ABOVE PHOTO: Envisioning Emancipation (book jacket) image of unknown laundress for the Union Army in Virginia.
By Alice Bernstein
A new book from Temple University Press, published in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary, provides an opportunity for everyone to address this urgent question, still raging in America: How should we see other people? That is a question asked by Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the great American philosopher Eli Siegel, and I see it as crucial to understanding slavery, the Civil War, and life in America this very moment.
PHOTO: Susie King Taylor
(Photographer unknown, 1902, Library of Congress)
The book, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery by historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, is a collection of 150 photographs, some recently discovered and many seen here for the first time. What makes it different from other photographic anthologies is that the images were researched and selected with the aim of giving life to, and a new perspective on, how black people envisioned themselves as they experienced the horrific brutality of slavery, the Civil War, the promise of Emancipation, followed by the Jim Crow backlash.
The words “see” and “envision” are about the visual, primal sense of sight—which the art of photography makes permanent. They are also deeply philosophic words embodying thought. When we say, “I see what you mean,” we are talking about understanding. I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism that there is nothing more important for us as individuals than to want to know, to see the feelings of people different from ourselves. I respect Dr. Willis and Professor Krauthamer for focusing on the power of photography to encourage depth of thought and understanding of the feelings of other people.
One example is an ambrotype image taken between 1861-1865, of an unknown, thoughtful young woman in a simple yet fashionable dress. Seated in a dignified pose, with her arm resting on a table, she looks directly at the viewer. It is surmised that she is a laundress for the Union Army in Virginia, and that she pinned a small American flag on her dress as a token of gratitude for the army’s help in obtaining her freedom. And there is a 1902 photograph of Susie King Taylor who voluntarily nursed wounded Union soldiers for over four years. Taken decades after the war, in this photograph we see her in a nurse’s uniform, standing with a bearing of strength, dedication, and proud determination. As she looks out, her eyes also seem to be looking back in time—perhaps with memories of all she had experienced and seen.
PHOTO: African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
(Photographer unknown, 1863-1865, ambrotype, Library of Congress)
Other images that stand out are Rev. Henry Brown in front of the White House, leading Abraham Lincoln’s horse, Old Robin, on the day of Lincoln’s funeral; an 1876 photo collage of South Carolina’s (!) “Radical members of the first legislature after the war,” with many black elected officials together with white officials; a family portrait of an African American soldier in Union uniform with his wife and two daughters in stylish hats and coats. Photos of enslaved children, black and white, are juxtaposed with images of these same children after emancipation: healthy, well dressed, and educated. Portraits of interracial families and reunions of former slaves with their loved ones, are also of history.
The authors’ scholarship sheds new light on the history of photography and black photographers who emerged during and after the Civil War. These men shared the need and longing in black people to be seen with the humanity and dignity all people deserve, and the resulting photographs make for large emotions of respect in the viewer.
Despite racist attempts through the years to ignore, silence, and expunge historical information about the courage and large achievements of black people, recent decades have brought forth discoveries, “unearthings” showing the past more fully—both the extent of the cruel, miserable, and sick, and the brave, unselfish, and grand.
PHOTO: Studio Portrait of an African American sailor.
(Photographer: Ball and Thomas Photographic Art Gallery, c. 1861-1856, carte-de-visite)
Another reason this book matters is that it provides more evidence of the extent to which black men, women, and children, risked their lives to oppose slavery. On page 92, is a studio portrait, a carte-de-visite of a young African American sailor (I surmise he is about 17) taken between 1861-1865. Dressed in his sailor’s uniform, with a carefully rolled neckerchief, he stands on a rug in front of an elegantly painted backdrop of cultivated gardens. He looks thoughtfully at the viewer, one hand on his hip, the other at his side. We learn that about 18,000 African Americans enlisted as sailors during the Civil War, serving in segregated units of formerly enslaved Southern men and black Unionists from the North. Does this description in any way add to, change, deepen, the way you “envision” a black person during the civil war? And how do you think this young man envisioned himself?
The Fight between Contempt and Respect; “our personal civil war”
My interest in the Civil War and the civil rights movement, which led me to this book, is informed by what Aesthetic Realism explains is the biggest fight in every human being: between respect or contempt. I am convinced that this is the knowledge that can end racism. Respect, the desire to know and be fair to the world and people, is the source of all knowledge, all art and science, all honesty and kindness. Contempt—”the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is the cause of every human injustice, from a sneer or sarcastic “put down,” to lying, bullying, economic exploitation, shooting up a school or dropping bombs on people. Definitive writing on this subject is in commentaries by Ellen Reiss, in the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known. She wrote in #916:
The great cause of the Civil War—despite Southern fakery on the subject—was slavery. And slavery is a form—utter, elemental—of man’s seeing man with contempt: it is the epitome of the feeling, You are less; I do not have to see you as real; and I have pleasure looking down on you. The Civil War, with all its deaths, uncertainties, emotions, was essentially a fight between contempt and respect. And the fight, Shall I see the world and people with contempt or respect? is the fight within every individual right now; it is our constant, inward, personal civil war.
This is what the American people need to know and study, as I myself am proud to do, in order to have our own self-respect, and our country sane and kind. Envisioning Emancipation is a valuable way to engage in this study, and that is why I chose to write about it.
Alice Bernstein is a journalist, oral historian of Civil Rights, and author/editor of the books: Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism, and The People of Clarendon County—A Play by Ossie Davis, & the Education that Can End Racism.