The History of African American Visual Culture

Barkley L. Hendricks in front of “Bahsir (Robert Gowens),” an oil and acrylic on canvas that he made in 1975. (Duke Photography/Flickr).

If you were lucky enough to see “The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” an exhibition that opened at the Tate Modern in 2017 and subsequently traveled to the U.S., you may have come away with a renewed appreciation for the power of images to confront racial oppression and subvert visual expressions of white supremacy. The Black Arts Movement, explored in the Tate’s exhibition, developed a “Black aesthetic” apart from and oppositional to white, Western art. It was the most radical endeavor of its kind in the modern age.  

Historian Aston Gonzalez’s Visualizing EqualityAfrican American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century extends the prehistory of the Black Arts movement–as well as the Harlem Renaissance— to a critical period in the middle of the nineteenth century, when imagery was central to the fight against slavery. Black artists engaged in the nation’s first civil rights movement produced engravings, photographs, and moving panoramas. Using the latest media technology, they demanded freedom for Black people and laid a critical foundation for their inheritors in the twentieth century.

Few Black visual artists could reach a mass audience in the 1850s. But, Gonzalez makes a convincing case that these artists—all of them men—used visual culture to advance Black freedom and undermine damaging white racist tropes: “Envisioned as advocacy and designed to sway the hearts, minds, and actions of viewers, these images underscored the brutalities of slavery, promoted black respectability, and celebrated black leadership.” These artists, Gonzalez argues, “altered the nation’s visual landscape, which was riddled with racial caricatures, satire, and other misrepresentations that empowered and inculcated racism” (2-3).

This might seem like a large claim for a handful of artists and cultural producers, but by carefully examining their lives and work, with close attention to the media they chose, the author illuminates a vital period in the development of African American visual culture. Some, such as William Wells Brown and Henry Box Brown, drew on their own experiences of enslavement to authenticate the narratives they depicted. Others, born in freedom, such as Robert Douglass, Jr., Augustus Washington, and Patrick Henry Reason, drew upon social connections and training in the visual arts to draw the public eye towards the struggles and the successes of African Americans. All of them were part of activist networks supporting abolition and civil rights. Gonzalez also follows some of these men beyond the nation’s borders—to Haiti, England, and Liberia—where they used those vantage points to envision Black freedom’s possibilities and amplify their civil rights message.

To confront the prevailing racist imagery of the day, Black artists had to work on more than one front. Early photographic portraits of prominent African American clergy, business leaders, and musicians, for instance, celebrated Black achievement. But they had to be circulated (at a time when photographs were not reproducible) in order to counter the racist “Bobolition” and “Amalgamation” prints popular in the 1830s and 1840s. Robert Douglass, Jr., a trained daguerreotypist, for example, produced a photographic portrait (since lost) of composer and musician Frank Johnson, posed with his horn. But he also produced a lithograph of the image.

“From an activist’s standpoint, greater circulation meant the likelihood that more people would be receptive to the image’s ideas about black success and intellect,” Gonzalez writes (81). Artists such as Douglass also recognized that lithographs had a currency that text did not.  Gonzalez cites one example of an enslaver from Mississippi, “curious about abolitionism,” who purchased a series of Douglass’s prints in Philadelphia to take home, carrying with him to the deep South a subversive visual record of antislavery activism (26). 

Other artists, such as Henry Box Brown, William Wells Brown, and James Presley Ball, embraced panoramas as a means of visual depicting the horrors of slavery. The precursor to cinematic storytelling, moving panoramas were produced by teams of artists using a series of large canvases displayed in sequence, contiguously, producing the effect of moving through a landscape while a narrator described the scene. William Wells Brown was inspired to try the medium after seeing one of the most popular panoramas of the day, by John Banvard, with its bucolic scenes of plantation life along the Mississippi.  Instead of peaceful rolling landscapes, “[William Wells] Brown inverted the focus from landscape to black bodies and enslavement” (122). While the panoramas themselves have not survived, reviews of them did, and in many cases so did booklets produced by the creators to supplement their production with documentary evidence and narratives.

While showing audiences scenes of southern plantations, for instance, William Wells Brown detailed the grueling work of cotton-picking, cane-cutting, and sugar-boiling and depicted the harrowing experiences of those who tried to escape. He also displayed scenes of enslaved men and women wearing iron collars on a New Orleans chain gang and an image of a slave funeral held by torchlight so as not to interrupt daytime cultivation.

The final chapters focus on the Civil War years and the Reconstruction that followed. Although photographs could be made in mobile studios and reproduced cheaply during the war, Black photographers and printmakers did not play the prominent role that Matthew Brady and his white colleagues did in documenting the conflict in the South. Gonzalez identifies a particularly intriguing portrait, though, by James Presley Ball, of an unidentified woman and the two Union soldiers who helped her escape Kentucky after she had fled to Union lines. The young woman is seated in a hat and shawl while the men stand on either side of her holding their revolvers to their chests.  According to Gonzalez, their pose “captured the liminal state of freedom of the African American woman”(179). Ball’s intent, the author suggests, was to highlight both the dangers encountered by fugitives and the violence required to prevent her recapture. 

This image hints at the public self-fashioning that photography and the proliferation of photograph studios allowed all Americans during and after the war, and even more so with the invention arrival of the inexpensive Kodak “Brownie” camera in 1900camera. Still, Black artists and cultural producers continued their political work. W.E.B. Du Bois’s collection of photographs for the Paris Exhibition of 1900 is one of the most familiar examples of a Black visionary harnessing visual culture for political purposes at the turn of the twentieth century. Reading Visualizing Equality makes clear that even Du Bois owed a debt to the Black visual innovators who came before him.

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Mary N. Mitchell

Mary N. Mitchell is the Raphael Cassimere Professor of History at the University of New Orleans and the Director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. She received her Ph.D. from New York University and is the author of Raising Freedom's Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery (NYU Press, 2008), as well as articles and reviews on race, slavery, and childhood in the nineteenth century. Her latest book, Girl in the Frame, examines race, slavery, memory, and photography in the 1850s.