Hidden at the back of a dusty type case at the Cranky Press lies a scrap of typographic history that no one wants to remember. There are about a dozen of these blocks: bizarre, offensive renditions of ethnicity that reflect our Western heritage of privilege, racism and bigotry.
I’m not sure why I’ve kept all these blocks. In fact, whenever I clean and purge my little print shop, I always think about tossing them in the garbage bin. But I don’t. Maybe it’s the historian in me. Maybe there’s a notion that somehow I need to inculcate responsibility for these cultural representations of our past. I look at them occasionally; I think about them often.
I worry that many of us who now practice the Black Art have tended to romanticize the history of letterpress printing. It is such a beautiful and meticulous process – one that we embrace with open hearts and happy enthusiasm – that we have difficulty believing that it was ever used to promote such ugly and hateful notions of race or gender or diversity. I need to remind myself that it’s a myth to believe the “power of the press” has always served a higher and noble objective – that is, to improve the human condition. It hasn’t – and the blocks in my type case are proof of that. So they’ve sat there for years. Hidden at the back of a type case like a dirty little secret.
With media accounts of a truly offensive American presidential candidate, who relies on bigotry and ignorance to appeal to the basest of his base, I’ve decided to print these blocks once more. I’m shocked by the rise of xenophobic violence and bigotry we’ve seen in the past eight months; shocked at how close to the surface this behavior lurks within so many of us; shocked by the fact that as a Western society, we really haven’t made much progress since the days when these blocks were first created.
With apologies to my fellow Gangsters of the Ottawa Press Gang – whose 2016 annual collaborative project [Typographic Ornaments] I’ve adopted as the platform for my minuscule rant (in 60 copies) on the ugly past of our printing history – I print this as a cautionary tale — that our current cultural mood that will to condemn us to a future of intolerance and ignorance.
Alas, bigotry is alive and well in these modern times.