Visualizing Abolition and Freedom

"Visualizing Abolition and Freedom" is more than a visiting artist’s contribution to public art at Grinnell College; it is a collaborative project that brought students, faculty, and staff together over a shared passion for both art and history. The piece itself consists of thirty-five resin blocks, each created by a different student or faculty member, in which the artist aimed to visualize a story, theme, or idea relating to slavery and freedom. Spearheaded by renowned Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié, this piece examines themes of enslavement, abolition, and freedom through the lens of the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Although the piece originated with a study of Haiti, this project assumed a global perspective. By studying the Haitian Revolution from within the walls of a small and insular Midwestern college grappling with its own relationship to race and oppression, Grinnellians were able to connect themes from a seemingly extraneous subject to their own interests and experiences, finding relevance and meaning in unexpected ways.

In 1967, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously voted to dismantle all state laws prohibiting intermarriage, overriding legal restrictions based on race written in 1883. In this block, created by studio assistant Leina’ala Voss, the first page of the Loving v. Virginia court transcript serves as a partial background on which two rings and a set of keys have been arranged; these objects symbolize the bond of marriage and evoke the feeling of a shared home. To the left of the court transcript the artist has placed a net, surrounded by metal nails, buttons, and fragments of colored flowers. Beneath the netting the words “race mixing is communism” appear as a headline above an image of a white protester, his face concealed behind dark sunglasses. This image is juxtaposed against a photograph which shows laughing children and their parents, innocent and unbothered by the chaos which surrounds them. By placing symbolic objects representative of marriage and domesticity alongside a supreme court document and Loving v. Virginia protest imagery, this block depicts how love itself has become a highly politicized issue defenseless against the noxious gass of racism and hatred. This block also reminds the viewer that even today we must not take our rings and keys, and the people we love, for granted; for there once was a time when even the love we feel for our family was unlawful in the eyes of our constitution.

This piece aims to honor the service of black and Haitian military men. When considering the Haitian Revolution we often tell the stories of men such as Toussaint L'Ouverture, one of too few symbols of black military power. This block places a black military leader at the center of attention, and also aims to connect his story with slavery in Haiti, America, and beyond. In this block, the image of the Haitian militia man appears beside an illustration of a cotton plant. Although slavery in Haiti was fueled by sugarcane, not cotton, an image of a cotton plant is placed here to remind the viewer that slavery is and shall remain a hallmark of American history, and issues of injustice in the military still occur today. When we consider the history of the transatlantic slave trade, we do not often think of its impact on how black people are treated in the military. Erased from history and celebration, black bodies were catalogued as equipment much like weapons and protective wear. While great progress has been made since the abolition of slavery and the integration of the military, we still have a long way to go in our quest for equal treatment of people of color as well as gay and transgender people in the military.

Grinnell’s history in relation to slavery often points to the man pictured in this block. J.B. Grinnell was a known advocate of abolition, and founded the very town of Grinnell on anti-slavery principles. He worked with the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to Canada and served in Iowa’s Congress, even though his views on abolition made him quite unpopular amongst many Midwesterners. In the process of researching the life of J.B. Grinnell, the creator of this block was directed to a letter written by L.F. Parker describing an “incipient mob” driving five fugitive slaves out of the town of Grinnell. This letter encourages us to unpack the many layers of white abolitionist intention, and make distinctions between theory and action. While J.B. Grinnell had clearly intended for his town to be a space to live the tenets of the abolitionist movement, in practice this was not always the case. By showcasing this story, the artist urges viewers to contemplate the many phases and evolutions of freedom and abolition, knowing that good intention has yet to be enough.

On August 16th 1791, in the eleventh month of the Haitian Revolution, slaves from the Limbé district set fire to a wealthy French estate. During their subsequent interrogation they revealed the names of rebellion leaders, further advancing the story of the revolution. As the story of the rebellion spread over the island, slaves vowed to burn as many plantations as possible. Fiery acts such as these became more common as the revolution gathered steam, harming humans and animals alike and leaving the once beautiful Haitian landscape black and smoldering. In this block, the artist has used fake flower petals, red marbles, and enlarged images of orange microscopic organisms to create the sensation of heat and flames while also incorporating allusions to nature. The block revolves around an image depicting a burning plantation and a rioting mass of people running with arms raised, a scene from the 1791 revolt. On the left, a figure wearing a crown hangs from a tree, perhaps symbolizing the persecution of the Haitian people at the hands of French colonists.

This piece aims to juxtapose Iowa’s progressive aims with its oppressive past. The centerpiece of this block is a poster publicizing an anti-slavery meeting which took place in Iowa. While anti-slavery meetings such as this one were necessary in the push towards abolition, the artist urges Iowans to explore their state’s relationship to slavery on a deeper level. The artist has incorporated chain-like strands of metal to symbolize the bondage of enslaved peoples, and depictions of genetic material captures the implications of slavery for actual living organisms. While Grinnellians may sometimes put their town on a pedestal for its historic abolitionist position and refusal to join the Confederate Army, this block calls attention to the pain and suffering that still occurred in this state at the hands of racism and white supremacy.

This block was created around the theme of agriculture, an industry inextricably linked to slavery in both the Caribbean and the United States. To echo themes of agriculture, the artist included images of the cotton plant, as well as organic shapes which resemble flowers, seeds, and other found natural objects. Corn kernels, buttons, and leaves unite the realms of the home and the outdoors, as was often the case on a working plantation. The center photograph depicts slaves on a cotton plantation engaging in agricultural work, however the workers are not in motion but are posted in a triangular composition facing the photographer. The second photograph is also from a plantation, yet the subjects are household workers as opposed to field hands. These images both show life on the plantation, but only to an extent; they are purposefully arranged and therefore tell a very different story than a candid photograph might tell. These juxtaposed images are symbolic representations of the censorship applied to stories of slavery in American culture and education.

This block was created around the theme of the journey. We all go through different journeys in our lives, some longer and more challenging than others, but every journey is important and demands courage and strength. This block honors those who were challenged by a specific journey unique to American history and relevant, even more specifically, to the state of Iowa; the story of the Underground Railroad. This block is comprised of a map of the Underground Railroad in the South, framed by a smattering of screws, pill capsules, buttons, stars, and other found objects. It also includes a photograph of the Lewelling House, a popular anti-slavery meeting house and renown safe stop on the Underground Railroad in an area of the Midwest particularly unfriendly to slaves and freed blacks during the years before the Civil War. Although the area of the South portrayed in the map is, of course, miles from the Lewelling House, the experience of black people in America is part of our entire country’s history, not just the areas most ravaged by institutional slavery and injustice. Although we often associate slavery with the American South, we must not forget that slavery was a national issue which demanded the attention of every city, small town, and individual, much like issues of racism still demand every person’s attention, no matter their race, today. The strewn nails and capsules surrounding the images in this block allude to journeys of different kinds, both physical and emotional. As our eyes follow the paths drawn by these loose objects we may be reminded of journeys we have taken in our own lives.

The goal of this block is to awaken in the viewer the historical ache that is the legacy of slavery in Iowa. Superimposed over an image of Iowa is a road map of the Underground Railroad, with squares and circles placed along the routes to indicate safety for runaway slaves. In the upper right hand corner of the state the artist has placed an image of the Lewelling house of Henry County, Iowa, a meeting place for abolitionist activists and one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. The stones and flowers which surround Iowa, vibrant and glimmering, allude to the power of preservation. With preservation in mind, we must ask ourselves: How can artists and activists revisit the historical bondage of our ancestors while attempting to move onwards to freedom? J.B. Grinnell founded Grinnell with abolition as one of his key tenets. As we peer into the history of Iowa we confront the question of whether Grinnell College continues to protect the freedom of the individual, or whether we have fallen into neoliberal agendas that serve our oppressors. The evocation of discomfort through the topic of slavery serves as a reminder of the necessity to reimagine the realities of imperialism within and without the U.S.

This block depicts the transformation of the cotton and slave industries after the invention of the cotton gin. It aims to capture small sober reminders that enslaved peoples were commodities in the eyes of the United States, their only intended purpose to advance capital and power within the nation. When considering how to visualize freedom we must also consider how to re-imagine profit. Representing the intersection between bodies and profit, this block asks observers a simple question: Is the slave nothing more than an outdated cotton gin?

The center image of this block, placed on the very bottom of the mold so as to appear farthest from the viewer, depicts the capital city of Port-au-Prince after the magnitude 3.1 hurricane which devastated the island in 2010. In this piece, the city is divided by a trail of nails; the buildings on the left side of the nails had received government funding for repair and the buildings on the right did not. The national poverty that necessitated this divide is one of the many ailments that plague formerly colonized nations; either you submit to imperial rule, or suffer economic consequences so often brushed aside as “third world problems.” In popular images of Port-au-Prince the right side of this picture is often cut out, eliminating the catastrophe from contemporary memory and thereby erasing the physical and emotional trauma caused by the disaster. The left side of this block depicts an ideal Haiti. A land warmed and nurtured by bright sunshine, this Haiti is known for its brightly colored houses and shell-speckled beaches, represented here with colorful sequins, marbles, and sea glass. The set of keys, paired with reflective shapes evocative of windows, call to mind a welcoming community where every family has a home. The right side of the block, however, represents the true Haiti. Economic class seems fixed enough to be nailed down. The black and amber stones represent Haiti’s crippling dependance on oil and external revenue, and the true Haiti is seen here still entangled in the net of poverty and colonialism. While this Haiti may seem grim, it is comprised of tools which can be used to build a brighter future. Buttons, screws, nails, and netting may look like detritus to some, but can transform into implements with which to achieve a more idyllic Haiti.

This piece represents an abstract approach to visualizing freedom. The only recognizable forms in this piece are two cotton plants, surrounded by abstract organic forms reminiscent of plant life. At the center of this piece the designs converge to create a shape evocative of a skull or head; yet each viewer might have a different reaction to the organization of forms and shapes. What do you see?

At the center of this block is a photograph of Haitian slaves harvesting sugar cane before the revolution. Look closely at the image and focus on the people’s faces. How is this photograph different from other images of plantation slavery? Look closer and you may realize that the photograph is placed on top of another image, covering everything but the outer edges. The pictures we see and the stories we tell may not reveal the entire truth, and some narratives of the past mask another’s reality. Perhaps history should not be viewed as a timeline, with one image placed next to another, but should look more like an overused scrapbook; you must peel one image away to reveal another.

This block depicts four distinct scenes, yet they are part of the same world. Placid scenes of rural and urban Iowa, set side by side alongside depictions of white Iowans in the process of buying and selling African people. This goal of this block is to challenge the illusion of innocence that has colored our reality of slave auctions and all other dehumanizing and violent aspects of the slave trade. The juxtaposed images of Iowan rural life and images of the Iowan slave trade evokes tension and conflict under an apparent calm. In what ways are we complicit in this calm, and in what ways can we challenge it?

The story of the Haitian Revolution is steered by powerful characters such as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Henri Christophe, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, military commanders and monarchs who facilitated the Haitian independence movement during the French Revolution. However, these men were not the only people involved in the dramatic uprising. Haitian women, too, played a large role in the rebellion, and this block honors the female freedom fighters who often go unnoticed in modern tellings of the story. In the lower center of the block the artist has placed a Haitian ten gourd banknote, featuring sergeant and lieutenant Sanité Bélair who fought bravely under the command of Toussaint LOuverture. To her left is a depiction of Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére, a Haitian soldier who fought in male uniform and is said to have greatly boosted the spirits of her male counterparts with her invigorating bravery. On the right hand side of the block we see an image of Cécile Fatiman, a mambo (Vodou priestess) said to have participated in the Vodou ritual at Bwa Kayiman, a ceremony during which the first slave insurrection was planned. Although these women, and others like them, have not made it into many history books, this block honors the sacrifices they made for the freedom of their people and country.

“Fear God, tell the truth and make money” was the motto of The Iowa Bystander, a newspaper established by ten black businessmen in Des Moines, Iowa in 1894. The Iowa Bystander targeted a black audience and employed black writers, unlike most Iowa newspapers at the time who would not hire black journalists. The Bystander outspokenly criticized American society, taking on several different issues such as the Ku Klux Klan, racist advertising practices, and unequal treatment of blacks in the American armed forces. Most black newspapers in the United States at this time had an average lifespan of about nine years, but the Bystander lasted more than eighty years due to its strong leadership under publishers like John Lay Thompson and J.B. Morris, making it one of the most successful black newspapers in the country. This block incorporates different clippings from the Iowa Bystander. The clippings include several ads for employment opportunities, an advertisement for a colored cafe, and an article about the Iowa State Federation Colored Women’s Club. The paper paid tribute to various women in the ranks of the club, and included beautiful portraits of many of the women involved. Through their journalism, the Bystander was able to empower and connect blacks across America. Newspapers like the Bystander played a critical role in uniting black communities and creating a space for them in white America.