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Fugitive TestimonyOn the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives$

Janet Neary

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780823272891

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823272891.001.0001

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Sight Unseen: Contemporary Visual Slave Narratives

Sight Unseen: Contemporary Visual Slave Narratives

(p.29) 1 Sight Unseen: Contemporary Visual Slave Narratives
Fugitive Testimony

Janet Neary

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Establishing and examining an archive of contemporary visual slave narratives—including Glenn Ligon’s Narratives and Runaways series (1993), Kara Walker’s Slavery! Slavery! (1997) and Narratives of a Negress (2003), and Ellen Driscoll’s TheLoophole of Retreat (1991)—this chapter reframes critical debates on the slave narrative around the visual stakes of the form and advances a new model of reading the slave narrative founded on attention to the historical and aesthetic dislocations and disjunctions accentuated in contemporary visual slave narratives. Concluding with an analysis of Frederick Douglass’s visual intervention in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, specifically, his metaphorical assertion, “You have seen how a man was made a slave, you shall see how a slave was made a man,” the chapter argues that both contemporary artists and 19th-century ex-slave narrators produce representational static to evade the racial constraints on their artistic production.

Keywords:   contemporary visual slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, Ellen Driscoll, Glenn Ligon, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, representational static, textual visuality, Kara Walker

The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.


In her field defining study of racial subjugation in the nineteenth century, Saidiya Hartman famously begins by refusing to reproduce the visual conventions of abolitionist literature: “I have chosen not to reproduce [Frederick] Douglass’s account of the beating of Aunt Hester in order to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of this routine display of the slave’s ravaged body.”1 As Fred Moten argues, Hartman’s critical repression of the scene of racial violence extends Douglass’s own act of repression.2 Just as Douglass’s entrance through the “bloodstained gate” becomes a “primal scene” from which he must distance himself, so, too, does Hartman’s repression become her critical point of departure. Instead of focusing on the “centrality of violence to the making of the slave,” Scenes of Subjection focuses on the many ways that “the recognition of humanity and individuality acted to tether, bind, and oppress,” arguing that “it was often the case that benevolent correctives and declarations of slave humanity intensified the brutal exercise of power upon the captive body rather than ameliorating the chattel condition.”3 The intimate relationship Hartman identifies between recitations of racial violence and declarations of slave humanity is manifest in the slave narrative, whose conventions of authentication are designed to simultaneously authenticate the truth of the brutality of slavery and the truth of black humanity. By calling attention to her readers’ familiarity with such scenes of abuse, meant to provoke recognition of the slave’s humanity and outrage over the vicious institution, Hartman highlights the reader’s expectation (p.30) of—and desire for—such scenes and establishes them as an ambivalent mechanism for eliciting empathy or challenging slavery’s objectification.

Hartman’s evocation of an absent spectacle in Scenes of Subjection, published in 1997, coincides with a turn away from representing the body in work by a range of visual artists who take up the slave narrative in the 1990s. In one of the prints in Glenn Ligon’s Narratives series, for example, “Black Rage; or How I Got Over; or Sketches of the Life and Labors of Glenn Ligon,” Ligon skewers readers’ and viewers’ desire for scenes of racial violence with a parody of the marketing statements that often extended elaborate slave narrative titles. Underneath the tripartite title, the print boasts, “Containing a full and faithful account of his commodification of the horrors of black life into art objects for the public’s enjoyment. with a portrait.” Parodying the authenticity protocols of slave narratives, Ligon draws a direct line between the objectification of the visual conventions of slave narratives and the “commodification of the horrors of black life” in contemporary African American art. His refusal to provide what Lynn Casmier-Paz calls a “graphic point of reference”—while calling our attention to the convention—challenges the evidentiary function of conventions like the author portrait and implicates them in the continued objectification of black artists.4 Although the prints in Narratives are richly intertextual and often reference visual mediums—quoting prominent film and theater critics such as bell hooks and Hilton Als, for example—there are no actual images in the series. Ligon avoids figuration and instead uses competing registers of text to frustrate the viewer’s assumption of an essential black subject behind the representation and to call attention to our desire to see black suffering in what is often called ‘black art.’5

Like the stencil paintings Ligon is perhaps best known for (such as “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background” from Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”), Narratives works by way of reference to canonical African American literature and continues his figural retreat.6 Avoiding the dangers of reproducing the spectacle of the suffering black body while taking ironic aim at viewers’ expectations of it, contemporary visual slave narratives both suggest and withhold images of the suffering black body to mark the perpetuation of a market for these images and disrupt their contemporary currency.7 As Huey Copeland notes, “[h]istorically, visuality itself—thanks to its frequent denigration of the black image and its despotic manifestation in the white look—has been construed as the mastering conceit from which African Americans have sought refuge.”8 In addition to Ligon’s Narratives and Runaways series (1993), Kara Walker’s panoramic silhouette tableaux (p.31) throughout the 1990s, described by one critic as “life-size cutout silhouettes of imagined slave narratives,” and Ellen Driscoll’s installation The Loophole of Retreat (1991), also cannily combine nineteenth-and twentieth-century practices of visual representation with conventions of slave narration to question the historical threshold of legibility for the black subject.9 Like Ligon, Walker often adopts the subject position of the ex-slave narrator in her work. Speaking as “an Emancipated Negress,” she uses opaque, one-dimensional silhouettes to produce and confront the viewer’s double vision so that both the historical subject and contemporary artist are simultaneously in view. Ellen Driscoll, a white artist best known for her installation and sculpture work, reinterprets a key chapter from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in her installation of the same name, The Loophole of Retreat. Rather than speaking from the position of the fugitive, as Ligon and Walker do, Driscoll invites the viewer to briefly inhabit that position by entering a structure reminiscent of the crawlspace Jacobs occupied during her escape from slavery.

In addition to thematizing the negotiation that black cultural producers often engage in to get their works to the public, contemporary visual slave narratives translate the slave narrative from a primarily literary to a primarily visual medium to undermine the authenticating structures that so often fix black subjects in an objectifying gaze. As my reading of one of the prints in Ligon’s Narratives series—which opens this book—shows, contemporary visual slave narratives exploit a series of historical dislocations to call attention to the continued traction of race rituals we feel we have moved beyond.10 A central theme in contemporary visual slave narratives is the question of black authenticity, which has its formal roots in the conventions of authentication of the slave narrative. Rather than the expression of a singular life represented in all its unique particularity, slave narratives tell the story of race through a series of formal conventions the ex-slave narrator must negotiate with a skeptical (overwhelmingly white) reading public.11 These conventions of authentication have the corollary effect of making race legible in text, the facet of slave narration on display (and under critique) in contemporary visual slave narratives. Commenting on the contemporary negotiations that take place between artist and viewer, Anne Wagner has described the experience of viewing Walker’s silhouette tableaux in similar terms of negotiation and collaboration: “To tell a story about these figures is to decide who and what these figures are and do—as if that were an easy task. It is not. My narrative surely says as much about me and my history, as it does about Walker and hers. And so together artist and viewer conspire in telling the story of race.”12

This chapter investigates the emergence of the slave narrative in visual (p.32) art at the end of the twentieth century. While extremely diverse in art historical terms, these artists’ shared use of the slave narrative as a template calls for transhistorical analysis of the form and a reevaluation of the inaugural treatment of the visual logic of racial slavery in the original literary narratives. The central contradiction negotiated by the slave narrative—that the ex-slave author-narrator must be both object and subject of the narrative to provide an eye witness account of his or her own enslavement—is resurrected in contemporary visual slave narratives to reveal a consistent conceptual problem with race. Using popular nineteenth-century print and visual technologies, the artists under consideration juxtapose two paradigms of black subjectivity—the visual and the literary—through two historical paradigms—the mid-nineteenth century and the late twentieth century—to undermine visual fictions of race and notions of what it means to be an “authentically” black subject. I argue that both the ex-slave narrators and the artists that take up their subject position produce strategic moments of dissonance between multiple discourses of authenticity—representational static—to reveal the limits of each mode to express racialized experience, unsettling not only the equation of blackness with enslavement, but revealing blackness itself to be discursively produced. Placing readings of artworks by Ligon, Walker, and Driscoll alongside readings of Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, this chapter explores a sustained rhetorical strategy pursued by African American cultural producers to outwit the racial constraints that have been placed on them.

In identifying and analyzing an archive of contemporary visual slave narratives, this chapter offers new avenues of inquiry into the original literary slave narratives and illuminates a representational tradition in which black authors and artists use the fundamentally negotiated form of the slave narrative to launch a powerful critique of the visual objectification of blackness, which extends beyond both the historical bounds of racial slavery and the realm of the literary. In addition to making a case for an expanded notion of what has been called, alternately, the “neo-slave narrative” or “contemporary narrative of slavery” to include contemporary visual slave narratives, I argue that contemporary artists’ use of representational static should be understood as an extension or amplification of the rhetorical strategies deployed by ex-slave narrators themselves to undermine the very conventions of authentication that structure the slave narrative form and that rely on fixed notions of “black” and “white.”

(p.33) “A Treacherous Site”: Slave Narratives and Black Authenticity

The vexed question of authenticity as it has been unequally applied to black cultural producers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is central to Ligon’s work. Although he is best known for his early text-based works, throughout the 1990s Ligon became increasingly ambivalent about using literary source material in his art, stating that literature has been “a treacherous site for black Americans because literary production has been so tied with the project of proving our humanity through the act of writing.”13 By juxtaposing incongruous fragments of stylized text, Narratives undermines the symbolic authority of text to signify black humanity and casts attention on the formal requirements of authentication. Rather than referencing specific narratives, Narratives targets the race rituals that structure slave narratives in general. By rigorously maintaining the structure of the conventions of authentication but supplying a contemporary subject and modern intertextual references, Ligon ironizes the slave narrative’s authenticity protocols. For example, in “Black Like Me; or The Authentic Narrative of Glenn Ligon, A Black Man, To which is added testimonials from individuals and institutions on the veracity of his account” (Figure 2), Ligon includes a lengthy letter “To The Public” signed, “Yours, very truly, a white person.” Although this formulation leaves the structural relationship of white authority/black legitimacy intact, it empties the categories of their meaning, “suggesting that it was the very category of whiteness, rather than the testimonial of any one abolitionist, that carried the power of legitimation”; it also reverses the roles of black objectivity and white subjectivity, as the artist is privileged as an individual (rather than a representative) while the white signatory is reduced to an anonymous type.14 The sign off, “Yours, very truly,” amplifies the elements of possession and authentication at play in the classic prefatory letter of support. Furthermore, where the original narratives would bear testimonials from white editors and abolitionists vouching for the truth of the account and the upstanding character of its fugitive narrator, the title pages of Narratives present quotations from black cultural producers and critics including bell hooks, Derek Walcott, Josephine Baker, and Hilton Als. Ligon’s series fastidiously replicates the structure of authentication of the original literary slave narratives but upends the power relations they ratify by substituting black intellectuals, artists, and performers from the diaspora in place of the voices of white American and British abolitionists.

The traditional racial implications of the conventions of authentication are also troubled by Ligon’s reference to John Howard Griffin’s 1961 (p.34)

Sight Unseen: Contemporary Visual Slave Narratives

Figure 2. Print from Ligon’s Narratives series.

Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Glenn Ligon. “Black Like Me; or The Authentic Narrative of Glenn Ligon, A Black Man, To which is added testimonials from individuals and institutions on the veracity of his account” (1993).

bestseller, Black Like Me, an account of a white journalist who traveled through the south passing as a black man.15 By referencing a nonfiction account of passing, Ligon blurs the distinction between black and white figures upon which the conventions of authentication depend. The visual uncertainty of race conjured by the reference to Black Like Me also contradicts the protestations of authenticity in the second title. The nineteenth-century convention of joining two titles with an “or” is supposed to engender reader interest by providing more information about the story contained within the pages, but the switch from first to third (p.35) person in each title—“Black Like Me, or The Authentic Narrative of Glenn Ligon” (my emphasis)—confuses the claims of authenticity and raises the question of who can speak for black experience. The intertext implies that what the imagined reader or public viewer expects verified or authenticated is the truth of the subject’s race, rather than the truth of the subject’s narrative. Ligon’s positioning of “race and the racial subject as mediated through the normative white voice” in Narratives is specifically emphasized through his reference to Griffin’s text, which highlights the irony of the necessity for a white authority to “expose” racism.16 In the representational static produced by Ligon’s work, the viewer is confronted by and frustrated in his desire for visibly legible racial distinctions.

Manipulating the Gaze: Indexing an Idea

While much of Ligon’s early work questions the discourse of authenticity through text, his other pieces—as well as almost all of Walker’s silhouettes—directly address the way the visual image has been used to secure the authenticity of the so-called racial body. Ligon, Walker, and Driscoll use displaced nineteenth-century representations of blackness and the slave body to critique a notion of fixed, essential identity, revealing the ways blackness comes into being in the dynamic between economies of the visual and economies of literacy. As Lindon Barrett notes, racialization depends upon “foreclosing the mutability of the gaze.”17 Key to these artists’ critique, then, is what Darby English calls their “terminal structural openness” and their use of visual technologies to direct and manage the viewers’ gaze, disrupting the perspectival assumption of white subjects gazing on black objects.18 For example, in some of his work Ligon exploits the “indexical medium” of photography to demonstrate that sight is a subjective function, while Walker uses silhouette to disassociate racial difference from actual bodies, and Driscoll uses a camera obscura to cast vision itself as a powerful narrative.19 Rejecting the logic of the author portrait—supposed to vouchsafe the authentic race of the author/narrator—these artists use indexical mediums to index racism rather than the racial body, revealing visual representation to be as subjective as literary representation.

The medium each artist uses both produces and evacuates the meaning of black bodies even in their most “realisitic” presentations. Walker and Ligon take up overtly indexical mediums—photography and silhouette—to render “the indexicality of race incoherent.”20 In his analysis of indexicality, race, and photography, Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that “[c]aught between the desire to assert the obvious—that race is what is (p.36) visibly different—and the impossibility of sustaining such a position in the face of the always mixed population of the United States, discourses on race came to rely heavily on photographic representation”; similarly, silhouette was historically understood as a representational medium that transcribed Nature, most famously by the physionymist Johann Caspar Lavater, who wrote that silhouette was a “faithful” representation that “not even the most gifted artist could do freehand. No art … approaches a well-made silhouette in truth. … Physiognomy has no more irrefutable proof of its objective truth.”21 Lavater’s understanding of silhouette as an unmediated index of truth is troubled by Walker’s fantastical panoramas and Ligon’s use of the captioned photograph, which he employs as a tool of misdirection, evacuating racial difference of its ontological status. Both artists produce work that requires the viewer to participate in the recognition of visual codes as indexes of racial difference in order to dispel the assumptions that make that interpretation possible.

While Narratives uses outmoded forms of representation to unsettle assumptions about a “real” body behind the representation and challenge presumptions about racial subjectivity and authenticity, Ligon produces a similar challenge to racial authenticity through his use of photography in his 1998 piece Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features and Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features (Figure 3). The work is comprised of two identical ten-foot tall, black-and-white silk-screened photographic self-portraits underlined by the title captions. Signifying on Adrian Piper’s drawing Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features (1981), Ligon uses photographic technology to highlight the viewers’ investment in seeing difference in identical images. In Piper’s small drawing, she “heightened certain features often considered to be stereotypical of what a black person looks like.”22 By contrast, Ligon exactly reproduces a photograph of himself so that the viewer looks for imagined differences that are not there. The technological reproducibility of the photograph is the crux of the work’s tension: the disharmony between contradictory captions for identical images. Had Ligon used painting or drawing as a medium, subtle differences in manual execution would reinforce the viability of sight as a function that reliably indexes difference and thereby reifies the connection between phenotypical distinction and racial identity, whereas his use of the “indexical medium” of photography challenges the notion of the body as an index of race.23 Ligon exposes the phenotypical differences that have come to stand in for race—as race—as an inadequate visual shorthand that obviates how race is a product of complex social and political discourses. The work insinuates itself in what Robyn Wiegman calls an “economy of visibility” in order to interrogate the very (p.37)

Sight Unseen: Contemporary Visual Slave Narratives

Figure 3. Glenn Ligon’s Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features and Self-Portrait Exaggerating my White Features (1998).

Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Glenn Ligon.

terms of the visible.24 Self-Portrait locates race in the viewer’s imagination rather than in the artist’s body.

Ligon’s mobilization of the visual image for the project of denaturalizing phenotypical difference is an example of representational static: the incompatibility of the visual image and the mutually exclusive captions expose (p.38) seemingly “real” differences—such as phenotypical characteristics—to be inextricable from their discursive context. Because the very same body is doubly legible as either exhibiting “white features” or “black features,” it becomes a screen onto which viewers project their understanding of the racial phenotypes generically indicated in the captions. Because of the disjunction between the captions, the viewer is forced to “read” Ligon’s image as a “bodily mark”; however, the moment of discerning ultimately dissolves into the recognition that the self-portraits are identical, at which point there is a reversal of object and subject as the subject of the photograph shifts from the body depicted in the photograph (Ligon’s) to the speculative gaze of the viewer.25 The image is ultimately no more reliable an index than the non-imagistic captions below. Ligon’s use of representational static demonstrates how visuality is like a linguistic system, which registers and signifies through difference; both language and the visual image are discursively produced, not mirrors of truth.

Silhouette serves the same function for Walker as photography does for Ligon: Walker invests in the visual image as an index of race in order to evacuate its power from the inside out. As her figures are all monochromatic—usually black or brown against a solid white background—Walker’s scenes of racialized violence and desire are achieved by her manipulation of paper into recognizably “black” and “white” forms. To read the disjunctive narratives in her panoramic scenes, viewers must participate in a racist interpretive tradition: the distinction between black and white figures is only legible if one reads them through a lexicon of racist imagery, which circulated in nineteenth-century postcards, romance novels, and minstrel fliers, including stock figures from Southern iconography such as the black-coded “mammy,” her head in a kerchief, and the white-coded “lady,” in hoopskirt and petticoats. Routing our vision through an older mythology, Walker subverts the indexical function of silhouette and reveals the contemporary currency of latent racist ideologies. As Darby English argues, her positioning of “slavery’s representation within a present-day scheme of things … reveals fixed images of slavery as supplying a discourse of ‘race relations’ with an anachronous underlying order and a poignant lack of historical specificity.”26 Walker amplifies the viewers’ complicity in these scenes by figuring her silhouettes as two-thirds life-scale and including “seemingly incidental specializing elements—trees, clouds, road signs, the implied ground, and perhaps most importantly, the plantation house—[which] rigorously structure the tableau as a landscape in which we stand.”27 In other words, we are not only looking at the scenes Walker has constructed, but we are implicated in them through a variety of formal mechanisms. In some works, such as (p.39) Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, yet We Pressed On), Walker even incorporates an overhead projector so that the viewer literally interrupts the projection stream and casts her own silhouette on the wall, becoming part of the scene.28 While Walker uses silhouette in part because it was a form privileged for its utility by physionomers such as Lavater, thereby implicitly addressing the history of the racial gaze, her tableaux belie the privileged, empirical vantage of the scientist by situating her viewers as witness-participants, “facilitating the fantasy participation that is the precondition of looking this long.”29 Furthermore, her anachronistic and displaced use of silhouette—associated more with genteel parlors of the nineteenth century than with gallery walls of the late twentieth—operates as a “strategic presentism” which, like Narratives, keeps past and present discourses of race simultaneously on view.30

Ligon’s and Walker’s use of indexical mediums to reveal the phantasm of race subverts realist conventions associated with the slave narrative. Walker has stated that her interest in the term “negress” is specifically its ability to signify racial identity and the artifice of that identity at the same time: “The term ‘negress’ as a term that I apply to myself is a real and an artificial construct. Everything that I am doing is trying to scrape the line between fiction and reality.”31 Key to that project is the divestment of the visual image of its authenticating status. As both Augusta Rohrbach and Lynn Casmier-Paz have noted, author portraits affixed to slave narratives operate as paratextual elements, which work to secure or authorize the racial identity of the subject of the narrative: “the author portraits of slave narratives struggle to evidence multiple icons of realistic, biographical representation available to the period.”32 Claiming slave narratives as unrecognized precursors to a later (white) literary realism, Rohrbach argues that visual material appended to slave narratives served an indexical function and played an important role in both authenticating the narratives and bolstering their realist aura.33 She notes that 58 percent of slave narratives published between 1845 and 1870 present an author’s portrait, compared with zero portraits of white authors writing in the same social justice, realist mode.34 She argues that the “textual element” of the portraits were employed for their supposedly greater power to refer outside the text to the “real” black body, as they “offered many proofs that the author was REAL and in this case that means: really black.”35 In Rohrbach’s account, although the sight of the black body could not guarantee “textual authenticity,” it was used to guarantee racial authenticity, to “locate the physical body” for its readership.36 It is precisely the notion of the portrait as a reliable index of racial location that contemporary visual slave narratives disrupt, demonstrating that both the visual image and the literary (p.40) narrative are discursive productions. Ligon’s hollow promise of “with a portrait” and Walker’s opaque, monochromatic silhouettes are empty vessels that mark the expectation of visual evidence for racial authentication, but their works evacuate the evidentiary force of the visual.

In this way Ligon and Walker undermine not only the conventions of authentication that structure the slave narrative form, but also the conventions of authentication that structure the visual modes they appropriate, calling attention to the way these visual modes have been misunderstood as unmarked, neutral mediums, but which have instead served highly subjective functions inseparable from the social relations in which they were developed and continue to be used. To wit, Walker describes her use of silhouette as a kind of formal expedient to access a set of social relations: “The silhouette is the most concise way of summing up a number of interests. [It is a way] to try and uncover the often subtle and uncomfortable ways racism, and racist and sexist stereotypes influence and script our everyday lives.”37 For example, one of the vignettes in Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (Figure 4) depicts a white plantation owner engaged in a sweet romantic moment with a white woman as the sword hanging from his belt sodomizes a small, black child dressed in ragged clothes. The white woman is implicated in the sexual abuse of the black child as much as the man, whose passive, distracted abuse is made possible by his active, attentive, proprietary engagement in heteronormative sexuality. Similarly, both the narrative form of romance and the visual form of silhouette are indicted in the broader challenge leveled by the tableau’s title: Gone. Although slavery was an integral part of the daily workings of the plantation, the setting for the Southern “historical romance,” its constitutive abuses of black people are often left out of the frame. Furthermore, Walker situates the “negress” and the contemporary black artist as parallel figures whose perspective is brought into focus when we see what has been cut away.

Rather than dismissing the narrative and visual modes from which they have been traditionally excluded, Ligon and Walker take up residence within those very structures of exclusion, challenging them from the inside. In this way my reading of Walker’s and Ligon’s use of the slave narrative is analogous to English’s reading of Walker’s tableaux as an appropriation and dismantling of the landscape tradition: “Treating landscape much as she does the silhouette, Walker turns it to her purposes not simply by evacuating its authenticating epistemologies, but by taking up a dissident position within them.”38 By challenging the authenticating strategies of the slave narrative as well as the authenticating epistemologies (p.41)

Sight Unseen: Contemporary Visual Slave Narratives

Figure 4. Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994). Cut paper on wall. 180 × 600 inches (396.2 × 1524 cm). Installation view, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2008.

Photo: Joshua White. Artwork © Kara Walker/Image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

of landscape, in Walker’s case, the artists under consideration take up a dissident position within the very structures that mark their exclusion in order to disrupt notions of visual certainty, resituating the gaze as a highly subjective function inseparable from its discursive context.

Slave Narrative as Camera Obscura: Inversions, Reversals, and Implications

If Ligon’s and Walker’s use of indexical mediums shift the focus of the gaze from the black subject of autobiography to the viewer herself, Ellen Driscoll’s piece The Loophole of Retreat uses a pre-photographic medium to structurally invert the role of reader and narrator (Figure 5).39 Driscoll figures a key chapter of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as a camera obscura to address the complex power relations of looking and being looked at. In the piece, museumgoers enter a cramped structure at the room’s center, evocative of Jacobs’s hiding place, as objects of importance to Jacobs circle slowly outside on a motorized mobile, their (p.42)

Sight Unseen: Contemporary Visual Slave Narratives

Figure 5. Ellen Driscoll, “The Loophole of Retreat” (1990–1992).

Photo: George Hirose. Image courtesy of the artist.

inverted images itinerantly projected on the internal wall of the structure.40 As Michael Chaney argues, Driscoll’s transformation of the slave narrative into camera obscura extends Jacobs’s own representation of the garret into a camera obscura, which he calls “a third space of representation” that “allows [her] to remain invisible while surveying the landscape that grounds her social and juridical subjection.”41 As a “third space” it offers a way for Jacobs to interrupt the easy binaries between slave and free, object and subject, such that “the distinctiveness of the categories it mediates break down.”42 While Chaney’s goal is to articulate the ways Jacobs “registers her awareness of the possibilities in a counter-offensive of seeing,” my goal is to situate this “counter-offensive” as a precursor to Driscoll’s use of the slave narrative to unsettle the notion of sight as an objective, rather than subjective, function.43

In “The Loophole” chapter Jacobs powerfully contests the ways her life has been circumscribed by how she is seen, presenting a paradoxical relationship between her bodily constriction and the sense of freedom she achieves by her overturning of the optics of slavery. Prior to her escape, although theoretically she can move around relatively freely as a favored and sexually desired slave, her movements are actually controlled not only by the necessities of her workload but also her desire to elude the constant, lurid surveillance of Dr. Flint, which reduces her life almost entirely to a (p.43) series of defensive maneuvers and evasive actions. Conversely, during the period of her life where her body is most physically constrained, hidden in a crawl space in which she could hardly sit up, Jacobs exercises a much higher degree of control over her own life and that of Dr. Flint, directing him all over the country, for example, by arranging to have him sent letters postmarked from Northern locales—false clues to her whereabouts that he repeatedly chases after.44

Important for Driscoll, Jacobs moves from object to subject via the mechanics of sight. The constriction of her body is distilled into the constriction of her field of vision—a single hole through which she can see a portion of the yard—which, in turn, marks an expansion of her internal vision. “The Loophole of Retreat” chapter is the fulcrum of Jacobs’s narrative: marking the turning point of her enslavement, what Jacobs can see from the attic profoundly overpowers how she is seen as a black woman.45 Driscoll’s installation reproduces this power reversal and revises the optics of the slave narrative more generally: instead of using the sight of the suffering black body as the primary route to empathy, which, as Hartman argues, runs the risk of objectifying black suffering, Driscoll’s “Loophole” asks the museumgoer to become the subject, to see as Jacobs might have seen and to create their own narratives from the “flow of images” they encounter.46

The juxtaposition of visual, architectural, and narrative discourses is expanded in the installation’s other main feature: a row of columns suspended between the ceiling and the ground. Light emanates from each of the seven columns—perhaps representing the seven years Jacobs spent in confinement—mediated by lenses that project indistinct images onto small piles of salt below.47 The weathered columns recall the classical architecture of the plantation house; but significantly, the columns are either unfinished or decomposed, floating in midair, preempting their architectural function and significance as visual symbols of idyllic plantation life.48 The instability of the plantation house, built on the exploited labor of enslaved people, is contrasted with the solidity of Jacobs’s connection to her children, signified by her ability to look at them from her retreat. When Jacobs gets the idea to make a small aperture in the attic wall she says to herself, “Now I will have some light. Now I will see my children.”49 The durable and sustaining connection between enslaved mother and child signified by Jacobs’s invisible line of sight is contrasted with the structurally unsound columns that fail to support the vision of Southern life they represent.

The salt beneath each column references another narrative of sight that turns on the drama of looking: the Biblical narrative of Lot’s escape from (p.44) Sodom. Lot’s wife, who cannot resist looking back, is turned into a pillar of salt. Thus the “pillars of salt” in Driscoll’s “Loophole” emphasize the gender dynamics within Jacobs’s account, as well as the depravity of racial slavery. Whereas male slaves, like her brother William, were able to escape when the opportunity presented itself, female slaves were often the sole caretakers of children or elders who would have no one to look after them in their absence. Determined that she was unwilling to escape without her children, Jacobs was forced to constantly look back, fixed in place for the moment, hiding within sight of her own personal Sodom.

Furthermore, this element of Driscoll’s piece signifies the ambivalence to be mined from the original slave narrative form, in particular the ambivalence ex-slave narrators express about fulfilling the conventions of authentication which have the power to refix them in an objectifying gaze. The act of writing the narrative is to look back toward enslavement; however, despite the racial expectations encoded in the slave narrative form, ex-slave narrators often advance a powerful countervision within the narratives that challenges the speculative gaze of the abolitionist frame, “disturbing the conservative form of the narrative without displacing it” as Sekora would have it. For example, Chaney reads Jacobs’s presentation of a particularly vicious beating of one of her fellow slaves as illustrative of her own circumvention of the speculative gaze of the narrative: “In satisfying the genre’s conventional representation of the slave body as a spectacle of abject victimization” Jacobs describes the scene not as she saw it, but rather as she heard it, describing the slave’s “piteous groans, and his ‘O, pray don’t, massa,’” which “rang in [her] ear for months afterwards.”50 Complying with the requirement that she provide examples of the brutal physical abuse enslaved people were subject to at the hands of irrational masters, Jacobs nevertheless refuses to expose the abused body to the gaze of the reader. Although she visually ratifies the scene by noting that she “went to the work house the next morning, and saw the cowhide still wet with blood, and the boards all covered with gore,”—a recognition of the importance of visual evidence to her readership—Chaney argues that “Jacobs’s emphasis on hearing rather than seeing diverts the reader’s gaze from the subjected captive body, allowing the tortured slave a measure of humanity commensurate with mind rather than body.”51 As a contest between the “eyewitness” and “earwitness,” this is an excellent example of Jacobs’s use of representational static to “probe, unconsciously and consciously, certain gaps in [narrative] conventions, certain disturbances in the surfaces of narrative” to evade the evidentiary requirements and speculative gaze formalized in the slave narrative.52

Driscoll expands Jacobs’s own resistance to her literary confinement (p.45) by literalizing the cramped space of the attic as a cone of vision, thereby shifting the viewer’s focus from the abused black body and presenting vision as a subjective, embodied function. Although Driscoll’s attention to Jacobs’s interiority—her psychological experience—distinguishes “Loophole” from other contemporary visual slave narratives, Driscoll’s installation is ultimately interested not in Jacobs herself, but in the cramped architectural, social, and narrative forms she was compelled to inhabit. Where Ligon and Walker create a play of surfaces to evacuate the subject and ironize stereotypes of black subjectivity and assumptions of racial difference, Driscoll creates an installation characterized by depth to accomplish the same goals, literally inviting the museumgoer into the narrative to see from her perspective. By juxtaposing Jacobs’s narrative of enslavement with the mechanics of visual representation, Driscoll discloses the true subject of the work: the racial dynamics of vision. The conical, makeshift camera obscura directs attention to perspective, pointing us to the embodied viewing subject and disrupting the model of visuality-as-authority, characterized by the surveillance economy of slavery and the privileged observer wielding a supposedly disembodied gaze over the enslaved person-as-object. Much like Ligon’s Narratives and Self-Portrait, and Walker’s silhouette tableaux, Driscoll’s work forces the viewer to acknowledge her position vis-à-vis the subject. Moreover, although the viewer symbolically enters Jacobs’s field of vision, that vision is entirely mediated through narrative. This instantiation of representational static, like those found in the slave narratives themselves, simultaneously confounds the notion of vision as an objective function operating outside of its discursive context and recovers the unseen affective and familial bonds between enslaved people by creating new lines of sight.

The Language of Visibility

In the crucible of the slave market the confluence of visual speculation, linguistic determination, and social performance resulted in a literal investment in racialized subjectivity increasingly articulated along the axis of the visual. As Walter Johnson shows in his study of antebellum slave markets, slave traders used language and the visual assumptions of their customers to produce an increasingly sophisticated lexicon of racial categories that then became “facts” in the market:

The traders’ efforts to codify [a] strain of proximate whiteness produced the antebellum South’s most detailed racial taxonomy. Whereas the categories of the United States census were limited to “black” (p.46) and “mulatto,” the traders’ detailed categories—“Negro,” “Griffe,” “Mulatto,” “Quadroon,” and so on—attempted much more precise measurement of imagined portions of “black” and “white” blood. And whereas the courts limited their own detailed investigations of blood quantum and behavior to drawing a legal line between “black” and “white,” the traders’ categories preserved a constant shifting tension between blackness and whiteness—a tension that was daily measured, packaged, and sold in the slave market.53

The black/white binary that was troubled by the proliferation of racial categories was also the essential fiction upon which race was based. Although Johnson indicates the traders’ logic is founded on an unseen sexual economy of blood quantum, the language of the market fixates on—and attempts to fix—the external appearance of the slaves. This appearance, both relative and arbitrary, is then concretized in language, and visible attributes take on both discursive and literal value.

Ironically, this history demonstrates that it is through the stabilizing force of language that somatic characteristics come to seem objective. Conversely, as I discussed at the beginning of this chapter, visual adjuncts to the slave narrative such as the author portrait work to stabilize the text by authenticating the existence of the narrator and therefore the authenticity of the narrative.54 Thus, by juxtaposing visual and literary paradigms of black subjectivity, Ligon, Walker, and Driscoll use the convergence of these registers to undermine visual fictions of race. In an interview at the time of his exhibition Glenn Ligon: Un/becoming, Ligon made the statement that he “wants to make language a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it.”55 This statement is not without irony if we note, as Ligon does, that historically language has been used against black people with a tremendous amount of weight and force. In Narratives Ligon uses the absence of figural imagery to highlight the expectation readers and viewers have of seeing the black artist or author. “Black Rage; or, How I Got Over; or, Sketches of the Life and Labors of Glenn Ligon” exploits the double meaning of “sketches”—as both brief narrative accounts and a kind of visual shorthand—to emphasize the markedly visual nature of narrative presentations of black suffering in slave narratives. The oversized frontispiece boldly announces, “Containing a full and faithful account of his commodification of the horrors of black life into art objects for the public’s enjoyment.” Like all of the prints in Narratives, “Black Rage” trades on the salacious pleasure produced for some readers and viewers by representations of black suffering even while withholding that pleasure by refusing images where we most expect to (p.47) find them—in an art museum. In this way, Ligon engages debates about the representation of the black body and notions of racial authenticity while “sidestep[ping] figuration.”56 The empty announcement of “with a portrait” punctuates the print, diverting the viewer away from the representation of Ligon’s actual body toward his or her expectation of the authentication of an author/narrator portrait calculated to demonstrate the dignity and humanity of the former slave as well as what has become the “routine display of the slave’s ravaged body” within slave narration.57

Whether he uses figural representation, as in Self-portrait, or text-based representation, as in Narratives or his companion series Runaways (1993), Ligon’s object is to unsettle the notion that images are more reliable indexes of race than language. Runaways in particular highlights the ways that language is implicated in the process of racialization, suggesting both the problematic nature of eye-witness testimony as well as the continued objectification of black men through racial profiling. To create the series, Ligon asked ten friends to “provide a verbal account of [him] as though reporting his disappearance to the police.”58 He then transcribed those descriptions into the form of runaway slave advertisements, replicating typographic conventions and including the stock images printers often ran with such announcements.59 However, the descriptions in Runaways often contradict each other, evacuating the power of language to fix Ligon in a particular racial category and indicating the absurdity of such a project: one advertisement declares Ligon to be “pretty dark-skinned,” while another identifies his complexion as “medium, (not ‘light skinned’ not ‘dark skinned,’ slightly orange).” In addition to forwarding an argument about the similarities between racial slavery and our contemporary criminal justice system by asking friends to provide descriptions “as though they were reporting his disappearance to the police,” the work brings out the subjective nature of sight, producing a moment of static to interrupt the discourses of accuracy and evidence in play. Runaways trades on the interplay between a real referent (the artist’s body) and the contradictory visual and linguistic representations of that body. This particular strategy is common to all the artists under consideration, but it is important to recognize that this strategy has been part of the slave narrative from its inception.

Looking Back: Reassessing the Role of Visuality in the Original Slave Narratives

Although the original literary slave narrative, and particularly the classic slave narrative of the antebellum period that is later taken up by visual (p.48) artists, was circumscribed by the goals of abolition, there are moments of visual incongruity—such as those described in Jacobs’s Incidents—which cannot be contained by the formulaic mold enforced by abolitionist editors and sponsors. The “race rituals” that constitute the conventions of authentication—which become the subject of Ligon’s Narratives—record a white racial anxiety over racial distinction that far outstrips questions of black legal status, slave or free. Although Ligon has grown increasingly leery of using literature within his art, his work opens the door to understanding the way the ex-slave narrators themselves engaged this “treacherous site.” The discursive production of blackness through visual iconography and literary subjectivity literally speak against one another in the slave narrative form such that the illogic at the heart of racial construction is exposed.

Contemporary artists’ production of representational static through the use of the slave narrative form occasions a reevaluation of the treatment of the visual logic of racial slavery in the original literary slave narratives. As the foregoing reading of Incidents and the following reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass show, the use of representational static is not an innovation within current-day artists’ work. Ex-slave narrators themselves resisted the slave narrative’s formal emphasis on evidence and authenticity by highlighting—and challenging—the role of visuality in codifying black subjectivity.

In Douglass’s 1845 Narrative, the visual appears as a dissonant element which limits the representative power of linguistic and visual discursive modes to demarcate black experience. Even as he makes a strong case for abolition, Douglass’s deployment of visual metaphors demonstrates the (racial) limits of political freedom. At the very moments Douglass is expected to provide proof of his humanity, he casts rhetorical attention on the idiosyncrasies of dominant discourses of authenticity by juxtaposing literacy and the visual icon of the hyper-materialized black body. The discrepant engagement of language and the visual image has two effects: first, it reveals the fiction of race where it is instituted most powerfully—in the visible; and second, it allows Douglass to explicitly perform the self-authorizing gestures necessary to prove his humanity, while implicitly critiquing the system of racial classification that would place him outside of the category of human.

In the traditional reading of his Narrative, Douglass’s acquisition of literacy represents his transition from slave object to human subject. As Lindon Barrett argues, literacy functions as a prohibition or exclusion connected to systems of white power, but also as an entry-point into abstract thought, a sign of freedom from embodiment.60 By appropriating (p.49) literacy Douglass overturns the mind/body split, the exclusionary principle that casts blackness outside of Western notions of humanity. But while Douglass upholds reason as the constitutive element of humanity, he refuses the racial logic that posits blackness and reason as mutually exclusive, a notion that was used to justify and maintain racial slavery. Douglass’s use of visual metaphors at key junctures in his narrative reveals the problem with racial slavery to be more than just a problem of enslavement, but a problem of racial speculation—specifically the objectification of blackness.61 Attention to the visual codes in the text demonstrates the chiastic structure of witnessing within the narrative.62 Furthermore, although he uses literacy to broker the transition between his object status as a slave and his subject status in freedom, it is at the nexus between literacy and embodiment that Douglass signals the racial limitations on the free black subject.

Early in his narrative Douglass describes many incidents of slave life from the perspective of a witness, a strategy that is reversed at the end; at the moment of escape, the moment we most expect a description of the slave body, his body literally disappears. Although born into slavery, Douglass marks his entrance through the “blood-stained gate” as his witnessing of the beating of his Aunt Hester, and he marks his “resurrection from the tomb of slavery” as his triumph over the slave-breaker Covey, long before his actual escape.63 The scenes are connected by the chiasmus, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”64 In fact, the figure of chiasmus, a rhetorical crossing in which the words in the first clause are reversed in the second, is replicated in the larger narrative structure in which Douglass’s experience of visibility, and therefore vulnerability in slavery, is reversed in the narrative’s conclusion in which Douglass’s body does not appear. Douglass emphasizes the spectacular nature of the beating of Hester by calling it a “horrible exhibition” and a “terrible spectacle.”65 He was “horror-stricken at the sight” and “had never seen any thing like it before.”66 His response is to hide himself in a closet; expecting to be next, his only defense was to physically remove himself from sight. Douglass attributes Hester’s beating to her hyper-visibility as a sexual object in the eyes of Captain Anthony. He alludes to her objectification in a telling ellipsis followed by a description of her beauty: “Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood.”67 Hester’s hyper-visibility is emphasized by her nakedness: “[Captain Anthony] took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, (p.50) leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked.”68 Like Douglass, we are positioned as witness to this brutal scene.

This violent baptism into slavery is paralleled by another “bloody transaction” toward the end of the narrative—what Douglass calls the “turning point in [his] career as a slave”—his triumph over the slave-breaker Covey.69 Describing being “broken” by Covey, Douglass writes, “I broke down; my strength failed me; I was seized with a violent aching of the head, attended with extreme dizziness; I trembled in every limb.”70 Shortly thereafter, though, his extreme physical vulnerability is replaced with the vulnerability, and visibility, of the white body. The last time Covey comes at Douglass, it is Covey who is seized by physical frailty in the face of Douglass’s power; it is Covey who trembles at the hands, the fingers, of Douglass: “[A]t this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; … I seized Covey by the throat … He held on to me and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected, that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. … I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers.”71 Rewriting the proposition of black and white physicality, Douglass describes himself as overcome by a “spirit” while Covey is reduced to the materiality of his body and its weakness. Throughout the rest of the narrative, Douglass’s body virtually disappears. Where we expect an account of Douglass’s escape from slavery, he demurs and substitutes the endangered slaveholder’s body in a condition of moral and spiritual fugitivity: “Let [the slavecatcher] be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency.”72 Douglass leaves white readers in intellectual darkness about the events and mode of his escape, concluding his narrative with the invisibility of the free black body—not only out of the grasp of the slaveholder, but also outside of representation.

Douglass’s chiasmus, the turning point between his hyper-visibility and freedom from embodiment, is a key example of representational static. Douglass uses metaphors of sight to critique the visual objectification and racial speculation founded in racial slavery. When Douglass writes, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,” he tempers what would be a triumphant proclamation—his entrance into manhood—by containing it within the metaphorical frame of sight, which has been problematic throughout the narrative. The terms of the chiasmus present an insufficient claim on liberation precisely because it is how Douglass has been seen—as racially black—that has (p.51) put a lien on his freedom. Born into racial slavery, he was excluded from “Manhood.” Thus, Douglass points the reader to a vacancy, an absence standing in for African American humanity denied by racial slavery. The visual is invoked as a limit to the symbolic power of literacy to transcend racial conditions. Douglass makes explicit that it is how slaves are seen that places them outside of humanity. Douglass’s use of a visual metaphor to declare his entrance into manhood is, then, a cunning recognition of the ambivalent role of literacy within the slave narrative. On one hand, Douglass’s invocation of sight demonstrates the (racial) limits of political freedom and signals the potential problems of an abolitionist movement that requires evidence of black humanity; on the other, Douglass’s visual metaphor is a demonstration of his literary prowess, a triumphant declaration that his readers will no longer see him through the lens of his racial designation, but rather they will see him as he wants them to.73

By valorizing a sophisticated visual imaginary embedded in the narrative through language rather than image, this analysis shows how Douglass creates a disjunction between verbal and visual representations of the black body that undermines the logic of race understood as physical difference. Identifying representational static within contemporary visual slave narratives allows us to recognize previously overlooked rhetorical strategies of ex-slave narrators of the nineteenth century. Such recognition shows that even while reproducing a key trope of slave narration, the image of the denigrated black body for example, ex-slave narrators challenge the fixity of that image and reveal race to be a discursive construct irreducible to any single image authorized by the speculative gaze.

The Afterlife of the Slave Narrative

Twentieth-century artists’ recovery of the publication conventions of nineteenth-century slave narratives advances a critique of the limits and expectations levied on African American cultural producers, which we can locate in the slave narratives themselves. Lamenting the ways works by black artists are often overdetermined by “the idea of black culture,” English writes that “in this country, black artists’ work seldom serves as the basis of rigorous, object-based debate. Instead, it is almost uniformly generalized, endlessly summoned to prove its representativeness (or defend its lack of the same) and contracted to show-and-tell on behalf of an abstract and unchanging ‘culture of origin.’”74 Although English’s remarks refer to “black artists” at the turn of the twenty-first century, his statement could just as easily be applied to ex-slave narrators of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is exactly these parallels (p.52) that prompt Ligon, Walker, and Driscoll to use the slave narrative as a way of thematizing the extra-artistic forces that condition the production and reception of “black art” in contemporary museums and galleries. By adopting the conventions of an earlier generation of black cultural producers whose works bear the traces of the negotiations they undertook with white publishing institutions and readers, contemporary visual slave narratives highlight the similar negotiations the African American artist undertakes with contemporary art institutions and viewers, asking “what are the conditions under which works by black artists enter the museum? Do we enter only when our ‘visible difference’ is evident? Why do so many shows with works by colored people (and rarely whites) have titles that include ‘race’ and ‘identity’? Who is my work for and what do different audiences demand of it?”75

By restaging nineteenth-century narratives in the present with contemporary subjects, Ligon, Walker, and Driscoll unhinge the realist narrative of race that persists in the contemporary period. The historical event of the slave markets conventionalized, naturalized, and solidified the sight of blackness into the symbolic capital of race that is still with us today. The ambivalent use of language surrounding the sale of slaves in the antebellum slave markets worked to fix blackness and whiteness in an oppressive binary system of signification. The black body was a site on which white fantasies were projected and concretized. Thus, visual art is in a unique position to recast and revise the experience of black subjectivity advanced in the nineteenth-century slave narrative as one that is constructed along, and limited by, the visual axis. Ligon, Walker, and Driscoll use the formal properties of nineteenth-century representations of blackness to create art that disaggregates the speculative white gaze. What they produce are canny, referential sites that use literary and visual paradigms of black representation to unfix blackness, and, in the case of Driscoll’s piece, offer sight as a positive form of connection balanced against the damning vision of racial slavery. By creating visual sites in which the viewer participates in what Robyn Wiegman calls an “economy of the visible,” Ligon, Walker, and Driscoll reflect and deflect the subjectivating gaze of whiteness onto the viewer, thereby undermining the reliability of sight as a mechanism for authenticating racial identity. Put differently, the historical disjunction of nineteenth-century literary conventions in late-twentieth-century visual art productions exposes the limitations of both literary and visual paradigms to represent black experience and black subjectivity.

It is right to be cautious about discussing two distinct historical periods under the same theoretical rubric, but the reemergence of the slave narrative (p.53) in contemporary art demands transhistorical analysis. Expressing his frustration over a backward-looking trend in black cultural criticism, Robert Reid-Pharr argues that “all too often students of Black American literature and culture reproduce notions of a stagnant Black American history by insisting that the anguished cries of the slave are ultimately indistinct from the complicated musings of the contemporary artist.”76 While I take Reid-Pharr’s point that there must be room in contemporary cultural criticism to recognize and “reimagine the basic modes” of black culture outside of the paradigm of enslavement, analyzing contemporary artists’ turn to the slave narrative allows us to see a greater degree of complexity in a genre that was valued at its inception for its perceived artlessness.77 The deliberate and strategic conjunction of the formal properties of slave narratives with new modes of visual presentation provides an opportunity to reassess the goals and rhetorical strategies of formerly enslaved narrators working under highly compromised circumstances. Rather than reproducing a stagnant notion of blackness, contemporary visual artists’ turn to the slave narrative provokes the viewer into questioning historical assumptions about blackness and the notions of racial legibility set forth in the original texts. Although the use of anachronism within the art distinguishes the contemporary visual slave narratives from their nineteenth-century literary counterparts, their shared use of representational static to interrupt fixed notions of blackness indicates a common experience of—and resistance to—racial speculation. The reassessment of the treatment of visuality within the original slave narratives makes it possible to evaluate the slave narrative form itself—from its literary origins in the late eighteenth century to its visual incarnation in the late twentieth century—as presenting a consistent challenge to racial speculation. By juxtaposing visual and textual discourse, ex-slave narrators and the artists who take up their subject position exploit the polyvocality and claims to authenticity of the slave narrative to reject the political and moral justifications for racial slavery and to thwart the speculative gaze directed at them by slaveholders, abolitionists, and museum-goers alike.


(1.) Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3.

(2.) Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 5.

(4.) On the significance of author portraits in slave narratives see Lynn Casmier-Paz, “Slave Narratives and the Rhetoric of Author Portraiture,” New Literary History, 34.1 (Winter 2003): 91–116, 91.

(5.) On the problematic nature of the category “black art” see Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007) and Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Like English, I “refuse … the contention that ‘African-American art [is] a distinct form of expression,’ by isolating specific (p.189) practices, even specific aspects of them, where the engagement of conventions, themes, problems, and tactics derived from a variety of art historical and sociopolitical contexts does not simply embarrass claims of distinctness but, far more consequently, satisfies the representational demands of artists for whom the question of cultural position is not given, but historically and socially shaped and, to a degree, a matter of preference,” (English, 7).

(6.) On Ligon’s text paintings see English and Richard Meyer, “Borrowed Voices: Glenn Ligon and the Force of Language,” in Glenn Ligon: Un/becoming, ed. Judith Tannenbaum (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1997), 13–36; Huey Copeland, “Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects,” Representations 113.1 (2011): 73–110; and Copeland’s chapter on Ligon in Bound to Appear, 109–152. English writes that “For political subjects whose existence as pictures for others is a kind of general condition, not to mention a nauseating and often catastrophic one, the fetishization of surface, or indeed any aesthetics that prescribes its supervaluation, presents a serious problem. The text paintings forestall such a closure (to a degree) by withholding the kind of surface that stops an image at its borders and, by extension, seals off the viewer at hers” (English, 211). The stencil paintings, often called his “door paintings” because he initially painted them on doors before switching to canvas, transform both language and the body (suggested by the work’s dimensions and textual referent) into abstractions.

(7.) Writing on the figural retreat within African American art, and Ligon’s art in particular, English writes that “‘authority … is connected with the privilege to suppress and protect the body and the reference to social constraints the body inevitably unleashes and all the more voluminously for black artists.’ For Ligon, no such privilege existed, and this amounted to a social constraint that warranted referencing” (206).

(9.) Hilarie M. Sheets, “Cut It Out!” ARTnews, 01 April 2002. Web. 30 August 2012. Touré also describes Walker’s work as “fantasy and nightmare slave narratives,” noting that “Walker says she sees herself as the master, her figures as her slaves, and her canvas as the plantation” in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness (New York: Free Press, 2011), 34, 35. Walker amplifies this aspect of her work in interviews, using the term “slave narrative” to discuss features of her personal history, such as “gaining her artistic freedom by ‘escaping North’ [from suburban Atlanta] to graduate school in Providence” in Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Durham: Duke University Press Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 97.; or describing her works as derived from her “inner plantation,” in Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 97. Glenn Ligon, Narratives, 1993. Prints, Exhibited at Max Protetch Gallery, Fall 1993; Glenn Ligon, Runaways, 1993. Prints, Exhibited at Max Protetch Gallery, Summer 2002; Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Negress and Her Heart, 1994. Cut Paper and adhesive on wall, 13 ’ 50 feet, featured in Selections Fall 1994: Installations, September 10–October 22, at New York’s Drawing Center; Ellen Driscoll, The Loophole of Retreat, Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris, 1991.

(10.) I borrow the term “race rituals” from Robert Stepto, “I Rose and Found My Voice: Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Four Slave Narratives,” in The Slave’s Narrative, ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985): 225–241.

(11.) See John Sekora, “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative,” Callaloo 32 (1987), 482–515.

(p.190) (12.) Anne Wagner, “Kara Walker: The Black-White Relations,” 101, quoted in Ian Berry et al., Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress, ed. Ian Berry et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 140–167.

(13.) Lauri Firstenberg, “Neo-Archival and Textual Modes of Production: An Interview with Glenn Ligon,” Art Journal 60.1 (Spring 2001), 43.

(15.) John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961).

(16.) Thelma Golden, “Everynight,” in Glenn Ligon: Un/becoming, ed. Judith Tannenbaum (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1997), 46.

(17.) Lindon Barrett, Blackness and Value: Seeing Double (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 237.

(18.) Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 76. By “terminal structural openness” English means that the inherently dialogic structure of Walker’s work in particular is an end in itself. Walker exploits silhouette’s ambiguities to keep a variety of binaries in tension, rather leading us to some truth either about slavery or race relations in our contemporary moment.

(19.) For my understanding of the index and “indexical mediums” I am indebted to Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Shadow and the Substance: Race, Photography, and the Index,” in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis (New York: International Center of Photography/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003), 111–126. Mirzoeff writes “the index is a sign that designates a truly existing thing (in commonsense terms) in the way that a bullet-hole indicates the passing of a bullet” (111). His definition of the index is derived from Charles Sanders Peirce, who writes, “An index is a sign which would, at once, lose the character which makes it a sign if its object were removed, but would not lose that character if there were no interpretant. Such, for example, is a piece of mould with a bullet-hole in it as a sign of a shot; for without the shot there would have been no hole; but there is a hole there, whether anybody has the sense to attribute it to a shot or not.” Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” Art Bulletin 73, no. 2 (June 1991): 189.

(20.) Mirzoeff, 112. Mirzoeff argues that contemporary artists may now be “in the best position” to deconstruct the notion of race as index. Mirzoeff takes his title from the caption of the portrait Sojourner Truth circulated at her speaking engagements. He argues that though the body cannot be an index because “there are no biological grounds to distinguish human beings into separate ‘races,’” the racialized body nonetheless began to be treated as an index after abolition. While I agree with Mirzoeff that antebellum racism was “intensely ambivalent” about the role of phenotypical characteristics in determining racial designation, a number of antebellum slave narratives, including those by Solomon Northup and William Craft, demonstrate that the “desire to see racially” is not a postbellum invention. However, as the work of the artists under consideration shows, the assumption that race is fixed and visually discernable does not diminish after slavery’s abolition.

(21.) Mirzoeff, 111; Johann Casper Lavater, L’Art de connaitre les hommes par la physionomie, Vol. 1, (Depelafol: Paris, 1820), 127,quoted in Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography, 18391939 (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Limited, 1939), 21. It is worth noting here that Walker executes her silhouettes freehand.

(22.) Judith Tannenbaum, “Introduction,” in Glenn Ligon: Un/becoming, ed. Judith Tannenbaum (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1997), 11.

(p.191) (24.) Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 3.

(27.) English, 96. He reads the plantation house as “a magnetizing presence in the formal and metaphoric structure of [Walker’s] tableaux,” noting that “the place of every other figure present in the scene will be determined by its location on the near side of an impassable rift between itself and that structure. In this way, the house is crucial for establishing the tableaux in the contemporaneity” (132).

(28.) Walker’s interest in overhead projectors is their metonymic relationship to facts: “Overhead projectors are a didactic tool, they’re a schoolroom tool. They are about conveying facts. The work that I do is about projecting fictions into those facts,” Art in the Twenty-First Century “Stories: Kara Walker,” Art 21, Season 2, September 2003.

(30.) On “strategic presentism,” see English, 113. Although written about Walker’s tableaux, English’s interpretation of her “strategic presentism” could just as easily be applied to any of the contemporary visual slave narratives under consideration here: “The point, it seems, is to populate a picture of a past with events of subjectivity and desire and see what such a picture shows us about the present” (134).

(31.) Art in the Twenty-First Century “Stories,” Art 21, 2:1, September 2003.

(33.) Augusta Rohrbach, Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Race, Realism, and the Literary Marketplace (New York: Palgrave, 2002), xiv.

(34.) Ibid., 127 n.12.

(35.) Ibid., 31.

(37.) Kara Walker, interviewed by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in Kara Walker: Safety Curtain 1998/99, exh. Cat. (Vienna: Art Pool, Museum-in-Progress, and Vienna State Opera, 1998), quoted in English, 85.

(39.) Commissioned by the Whitney Museum at Philip Morris (1990–92), the piece blends elements of sculpture and installation to create a site that recalls both the improvised structures of the homeless and the crawlspace inhabited by Harriet Jacobs during her escape from slavery. See Ellen Driscoll, “Ellen Driscoll: The Spokes of the Wheel, Art Work 1991–Present; Artist Statement,” 2005. Web. 30 August 2012. http://www.ellendriscoll.net/update/artist_statement.htm.

(40.) Driscoll has said that “these objects refer to fragments in the text—a child’s shirt, a book (because she later wrote one), etc … but most importantly they are sufficiently rough-hewn, open-ended, and representational but in varying degrees, crafted from detritus, that they act weirdly as Rorschach images—people project onto the black and white images inside the camera obscura, and start stitching together narratives of their own because the space is so … dreamlike and people lose their bearings. So—in a kind of parallel act to Jacobs, viewers engage in narrative-making of their own as they ‘read’ the flow of images, a reconstruction from scraps—rather than emerging with the Jacobs narrative clear and taut as she later wrote it.” From private correspondence with the artist.

(41.) Michael Chaney, Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008). See also Chaney’s “Mulatta (p.192) Obscura: Camera Tactics and Linda Brent,” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, ed. Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 109–131.

(43.) Ibid., 168.

(44.) On Jacobs’s use of the metaphor of the “loophole of retreat” see Sarah Black-wood, “Fugitive Obscura: Runaway Slave Portraiture and Early Photographic Technology,” American Literature 81.1 (2009): 93–125 and Franny Nudelman, “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering,” ELH 59.4 (1992): 939–964.

(45.) Although it is important to note that she never figures her “peeping” as abstract or disembodied, but rather “an altered version of the camera obscura observer (the fugitive female slave) yields surprising reversals of the slave system by visually capturing her would-be captor,” Chaney, 168.

(46.) See note 40 for full context for this citation, from private correspondence with the artist.

(47.) I thank Anna Marie Anastasi for this insight.

(48.) English writes that the plantation house is “[a]rguably the most durable and evocative synthetic icon in artistic and literary representations of slavery” (132).

(49.) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 175.

(50.) Ibid., 15.

(52.) Sidonie Smith, “Resisting the Gaze of Embodiment: Women’s Autobiography in the Nineteenth Century,” in American Women’s Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory, ed. Margo Culley (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press: 1992), 75–110, quoted in Chaney, Fugitive Vision, 166. On the use of sound as a disruption of the visual priority within slave narratives see Fred Moten, “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream,” in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). Moten is “interested in the convergence of blackness and the irreducible sound of necessarily visual performance at the scene of objection” (Moten, 1).

(53.) Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 150.

(54.) See Casmier-Paz and James Olney, “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” Callaloo 20 (Winter, 1984), 46–73. Olney writes, “The portrait and the signature, … like the prefatory and appended letters, the titular tag ‘Written by Himself,’ and the standard opening ‘I was born,’ are intended to attest to the real existence of a narrator, the sense being that the status of the narrative will be continually called into doubt, so it cannot even begin, until the narrator’s real existence is firmly established. Of course the argument of the slave narratives is that the events narrated are factual and truthful and that they all really happened to the narrator, but this is a second-stage argument; prior to the claim of truthfulness is the simple, existential claim: ‘I exist’” (52).

(56.) Glenn Ligon, Interview with Patricia Bickers, in Yourself in the World: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. Scott Rothkopf (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 2011), 168. On representation of the body in slave narratives see Lindon Barrett, (p.193) “African-American Slave Narratives: Literacy, the Body, Authority,” American Literary History 7.3 (1995): 415–442. On Ligon’s use of text in relation to debates on figural representation see his interview with Patricia Bickers, reprinted in Glenn Ligon, Yourself in the World.

(59.) On stock typographic images of runaways see Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America 17801865 (New York: Routledge, 2000).

(60.) See Barrett’s essays “African-American Slave Narratives” and “Hand-Writing: Legibility and the White Body in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” American Literature 69.2 (1997): 315–336.

(61.) It is important to note that Douglass recognizes blackness as an ideological construct which contains a wide range of complexions, but which is legally enforced by the law that the child follows the condition of the mother, and socially and economically enforced through visual speculation: the visual assessment of slaves which results in a fixed racial identity and a particular value on the market. Rather than lessening their abuse, an assessment of lighter skin is read as a sign of the master’s sexual misconduct and makes slaves more vulnerable to abuse and sale. Douglass emphasizes the role of sight in circumscribing these slaves’ lives when he writes that a slaveholding mistress “is never better pleased than when she sees [‘this class of slaves’] under the lash.” If a master does not sell these slaves, he “must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion than himself.” See Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 15.

(62.) In his essay in Pictures and Progress, “Framing the Black Soldier: Image, Uplift, and the Duplicity of Pictures,” Maurice O. Wallace reads the chiastic structure of early African American literature as parallel to and an extension of early African American visual culture. Offering a case study of two portraits of Hubbard Pryor, an enlisted former slave, Wallace argues that the calculated juxtaposition of Hubbard as “slave” and “soldier” “visually approximat[es] the verbal chiasmus, and its underlying logic of binary opposition, made famous in African American abolitionist discourse by Frederick Douglass” (251). He writes, “[w]hereas the terms black and man could hardly create a politically meaningful syntax together before emancipation, the black soldier portrait envisaged the possibility of a spectacular new grammar and social logic” (247). Wallace’s case study provides an important historical counterpoint to what I argue Douglass accomplishes in his narrative. I claim that Douglass recognizes the potentially damaging implications of verbally and visually representing the transition from enslaved to free via the acquisition of literacy—specifically, he recognizes the problematic aspects of providing evidence of humanity where it should be self-evident—and that he uses visual rhetoric to interrupt and trouble the symbolic function of literacy, thereby implicitly challenging the chiastic structure of the narrative. In other words, even while Douglass fulfills the requirements of the slave narrative arc progressing from object to subject via the mechanics of literacy, his use of visual rhetoric suggests that he has not actually transformed, but rather that we now see him differently. Like Douglass’s verbal chiasmus, the visual chiasmus identified by Wallace ultimately presents an insufficient claim on liberation because the photographs are read, in their (p.194) juxtaposition, in a manner dangerously detached from history, “misrepresenting the material reality from which they are extricated out of time and put ‘in the service of specific vested interests,’” (258).

(64.) Ibid., 50.

(65.) Ibid., 16.

(66.) Ibid., 17.

(67.) Ibid., 16.

(68.) Ibid. For an important theoretical exchange between Hartman and Moten on the visual/auditory significance of this scene to a black aesthetic tradition see Moten’s In the Break.

(70.) Ibid., 50.

(71.) Ibid., 53.

(72.) Ibid., 71.

(73.) In constructing the analogy of the chiastic structure of African American portraiture to that of abolitionist discourse, Wallace notes the similar tension between the image as evidence and the image as ideological production:

“while portraits of black soldiers were supposed to visually guarantee black citizenship, they were “visual propaganda” which ironically “hid not only the bodily violence of slavery and its unexpected extension into Union lines … but, more subtly, the political and legal disorder around the status of ex-slaves turned soldiers” (258).

“Although the desire of abolitionist audiences to hear the horrors of slavery first-hand was clearly in the interest of authenticating abolitionist claims about the wretchedness of life under the peculiar institution, the call for abolitionists to produce a ‘real’ slave to give evidence of slavery’s inhumanity was also of a piece with the exhibition culture of freaks, missing links, and other human oddities put on view in circus and carnival sideshows” (253).

(76.) Robert Reid-Pharr, Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 37.

(77.) Ibid., 13.