by Jasmine Cobb. (America and the long 19th century). NYU Press, April 2015. 288 p. ill. ISBN 9781479829774 (pbk.), $27.00.
Reviewed July 2015
Stacy R. Williams, Architecture & Fine Arts Library, University of Southern California Libraries, firstname.lastname@example.org
In Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century, author Jasmine Cobb provides an analysis of what black freedom looked like to freed blacks and whites in America. Cobb, an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, uses historical pieces of popular culture to show how freed blacks were reconceptualizing notions of their own freedom through portraiture, while at the same time racial caricatures were being printed that emphasized "pictorial ridicule."
Cobb divides the book into five chapters and instructs the reader that the structure, "mimics the movement of antebellum visual cultures as the emergence of emancipation restructured ways of seeing." The second chapter, which focuses on how black women were able to define their own identity within certain private settings such as parlors, contains a selection of color images that help bring to life her arguments about hypervisibility and invisibility. In addition, black-and-white images are interspersed throughout the book that further demonstrate portrayals of blackness in private and public settings. Cobb not only tackles the visual space that is occupied by freed blacks through various media, but also the architectural representations of freedom as created by the parlors and sitting rooms of both middle class whites and blacks.
Picture Freedom provides various interpretations of what it means to be free and how freedom can be self-defined and redefined by those who support or oppose it. One interesting observation that Cobb develops throughout the book is taking a closer look at the idea of a posed portrait and how it helps to equate freedom with respectability. In contrast, her discussions on racial caricatures highlight how freed blacks were viewed as clueless and how black womanhood was deemed immoral. Cobb offers plenty of opportunities for the reader to think about how freedom can be understood visually, especially in opposition to racial stereotypes of blacks at the time.
This would be a good addition to academic libraries, especially those who support scholarship in American History, American Studies, African-American Studies, Media Studies, and Gender Studies.