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Images of Slavery as Visual Evidence 3

Another issue to consider is how the visual image of slavery evolved once the institution had been abolished. Our culture’s understanding of slavery no doubt owes more to images, films, and monuments made after slavery than it does to historical documents from the pre-abolition period.

Freedmen's MemorialOne of the most iconic images comes from the so-called Emancipation Monument, or more accurately, the 1876 Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., by Thomas Ball. The monument recycles the standard abolitionist emblem of the kneeling slave in chains and pairs him with the standing figure of Lincoln as emancipator, thereby reinforcing the twin notions of the slave as a helpless figure awaiting liberation and the white hero as the moral agent responsible for ending slavery’s scourge.

Thomas Edison, Uncle Tom's CabinThe monument’s composition was itself recycled in prints and photographs, in replicas at small and large scale, on a 20th-century postage stamp, and in a 1903 film by Thomas Edison of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This is an ideal opportunity to get students to think about the enduring power of images and how they shape historical memory and understanding. Why did the abolitionist emblem of the kneeling slave, which originated in the 18th century, have such a powerful afterlife as an image of emancipation well into the 20th century? It’s important to help them understand that images during this period did not circulate in a free and neutral terrain, as they seem to today on the Internet. Who controlled the production and circulation of such imagery? An interesting fact to add to the discussion, for instance, is that African Americans financed the so-called Emancipation Monument but had no input into its design. They were not operating on a level playing field. Why not?

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939)

Even more insidious is the image of the faithful slave, which begins to gain steam in the late 19th century and enters popular culture in the 20th century in such forms as the “Mammy,” memorably brought to life in Gone with the Wind for example. (For an excellent discussion of this phenomenon see Micki McElya’s 2007 book Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America). This is a good teaching opportunity, because it forces students to think harder about what it means for an image to be a “positive portrayal.” An interesting text to use is an early 20th-century monograph by the African American critic Freeman Murray, who defends faithful slave images (available in full text on google books). Why did he have this perspective in his own time? How has our perspective shifted a century later?

All this could be brought into contemporary perspective by looking at images by African American artist Kara Walker, who uses the 19th-century technique of silhouette cutting to make videos and installations that create a surreal, whimsical but disturbing world based in the slave plantation. Most of these are appropriate only for high-school and college students, but they do prompt us to think differently about plantation myths and how these myths circulate and mutate over time. I would be interesting in hearing more from teachers about the feasibility of using such imagery in the classroom.

Kara Walker, installation view, "no place (like home)," at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1997. Cut paper and adhesive on wall, 12 x 85 feet. Collection of Eileen and Peter Norton, Santa Monica, California.

Kara Walker, installation view, “no place (like home),” at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1997. Cut paper and adhesive on wall, 12 x 85 feet. Collection of Eileen and Peter Norton, Santa Monica, California.

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  1. […] The recruitment of African American soldiers was one of the most revolutionary developments of the Civil War-second only to Emancipation in creating a new relationship between African Americans and the nation. But recruitment also created challenges to accustomed modes of visual representation. Before the war, degraded and demeaning images of African Americans held sway in popular magazines such as Harper’s Weekly. Cartoon images of African Americans were often drawn from such sources as blackface minstrelsy, with its staged depictions of “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow.” Portrayals of African Americans within abolitionist literature were more sympathetic, but they tended to emphasize that slaves were helpless victims: the most popular abolitionist image, reproduced in countless engravings and medallions, was the kneeling slave in chains, hands clasped in supplication, looking upward. That representation of the slave was even replicated in the 1876 “Emancipation Monument” in Washington, D.C. (See Kirk Savage’s forum on Slavery on this website for thoughtful commentary on, as well as exampl…) […]