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  • Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century by Aston Gonzalez
  • Jennifer M. Black (bio)
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. Cloth, $95.00; paper, $29.95.)

For several years, scholars have known that print culture was essential to the success of the abolitionist movement, particularly in circulating rhetorical arguments against slavery and generating public attention for the cause. Drawing upon periodicals, letters, and advertisements, Aston [End Page 410] Gonzalez expands this assertion, showing how African American artists-turned-activists mobilized visual culture to further the cause of abolition. Lithographs, photographic portraits, painted panoramas, and the illustrated press provided ample visual arguments to counteract vaudevillian caricatures and stereotypes proliferating from theories of “race science.” Such images also offered visions for a more egalitarian future, Gonzalez argues, by demonstrating the leadership, manners, and economic success of African Americans at home and abroad.

Visualizing Equality builds upon several threads in prior scholarship. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (2008) and Jasmine Nichole Cobb’s Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (2015) illustrate free Black people’s attempts to demonstrate their middle-class stature both within and without their social networks in antebellum cities, while Shawn Michelle Smith’s Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (2004) and Mary Niall Mitchell’s “‘Rosebloom and Pure White,’ Or So It Seemed” (American Quarterly, 2002) explore the use of photography to further political activism. These threads came together in the recent Frederick Douglass exhibit curated by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for Boston’s Museum of African American History (Picturing Frederick Douglass, 2016), which positioned the famous abolitionist as a strategic user of photography to shape his own public image and, by extension, those of other Black Americans. Thus, Gonzalez’s book fits within a larger corpus of recent works that link together photography and Black experiences in the nineteenth century.1

In seven discrete chapters, Gonzalez traces the work of such artists as Robert Douglass Jr., Patrick Henry Reason, James Presley Ball, and Augustus Washington and shows the interconnectivity of these artists’ entrepreneurial efforts, artistic outputs, and political activism from the 1830s through the 1870s. To counteract racial caricatures and satirical images in popular culture, including the famed prints by Philadelphia artist Edward Williams Clay, early portrait prints by Douglass and Reason demonstrated Black respectability and intellect. Douglass and Reason used the iconography of respectability to depict members of the free Black community with grace and honor. In frontispiece portraits published with slave narratives, Reason and others correlated image with text in a representation of virtue. These images advocated for the recognition of African Americans’ humanity and, thus, their freedom and full equality.

Drawing upon popular media such as lithography and panoramas helped these artists expand the reach of antislavery activism. Affordable [End Page 411] and widely circulating, lithographs popularized the faces and sentiments of the abolitionist movement, including its white and Black leaders. Such portraits provided symbolic visual reminders of the cause and could serve as commemorative objects, whose sales helped to raise money for abolition. Other artists fashioned moving panoramas to publicize the graphic brutality of the slave experience, highlighting the spectacle of slavery. On the flip side, Washington’s photographs of accomplished emigrants to Liberia demonstrated the successes that Black people could enjoy if liberated from the systematic racism and oppression of the United States.

Later chapters turn to images of Black people during and following the Civil War—as refugees, as soldiers, and during Reconstruction. African Americans continued to use visual media to “correct widespread perceptions of black intellect, improve race relations, and encourage the recognition of black achievement” (169). Illustrated newspapers presented the spectacle of slavery’s horrors in order to persuade readers to support the Union cause. Photographs of Black servicemen appealed to viewers’ sense of patriotism and demonstrated Black honor and worthiness for citizenship. Later, photographs of Black politicians renewed the work initiated by earlier artists and lithographers...

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