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Picture Freedom

Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century

Jasmine Nichole Cobb
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Picture Freedom
    Book Description:

    In the decades leading up to the end of U.S. slavery, many free Blacks sat for daguerreotypes decorated in fine garments to document their self-possession. People pictured in these early photographs used portraiture to seize control over representation of the free Black body and reimagine Black visuality divorced from the cultural logics of slavery. InPicture Freedom, Jasmine Nichole Cobb analyzes the ways in which the circulation of various images prepared free Blacks and free Whites for the emancipation of formerly unfree people of African descent. She traces the emergence of Black freedom as both an idea and as an image during the early nineteenth century.

    Through an analysis of popular culture of the period-including amateur portraiture, racial caricatures, joke books, antislavery newspapers, abolitionist materials, runaway advertisements, ladies' magazines, and scrapbooks, as well as scenic wallpaper-Cobb explores the earliest illustrations of free Blacks and reveals the complicated route through visual culture toward a vision of African American citizenship.Picture Freedomreveals how these depictions contributed to public understandings of nationhood, among both domestic eyes and the larger Atlantic world.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-3061-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Parlor Fantasies, Parlor Nightmares
    (pp. 1-27)

    Freedom put color in the cheeks of Black people in the nineteenth century. African descendants who sat for daguerreotypes around 1855 made sure to document self-possession with proper attire and a little rouge for the flesh, such as members of the Dickerson family in antebellum Philadelphia.¹ Though this marker of vitality appeared in many daguerreotypes, Black people sitting for early photographic portraits marked themselves against the deprivation and sallowness demanded by slavery with such details. Black women, such as the unidentified sitter in figure 1.1, showed up at the studio highly decorated for the occasion of portraiture, dressed in fine...

  5. 1 “A Peculiarly ‘Ocular’ Institution”
    (pp. 28-65)

    An amorphous Atlantic took shape around the enslavement of African peoples. Black bondage fortified a perimeter around the Atlantic world and constituted a burgeoning U.S. identity, as both New England and the U.S. South “flourished under slavery.”¹ The execution and the abolition of slavery in the United States functioned to constitute the early republic as part of the Atlantic. As the Atlantic world expanded, playing host to a sprawling dispersal, “changes across [its] time, space, and jurisdiction” appear at the intimate level of a single household up through the remote relations of metropole and colony.² Visual culture provided measures for...

  6. 2 Optics of Respectability: Women, Vision, and the Black Private Sphere
    (pp. 66-110)

    Small, but significant, communities of free Blacks established their own parlors by the early nineteenth century. Writers mentioned parlors in editorials to Black newspapers in the 1820s, describing the space as a site for weddings, funerals, and religious worship services. Growing numbers of Black people in northern cities worked for wages, using some of their money for leisure activities as well as home furnishings. Many “merchants, farmers, mechanics, [and] day-laborers” maintained “parlors and drawing rooms” that were “full of what they call splendor,” decked out with “finery” like “valuable pictures.”¹ Although many regarded the parlor as a middle-class space, labor...

    (pp. None)
  8. 3 “Look! A Negress”: Public Women, Private Horrors, and the White Ontology of the Gaze
    (pp. 111-147)

    Free Blacks in the preemancipation North meditated on freedom in their parlors, but they also expressed autonomy on city streets. Visible distinctions in dress, labor habits, social practices, and social interactions with Whites revealed that free people, and free Black women in particular, held self-concepts in conflict with the visual logics of slavery. A transforming Black visuality, signaled by habits of free Black communities, also carried daily implications for White northerners. Parlors became important sites of respite for Whites confronted with Black freedom. Just as free Black women employed print to manage the exigencies of emancipation, Whites also turned to...

  9. 4 Racial Iconography: Freedom and Black Citizenship in the Antebellum North
    (pp. 148-192)

    Ruminations on the abolition of slavery and increased numbers of free Black people in northern U.S. territories hastened White concerns about the national home. A changing Black presence in the North inspired anxieties about the meaning of U.S. citizenship, even as many people of African descent contemplated emigration to other locales, such as Mexico and Liberia. The parlor as a nation space represents the cultural boundaries around people fit for belonging in the United States as a home interior. Many free and elite Blacks engaged ideals of citizenship through honing literacy skills and forging media platforms. Conversely, Whites against Black...

  10. 5 Racing the Transatlantic Parlor: Blackness at Home and Abroad
    (pp. 193-220)

    Transatlantic slavery produced a more comfortable home environment for its benefactors. The transatlantic parlor provides a metaphor for thinking through the Atlantic world as a home wherein a diverse cadre of viewers in the United States, England, and France attempted to reconsider Blackness and free Black people as permanent constituents in the wake of a dissolving slave trade. The transatlantic parlor, though diverse within itself, represents interlocked empires, joined together through collective unease about how to make sense of national identity and Blackness shorn from captivity. The Atlantic world—organized by slavery and maintained through transatlantic abolitionist movements—cohered “around...

  11. Epilogue: The Specter of Black Freedom
    (pp. 221-224)

    The 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama as the first Black president, and forty-fourth elected president of the United States, updated the image of Black national identity. At the national introduction of Obama’s presidential potential during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, viewers witnessed the galvanizing possibilities of a viable Black candidate. Obama represented a fitting conclusion to the story of Black visibility in the United States, from slavery through civil rights. A Black president suggested that civic protections against racism could foster great success among people of African descent, and that when such a candidate emerged, U.S. Americans, across race, were...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 225-256)
  13. Index
    (pp. 257-264)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 265-265)