans and of the African Diaspora. At the end of the article, there’s more info about Rory and the conference.

It astonished me. Two months later, I'm still thinking about it. It is powerful, meaningful, and haunting.  I would like to see his collection get a much larger viewing by becoming a travelling exhibit across major museums. 

Its name: Art, Allegory & Advertisement -In Black-Imaged Playing Cards

But to start at the beginning, Rory is a magician, a writer, a storyteller, and in this case, a collector of cards.  

Being a joker collector myself, I'll start with a part of  his collection of jokers.  Rory has curated this display of joker playing cards from 1882 to 1935.

What is this period, 1882 to 1935 ?  Well...

"...It wasn't until the end of the Reconstruction that a nostalgic longing to see black people in disparaging stereotypes emerged..."

Moving from exhibits of jokers to displays of playing cards in general, Rory labels this period of portrayal as the "Cotton, Minstrelsy, & The Art Deco Era".

In the  World War II and immediate post war era, there didn't seem to be many portrayals of African Americans.  Personally, I would guess that a united front was considered important for America to deal successfully with the external threats and enemies.

Starting in the 60s, a renaissance and an exploration and statement of identity for Black Americans appears on cards.  

There is a focus on achievements in entertainment, research, politics, sports, and music by African Americans and decks of cards along these themes were published.  The cards highlight both historical and contemporary achievements.

Through the years, the imagery shows an expansion of the vision shown on American playing cards to include a sense of the African Diaspora.

It is in this tradition that Rory and Angela (his wife) dressed as the King and Queen of Clubs. Also, they looked fantastic as royalty.  I was honored to be pictured with them.

There are also, in the modern cards and imagery, a frequent usage of cards for advertising and commerce.

Overall, despite the heavy topics raised by the cards about history - much of it painful and toxic - the exhibit has a light feeling to it. It's neither preachy nor simplistic. 

The exhibit lays out the portrayals over the last 150 years, organizes them into periods and topics, and allows the viewer the freedom to appreciate, cringe, and meditate upon this long history as portrayed in one of the most popular of art forms: the playing card.

This exhibit in October 2023 was the first public exhibit of Rory Rennick's collection. It was shown at the 52PlusJoker Annual Conference in Cleveland.

Lee Asher, the president of 52PlusJoker, has provided Rory with several media to share his collection with the organization's members including Clear the Decks, a printed magazine; Card Culture Magazine, an online magazine; and live and Zoom presentations. In Lee's introduction of Rory, he says that it is a collection of the highest significance.

I think Rory Rennick is a determined original who has developed and pursued his visions which deals with clarifying and illuminating some important aspects of American history and society..  

For my part, I think the day will come when I will brag about having known Rory before his exhibit hit the bigtime and he became a national celebrity. His materials are compelling and they merit attention from national-level museums and media.  My photography which is obviously amateurish, does not do justice the visual impact of the actual displays. This article does I think capture the striking history of the portrayal of  Black Americans in popular culture through playing cards. 

More information:

The 52PlusJoker Club facilitates the collection and trading of antique, vintage and modern collectible playing cards & other related ephemera. It only costs $25 a year.

Rory Rennick is a working magician, entertainer, historian, educator, and writer. He wrote Henry Box Brown.

To reach me, just write a comment. I check them weekly. 
- revised 12-5-2023

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Thanks for your input and for reading and thinking about jokers.