Hidden in Plain Sight: Concealing Enslavement in American Visual Culture

Univ. of Arkansas. Sept. 2023. 340p. ISBN 9781682262337. $60. FINE ARTS
The visual arts were a powerful communication tool in the antebellum period for both pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists, each side promoting their respective cause. The abolitionists used images of white violence against African Americans to make their case, while slavery defenders portrayed enslaved people as either content in their role or savage, in need of redemption. Utilizing a mix of methodological approaches in her research, Stephens (art and art history, Univ. of Alabama; Selling Andrew Jackson: Ralph E.W. Earl and the Politics of Portraiture) employs cultural art history and critical race theory with examples of painting, photographs, and ephemera to illustrate how imagery was used for advocacy. Six chapters explore various examples of messaging that often obscured reality, from photographs of enslaved women caretakers to Civil War prints portraying enslaved people as both loyal but savage and undeserving of freedom. Rather than simplify the historical record, Stephens’s work introduces new complexities, showing how important objects related to enslavement, like chattel records, have been deemed of no importance and destroyed.
VERDICT This is a difficult topic, but timely given current debates around public representations that celebrate the Confederacy. Though many of the book’s images depict violence and abuse, Stephens brings to light essential research that will be of interest to scholars of American history and art.
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing