Writing the African American Portrait
This chapter explores the cultural significance of portraiture for nineteenth-century Black American writers. It argues that many Black writers engaged with portraiture in their texts to both question and reframe the new connections being made between portraiture and personhood. They championed the power of portraiture to assert and document a sitter’s humanity while also expressing skepticism toward the idea of portraiture as revelatory about the “deep” truths of a sitter’s personhood. Many Black writers toyed with the question of “likeness” in their texts, holding out for what Douglass called “a more perfect likeness.” This chapter makes these arguments through close readings of a series of Douglass speeches about visual culture, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and their Friends, as well as original archival research on runaway slave advertisements, The North Star, and mid-century newspaper practices.
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