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Looking more closely at visual representation of Black freedom

A new book by School of Communication assistant professor Jasmine Cobb takes a close look at how free Blacks in the early 19th century were visually represented—by others but more importantly by themselves.

Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century was recently published by New York University Press. It is Cobb’s first book.

Being seen and looking closely are key themes in Cobb’s work. The book collects cartoon depictions of Black freedom alongside professional daguerreotypes taken of free Blacks in the decades leading up to the end of U.S slavery—early photographs in which the subjects have taken special care to illustrate self-possession.

“People who lived, loved, worked, played, and resisted a multitude of atrocities every day are noticeably absent in pictorial representations before the middle of the nineteenth century,” Cobb said. “People pictured in these early photographs used portraiture to seize control over representation of the free Black body.”

These images reveal transformations over time in black-white race relations. As free Black identity takes shape, so does the nation’s. “The images helped the United States cultivate its identity, from former colony to rival empire,” Cobb said.

These images may seem like distant history, and yet they still have impact and a cost. Cobb’s favorite photo from the book, in fact, is one of U.S. President Barack Obama giving remarks in a White House reception room, a room in which the wallpaper behind him depicts remnants of America’s racist legacy. The wallpaper, a French design chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy, named “Vues d’Amerique du Nord,” was designed in 1834—with an eye on the racist depictions of the day.

“The wallpaper shows white onlookers both captivated and offended by the presence of free Blacks,” Cobb said. And there’s the first African-American U.S. President, leading the nation standing in front of it.

Barack Obama’s presidency has given Cobb many images to think about, including the stirring photo of the President and his family walking the same Alabama streets marched by Civil Rights protesters in 1965 in honor of the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary.

“Staged to reminisce on the marches to Montgomery, this illustration suggests the fulfillment of Black citizenship by the existence of a black President,” Cobb said. “But like every attempt to picture freedom, threats against Black life persist at the margins.”

That freedom for every individual in the nation has not been fulfilled is one reason Cobb’s book about the 19th century is timely in the 21st. She is looking closely, and there is still so much to see.