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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 577-584
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Blinded by Sight (Including Your Own):
Looking at Slavery and Race in Anglo-American Culture
Marcus Wood. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865. New York: Routledge, 2000. xxi + 341 pp. Notes, index, and illustrations. $29.95.
"When we get a little farther away from the conflict," Frederick Douglass once said, "some brave and truth-loving man, with all the facts before him . . . will give us an impartial history of the grandest moral conflict of the [nineteenth] century." 1 Historians of Anglo-American bondage still grapple with Douglass's words. Research on the institution of slavery (and the closely related fields of abolitionism and racial formation) pours out of university presses, graduate programs, and conferences. Indeed, far from a commanding masterwork, scholars have answered Douglass's call by producing whole new historiographies of slavery and race. And now the issue of reparations has created a popular analog to scholarly debate, ensuring that slavery will remain a vibrant part of public discourse as well.
Against this backdrop, Marcus Wood's Blind Memory attempts to chart new territory by surveying the graphic history of slavery and racial perception in British and American culture. An artist and cultural historian, Wood illuminates the remarkable depth and history of racial iconography in Anglo-American discourse during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The real power of his book comes from the images themselves—over 150 reproductions in all. Wood makes no point without reference to an image the reader can examine too. These pictures are wonderfully reproduced, most in vibrant color. In short, students and specialists will gain much from this exhaustive and challenging book.
But what precisely will they gain? In other words, what is the image of race and slavery that Wood himself provides readers? Despite his claim to novelty, Wood' s study underscores one of the oldest themes in the study of slavery: white power over black bodies. And yet, particularly in an age that has uncovered so much about black agency and the contested nature of bondage, [End Page 577] this overwhelming sense of power may be problematic for the specialist and generalist alike.
Wood's book revolves around his massive collection of images and four long chapters, each examining the pictorial record of a discrete theme: "The Middle Passage," "Rhetoric and the Runaway," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and "The Pain and Memory of Slavery." He begins with an admonition about the power of the visual record in creating western myths about race and slavery. Rarely, he argues, do scholars "subject reproduced imagery to the sorts of close reading or technical and theoretical analysis which are applied to quotations from written sources" (p. 6).Words do not speak for themselves, he advises, no matter the conventional wisdom. In fact, it may take a thousand words just to explain one picture, whether high art or pop art, whether an eighteenth century abolitionist wood cut of a slave ship or a nineteenth-century card game bearing pictures of characters from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like an archeologist, Wood mines this vast, problematic array of images, uncovering not just shards of white perception about blacks but a visual record of assumptions about race and slavery in Western culture.
Wood's exposition of Thomas Clarkson's Abolition Map (from his celebrated 1808 work, "The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade") sets the tone for Blind Memory. The massive copper engraving depicts the evolution "of Western abolition in the form of a map": a diagram of two rivers (representing abolitionist milestones in Britain and America, respectively) converging and then spilling into "the open sea, presumably the sea of emancipation and spiritual renewal" (pp. 3-4). This map, Wood believes, presents not a straightforward history of abolition but the way in which abolitionists wished to see themselves, their movement and Western society. Abolitionists believed that they had rescued liberty, just as Western society had become...