This essay expands the vital but limited critical focus on the importance (practical and thematic) of textual literacy in slave narratives and other writings that appeared in the African American press in order to apprehend more clearly how these writers, working with words during a profoundly visual cultural moment, argued for a visual literacy that both denied the indexical power of white visual practices and embraced the power of the image to make injustice visible. Blackwood's analysis focuses on how texts by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs explore the representational capacity of a variety of prephotographic visual technologies, including portraiture, woodcuts, stereotypes, and the camera obscura. Douglass and Jacobs lived in the midst of a photographic revolution. Douglass repeatedly commented on photographic technology and celebrated its democratic potential. But both writers also devoted sustained attention in their texts to pre- or nonphotographic forms of visual representation. In so doing, they articulate a major, yet understudied, argument about the intersections between visual and textual representation during the period. In letters, editorials, and slave narratives, Douglass and Jacobs dramatize the interplay between the objective and illusionist potential of visual technologies. By embracing and remaining skeptical of the truthful qualities of the photographic image, the fugitive notice, and the slave narrative itself, Douglass and Jacobs enact a complicated form of resistance that alters our understandings of antebellum African American aesthetic production and the history of nineteenth-century visual culture more generally.
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Sarah Blackwood; Fugitive Obscura: Runaway Slave Portraiture and Early Photographic Technology. American Literature 1 March 2009; 81 (1): 93–125. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-052
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