Mixed-race fantasies: abolitionist propaganda as spectacles of race in the nineteenth century

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University of Alabama Libraries

“We trust some one, if not all our daguerrean artists, will take pictures of these little girls, and place them in their specimens by the street side. We want our citizens to see what people are made slaves of at the South,” declared an anonymous author in a letter written in 1855 to the abolitionist journal The Liberator. As the author recounts the liberation of two formerly enslaved girls, she illustrates the practice by Northern abolitionists of commemorating the freedom of rescued slaves, particularly the liberation of light-skinned young girls. By the time a photographic etching featuring a group of former slaves from New Orleans—including several light-skinned children—was published in Harper’s Weekly in early 1864, this form of commemorating had become an established tradition. The photograph featured in Harper’s Weekly, along with numerous cartes de visite, was the product of a publicity tour organized to raise money for free educational programs for emancipated slaves. The careful selection of white-looking children in these publicity photographs was meant to remind Northern viewers of the injustices of slavery by presenting victims with whom the viewing audience could both relate and sympathize. However, this thesis investigates beyond the frame of the photographs by exploring the calculated presentation of these emancipated slaves to determine what this visual representation revealed about the psyche of nineteenth-century America and the latent ideologies these images exposed. This thesis contextualizes these images through the frame of popular visual culture during the mid-nineteenth century by analyzing the visual representation of enslaved people of color in comparison to free people of color, as well as white children in comparison to black through the examination of contemporary photographs, paintings, etchings, and caricatures. This analysis demonstrates the inherent racism that still permeated American culture—even in the North—as well as revealing the duality of light-skinned slaves and the racial hierarchy of skin-tones in nineteenth-century visual representation. It also exposes the underlying sexual fantasies intricately linked with mixed-race women and the New Orleans slave market that these images would have conjured.

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Art history, African American studies, American studies