Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century by Aston Gonzalez

Reviewed by Suzie Oppenheimer

Aston Gonzalez,
Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century.
The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture,
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
324 pp.; 36 b&w illus.; bibliography; notes; index.
$29.95 (softcover)
$95 (hardcover)
$22.99 (ebook)
ISBN: 978–1­–4696–5996–1

To understand a single image, one must understand the network in which it traveled—or so argues Aston Gonzalez in his exciting and well-researched text, Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century. Gonzalez’s book tackles a bevy of images produced by Black makers from the northeast United States—predominantly lithographs, daguerreotypes, carte-de-visites, and panoramas—over the course of the antebellum nineteenth century, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction era. While the author declares his mission to show how visual material was “envisioned as advocacy” and “designed to sway hearts” (2), equally important are two aspects of the book that Gonzalez does not mention at the outset: his demarcation of a network that extended out of the United States and into what Paul Gilroy terms “the Black Atlantic,”‍[1] and the author’s ability to describe and interpret visual material that is no longer extant. Through Visualizing Equality, Gonzalez combines formal, biographical, and socio-political readings of art objects to address how visual culture elucidated and extended political goals for Black activists in the nineteenth century.

Visualizing Equality utilizes seven case studies to demarcate the what and the how of image-based activism over a hundred-year period—what remained consistent or shifted for Black makers and how these images permeated broader society. The images within the text are not static objects, but rather percolate throughout different communities and social networks. In the first chapter, “Graphic Exchanges,” Gonzalez delves into the early work of Philadelphian Robert Douglass Jr. Gonzalez mines the sting of an early moment in which the artist was barred from seeing his award-winning painting Portrait of a Gentleman (1834) because of systemic racism. Gonzalez claims this early indignity may have contributed to an activist future, and analyzes an image drawn in a progressive, circulating “friendship album” that features a kneeling, enslaved woman accompanied by an excerpt of an abolitionist poem. The “what” and “how” follow: the image of the enslaved woman, according to Gonzalez, condemns slavery, and, through its insertion in a friendship album in which readers add their own responses, circulates its abolitionist message in an intimate circle. Thus, in the final chapter, “Religion, Rights, and the Promise of Reconstruction,” it is all the more powerful when Gonzalez returns to Douglass—now an elderly man in Philadelphia—to investigate the role of his activist images within another circulating set of papers: The Christian Recorder. Douglass contributed editorials and advertised artwork in this popular and powerful arm of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. By mixing images and text, the author argues, Douglass engaged in debates around the identity of African American futures through modes both visual and verbal. Hence, while enacting the same moral and religious appeals from decades prior, he introduced notions of pan-Africanism that linked Philadelphia to the Caribbean, and positioned art as a vehicle for uplift. The contrast between Robert Douglass Jr. in the 1830s versus the 1870s performs the central theme of the overall book—an exploration of what remained the same, and what shifted, in the role of activist visual culture throughout the nineteenth century.

Visualizing Equality’s methodology shifts from formal analysis, to biographical readings, to socio-political interpretation, with the latter two the stronger and more prominent engines of the text. The book is richly historical, built from archival records, personal correspondence, diary entries, and newspaper articles. For example, Gonzalez relies on private and public correspondence to gauge responses to Douglass’s travels to Haiti in the late 1830s. At the time, his voyage to the Caribbean nation struck a chord for those interested in migration out of the United States, and gossip circulated amongst his loved ones while newspapers published his letters lauding the fledgling country (33–36). Thus, when Douglass exhibited paintings of Haiti in Philadelphia several years later, Gonzalez successfully argues that the subject matter would have had clear implications for Black communities in the Northeast in the lead up to the Civil War. Through a constellation that links the personal and political, Gonzalez convincingly maps the ways Douglass’s images of Caribbean scenes alluded to a transatlantic network that offered an affirmative, alternative model to life in the United States.

Nevertheless, a deeper sojourn into the formal aspects of some of the work under consideration could have further solidified the author’s arguments. Douglass’s earlier drawing in the friendship album is not the only image of a supplicating Black person in Visualizing Equality. Gonzalez also studies an 1835 engraving by Patrick Henry Reason, printed on stationery and in books, that relies on the abolitionist trope popularized by Josiah Wedgwood’s eighteenth-century image, Am I Not a Man and a Brother? The kneeling, dark-skinned person was a familiar symbol of the time period. With hands clasped in religious piety and eyes gazing aloft to the heavens, such images implied an interlocuter—a savior figure swooping in from above. Gonzalez rightly observes that Reason’s bowed figure implored (predominantly white) viewers “to put their anger or shame into action and release them from bondage” (52). However, the author could have gone deeper into the ways in which the trope employed visual cues as a form of exploitation, positioning Black folks as vulnerable and in need of liberation from white liberators, referencing research completed by art historians such as Charmaine Nelson and Lisa Volpe.‍[2] In doing so, the author would have opened the door to a discussion of why Reason may have chosen the symbol as an intentional, strategic gesture. Moreover, a thorough examination of print culture could have amplified several of Gonzalez’s points. Reason’s engraving was followed by the text, “Engraved by P. Reason, A Colored Young Man in the City of New York, 1835.” A link could have been drawn between notions of printed image as “truth” and the combination of image and text. Reference to discussions in The Graphic and other contemporaneous newspapers,‍[3] or to the scholarship of Estelle Jussim,‍[4] would have further illuminated the strategies used by the image to move viewers. What was it about the semiotics of printed images that suggested “truth”? How did the accompanying text’s carefully appointed “facts” further a specific approach to print material as truth within contemporaneous United States politics? Through exploring these questions, Gonzalez could have demonstrated how Black makers engaged with artistic debates of the time, ultimately shaping larger socio-political conversations.

One of the strengths of this book is Gonzalez’s ability to expound on material that is no longer extant, which allows him to chart histories and networks that are difficult to source from existing archives. The author’s skill in locating reviews, advertisements, and passing responses to material removes the onus on visual analysis and shifts the conversation to the network in which the work circulated. Particularly remarkable is his ability to thoroughly document Robert Douglass Jr.’s oeuvre with few surviving works. We know little about Douglass’s “Haytian paintings” or prints like Cuba Must Be Free (ca. 1870) beyond their titles, which indicate an interest in liberation, but when connected to the artist’s longstanding interest in the Caribbean, it allows Gonzalez to demonstrate Douglass’s concern with transnational movements. Combined with Douglass’s advertising strategies, which included adverts for Cuba Must Be Free in The Christian Recorder placed in issues featuring editorial articles on Cuban enslavement, Gonzalez confirms the artist’s work played a role in debates within broader communities.‍[5]

Yet the book’s greatest asset is its use of images to map out a large network uniting Black artists and audiences across the United States and throughout the Atlantic. The transnational world traversed by these printed images included Cuba, Haiti, London, and Liberia. Gonzalez mentions neither Paul Gilroy’s transformative book The Black Atlantic, which first dramatized the importance of trans-Atlantic Black politics, nor Krista Thompson’s expert analysis of visualizing the Caribbean from the United States, but his book nonetheless adds to an understanding of cross-Atlantic visual culture.‍[6]

Visualizing Equality demonstrates a few of the many ways in which African American artists were active agents in producing change and promoting racial equality in the nineteenth century. And, fortunately for the field, the author’s thorough research sketches out the reticulation of physical, social, and interpretive pathways through which Douglass’s work passed, establishing a groundwork for future scholars.


[1] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[2] See, for example, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and articles published in the special issue of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: Martina Droth and Michael Hatt, “The Greek Slave by Hiram Powers: A Transatlantic Object,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 15, no. 2 (Summer 2016), https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/summer16, including Lisa Volpe, “Embodying the Octoroon: Abolitionist Performance at the London Crystal Palace, 1851,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 15, no. 2 (Summer 2016), http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/summer16/volpe-on-abolitionist-performance-at-the-london-crystal-palace-1851.

[3] The Editors, “Note from the Editors,” The Graphic: Christmas Supplement, December 1882 and Hubert Herkomer, “Drawing and Engraving on Wood,” The Architect (London) 27 (January 21, 1882): 42–45.

[4] Estelle Jussim, Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts: Photographic Technologies in the Nineteenth Century (New York and London: R.R. Bowker, 1974).

[5] See, for example, The Christian Recorder, July 2, 1870 and The Christian Recorder, July 23, 1870.

[6] Krista A. Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).