Friday, November 11, 2011

We Were Always "Men": A Wealth of Dignity in the Civil War Era Photographs of African American Soldiers


They are looking at us through time.

There are folks who write about the Civil War with real expertise. I am most certainly a journeyman and hobbyist by any measure of comparison.

On Veterans Day, these images from the Library of Congress of African American servicemen in the Civil War seemed appropriate. These photos are important because they were some of the first in which black folks had the agency to decide about the terms of their own visual representation.

The idea/theory/framework that cultural studies folks loosely term "ways of seeing" is also helpful here: how bodies are posed exists in relation to a particular type of gaze, where power is differential, and said bodies become objects and not subjects.

For example, the ways that women are posed in fashion magazines and advertisements in the 21st century are a continuation of the male gaze going back to at least the Renaissance. The early photographs and other representations of black bodies (and the Other, more generally) did similar work in manufacturing racial ideologies and legitimating commonsense "knowledge" about black personhood and our humanity.

I particularly like these first two images because of the amount of dignity they convey. The brother in the first photo has all of the norms of 19th century, American, masculine respectability, and honor.

He has a gun and a gold pocket watch. His uniform is pressed. He faces the camera with pride. There is a bit of a swagger and confidence at work here, for he is a bit of a badman. I imagine his friends and family nodding with pride when they see their boy all grown up.

I also like the following photo because of its matter of factness. This brother just "is." There is a certain timelessness, a quiet, relaxed, dignity to his habitus. I feel like he isn't "period"; he could be my cousin/brother/friend, right now, in the Age of Obama.


When I see these images of martial comportment and spirit I am reminded of the existential dread that white Southerners and others must have felt at the mere thought that black men could take up arms. I reject the problematic assertion of films like Glory that "we ran away slaves and came back men." We were always men. But, I get that for the white supremacist imagination, one which understood black people, and black men, in particular, to be childlike, servile, and not fit for freedom, the sight of black men in Union blue must have been truly apocalyptic.

We stand on their shoulders. Again. And they continue to watch us.

3 comments:

sabrinabee said...

Very nice. Thanks for this bit of history.

chaunceydevega said...

@Sabrina. Look through the whole collection. There are some provocative materials there too. The way that the news media depicted black soldiers and "contraband" for example.

sabrinabee said...

I looked through a good number of them. I saw the caricature of the black soldier boy. I believe I cut off during the long series of child slave from New Orleans which was clearly the 'one drop rule' in effect because those children cold pass for white today. I do intend to go back and pick up where I left off. The pictures were interesting.