Visuals and black history


Among artists of all kinds there is an ongoing dialogue about the effect that our gifts can have on larger social and political debates.

I've long thought the story of power, though, can actually be best understood by merely taking a course in art history. For all sorts of reasons, art has long been an essential tool of the powerful. And, importantly, it has often been a tool for unseating that very power as well. There are countless examples of this but the study of black history in particular reveals some poignant ones.

The famous illustration of a slave ship below says it all - which is precisely why it has remained a very potent image.  Although it's clear that he executed it with great precision, I imagine its illustrator was not fully aware of both its import at the time and how legendary it would become as an anonymous drawing. I consider it to be one of the best pieces of evidence that images are important.


But the iconicism of this visual is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to black history. Black leaders have long understood and often attempted to utilize the power of images.

Frederick Douglass advocated for them as a vital weapon in the fight for emancipation. He knew that only imagination could be powerful enough to transform the thoughts and beliefs of humans. This excerpt from Sarah Lewis' novel The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery explains it perfectly:

". . . Frederick Douglass was sure, even in the face of war, that the transportive, emancipatory force of "pictures," and the expanded, imaginative visions they inspire, was the way to move toward what seemed impossible.

An encounter with pictures that moves us, those in the world and the ones it creates in the mind, had a double-barreled power to convey humanity as it is, and, through the power of the imagination, to ignite an inner vision of life as it could be. The inward 'picture making faculty,' Douglass argued, the human capacity for artful, imaginative thought, is what permits us to see the chasm accuartely, our failures--the 'picture of life contrasted with the fact of life.' 'All that is really peculiar to humanity . . . proceeds from this one faculty or power.' This distinction of 'the ideal contrasted with the real' is what made 'criticism possible,' that is, it enabled criticism of slavery, inequity, and injustice of any kind.

It helps us deal with the opposite of failure, which may not be success--that momentary label affixed to us by others--but reconciliation, aligning our past with an expanded vision that has just come into view."

Visuals, in short, have the power to transcend time. We can imagine the past or the future in ways that make them seem real in the present, thereby presenting opportunities for real change. This idea is so commonplace in today's media-riddled world, we can scarcely comprehend how visionary Douglass truly was in his time.

"He had no doubt, he said, that his topic would need further exploration. 'The influence of pictures' upon our thoughts 'may some day, furnish a theme for those better able than I, to do it justice,' he said. It has since become a timeless idea, articulated by national leaders and sages in our age.

What we lose if we underestimate the power of an aesthetic act is not solely talent and freedom of expression, but the avenue to see up and out of failures that we didn’t even know we had. Aesthetic force is not merely a reflection of a feeling, luxury, or respite from life. The vision we conjure from the experience can serve as an indispensable way out from intractable paths."

As much change as we've seen since the Civil War, we are definitely not finished exploring this topic of Douglass'. Images can help us see what we cannot otherwise, but first we have to be willing to take an honest look, ideally from different perspectives.

After all, it wasn't a slave trader that saw the drawing above for what it truly was. That took eyes gifted with greater vision - and its appropriation took great risk.