Envisioning Emancipation:  
Black Americans and the End of Slavery

Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer
Temple University Press, 2013
224 pp., $35.00

Review by Gordon Berg

            Their eyes are what you notice first.  Staring deferentially or defiantly into the camera, they cry out “I am somebody.”  The stunning array of photographs gathered in this unusual book, many never before displayed publicly, are powerful images of African American life before and after the Emancipation Proclamation forever remade the United States for everyone.  

            Ms. Willis, a professor of photography and imaging, and Ms. Krauthamer, a professor of history, have admirably succeeded in their goal of depicting “ways in which black people's enslavement, emancipation, and freedom were represented, documented, debated, and asserted in a wide range of photographs from the 1850s through the 1930s.”  The photos are representative of black people enslaved and free, well-to-do and desperately poor, famous and unknown.  The medium of photography brings out the humanity inherent in all of them and demands attention from the viewer.
The narrative accompanying the photographs is as strong as the subjects it describes.  With eloquence and dignity, it places the pictures in their historical context and analyzes the meanings long hidden behind the images.  Taken together, the authors contend, the photos serve “as a type of 'family album,' allowing contemporary readers to envision a collective history that recognizes the range and complexity of the black experience in slavery and freedom.”

            The authors make a compelling case that “black Americans embraced photography not simply for its novelty or aesthetic value but for its recognized potential to present powerful social and political arguments.”  Sojourner Truth sold copies of her portrait to raise money for the abolitionist cause.  Printed on the back of every copy of Matthew Brady's famous 1863 photograph of the horribly scarred back of Private Gordon were the words “The nett proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the department of the Gulf now under the command of Maj. Gen. Banks.”   In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois, the eminent sociologist and a founder of the NAACP, knew that photography could challenge racist arguments about black inferiority by depicting the refinement, respectability, and economic success of an emerging black middle class.

            The book concludes with Richard Avedon's iconic photographic portrait of William Casby.  Born a slave in Louisiana, Mr. Casby's one hundred year-old face seems to hold, forever frozen on a silver gelatin print, the trials and triumphs of an entire race.  Richard Avedon admirably captures Mr. Casby's humanity for all to see, but the proud man's memories and feelings remain hidden behind his piercing eyes.

            Envisioning Emancipation is an important contribution in the documentation of African American culture in America.  By visually capturing a moment in the lives herein portrayed, we re-imagine the mystic chords of memory linking us with our collective past, the better to understand who we are today and how we came to be this way.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (cwrtdc.org).  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.

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