- African American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century South
Two recent monographs argue that nineteenth-and early twentieth-century African American literature works to represent and imagine black identity in ways heretofore unrecognized. In Fugitive Vision, Michael Chaney considers how antebellum African American authors from the South—who had been or had remained enslaved—turn to the visual to ruminate on the relationship of racial blackness to sensory knowledge. Sherita L. Johnson’s Black Women in New South Literature and Culture attends to the overlooked significance of regional identity in literature by and about southern black women. Chaney and Johnson offer compelling arguments for renewed attention to the relationship of African American literature to the South.
In six chapters along with an introduction and a brief conclusion, Chaney demonstrates that black authors and artists contend with representations of slavery common to the antebellum period by combining [End Page 158] the visual and textual so as to enable alternative modes of seeing. Focusing not only on narrative but also on other forms of cultural production—including a protest at a museum exhibit as well as the pottery of Dave, a South Carolina slave—Fugitive Vision explicitly engages Lindon Barrett’s notion that, because white culture harnessed visual evidence to justify slavery and racism, African Americans of this period tended to privilege aural over visual culture. Chaney convincingly argues that a range of antebellum cultural productions indicates that African American artists were thinking through the visual in heretofore unacknowledged and complex ways. In fact, they utilize what Chaney terms a “fugitive vision” that refutes the equating of blackness with hypervisibility.
While ads for fugitive slaves routinely appeared alongside the image of a silhouetted, walking figure with belongings bagged and slung over his shoulder, abolitionists tended to counter this image of the illicitly roving traveler with an alternative image of the slave as victim. In the vein of Saidiya Hartman, Chaney maintains that abolitionist iconography of the suffering slave had dehumanizing effects, threatening to reduce the slave to “a permanent subject of subjection.” Addressing the “uneasy convergence” of the visual and textual, Chaney finds among black abolitionists an effort to bring together image and word in order to challenge the dominant mode of representing African Americans and assert black agency. For Chaney, it is in the “interface” of the textual and visual that new possibilities for self-representation emerge: “Impermanent, volatile, and elusive, the visual practices explored in this study register the limitations as well as the horizons of possibility afforded by an alternative though outlawed way of envisioning racial identity.”
Impermanence characterizes an incident involving William Wells Brown at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, an event described in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator (June 26, 1851) and analyzed by Chaney. In what Chaney calls an act of “spectator resistance,” Brown intervenes—along with William and Ellen Craft—to facilitate an alternative interpretation of one of the exhibit pieces, Hiram Powers’s statue The Greek Slave. Featuring a nude and enchained white female slave, which commentators of the period routinely interpreted as symbolizing dignified long-suffering in the face of oppression, the statue struck Brown as a whitewashing of American slavery. After announcing himself as “an American fugitive slave,” Brown set beside Powers’s statue a satirical illustration from the London periodical Punch—“The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Powers’ ‘Greek Slave.’” The black slave in the illustration, cartoonishly rendered, exposes the ideological [End Page 159] underpinnings of Powers’s piece. By bringing together these competing representations of enslaved women and authorizing himself via the spoken word as representative of American slavery, Brown launches, according to Chaney, a “multivalent assault on the very way that blackness and slavery are put on display” (56). Chaney analyzes Brown’s depiction of his mother in Life of William Wells Brown (1847) in light of the museum protest, demonstrating...