Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives

By Martin, Chante Baker | The Journal of Southern History, May 2018 | Go to article overview

Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives


Martin, Chante Baker, The Journal of Southern History


Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives. By Janet Neary. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Pp. [x], 222. Paper, $27.00, ISBN 978-0-8232-7290-7; cloth, $95.00, 978-0-8232-7289-1.)

Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress. By Joseph R. Winters. Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People. (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 304. Paper, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-8223-6173-2; cloth, $99.95, ISBN 978-08223-6153-4.)

Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives and Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress are groundbreaking studies that explore two familiar narratives of African American experiences in the United States: enslavement and racial progress.

Fugitive Testimony by Janet Neary examines the slave narrative genre and highlights how ex-slave narrators and "contemporary visual slave narratives" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries "produce and transmit images of enslavement" (p. 5). The artists' creations reflect their awareness that one "must be both object and subject ... to provide an eyewitness account of his or her own enslavement" (p. 32). Neary contends that such an account often calls for images of black bodies in psychological or physical pain, troubling mainstays in ongoing efforts to advocate for black people's humanity. Ex-slave and contemporary visual narrators recognize the premium placed on these images; yet, Neary suggests, the artists' inclusion of disturbing details reveals a desire to both satisfy and disrupt the "speculative gaze" (p. 5). Visual artists such as Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Ellen Driscoll "combine nineteenth- and twentieth-century practices of visual representation with conventions of slave narration" to powerfully critique past and present race politics (p. 3). Their nineteenth-century predecessors--Elizabeth Keckly, William Craft, Solomon Northup, and Henry Box Brown--do the same vis-a-vis a more nuanced tactic called "representational static," opposition to the speculative gaze underrecognized in prior studies of their work (p. 5).

In Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868), for example, Keckly chooses to deemphasize the specifics of her life, instead offering an insider's perspective on Mary Todd Lincoln. By taking this approach, Keckly critiques white racism, using her observation of white others as the basis for her claim. Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860) "undermin[es] the notion of sight as an objective function of discernment and classification" (p. 83). Neary focuses on how Craft employs "textual visuality: the role language plays in conditioning how we see even those things deemed 'self-evident'" (p. 102). As she rightly notes and Craft's account proves, race as a self-evident phenomenon is not easily seen.

Neary's observations of how race is seen continue in her analysis of Northup's Twelve Years a Slave (1853). Challenging the bondage to freedom reflection that informs most slave narratives, Northup's harrowing tale offers a freedom to bondage perspective that requires a different authenticating strategy. Instead of presenting his brutalized body, Northup relies on his memory to substantiate the freedom he once possessed. Finally, Neary argues that Henry Box Brown's performances and his life account, The Narrative of Henry Box Brown (1849), work together to highlight "the ways ex-slave narrators juxtaposed visual and textual discourses of authenticity to reveal them as a racial fetish unequally imposed on black cultural producers" (p. 132). In exposing the underlying contradictions of abolitionist efforts, Brown's written and theatrical acts demonstrate his use of representational static to present his experience on his terms and in his way.

Hope Draped in Black also highlights resistance strategies employed by black literary and visual artists. …

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