Remembering the Dead: Slavery and Mortality through Visual Culture, a Comparative Perspective

AHA Session 181
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Erik R. Seeman, State University of New York at Buffalo
Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

This panel explores visual culture at the intersection of two different kinds of death: slavery, what Orlando Patterson has famously termed “social death,” and mortality, a physical one. The mortality of enslaved peoples hung over their existence, from detailed slave contracts that guaranteed against their sudden passing to corporeal punishments that threatened their lives. Depictions of dying and enslavement memorialize a particularly vivid intersection of impermanence. This panel comprises a breadth of temporal and regional diversity, from the Americas to Africa to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, while maintaining a thematic focus.

The panel begins with a discussion of the liminality and corporality of enslaved bodies and their ghosts. The author of the first presentation visits a Jamaican plantation home-turned-tourism center to offer an analysis on the distortion of slave history today. The Rose Hall Great House attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, often drawn by the ghost stories that haunt the house. This presenter highlights how race and gender frame and punctuate tours at the house, which incorporates the ghosts of enslaved women throughout tourists’ visits.

Negotiating the visuality of death and memory of slaves through freak shows, the author of the second paper offers an analysis of court eunuchs and their representations in late nineteenth-century Iran. Although various members of court attempted to humanize their memory and legacy through written descriptions and photographs, their legacy remained largely defined by their caricatures in theatrical performances of blackface. Despite the presence of both Caucasian and East African eunuchs, black eunuchs became synonymous with blackface theater with only minimal references to white eunuchs, ascribing both to a permanent social death.

Continuing the discussion of race and colonialism, the third presentation analyzes a 1909 photograph of a funeral for an unnamed individual of slave heritage in Omdurman, Sudan. The paper investigates the materiality and intellectual history of the photograph and the funeral it depicts, which informed the foundational ethnographic writings on the anthropology of death. The paper continues by highlighting how the photograph reveals crucial information about culture, politics, and the legacy of slavery in Omdurman, demonstrating the centrality of slavery to both the history of anthropology and the social life of the African city.

The author of the final presentation engages in a discussion of finding social life in colonial photography during the Philippine American War from 1899-1902. This author approaches the racializing gaze from a transnational perspective and re-frames propaganda photography with special attention to the subject and their varied forms of resistance. Through an analysis of wartime “trophy” souvenirs, this presentation visits the relationship between agency and marginality of photographed subjects.

While exploring different geographic foci, these papers that examine these intertwined deaths through photographs, paintings, performances, and other visual elements that engage in depictions of deaths, lynchings, and funerals of slaves. In these varied articulations, this panel asks, can slaves find social life after death?

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