Documenting Racial Violence Through Photography

Protest in Montréal against Violence, March 8, 2013 (blogocram, Flickr).

Earlier this year, John Ira Jennings and Damian Duffy’s graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) won the 2018 Eisner Award for “Best Adaptation from Another Medium.” Butler’s novel, which takes place in 1976 California and antebellum Maryland, links the past to the present. The protagonist Dana Franklin travels from California to Maryland, apparently at random. Each time she travels through time, she encounters a situation in which her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, faces physical harm and death. Dana must rescue Rufus each time so he will grow into manhood and father a daughter, Dana’s ancestor, by raping Alice Greenwood, an enslaved woman.

Throughout Jennings and Duffy’s graphic novel, Jennings’s illustrations draw attention to the faces of characters and the emotions that lie behind those faces. In these facial closeups, Jennings conveys the inner thoughts of Dana, Rufus, and other characters in a manner that calls upon us readers to think about the psychological effects of slavery and its lingering impact on all people. In this way, Jennings’s images remind me of Nate Powell‘s work, specifically in the ways that they show the internal struggles of characters by just highlighting the face as he does in March.

After Dana returns to 1976 following a scourging from Rufus’s father, Tom, in the past, we see her struggling to climb into the bathtub to try and soothe her wounds. One page shows panels of Dana sinking into the tub, an up-close image of shock on her face as her eyes peek out above the water, an image of tears rolling down her face, an image of her screaming in utter agony, and an image of her scrubbing her arms in the bathtub. Immediately after she exits the tub, we see her applying salve to her wounds.

Gordon at the Baton Rouge Union camp during his medical examination, 1863 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons).

This image calls to mind the photographs that William D. McPherson and Mr. Oliver took of Gordon, an enslaved man who escaped the Lyons plantation in Louisiana in 1863. This correlation even appears in Butler’s novel. As she attempts to get into the bathtub, Dana thinks, “My blouse was stuck to my back. It was cut to pieces, really, but the pieces were stuck to me. My back was cut up pretty badly too from what I could feel. I had seen old photographs of the backs of people who had been slaves. I could remember the scars, thick and ugly.”

From its early stages, the abolitionist movement embraced photography as a means to show the brutality of slavery to the public. Most notably, Frederick Douglass argued in “Pictures and Progress” that “the moral and social influence of pictures” had a greater effect on the nation than “the making of its Laws.” Douglass put his words into action, becoming the most photographed person in America during the nineteenth century. There are 160 photographs of Douglass, surpassing the second most photographed American, Abraham Lincoln, by 34. Through photographs, Renee Graham notes, “Douglass emerged the new Negro: self-possessed and unafraid. There were other photos of black people at the time, but they reinforced ideas of subservience such as the cowed and broken slave, his back a mass of scars from the lick of an overseer’s whip.”

Taken in April 1863, the photograph of Gordon’s “scourged back” quickly circulated across the nation with various photography studios reprinting the image and publications such as Henry Ward Beecher’s Independent and William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator publishing accounts of the photograph. On June 12, 1863, “Picture of a Slave” appeared in The Liberator. The article states that the image “is a testimony against slavery more eloquent that any other words” because it exists as “a hideous record of the slave-driver’s lash.” The photograph of Gordon does not lie, and “[h]owever much man may depict false images” of subservient and contented enslaved individuals, “the sun will not lie.”

Rather than reinforcing “ideas of subservience,” Gordon’s face challenges the “false images” by projecting defiance and asserting the truthful realities of slavery. In 2011, The Atlantic‘s James Bennett spoke about the photograph’s continued resonance: “Part of the incredible power of this image I think is the dignity of that man. He’s posing. His expression is almost indifferent. I just find that remarkable. He’s basically saying, ‘This is a fact.'” Dana’s visage in Jennings’s illustration has sorrow within it, but it also contains a matter-of-fact look as if to say, “This is a fact.” Leading up to this panel, Dana goes through the emotions of shock, fear, and anger. All of these emotions come through in her face as she looks to heal the wounds Tom inflicts upon her. Dana is in her house, in private, so she does not display the wounds to the world as Gordon does; however, as a reader, we see the wounds, thus making the private public in a way.

The narration of the panel expresses Dana’s thoughts, specifically her fears about infection from the scourge marks. The infection, while presented as a physical threat, also serves as a reference to the psychological scars that the history of this nation graphs upon not just Dana’s body but upon her psyche in 1976 as well. Jennings drives this home in an interview with UCRToday when he says, “These are things that really affect black people in America still, the wages of slavery, which I think our country is still paying, and you can see how that presents itself in our current political climate.”

Even Jennings’s color palette for the scenes in the present draws attention to the lingering effects of slavery and racism that infect our country. Typically, as Jennings notes, flashbacks in sequential art have a sepia-toned color scheme, whereas the present appears in vibrant colors. In Kindred, Jennings flips this palette, and he points out that he “sampled some of the colors from bruises and blood” to represent Dana’s “blood relationship to Rufus” and how that history continues to pull her back to antebellum Maryland. Jennings continues by stating, “That red is actually the color of what scabbed-over blood looks like.” This palate draws attention to the fact that the wounds of the past have not healed and they continue to contaminate our present.

Photography and images such as McPherson and Oliver’s photograph of Gordon still serve as a means of exposing the truth about racial violence and documenting movements. Discussing the links between images from the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter, Mark Speltz points out that the imagery of BLM “builds upon a visual narrative of protest and struggle that remains all too relevant in the present.” Videos of oppression populate our newsfeeds every day exposing the racist actions of women such as BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and Cornerstore Caroline to the murders of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Stephon Clark, and countless others. Images such as Jennings’s illustration of Dana Franklin sitting in the bathroom, back towards the reader, exposing her scarred back for the world, work within this lineage to link the past with the present, highlighting the power that photographs, images, and videos have in exposing the truth about racial violence and white supremacy to the world.

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.