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  • At Home in the Crystal Palace:African American Transnationalism and the Aesthetics of Representative Democracy
  • Stephen Knadler (bio)

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"Above all, an American slave auction must be there, with William and Ellen Craft on the block, Henry Clay as auctioneer, and the American flag floating over it." From "American Slavery in the World's Fair," by Henry C. Wright, Liberator, 28 February 1851, 36.

Images: "The Virginian Slave," from Punch 20 (1851): 236; The Greek Slave, sculpture by Hiram Powers, 1851 copy from the 1841 original, marble, 165.7 × 53.3 × 46.4 cm., Yale University Art Gallery.

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I have a very strong desire (which I have smothered in my own breast, as it has been idle to cherish it, on many accounts) to visit England this summer, and be one of the universal multitudes at the World's Bazaar. What a miracle of contrivance, skill and taste is the building in which it is held! It ought to be allowed to remain as long as iron and glass can defy the storms of time or the fate of empires. Whatever drawbacks there may be about this exhibition, (and I have no doubt there are many), I am convinced that it will do much toward hastening the days of universal reconciliation, when nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, and there shall be none to molest or make afraid.

—William Lloyd Garrison, letter to Elizabeth Pease (23 June 1851)

The individual living in a political order … with mimetic representation need never step outside him or herself, need never see the world from an other point of view, and can therefore afford to remain a stranger in the political order. Mimetic representation stimulates the creation of a political order where nobody really encounters anybody else, because all believe that they live in a mimetic harmony with the collectivity.

—F. R. Ankersmit, Aesthetic Politics (1996)

At the end of his 1852 slave narrative, James Watkins recounts his lecture tour among abolitionist audiences in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Despite his exhausting schedule, Watkins [End Page 329]


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"Opening of the Great Industrial Exhibition of all nations, by her most gracious majesty Queen Victoria and his royal highness Prince Albert, on the 1st of May, 1851."

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LCUSZ62–93899.

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informs his readers, he took time out to attend the 1851 Great Exhibition of All Nations at the famed Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London (the first world's fair), with its 100,000 displays from around the world. "Oh how I wish," Watkins goes on to declare, "that all my enslaved brethren had had their freedom to see such a sight and the opportunity. I always long for my joys to be shared by them."1 It would be easy to trivialize this remark as little more than a vague regret over the slave's lack of leisure and amusement. However, during the run of the exhibition between May and October 1851, many black abolitionists, like others in the antislavery community, including William Lloyd Garrison, saw the Crystal Palace as a preeminent Victorian Era symbol of a new internationalism. Even the fugitive slaves and free men and women of color who were not granted the opportunity to visit could follow the unprecedented event closely in Frederick Douglass' Paper, which highlighted the importance of the World's Fair throughout the summer in its "Foreign Items" column."2 While nineteenth-century historians extensively parsed the fair's role in the social control of capitalist labor and in the legitimation of colonial empires,3 diasporic African Americans, either as part of their transatlantic antislavery work or labor migrations, would re-appropriate the Crystal Palace—using it as a key trope to imagine a public space of cosmopolitan subversion that would complicate ideas of representative citizenship. Bypassing the nationalistic representational logic on display in the manufactures and arts of many nations, writers such as Josiah Henson and William Wells Brown were witness to an aesthetic democracy in which what stands in for or represents the nation and its people...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 328-362
Launched on MUSE
2011-04-14
Open Access
No
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