Download
Action Filename Size Access Description License

Abstract

In this dissertation I ask how and why slavery was sold: as performance, narrative, image, and object. By selling slavery, I mean to name the historical and cultural processes that crystalized the myth and symbols of the antebellum slave plantation into cultural forms and gave those forms particular values and uses for modern life. In the fifty years after the abolition of slavery, when Reconstruction remained unfinished and Jim Crow prevailed, the icons of the plantation proliferated in the mass cultural economy rising in the urban northeast—amplified with electricity, decorated in the latest style, automated with industrial technology. Whereas previous scholars have considered this memory of slavery as a reflection of the racial politics of national reconciliation or of anti-modern nostalgia, I argue that it allured for resolving the dislocations of contemporary historical change into a modernist sense of national and personal renewal. Yet behind the modern surfaces was a longer history of production in which white and black cultural entrepreneurs and workers made competing claims to the symbolic values that adhered to the myth of the old plantation. At stake was not only how the image and idea of slavery would be represented in the present, but also how race itself would be reproduced during the tumultuous cultural consolidation of the corporate industrial economy. ,The history of selling slavery explains the racial politics that tied the production of memory to cultural transformation. How was the remembrance of slavery put into the service of renewing the nation and hastening the coming of the machine age? I approach the problem by focusing on the culture industries that transformed the racial iconography of the old plantation into cutting-edge cultural products: the amusement industry that turned the old blackface minstrel show into spectacular plantation theatricals in the 1890s; the literary industry in which W. E. B. Du Bois shaped the critical value and material form of The Souls of Black Folk (1903); the camera technology that enabled the circulation of ostensibly timeless images of the “old South” in private snapshots, metropolitan art galleries, and the mass postcard trade after the turn of the century; and the toy industry that designed and marketed dancing blackface slaves as vehicles of mechanical pedagogy during World War I. In these products, culture industries sought to recuperate, in their own ways, the racist motifs of an eradicated past to express their transformative social power, giving race (and racism) a modern materiality and sensuousness.,Yet the history of selling slavery also affords a critical view of the cultural dynamics of racial formation before the Harlem Renaissance and before D. W. Griffith’s white supremacist blockbuster, Birth of a Nation (1915). For not only would culture industries depend on the labor of African Americans; those African American performers, writers, and models would stamp the production and sometimes the product with their own visions of modernist renewal and claims for equity. In addition to locating African American performers and authors in the formation of a mass cultural economy, I show how they sought to shape, transform, and contest the cultural work of race-making.

Details

Additional Details

Actions

from
to
Download Full History