Add to bookbag
Author: Bruce Fehn
Title: PowerPoint and Privileging the Visual in Teaching American History: Lynching, Racist Collectibles, and Abu Ghraib Prison Photos
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2007

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: PowerPoint and Privileging the Visual in Teaching American History: Lynching, Racist Collectibles, and Abu Ghraib Prison Photos
Bruce Fehn

vol. 10, no. 2, August 2007
Article Type: Article

PowerPoint and Privileging the Visual in Teaching American History: Lynching, Racist Collectibles, and Abu Ghraib Prison Photos

Bruce Fehn

University of Iowa

Readers’ Advisory: The following paper contains images that are in many instances visually graphic and culturally disturbing. The journal’s peer-reviewers and editorial staff believe that the article makes a strong contribution to understanding an important part of teaching history with these images, but the images should be considered as primary source materials and viewed carefully in the context of the text of the article. As appropriate, the author has given the original source of each image.

Visual Introduction

The nine images below are part of a PowerPoint slideshow containing 75 images only. Do they suggest an historical narrative?

Slide 1 [1]
Slide 2 [2]
Slide 3 [3]
Slide 4 [4]
Slide 5 [5]
Slide 6 [6]
Slide 7 [7]
Slide 8
Slide 9

History, Images, and PowerPoint Slideshows

The history slideshow is not what it used to be. With PowerPoint slideshows, history teachers have new capacities to, in historian Leon Litwack's words, "stir and challenge the intellect, to shake it up."  [8] For years effective history teachers presented images using slide, opaque, and overhead projectors. They collected and projected images to capture students' attention, supplemented lectures, and asked students to analyze and interpret visual material presented them. With improvements in computer speed, access to online images, and the advent of PowerPoint and other visual display software, however, the history slideshow's potentialities have significantly increased. Besides enhancing the ability to easily obtain and project images, PowerPoint enables teachers to speedily harvest, arrange, and re-arrange image-laden historical narratives for presentation to students. With slideshows containing 10, 15, 20 or more slides, teachers have a unique and powerful tool for students to read, construct and contest visually dominated historical narratives.

With now virtually obsolete slide and opaque projectors, returning to a previously viewed image for comparison was a slow, clunky process. The overhead projector represented a technological advance over slide and opaque projectors.  [9] Equipped with an overhead projector and transparencies, teachers efficiently presented an image, removed it, and moved on to another. Returning to a previously viewed image was also a relatively easy operation compared to a reverse operation using a slide projector. By employing slide, opaque or overhead projectors, history teachers projected images to spark students' historical thinking skills, i.e., analysis, interpretation, comparisons, and narrative construction.  [10] With their lack of speed and flexibility, however, these earlier technologies neither invited nor encouraged teachers to assemble and project visual historical narratives for students to read.  [11]

Visual Historical Narratives

In this essay, I discuss strategies for teachers and students take fuller advantage of PowerPoint's collection and projection capacities for creating and presenting visual historical narratives. Anecdotal evidence suggests history teachers and students increasingly offer PowerPoint slideshows. While no systematic research exists on how teachers employ slideshows, teachers no doubt increasingly use PowerPoint to collect images from the internet and present them with LCD projectors. At the 2005 conference of the National Council for History Education, for example, several secondary school teachers demonstrated how they used PowerPoint and images to teach such topics as the 1950s and the Second Red Scare, Japanese-American internment during World War II, and the Vietnam War from the American soldiers' perspective.  [12] My observations indicate, furthermore, that high school history students now quite often create and present image-laden historical slideshows on a variety of topics.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that teachers tend to use PowerPoint in "traditional" ways. As with overhead and slide projector presentations teachers wisely use PowerPoint slides to engage students' interest, provide visual representations of the past, and teach skills of historical analysis and interpretation. To accompany visual materials teachers provide students with analytical templates or "worksheets." They take advantage, for example, of the Digital Classroom of the National Archives and Record Administration photo analysis worksheet. The worksheet directs students to divide photos into quadrants, list people, objects and activities the photo contains, and make inferences based upon their analyses.  [13] This essay, however, urges history teachers and students to go beyond worthwhile methods of analyzing and interpreting visual material. They should use PowerPoint's speed and flexibility to construct and present visually rich historical narratives.

Since I propose that PowerPoint provides new and unique capacities for image-laden narrative construction and presentation, it is important to define how I employ the term "historical narrative." Following formulations of Barton, Levstik, and Holt, I use the term in a conventional way. An historical narrative begins with a situation or event, followed by series of other events, which eventually leads to a new situation. To craft a narrative, historians use primarily words to arrange "elements of historical experience" into "a beginning, a middle and an end."  [14] For example, historians describe how Black Reconstruction generated forms of white supremacy e.g., Jim Crow laws, terrorism and lynching, as well as racist jokes and imagery. White supremacist activities operated dynamically with varieties black resistance. African Americans continually, under the most repressive conditions, developed ingenious forms of public protest and dignified, private self-representation. Historians have produced many impressive written narratives on white supremacy and black resistance.  [15] Can images alone carry an historical narrative of this dynamic interracial struggle as I am proposing?

Among historians, David Staley has argued most vigorously for foregrounding images as "a serious form of historical narrative." Staley insisted that an historian, who produces visual presentations, follows the same "design principles" as those who employ primarily words to construct written narratives. "Whatever our individual [historical] specialties," Staley observed, "all historians…ask questions, seek relevant primary sources, discern patterns in the evidence, and then arrange the evidence into a meaningful narrative strung together by words, sentences and paragraphs." In an article titled "Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany," Staley maintained historians who create visual narratives employ the same processes. To illustrate, he provided a "visual essay" containing a sequence of exclusively visual primary sources (e.g., photos, advertisements and diagrams) from post-World War II Germany. Staley claimed his sequential ordering of images "make them a history, instead of merely a haphazard collection of pictures or "'gallery of images.'" Comprehension of visual narratives emerges from the juxtaposition of images side by side and in longer sequences. "The sequence of images," Staley wrote, "creates a context which affects the meaning of each image. Change the arrangement of the images, alter the selection of the images so juxtaposed and the meaning of the individual images is changed."  [16] Although Staley discussed neither PowerPoint nor history teaching, he made stimulating suggestions about the interaction of students and other viewers with sequences of images. Viewers create historical meaning by reading, in Staley's words, "the conceptual space between two images." Drawing upon studies of sequential art, such as comic strips, Staley believes historians using visual sequences require viewers to "fill in" the spaces between images to create meaning. By implication, the author of a visual history narrative gives the reader greater space or latitude for interpreting an essay's meaning than the historian who produces a conventional written narrative. If we think of students reading a visual historical narrative, the essay's meaning emerges as they make "the conceptual and associative connections between [the] images."  [17] By connecting a slideshow's images they may construct, or complicate and contest, the author's intended historical narrative.

Designing a PowerPoint Visual History: White Supremacy and Black Resistance

My discussion of PowerPoint's unique capacities for history teaching and learning stemmed from design and presentation of a slideshow titled: "Privileging the Visual in Teaching American History: Lynching, Racist Memorabilia and the Abu Ghraib Prison Photos." When, in spring 2004, discussions emerged about relationships between lynching photos and Abu Ghraib torture, I decided to download internet images of both atrocities and compare them.  [18] While harvesting the images and placing them side by side I asked: Why, in both cases, did Americans engage in such brutalities? How could the perpetrators apparently feel comfortable, even happy, with their awful crimes? Were Abu Ghraib photos part of a narrative of white supremacy and black resistance?

While pondering these questions, I expanded my PowerPoint narrative with clusters (sequences of visual material on a particular topic) of lynching and Abu Ghraib photos. Online explorations (Google searches) led me to the remarkable Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.  [19] The images collected at the Jim Crow Museum provided me with an immediate, visceral understanding of the visual culture of white supremacy. Image after demeaning image gave me a deeper understanding of what I already knew: that a culture saturated with racist material dehumanized African-Americans and set an enduring stage for violent acts perpetrated against them.

With a selection of visuals from the Museum, I built into my PowerPoint narrative an argument that white supremacist imagery normalized white supremacy, which undergirded terrible acts of racist violence. As the slideshow took shape I knew that a narrative of white supremacy and violence must include images of black resistance, for oppression and resistance were inextricably intertwined. Eventually the slideshow contained 75 images intended to connect racist visual material (e.g., caricatures of blacks as watermelon eating layabouts), violent images of lynching, the black freedom struggle, and photos from Abu Ghraib. With the PowerPoint slideshow, in sum, I intended to project an historical narrative connecting ubiquitous caricatures of African Americans with the horrid crimes of lynching in America and torture in Iraq.

Presenting a PowerPoint Visual History

In July 2004 I presented the slideshow to an audience of secondary and tertiary faculty at the Australia New Zealand American Studies Association Conference in Auckland, New Zealand. The next year, April 2005, I presented the visual narrative to a similar audience at the Organization of American Historians meetings in San Jose, California.  [20] In both presentations I wanted to "test" with audiences whether PowerPoint's speed and flexibility for image projection engaged attention, sparked conversation, and enabled detection of my historical narrative. I also wanted to see whether or not my visual history invited the audience to take control of the images and the process of historical meaning making. In other words, I wondered if the audience would tell me to return to images, suggest altering the sequence of images or in various ways re-configure the slideshow's narrative structure.

The extent of audience participation represented my central criterion for adjudging my PowerPoint visual history as a success, failure or something in between. For my own sense of security, I prepared notes containing historical information on the images and my interpretations of them. My role, however, was not to be "sage on the stage," but to present the images and facilitate audience commentary. I intended to remain largely silent, inviting audience members to interpret and connect the images. I wanted viewers to verbalize their reactions, compare impressions, and elaborate or contest each others' "readings." Would audience members verbalize their interpretations of individual photos or clusters of images? Would viewers ask me to return to visual material to compare images? Would viewers recognize my intended narrative? If they recognized my intended narrative, would they accept my image-based argument or challenge it?

During the presentations, I first rapidly moved (roughly from two to ten seconds at time) without stopping, through the slideshow's 75 images. My purpose was to offer, at the very outset, my complete visual narrative. In silence I projected, and the audience viewed, image after image for roughly seven minutes. Intending to offer the audiences a narrative connecting lynching, white racist culture, African-American resistance, and torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners, this quick time movement through 75 slides took place without any introduction to the slideshow's purposes or content. Whether or not they recognized my narrative intention, I reasoned, viewers would have exposure to a sequence of visuals for interpreting, analyzing and comparing individual images. The rapid fire exposure contained clusters of visual material: lynching photos, racist objects and pictures, segregation and black protest photos, as well as images from Abu Ghraib. I did not pause or transition from one cluster (e.g., lynching images) to the next (e.g., racist objects and trade cards). Next, I very rapidly, without a second's pause, reversed through the slides to pause on the image below; "a lynching that produced one of the most powerful photographs in American history."  [21]

Slide 10 [22]

In my "security" notes for the PowerPoint presentation I wrote that this slide recorded the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. According to the online resource Without Sanctuary, a mob removed the men from jail, hung them from a tree, and mutilated their bodies. At the bottom of the photo, there is a couple holding hands, perhaps courting. According to Without Sanctuary, "Lawrence Beitler, a studio photographer, took this photo. For ten days and nights he printed thousands of copies, which sold for fifty cents apiece."  [23]

Audience Responses

Audience responses to Bietler's photograph assured me that I accomplished a central goal of the presentation: the slideshow images provoked audience participation. I did not resort to lecturing with the slides serving as illustrations for a conventional verbal presentation. Rather, viewers offered commentary whenever we stopped to scrutinize an image. For example, one audience member later wrote to me that the Bietler photograph

evoked a variety of responses [from the audience]. My eye fell on the white faces in the crowd. I was moved by their apparent lack of compassion, remorse or shame. The black victims had been de-personalized and de-humanized. The photo therefore offered more than a record of an event-it offered a possible explanation. The image invited interpretation and encouraged the curious to ask questions-why and how was such a thing possible?  [24]

Why and how was such a thing possible? Through the cluster of seventeen lynching images, audience members viewed terrorists grinning into the camera beside hanging, mutilated bodies. They recognized lynchings were mass events, even celebrations, attracting large crowds attended by women and children. From words written on the back of postcard (slides 2 and 3 above), viewers discerned lynching was so normal that postal authorities allowed their circulation through the U.S. mail. They noted from a handwritten message on one post card how lynchings and photos of them perpetuated white male supremacy:


The answer of the Anglo-Saxon race to black brutes

who would attack the womanhood of the South.  [25]

The terrorist acts were so normalized that camera shops processed the film. Just above the "warning" appeared this identifying imprint:

Wright's Kodak Finishing Shop 115 Ball St. Savannah, GA.  [26]

The audiences' careful interpretations revealed these horrid events became part of "normal" cultural action in the enforcement of white male supremacy. When offered PowerPoint slides of racist material culture, audience members provided penetrating analyses and lucid interpretation of the images confronting them. One viewer, for example, explained to us how the novelty item below held meaning for both race and gender oppression.

Slide 11 [27]

He noted how the male figure on the packaging was clownish, with exaggerated features that were part and parcel of the history of white racist representations of black people. The female caricature (or "Lure") also has obviously exaggerated features. Combined with the words "virgin fishing" and "lucky lure" the object reinforced the pervasive white characterization of black people as sexually wanton. The viewer went on to associate the object with the history of African American women's vulnerability to sexual assault under slavery and freedom. Another audience member noticed that the lure was produced in Springfield, Ohio, indicating there was production and circulation of racist objects in the North, as well as the South. In response to this and other slides, viewers built upon each others' comments, thereby providing impressively refined interpretations of images composing the historical narrative.

Although audience members were very responsive to individual slides of lynching and racist imagery, they neither commented on the Abu Ghraib photos nor demonstrated detection of my intended narrative, viz., dehumanizing caricatures created conditions for violence at home and abroad, while generating black resistance struggles. There was an obvious reason. The viewers were so responsive to the lynching photos and racist caricatures we did not have time to turn to the Abu Ghraib photographs for discussion and debate. So, we did not have my anticipated colloquy concerning demeaning stereotypes and violence perpetrated in Iraq. Furthermore, we never discussed the meaning(s) of the entire slideshow. With my goal of having the audience lead the discussion, I never insisted upon an opportunity to ask viewers: Was there an historical narrative carried within the slideshow?

While I failed to "test" my argument concerning the capacity of PowerPoint slideshows' to contain and present visual historical narratives, the speedy presentation of the entire narrative arguably provided scaffolding for viewers' subsequent lucid analyses and interpretations of individual images. With the entire visual narrative behind them, audience members had historical context for making meaning of individual slides or clusters of them. Certainly, with PowerPoint's capacity to flexibly present and return to images, I quickly and agilely responded to viewers' requests for return to previously viewed images. Based upon my own teaching experiences with earlier image projection technologies, I am convinced that PowerPoint provides history teachers with unique powers for visual presentation not available through its technological predecessors.

PowerPoint's Implications for History Teaching and Learning

When students or teachers go online to construct a visual historical narrative they begin to enact elements of the historian's craft. As they search the web for images, they encounter, collect, and evaluate varieties of visual evidence. In the process of weighing evidence for a narrative, they discard, arrange, and re-arrange images into a sequence which shows both continuity and change. While offering presentations, teachers or students use images as visual cues for verbalization of their historical narrative. In Alan Trachtenberg's view, images "seem to have a way of inviting or enticing language."  [28] So, language and image work together in support of a visually rich historical narration.

Significantly, presenters can use PowerPoint images to enlist audience members into the process of historical construction and critique. They can quickly project an entire slideshow, offer clusters of images on the same theme, and re-arrange image sequences in response to audience suggestions. With the availability of such presentation flexibility, history students and teachers have the capacity to virtually simulate historians' encounters with ordering and interrogating evidence for significance and authenticity in a narrative construction. In history educator Walter Werner's formulation, slideshows "open" opportunities for teachers and students to generate the many possible meanings that rich "visual texts" contain. Encounters with visual material enable students to detect a "storyline" and offer "plausible" "alternative storylines."  [29]


With Power Point teachers and students have the capacity to assemble and project visual historical narratives for dialogue with their classmates. Together, with projected images as a common focus, they can explore and debate possible meanings of historical imagery involving issues of race, gender, class, religion and other areas of historical inquiry. Together they can shuffle the images which may yield unexpected insights about an historical event or development. During slideshows viewers "claim authority" over the images presented to them. Rather than enforcing meaning with words, image-rich slideshows open dialogue and historical meaning making between and among audience members. Instead of delivering a monologue, "which admits nothing new and exists in search of validation" slideshow visual histories "invite new thoughts and welcome change."  [30] Such are the potentialities of new technologies, including PowerPoint, for composing image-dominated explorations and narrations of the past.


1. The entire slideshow may be viewed at:

2. ; James Allen, et al. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palm Publishers, 2000), plate 59.

3. Ibid., plate 60.

4. Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University,

5. Ibid.,

6. Ibid.,

7. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation, National Archives and Record Administration,

8. Roy Rosenzweig, "Interviews with Exemplary Teachers: Leon F. Litwack," The History Teacher Vol. 34, no. 2 (2001).

9. I am unaware of any histories written on the historical development of image projection by means of slide projectors, opaque projectors or overhead projectors. Based on the research into history of digital culture, however, no doubt slide, overhead and opaque projectors were precursors to the Power Point slideshow. See Lauren Rabinovitz and Abraham Geil, eds. Memory Bytes: History, Technology and Digital Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

10. For presentation and discussion of historical thinking see, for example, National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for History: Basic Edition (Los Angeles, 1996), chapter 2; Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

11. Many theorists and researchers advocate teaching visual literacy or the ability to "read" visual materials. For two insightful discussions see Michael Griffin and Donan Schwartz, "Visual Communication Skills and Media Literacy," in James Flood, et al, Research on Teaching Literacy Through the Communicative and Visual Arts (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2005), 40-47; Douglas Kellner, "Critical Perspectives on Visual Imagery in Media and Cyberculture, Journal of Visual Literacy, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2002), 81-90.

12. "Conflict and Cooperation in American History," Conference Program, National Council for History Education, April 21-23, 2005, Pittsburgh, PA.


14. Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004), 129-132; Tom Holt, Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination, and Understanding (New York: College Board, 1995), 12-16. Quoted phrases are from Holt, Thinking Historically, 13.

15. Excellent examples include, Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Michael D. Harris, Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working-Class (New York: Free Press, 1994). Lawrence Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998); Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 1997); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Henry Holt, 2004); Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

16. David J. Staley, "Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany," Journal of the Association for Computing and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2002) or online at For an interesting argument that history teachers give "visuals" "primacy in the classroom see John R. Barber, "The Montage Class: Teaching Historical Thinking with Audiovisual and Information Technology," Teaching History in the Digital Classroom, D. Antonio Cantu and Wilson J. Warren, eds. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe), 181-199.

17. Ibid. For Staley's elaboration of history and new technologies see David Staley, Computers, Visualization and History (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe).

18. Recently, lynching has received considerable scholarly attention. See Dora Apel, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women and the Mob (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2004); William D. Carrigan, The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Jonathan Markovitz, Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004). Slightly older, important studies include Patricia Ann Schecter, Ida B. Wells Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998), esp. chap. 8; W. Fizthugh Brundage, ed., Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Jacqueline Goldsby, "The High and Low Tech of It: The Meaning of Lynching and the Death of Emmett Till," Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1996), 245-282.

19. For discussions of objects and imagery see Kenneth W. Goings, Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); M.M. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998); Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994); Tavia Nyong'o, "Racial Kitsch and Black Performance," Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 15, No.2 (2002), 371-424.

20. Bruce Fehn, "Privileging Visual Sources in Teaching American History," Australia New Zealand American Studies Association, 17 July 2004, Auckland, New Zealand and "Privileging the Visual in Teaching American History: Lynching, Racist Collectibles and Abu Ghraib Prison Photos," Organization of American Historians, 2 April 2005, San Jose, CA.

21. James Madison, "Teaching with Images," Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Jan. 2004), 66.


23. See also James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 2000). A few years ago "Without Sanctuary" also toured the country as a traveling museum exhibition. For a valuable academic deliberations surrounding recirculation of lynching photos accompanying the "Without Sanctuary" traveling exhibit see "History, Horror and Healing: Faculty deliberations on lynching examine racial and historical understanding," http// The image appears in James Allen, Without Sanctuary, plate 31. See Allen's notes on the photo, pages 175-177.

24. Bruce Dennett to Paul Taillon, 12 September 2004, personal email correspondence shared with the author.


26. Ibid.

27. Jim Crow Museum,

28. Alan Trachtenberg, "Wright Morris's ‘Photo-Texts,'" The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1996), 111.

29. Walter Werner, "Reading Visual Texts," Theory and Research in Social Education, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2002), 411.

30. Cozart, S. C., et al., Disrupting Dialogue: Envisioning Performance Ethnography for Research and Evaluation. Educational Foundations, Vol. 17 no. 2 (Spring 2003), 53-69.