This topic presents some intense pedagogical challenges. The subject matter is difficult and painful, if treated honestly. The imagery, when not downright misleading, rarely if ever offers straightforward evidence about the institution of slavery or its lived realities.
Consider the often illustrated example of the Zealy daguerreotypes, photographs of partially nude South Carolina plantation slaves that were commissioned in 1850 by the eminent Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz (and that ended up in the anthropology museum there). Ironically Agassiz wanted these photographs to be read as evidence-specifically as scientific evidence for polygenesis, the idea that human races had separate origins and were thus inescapably and irrevocably different. The chosen slaves, according to the captions found with the images, were either born in Africa or born of African parents. Somehow these images were supposed to convince presumably white viewers that the black African body was so alien that the African “race” must be, in effect, a separate species. As teachers we need to make clear that we reject the claims of these images to be scientific evidence, but are they evidence of anything else? What can our students learn from looking at them?
One of the dangers is to use these images as windows into their subjects’ plight, or their character, or their emotional life. It is hard not to speculate about how they feel: are they defiant or upset, comfortable or abused, emotionally bared or hidden? How would I feel in their position? The problem is not the questions per se but the fact that the photographs themselves cannot answer them. The images give us no reliable access to the slaves’ lived situation. Why? Because in between the viewer and the photographed slave stands a row of technicians and power brokers who all had a hand in shaping these images: the photographer in his studio, the plantation owner who delivered the human subjects, and the scientist who conceived the project. The photographs are more about this complex web of relations than about the slaves themselves.
It is easy to grasp the most obvious fact about these relations-the powerlessness of the slaves-but we hardly need photographs to reveal that aspect of slavery. More to the point, the images give students an opportunity to think about how important it was to control slave bodies, not just in a physical sense but in a social and cultural sense.
By comparing these daguerreotypes to photographic portraits of free people, we can ask students to study how the Zealy images worked to strip their subjects of social identity and turn them into scientific specimens. Then by comparing the Zealy images to the rare photographs of slaves who did appear in domestic roles, students can start to identify the conditions under which slaves were permitted to have a social identity and why they were. Through this kind of exercise photography comes to be understood not as a mirror of reality but as a cultural practice-a technology of representation employed unequally within the slave system to shape or destroy identities.
Students are more apt to see paintings as works of artifice or rhetoric, and slave scenes certainly don’t disappoint in that regard. They tend to tell us more about the preoccupations of the artists and the audiences than they do about slaves or slave life. Junius Stearns’ picture Washington as a Farmer (1851), analyzed recently by Maurie McInnis (“Most Famous Plantation of All: The Politics of Painting Mount Vernon” in
Angela D. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffius, eds., Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art ), uses a cast of field slaves to make Washington a benevolent patriarch, and Washington in turn lends his prestige to the slave system he supervises. The more subtle picture Negro Life at the South by Eastman Johnson (1851), carefully unpacked by art historian John Davis (“Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C.,” Art Bulletin 80:1 ), has an authentic setting in the back-alley world of antebellum Washington but even this image is full of narrative anecdotes that satisfied the New York audience’s expectations for a “genre” painting meant to entertain. How do such images help teach students of American history? Do the images lead students off the rails? These are hard questions to answer.
Take for example the issue of skin color, a major preoccupation of antebellum artists. This is still a loaded issue today, and difficult to discuss openly. The “negroes” in the paintings above, unlike the supposedly “pure” African types shown in the Zealy photographs, show a more obvious spectrum of colors. Did artists simply want to add variety and interest to the scene (color after all is their medium), or were they trying to highlight the genetic intermixture of slave and slaveowner, and the complicated issues of status and race that surfaced? One possible way to study the issue is to do some cross-cultural comparisons. Students can look, for example, at the image of the female “mulatress” in the late 18th-century Caribbean, which, according to a wonderful new book by Kay Dian Kriz (Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700-1840 ), functioned in paintings and prints as a sign of cultural refinement. If we want to do more than simply illustrate how commonly the issue of “intermixture” or “miscegenation” arose, we need to get students thinking aloud about why white audiences wanted to see these images.
One of the basic problems with all these images of slavery is that they were produced not by slaves themselves but by artists or technicians in a free white world, mostly for free white consumers. A standard way around this problem has been to focus on antislavery imagery, but this too has its own set of challenges, which will be the subject of my next post.