- The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation by Marcus Wood
In 1807, the United Kingdom legally abolished its transoceanic slave trade. In 2007, this historical event was commemorated throughout political and civil Britain. The two hundredth anniversary provided an opportune moment to remind the nation and the world of Britain's contribution to the glorious march of liberty. Meanwhile, civil society (including academia) sponsored numerous exhibitions, marches, conferences, f ilms, and publications as alternative commemorative forms. This all occurred within a broader context of British participation in two unpopular wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), blowback with the London bombings by young Muslim Britons on July 7, 2005, and ongoing racial tensions within the (dis)United Kingdom.
Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, written by Marcus Wood, a professor of English at the University of Sussex in southern England, critiqued visual representations of slavery in America and England between the 1780s and the 1860s. In The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation, Professor Wood turns to the iconography of the emancipation moment. His concern is with "a body of texts and works of art" (2) representing slave trade abolition and how these were "transferred through time and space" (15). His argument is that the original narrative of freedom as a gift in 1807 continues as reflected in the 2007 commemorations in which "a set of morally-pure-named-white persons gave freedom to an enormous and nameless mass of black slaves" (368). Freedom's gift is horrible because it both denies the historical agency of slaves in emancipation, as well as perpetuates this powerlessness in commemorations in which "a knowing white power center" (235) foists the image of freedom on subordinate black people. "It appears unlikely," concludes the author wearily in his final sentence, "that we will ever rid our cultures of the moral pollution and aesthetic contamination it generates."
I want to spend the rest of this book review critically evaluating three central aspects of Horrible Gift: the concept of abolition as a horrible gift; iconography as historical evidence; and, the book's Atlantic dimensions.
The idea of abolition as a horrible gift derives from Fanon's notion of the inverted Hegelian dialectic of master-slave that once slavery was abolished so was the master-slave relationship, signifying nothingness. The representation of slaves—and by extension their modern descendants—being gifted freedom is an exact reflection of this state of nonbeing. There is nothing wrong with this critique for those of us who argue that slaves played a central role in their own emancipation. The problem is that it is old hat. C. L. R. James [End Page 158] turned Hegel upside down in Black Jacobins to argue for the centrality of slaves in overthrowing slavery in the 1790s as well as the black masses rising up against colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean during the 1930s. Moreover, the last several decades have seen an outpouring of scholarship demonstrating that slaves not only played a critical role in emancipation in the Caribbean, North America, and Latin America, but that political elites worked hard to construct images of the Great Emancipator as a means of disempowering freedom's generations. The author recognizes this but then ignores it (16). Finally, most black people in post-slave and imperial societies need neither scholarship nor well-meaning white liberals to learn skepticism about official narratives and representations that their descendants were given rather than struggled for freedom. Racism is a wonderful teacher for this. Undergraduates at Howard University already feel that Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator before they encounter slave emancipation history in the lecture hall.
One of the strengths of Blind Memory is its remarkable collection of visual representations of slavery in the Anglo-American world. The same is true of Horrible Gift. Its assembly of an "extended archive of liberation fantasy" (2) is exhaustive. The analysis of postage stamps and their misrepresentation of abolition in chapter 5 is a page...