Abolition as Artistic Persuasion

The role of art in movement-building and freedom advancement also finds foundations during the era of slave abolition. The arts, like the slave narratives, offered slavery a face—living, breathing bodies constantly sustaining wounds, physical and psychic, from the blunt of the slave enterprise. Abolitionist art challenged the human spirit of white people to see the human bodies of Black people. From the poetic art of Phillis Wheatly to the melodious, antiphonal sermons of Black preachers, the creative force of the imagination indicted the lie on which slavery kept its footing— the non-humanity of the enslaved. Abolitionist art served as a vent for Black artists committed to antislavery to affirm their own sense of humanness, while exposing the inhumanity of slavery. The art assaults the lie we cannot live with, and the system of slavery and all other racism cannot live without. In "On Imagination," Wheatley floods the page with wrestlings of freedom as her experiences:

Imagination! who can sing thy force?

Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?

Soaring through air to find the bright abode,

Th' empyreal palace of the thund'ring God,

We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,

And leave the rolling universe behind:

From star to star the mental optics rove,

Measure the skies, and range the realms above.

There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,

Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul.21

Through inimitable eloquence, Wheatley gropes for a world unbound by the limitations of human bodies and impositions of her society. As one of the earliest literary expressions of Black communal consciousness, Wheatley uses pen and ink to pursue the emancipation of an entire people, Black folx.

At its best, abolitionist art elicits feelings of prophetic inspiration, righteous discontent, and empathetic accountability. Viral works like Uncle Tom's Cabin threw the nation into the moral mirror as Harriet Beecher Stowe crafted slave characters with feels and abundant humanity against the backdrop of violence, neglect, and treachery. With pens and brushes, artists employed intense descriptions of the raw brutality and sheer terrorism of plantation life. Other works explicitly centered the equality and dignity of slaves without overtly introducing the heartrending brutality of the slave situation. Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker abolitionist from England, painted an iconic image of a Black man standing upright accompanied by the statement, "I am a man and a brother," which expanded the statement vested in the seal of the Quaker Committee of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade of a Black man kneeling with the interrogative motto, "Am I Not A Man and A Brother?"22

In teaching and learning communities, we must invite the use of art as part of our abolitionist approach to emancipating classrooms, content, curriculum, and conversations. Situated against ever-increasing traumas in the lives of our students and families, ever-deepening racial divides in cities across the landscape of this republic, and ever-widening political tensions between progressives and conservatives, each painting their picture of an American future, art matters. Art, in effect, becomes an imaginative invitation for students, namely our Black and brown students, to make sense and make meaning of the feelings and truths being experienced through pandemic quarantining, images and recordings of police brutality and police murder, unemployed caregivers, and decaying community conditions. As we look toward a communally conscious future of emancipation, art relishes and represents the truth of the human spirit.