For the most part, anti-slavery advocates defined the visual image of slavery before its abolition. Confident of the persuasive power of imagery, they created some of the most widely circulated images in the North Atlantic world before the invention of photography and other media we now associate with mass culture. Once again, it is misguided to think of these images as somehow reflecting or illustrating an already existing reality. The images were a key element of an innovative public opinion campaign that helped to create a transnational anti-slavery movement. Some interesting questions for students to think about are: How did the images circulate in the pre-electronic era? What effect did they have? How did they set the terms of the debate?
One of the most ubiquitous images was the emblem of the kneeling slave in chains, surrounded by the provocative words, Am I Not a Man and a Brother? The image appeared initially in prints and ceramic medallions, then spread to an amazing variety of media and household objects.
It’s deceptively simple, and worth asking students to look at carefully. How does the image function as a call to action? Why is the figure of the slave in profile? Who is he addressing? Why is he on the ground, alone and seemingly helpless? What position does that put the viewer in? Does the image reinforce stereotypical notions of slave inferiority or contest them?
There are many images of cruelty and violence, which are often used in textbooks or courses to try to illustrate the horrors of slavery. Probably the most effective example, and the most self-consciously “documentary,” was the famous image of the slave ship shown in plan, with its hundreds of black bodies packed into the ship’s hold.
Marcus Rediker’s recent book The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Penguin, 2007) gives a wonderfully detailed account of how this image came into existence in its various forms. One appalling fact we learn is that the ship, the Brooks, actually carried even more slaves than the image showed! Beyond the facts, though, his analysis raises interesting questions about the technical format and language of the image and how it differed from the more emotional (sometimes “sentimental”) images of the anti-slavery movement such as the kneeling slave. A large part of the power of this image is that it represents slavery as a system, a modern capitalist system. It’s a great opportunity to prompt students to think about the complex web of economic relations that made the slave ship and its image possible. How did the various images of the Brooks educate their own viewers about slavery? While the image at one level is about the plight of the human cargo, how can we get our students to see it as a window into what Rediker calls the “cold, rational mentality of the merchant’s business”? Instead of seeing this simply as an image of suffering on the “Middle Passage,” how can we turn the image around and make it speak to us about the white world that organized itself around such horrors?