The Images of Slaves and Slavery

Many of you may have seen “The Spy Photo that Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me” by Lois Leveen in The Atlantic this week or the posting on H-Net. The author notes that, “Folks interested in teaching students the value of archival research in the age of the internet might want to use the article. The article also analyzes how our own present-day expectations get in the way of good historical research/analysis.” Leveen’s piece is also a wonderful example of a researcher’s willingness to admit mistakes and share what she learned in that process.

Lois Leveen is an historian and wrote the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser; Bowser was a freed slave and Union spy in 1860s Virginia. Leveen and her publisher wanted to use an image of Mary Bowser. The trouble was that the photo identified as Mary Bowser was not the right person. Karolyn Smardz Frost similarly laments, in I Have a Home in Glory Land, the lack of visual records for Thornton and Lucie Blackburn. She shares descriptions of the two heroes but the rest is left to the readers’ and researcher’s imagination. How the Blackburns were ‘seen’ and ‘read’ as Negro, free or fugitive, polite or ‘ladylike’, was key to their escape from Kentucky and voyage to Michigan and ultimately to Upper Canada. And like Mary Bowser, we know a lot less about Lucie Blackburn than we do her husband or other African American men on the Underground Railroad.

The need for visuals in our culture is near universal – though I recently heard a defense of radio as a more immediate medium than film or television, like whispering in your ear. And the doctoring of photos has existed as long as photography itself. Indeed, the cropping of the photo of Mary Bowser led to the case of mistaken identity.


The visual iconography of the slave trade and plantation slavery is often reproduced and mobilized in modern slavery campaigns. Fuyuki Kurasawa in his chapter for a forthcoming book, Contemporary Slavery and Human Rights (which I co-edited with Joel Quirk), notes that the symbols of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery provide a shorthand to the moral consensus of universal prohibition and outrage. Without the use of such images, activists’ political work is much harder.

Contemporary visual artists in Nigeria, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and African diasporas are also revisiting the photographic archives of their regions to recover fragments of history and discover new ways of reading history. Some of these projects are individual journeys into family history while others are collective, democratic projects of gathering images of national history. Erika Nimis from UQaM and Julie Cross from SOAS presented on a very interesting panel at the African Studies conference in May about digital archives “in search of African history”.

As Leveen concludes, “The paradox of the information age is that our unprecedented access to information feeds an expectation that every search will yield plentiful — and accurate — results. But the type of evidence that our 21st-century sensibilities most desire may be the least likely to exist.”

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