A visual call to arms against the “Caracature [sic] of My Own Face’: From fugitive slave to fugitive image in Frederick Douglass’s theory of portraiture

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Self-emancipated author, activist and philosopher turned art historian, Frederick Douglass spent a lifetime visualizing back to a white dominant schema intent on trading in racist grotesques of
socially determinist and politically reductive contortions of black bodies and souls. Across his photographic and fine-art portraits, he endorsed a revisionist aesthetic theory and carved out an alternative iconographic space within which to expose, debunk and demythologize the racist claim that “Negroes look all like.” Douglass’s visual aesthetic took as its starting point the formal, political and ideological importance of representing black subjects as psychologically complex individuals rather than as generic types. At the heart of Douglass’s theory of portraiture was his conviction that all likenesses of African American subjects must do justice to “the face of the fugitive slave” by conveying the “inner” via the “outer man,” and thereby privilege emotional depth rather than physical surface in order to extrapolate a full gamut of lived realities otherwise annihilated out of existence. Douglass worked extensively with the signifying possibilities of his own physiognomy as a representative test case by which to bear witness to the interior complexities of black subjects missing from, or remaining fugitives at large within, white artists’ surface-only renderings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)323-57
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of American Studies
Volume49
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2015

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