[Note: this represents an abbreviated version of my own current research project; in following the Assignment Sheet, it uses journal articles rather than books for its Argument sources–as those will be more accessible to you. But it does include books for Background Fact sources.*]
“Incendiary Pictures”: Radical Abolition and Images of African Americans in the 1830s
1. Research Question
Did abolitionists ever escape stereotypical depictions of African Americans–images that were generic, static, and passive?
2. Existing Scholarship
The few studies that have examined anti-slavery images tend to show them as products of a white, northern, middle-class paternalistic mindset little influenced by knowledge of African Americans or their actual struggles. For example, Marcus Wood argues (in two different articles) that antislavery images, by endlessly repeating the pro-slavery tropes of runaways, whippings, and auctions, generally reproduced a passive and static image of African Americans as the objects of pity rather than the subjects or agents of their own lives.
3. Limitation in that scholarship & research question
Was this always true? Were there alternatives? Could white image-makers have successfully conveyed a sense of African American subjectivity and experience? While Wood’s work may well describe many anti-slavery images, especially the more sentimentalized images in the 1850s, we must also attend to radical and idiosyncratic impulses, especially in the formative decade of the 1830s. And Jean Yellin’s work shows that abolitionists could take passive images like the kneeling slave and turn it into a radical emblem of activism. My question, then, is whether abolitionist images of African Americans in the 1830s remained trapped in passive stereotypes or whether they could successfully convey African-American agency and even perhaps subjectivity.
4. Sources & agenda/method
By doing a close reading of both the images and the text in The Anti-Slavery Record, published monthly from 1835 to 1837, along with biographical information about its radical white editor, Elizur Wright, I am asking whether whites could imagine and depict active roles for slaves and free blacks in the liberation struggle. While the images in the ASR did include runaways and kneeling slaves, they also depicted African Americans openly fighting slaveholders and slave-catchers, or otherwise evading or undermining the system of slavery, sometimes violently. I will analyze these images on their own, but also in light of stories they accompanied in the ASR, which detailed individual and personal cases. I also use Wright’s other writings, especially The Sin of Slavery (1833), and biographical information about Wright to demonstrate the radical interracialist ideology represented in the images he edited. To do this analysis, I will use much of Wood’s careful method of analyzing for detail and historical context, but I will apply approaches from Peter Burke’s book, Eyewitnessing to do ambivalent readings of images both for stereotypes and ideologies of the creators and simultaneously (though unevenly) for documentation of something of the experience of the African Americans portrayed.
1. Primary sources: Images
The Anti-Slavery Record, vols. 1-3, monthly 1835-1837. New York: the American Anti-Slavery Society. [Edited by Elizur Wright.] PDF copies from Boston Public Library, at Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/antislaveryrecor01newy (vol. 1, 1835), http://archive.org/details/antislaveryrecor02amer (vol. 2, 1836), and http://archive.org/details/antislaveryrecor003amer (vol. 3, 1837), (accessed 24 Feb. 2013).
This is the monthly publication that Elizur Wright edited. He apparently commissioned the engravings that appeared on most month’s front cover. These images frequently differ from the stereotypical kneeling slave or auction block scene, including images of free blacks fighting back and helping slaves to escape.
2. Primary sources: Other
Wright, Elizur. The Sin of Slavery and its Remedy; Containing Some Reflections on the Moral Influence of African Colonization. New York: The Author, 1833. PDF copy from Library of Congress, Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/sinofslaveryitsr01lcwrig (accessed 24 Feb. 2013).
This is Wright’s first major anti-slavery publication, which articulates his immediatist, anti-colonizationist stance. It will provide insight into his ideology–the particular arguments he uses against slavery and for equal rights–that may help me interpret the images he chose.
3. Secondary sources: Argument
Wood, Marcus. “‘ALL RIGHT!’: The Narrative of Henry Box Brown as a Test Case for the Racial Prescription of Rhetoric and Semiotics.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 107.1 (April 1997): 65-104.
Wood argues that fugitive Brown’s anti-slavery performances in London, which included him narrating his story in front of a painted panorama of slavery, violated English expectations of the pious, docile slave. This raises the question of whether other anti-slavery image-makers also departed from the “passive slave” norm. In what ways were Wright’s commissioned images similar to Brown’s?
—————. “Seeing is Believing, or Finding ‘Truth’ in Slave Narrative: The ‘Narrative of Henry Bibb’ as Perfect Misrepresentation.” Slavery & Abolition 18.3 (Dec. 1997): 174-211.
Wood demonstrates that most of the images in Bibb’s biography are generic images of “the runaway” recycled from older anti-slavery publications. He argues that they not only are disconnected from his narrative, but that they actually undermine its specificity and the active role Bibb took in resisting slavery. This may or may not be the case for Bibb, but I want to show that in these images in their original context often carried more activist roles.
4. Secondary sources: Method
Wood, Marcus. “Seeing is Believing, or Finding ‘Truth’ in Slave Narrative: The ‘Narrative of Henry Bibb’ as Perfect Misrepresentation,” Slavery & Abolition 18.3 (Dec. 1997): 174-211.
While I (probably) disagree with Wood’s interpretation of the Bibb images, his methods are quite useful. First, he compares Bibb’s images with those in other publications to show their similarity, and second, he juxtaposes Bibb’s text with Bibb’s images to show the disjunction. I will be doing both with Wright’s work.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. “The Abolitionist Emblem.” Women & Sisters: The Anti-Slavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Ch. 1.
Yellin argues that feminist abolitionists invested many different meanings in the “kneeling slave” icon, infusing it with activist ideologies that seem to belie its apparent passivity. Yellin’s perspective is useful in analyzing Wright’s images: readers might see multiple meanings in an image, and those meanings might even contradict the apparent or intended meanings in the image.
5. Secondary sources: Background Facts
Goodheart, Lawrence. Abolitionist, Actuary, Atheist: Elizur Wright and the Reform Impulse. Kent State University Press, 1990.
This is the best academic biography of Wright, especially of his anti-slavery activism. Goodheart relies chiefly on Wright’s writings, both published and archival, and on newspaper accounts of Wright’s activities.
Wright, Phillip Green, and Nancy Sewell Wright. Elizur Wright: The Father of Life Insurance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937.
This biography, written by descendants of Wright, includes much personal information not otherwise available.
*Note: The categories of Argument, Method, and Background Fact come from Joseph Bizup, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing,” Rhetoric Review 27.1 (January 2008): 72-86.