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This enigmatic photograph raises many questions.

What are these three white men doing with the one black man? Why is the African American man displaying a revolver, and why is he the only one armed, a reversal of the usual power dynamic between the races in the period? The white men seem to be friendly with the black one ― the man at the right with a cigar smiles broadly and has his arm over the the central figure’s shoulder, and he seems to be smiling, too.

But there is also something menacing about the pose: the white men surround and hem in the black man, and the man at the right seems more to be leering than embracing him. Perhaps the joke is a cruel one: a sarcastic reversal of the power dynamic that is just that ― a joke.