Rachel Stephens

Dec 1, 2023

Hidden in Plain Sight

Concealing Enslavement in American Visual Culture

University of Arkansas Press 2023

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists crafted a variety of visual messages about the plight of enslaved people, portraying the violence, familial separation, and dehumanisation that they faced. In response, proslavery southerners attempted to counter these messages either through idealisation or outright erasure of enslaved life.

In Hidden in Plain Sight: Concealing Enslavement in American Visual Culture (University of Arkansas Press, 2023), Dr. Rachel Stephens addresses an enormous body of material by tracing themes of concealment and silence through paintings, photographs, and ephemera, connecting long overlooked artworks with both the abolitionist materials to which they were responding and archival research across a range of southern historical narratives.

Dr. Stephens begins her fascinating study with an examination of the ways that slavery was visually idealised and defended in antebellum art. She then explores the tyranny—especially that depicted in art—enacted by supporters of enslavement, introduces a range of ways that artwork depicting slavery was tangibly concealed, considers photographs of enslaved female caretakers with the white children they reared, and investigates a printmaker’s confidential work in support of the Confederacy. Finally, she delves into an especially pernicious group of proslavery artists in Richmond, Virginia. Reading visual culture as a key element of the antebellum battle over slavery, Hidden in Plain Sight complicates the existing narratives of American art and history.

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose forthcoming book focuses on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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