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Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death
By Courtney R. Baker
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Slavery's Suffering Brought to Light — New Orleans, 1834
On the morning of April 10, 1834, a fire broke out at the mansion on the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls Streets in New Orleans's Vieux Carre. According to legend, the fire was started in the kitchen by an enslaved African American woman. The house at 1140 Rue Royale belonged to Dr. Louis Lalaurie and his wife, Delphine Lalaurie, the latter the offspring of prominent white Creole parents and a fixture in New Orleans society. The arson was not an attempt at anonymous vengeance. The African American woman, who worked in the house as a cook, stayed to witness the consequence of her action. As she was chained to the kitchen floor, she had no other choice.
Newspaper accounts and witness depositions explain that the fire precipitated a horrific discovery in the uppermost floor of the home. Rushing into the house, neighbors of the couple attempted to rescue the furniture from the flames (the cook, too, was taken to safety), but were thwarted from entering the locked upper chambers that the owners insisted contained nothing of importance. Those who ignored this claim and secured entry to the rooms were met by a startling scene in which, the local New Orleans Bee reports, "[s]even slaves, more or less horribly mutilated, were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other."
The dreadful discovery was reproduced in vivid detail in newspapers throughout the country, including the Essex Register (Salem, Massachusetts), the New Orleans Courier, the Louisiana Advertiser, and New York's Journal of Commerce. Still more periodicals such as William Lloyd Garrison's Boston-based abolitionist journal the Liberator and the national weekly publication Niles' Register reprinted the story in full. The case was also published in the 1834 Philadelphia antislavery pamphlet A Concise View of the Slavery of the People of Colour in the United States. It even met the eyes of a young Mary Todd Lincoln; as her niece Katherine Helm would later report, "Mary and [her cousin] Elizabeth shivered with horror over [the] revolting occurrence in New Orleans," and the subject remained on their minds and lips for days afterward.
The news reports of the Lalaurie affair at the time solicited the emotional response of the Todds and all other readers, framing the event as revealing an untenable offense enacted upon enslaved black bodies. The newspaper narratives and other subsequent accounts, such as ghost stories and travelogues, indulged in the sensational telling of the crime, a telling that prominently featured graphic descriptions of the victims' injuries alongside detailed depictions of the presumably universal emotional response to the scene. The written descriptions depended upon the reader's imagination to inspire the emotional response — in a word, horror — that the accounts framed as appropriate. In so doing, the written accounts of the affair endeavored to replicate a moment of visual encounter. But in this, they could only ever fall just short of the goal, the description being structurally incapable of re-presenting the scene to a viewer. Elaine Scarry explains that this is due to the re-presentation being addressed to perception whereas presence is addressed to imagination. "[T]he imagined object," Scarry writes, "lacks the vitality and vivacity of the perceived one; it is in fact these attributes of vitality and vivacity that enable us to differentiate the actual world present to our senses from the one that we introduce through the exercise of the imagination." The representational index — be it the word or the photographic image — can never satisfy to the same degree the quest for knowledge that presence — being in a place at the moment of the event or, I would add, sharing the space with the survivors of the event — can achieve.
Investigating the circulation and management of the Lalaurie case yields not only insight into the extremely complex and often contradictory ideas about the institution of slavery and humanity, but also the power accorded to sight at this historical moment as a means to acquire knowledge. The encounters, both in person and in print, with the suffering bodies of enslaved blacks and the humane insight of these confrontations challenged core principles of slavery and, at moments, exposed the cracks in slavery's logic that would eventually lead to its extinction. Through the smoke of the Lalaurie mansion, one perceives, albeit hazily, a view of black humanity.
The suffering of the enslaved black bodies who were rescued from the Lalaurie conflagration was described almost obsessively by contemporary newspapers, both abolitionist and mainstream. One local newspaper, the New Orleans Bee, offered a detailed description of the scene that was summarily reprinted in its entirety in the Liberator. The latter paper rallied for even more such exposures to be publicized for the sake of the abolitionist cause, declaring "we want much more. We wish persons who have resided long at the South, would publish still more of their observations. We wish to see pictures." The Liberator was not alone in this desire. The syndicated publication of the Lalaurie story allowed readers nationwide to envision the terrible spectacle in New Orleans. The Liberator's easy and eager repurposing of the mainstream Bee's story for its own decidedly abolitionist purposes recommends an appreciation of the event for its foregrounding of one of the most convincing arguments and compelling evidence against the institution of slavery — namely, the vicious and unmotivated abuse of the enslaved. The article read as follows:
The conflagration at the house occupied by the woman Lalaurie, in Hospital-street, has been the means of discovering one of those atrocities, the details of which seem to be too incredible for human belief. We would shrink from the task of detailing the painful circumstances connected therewith, were it not that a sense of duty, and the necessity of exposing and holding up to the public indignation, such a wretch as the perpetrator, renders it indispensable for us to do so. The flames having spread with alarming rapidity, and the horrible suspicion being entertained among the spectators, that some of the inmates of the premises were incarcerated therein, the doors were forced open for the purpose of liberating them. Previous, however, to taking this liberty, (if liberty it can be called,) several gentlemen, impelled by their feelings of humanity, demanded the keys, which were refused them, in a gross and insulting manner.
The Bee hedges in its narration of events but not because it was ambivalent about the righteousness of Madame Lalaurie's violence. Rather, the story qualifies its presentation of details by declaring its reluctance to indulge in its own depictions of gore. In effect, by declaring its reluctance, the story seeks to foreclose accusations that it enjoyed reporting unpleasantness. Lest the newspaper be accused of a sadism akin to that of Lalaurie, the report describes not only the scene but also its own revulsion at having to report on it.
Disqualifying interpretations of its reportage as a selfish and prurient act, the article reinscribes the report's publication as an act of duty. With this declaration of purpose, the Bee asserts the importance of witnessing terrible scenes and of giving a moral account of them. The vexation that the article performs pits the responsibility of looking upon a scene of bodily destruction against the horror and revulsion that is brought on by such visual encounters. The duty of looking, mimed in the prose and equated in the article with the duty of reporting, prevail in this case.
Mirroring the report's moral battle about the right to look is the related question of what looking can accomplish. The Bee's prose configures the abuse of the enslaved as paradoxically both beyond human comprehension and needing to be seen. The paper bemoans its medium — the written word — for its inadequacy in offering "a proper conception of the horror." While written language is found wanting in its capacity to "inspire" horror, human imagination is praised for its capacity to reconstruct the scene in visual images in the mind's eye and "picture what it was."
The scene is depicted as not merely a visual event but an emotional one as well. Despite the putative impoverishment of the word, the article nevertheless uses words to provide a description of the scene. The resulting description eschews regarding the scene with an objective eye that would focus solely on the items and persons who are visually presented. Instead, it favors a look that is by default attached to the sensations of the onlooker. In so doing, the report privileges and implicitly advocates looking with humane insight as an appropriate if not preferable way to make sense of the event.
The article qualifies its looking with humane insight — a look that is, through the process of reading, mimed by its readers — as a painful but necessary project. The paper justifies the publication of this description as due to "the necessity of exposing [the abuse] and holding [it] up to the public indignation." This invocation of duty indicates the newspaper's underwriting ethos: that the publicizing of horrific events is a newspaper's compulsory response to atrocity. In essence, the publication of the story functions as a moral stopgap measure, defending against the danger that, should the event not be reported, it would succumb to the status of being "too incredible for human belief," and remain not just ignored, but denied as having ever occurred. The northern abolitionist publication the Liberator would later reflect upon this anomalous but, in its view, righteous exposure of slaveholding atrocity, observing that "[i]t is only when some case, like that of Lalaurie's, excites so much indignation, that the usual system of concealment is neglected, that the veil is raised for a moment, and we obtain a glimpse of the dreadful tragedies which it covers."
Clamor for the firsthand view and for the knowledge that view could impart of course preceded the invention and circulation of documentary photographs. Other visual forms such as engravings could reproduce visual displays, but the word was frequently recruited to satisfy desires for the view as well. When firsthand witnessing was not feasible, linguistic representations like that featured in newspaper reports of the Lalaurie affair supplemented the desire for the visual display. Literary depictions of suffering such as those found in slave narratives and other firsthand accounts strove to bring the sight of black bodies before readers' eyes. Sally Gomaa contemplates such accounts in her examination of the 1839 compendium of suffering entitled American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses and Linda Brent's pseudonymous autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Gomaa explains that the "large scars" detailed in these books "provide a visual depiction of pain" and in fact "exemplify the visual requisites for sympathy in abolitionist discourse: a testimony without words."
Such testimonies indicate the special authority granted to the body in general and to the suffering body in particular. Frederick Douglass is perhaps the most famous of the black authors to mobilize depictions of his bodily suffering to abolitionist ends. As one scholar contends, "Douglass's Narrative [of the Life of Frederick Douglass] marshals the visual power of the injured black body to convey the brutality of the South's peculiar institution." For her part, historian Saidiya Hartman gives a judicious account of the reception of Douglass's representations of wounding that challenges any easy digestion of Douglass's sensational scenes. "Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain ...?" Hartman asks, "Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance?" While there is no simple or definitive answer to these questions — each answer depends upon the reader and her circumstances — we can nevertheless examine the rhetorical standards and ideological standpoints that engender Douglass's explicit narrations of violence. Here, humane insight signifies a project of simultaneously accessing and recoiling from the depiction of pain. It seems clear, however, that the responsibility of reading with humane insight is laid at the feet of the present-day reader just as it was for Douglass's abolitionist counterparts.
As evinced by his autobiography as well as his speeches and letters, Douglass readily submitted his own body to the scrutinizing gaze of his readers. In a letter to one of his detractors, a fellow abolitionist named Samuel Hanson Cox, Douglass invoked the woundings endured by his own body to prove his special knowledge of the antislavery cause. Directing his indignation at Cox's self-identification as an abolitionist, Douglass challenged that Cox's "great love of liberty, and sympathy for the downtrodden slave, ought to have led [him] to 'pardon something to the spirit of Liberty,' especially in one [such as Douglass himself] who had the scars of the slave-driver's whip on his back, and who, at this moment, has four sisters and one brother in slavery." This description of his scar alongside mention of family members still held in bondage places Douglass squarely in a racial community characterized in the moment by physical and emotional pain. In the letter, his membership in the fraternity of black people wounded by slavery permits him "to represent three [million] of my brethren," with whom he "[had] been one ... in their sorrow and suffering." This reference to a community of black sufferers wounded under slavery's yoke is crucial to Douglass's rhetorical authority here. His reference to his own enduring (as opposed to momentary and past) pain is used to contradict Cox's dehistoricized description of Douglass as "petted, and flattered, and used, and paid by certain abolitionists." Instead, Douglass presents a fully racialized and historicized body certain of the source of its own agency and authority. Rather than provide a "normalized representation of [black] suffering" that permits "black people [to] disappear while their bodies are constantly renewed as memorials to suffering," Douglass's prose works to reembody the abstract suffering of slavery through the description of his own wounded body.
The representation of the slave body's wounds did not, in and of itself, constitute a radical refiguring of the black body. Just as actual bodies were exchanged, so too were their visual representations. The visual depictions of slaves "were repeatedly on view in woodcuts, lithographs, paintings and sculpture either as shackled, on their knees and begging for mercy or in desperate flight, footsore and with their belongings on their back," reinforcing the notion of the enslaved as powerless victims. The image of the wounds, just like the image of the enslaved body, had to be interpreted in accordance with a sensationally informed concept of humanity in order to function as an antislavery appeal. An example of the abolitionist image of the disempowered black body is found in the 1787 Josiah Wedgwood–designed image of the kneeling slave that is accompanied by the query, "Am I not a man and a brother?" The image adorned many objects, including medallions and donation boxes, and implored its beholders to answer the question in the affirmative and to assess their understanding of kinship and humanity.
Lalaurie's victims did not, in fact, reap any substantial benefit from the recognition of their violation. Upon their rescue, they were housed in the public jail until they succumbed to death in the following days. During these final moments, they were viewed by a great number of New Orleans's free citizenry who sought to satisfy their fascination with the case by viewing with their own eyes the devastation wrought upon Lalaurie's former slaves. Consequently, many local readers did not have to leave the images of physical abuse to the scenes that the newspaper reports had inspired, but instead strode through the jailhouse to observe the actual bodies and actual wounds of the rescued. There was no shortage of onlookers. The April 12 edition of the Bee estimated that "[f]our thousand persons at least ... have already visited these victims to convince themselves of their suffering." As long as the slaves remained alive, an audience was ensured.
Excerpted from Humane Insight by Courtney R. Baker. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Slavery's Suffering Brought to Light?New Orleans, 1834 18
2 Framed and Shamed: Looking at the Lynched Body 35
3 Emmett Till, Justice, and the Task of Recognition 69
4 Civil Rights and Battered Bodies 94
5 A Litany for New Orleans, 2005 109