My book manuscript, Visualizing Equality: African American Abolitionist Champions of Race, Rights, and Visual Culture, 1830-1880, charts the changing roles of African American visual artists who shaped representations of African Americans during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. These artists, and the individuals who circulated their images, intended to change not only what people saw when they saw race, they also instructed them about how they should see it. Understudied or nearly forgotten artists – including Patrick Henry Reason, Robert Douglass Jr., James Presley Ball Sr., Henry Box Brown – produced images that subverted popular stereotypes of African Americans. Some of the images produced by these individuals underscored the brutalities of slavery, visualized black respectability, and celebrated black leadership.
Marshaling advances in science and visual technologies such as daguerreotypy, moving panoramas, and cartes de visite, these African American artists adapted to limitations and opportunities in depicting racialized bodies. Their images, along with their speeches, letters, church involvement, and civic activities reveal a politics of racial representation. As cultural producers, they held stakes in the portrayal of African Americans and in expanding and refining discourses of race before, during, and after the Civil War. It is in the work of these African American artists that we see their radical challenges to the dominant ways of seeing and thinking about blackness during these periods. This project encourages scholars to reimagine the production and consumption of images because it provides rich analyses of visual culture and visuality in the United States during the nineteenth century.
My article on the black Philadelphian activist and visual artist, Robert Douglass Jr., appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Download a copy of it here.