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  • Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century by Aston Gonzalez
  • Martha J. Cutter (bio)

Visual culture, African Americans, Photography

Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century. By Aston Gonzalez. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Pp. 324, 36 halftones. Cloth, $95; paper, $29.95; e-book, $22.99.)

In 1862 an African American enslaved teenager, upon learning that she was to be sold into a house of prostitution, ran away, taking shelter at a Union army camp near Nicholasville, Kentucky. Union soldiers hid her when her enslaver came to the camp, and two even escorted her by wagon to Cincinnati. Eventually she left Cincinnati on a train headed for Wisconsin. But before this young woman boarded the train for freedom, she stepped into a Cincinnati studio operated by African American photographer James Presley Ball, posing with her two Union rescuers, who displayed their guns menacingly. The photograph that emerged from this sitting—a rare image of an enslaved woman taken by an African American during the Civil War—speaks to abolitionists' understanding of the extraordinary power of visual works to sway viewers toward antislavery sentiments.

Yet, as Aston Gonzalez notes in his fascinating book, Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century, this photograph maintains an equivocal status: "The deliberate choice to brandish and position the revolvers visually captured the liminal state of freedom of the African American woman. The guns simultaneously signify her chaperones' commitment to her protection and the danger that she faced as an escaped slave constantly facing reenslavement" (179). One of the guns even points directly at the head of this woman. What did this photograph signify about her freedom, resistance, and status? And did the presence of a black photographer mean this image conveyed something different than photographs of enslaved individuals by white photographers? These are just a few of the vital inquiries posed in this groundbreaking investigation. [End Page 343]

Gonzalez's study joins recent work concerning slavery, emancipation, and visual studies in the nineteenth century, such as Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith's collection, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham, NC, 2012); Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer's Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Philadelphia, 2013); Jasmine Cobb's Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York, 2015); my book, The Illustrated Slave: Empathy, Graphic Narrative, and the Visual Culture of the Transatlantic Abolition Movement, 1800–1852 (Athens, GA, 2017); and Teresa Goddu's Selling Antislavery: Abolition and Mass Media in Antebellum America (Philadelphia, 2020). These books analyze images of African Americans and to a limited degree scrutinize black creators of visual materials. However, Gonzalez's much-needed intervention focuses exclusively on African American lithographers, illustrators, photographers, and panoramists who visually represented African Americans. He contends that when "these black cultural producers controlled visual technologies that portrayed members of their race, they fundamentally altered the corpus of imagery" (2).

One great strength is this book's nuanced excavation of the careers of African American image makers who have been under-studied, such as Patrick Henry Reason, Robert Douglass Jr., James Presley Ball, Augustus Washington, Henry Box Brown, and William Wells Brown. Gonzalez carefully unearths how the visual work of these artists furthered their activism in abolition and other political movements. Gonzalez also adeptly demonstrates how travels to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean shaped their visual productions. A massive amount of archival work has gone into this recovery of these artists' lives, political activities, and visual legacy.

Another significant accomplishment of this book is its creation of a thick historical context to understand visual work. Gonzalez sifts through materials such as editorials, book reviews, advertisements, speeches, letters, trial transcripts, pamphlets, and responses from readers published in newspapers to explicate how the artists wanted their images to be understood and how they were comprehended by viewers. For instance, in discussing Patrick Henry Reason, one of the earliest African American engravers, Gonzalez scrutinizes orations that Reason gave for a literary society in 1837 to show Reason's understanding of how visual culture...


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pp. 343-346
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