Ways of Seeing, Ways of Seeming: Black Autobiography and the Problem of Image

Anthony Foy

In this talk Assistant Professor of English Literature Anthony Foy notes that by the end of the nineteenth century, class-based discourses of uplift, which conflated the race’s progress with the race’s public image, came to dominate black autobiography. Faced with the anti-black representations of the Jim Crow era, members of a rising middle class responded with life stories that narrated them as emblematic Negroes; meanwhile, they increasingly deployed sketches, engravings, and photographs in their books to address the historical problem of black visibility.

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In this talk Assistant Professor of English Literature Anthony Foy considers the productive interplay between narrative and visual modes of self-presentation at the turn of the twentieth century, reflecting on black authors’ direct engagement with the visual regimes of race within which their autobiographies were produced. He notes that by the end of the nineteenth century, class-based discourses of uplift, which conflated the race’s progress with the race’s public image, came to dominate black autobiography. Faced with the anti-black representations of the Jim Crow era, members of a rising middle class responded with life stories that narrated them as emblematic Negroes; meanwhile, they increasingly deployed sketches, engravings, and photographs in their books to address the historical problem of black visibility.