Exploring Freedom Through African-American Images

Scholar explores how 19th century Blacks created a vision of citizenship

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"Picture Freedom," Jasmine Cobb's new book, uses antebellum images of African-Americans to explore ideas of freedom.

In the early days of President Barack Obama’s first term, one photograph in particular captured Jasmine Nichole Cobb’s attention. 

The image shows Obama, newly victorious, delivering a speech in the White House against a backdrop of wallpaper showing scenes of life in Jacksonian America. On closer examination, Cobb noticed that the wallpaper, a French design from the 1800s, included highly stylized images of African-American people reproduced from caricature.

There, in one photograph, was a picture capturing America’s discordant relationship with African Americans: In the foreground, the vibrant, hopeful image of the newly elected president and in the background, an older image tinged with racism, suggesting how much this country’s past still haunts the present.

“I was struck by the irony contained in that image,” Cobb said. “There’s the first African-American U.S. president. And right behind him are images rooted in the country’s racist past.”

The photograph touches on some of the issues that interest Cobb most, including how African-Americans are represented in popular culture. Newly arrived at Duke this fall, the assistant professor holds dual appointments in the Department of African & African American Studies and the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies.

Cobb delves into the issue of visual representation in her recent book “Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century,” which considers images of free African Americans in the period leading up to emancipation.

Jasmine Cobb

Professor Jasmine Cobb used 19th century portraits to trace the emergence of Black freedom. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

In the book, Cobb examines lithographs, daguerrotypes, cartoons and other images from popular culture. She considers how the various pictures enabled and hindered ideas about black citizenship in the years before emancipation.

The images vary dramatically in style and intent. Among the book’s most sobering images are advertisements by slaveowners seeking to recapture African-American fugitives from slavery. At the opposite pole, Cobb includes self-portraits commissioned by 19th-century African-Americans, daguerreotypes in which free African-American women appear in fashionable formal attire.

In her next book, Cobb will consider black women’s hair, including the symbolic importance of natural hairstyles after the Black Power movement of the 1960’s. 

She will also explore some of the above themes with students in a spring course entitled “Black Women, Black Freedom.” The class considers freedom struggles of black women from the 19th century to the present through an examination of literature, art, performance and critical theory.

Meanwhile, Cobb, who previously taught at Northwestern University, is also spending time getting to know her new home. She’s already enjoying the area’s lively restaurant scene, and said she looks forward to future events such as this spring’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. 

But if Duke and Durham are new to Cobb, North Carolina represents something of a homecoming. As a child, she often spent her summers in the state, visiting family in Scotland County.

 “I’ve been coming to North Carolina all my life,” Cobb said. “I’m excited to be here.”

Below: An image from Picture Freedom.

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