Runaway Slave Images

Marcus Wood’s chapter, “Rhetoric and the runaway: the iconography of clave escape in England and America,” really resonated with me. He devoted this chapter looked into the usage of runaway slave images as tools, influential elements, in society. The way in which Wood organized this chapter was unique and definitely eye-catching. Wood structures his argument around the visual images used to showcase runaway slaves in America and in England. The images acted as “intercontinental transcultural currency.”

I learned the most from this piece because of the way in which Wood structured his argument. Not only did he reference other major writers and cases, he incorporated images and how those images impacted society. I never really considered how iconic runaway slaves were. Wood makes a good initial argument in saying that without runaway slaves a lot of our literature inspired by them would not exist, advertisements and fugitive slave laws would not exist, and cases like the Dred Scott case would not have occurred. This concept is remarkable in itself, and one I never even considered. Having majored in English and read a lot of the texts mentioned and being a historian with a deep interest in slavery, I just found this piece astonishing and one that I wanted to keep reading, and read over again.

Taking a more in depth look at how Wood structured his argument, I can see that he juxtaposes images and the texts surrounding images of runaway slaves with white abolitionists. He addresses how other authors utilize images and narratives of runaway slaves to exemplify a movement supported by white abolitionists. The literary texts are used to illustrate how society depicts runaway slaves. At the same time, the texts focus around slave advertisement, thus showing how the language used to talk about enslaved people and runaway slaves was vague, but also dehumanizing. The images in the latter part support a lot of what the textual language says.

Wood introduces the idea of contradictions in reference to slave runaway images early on. He moves on to illustrate how without these images artists, writers, and law suits would not have been made possible, and how each of this utilized the influence of slave runaways in their own way. Some highlighted and memorialized their plight, while other critiqued and demonized their lack of “loyalty.” Wood makes several references to author Toni Morrison and her novel Beloved, which is a take on Margaret Garner. Using Toni Morrison’s book, escaped slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Dred Scott Case, other’s, shows how influential runaway slaves were. I feel as though the examples indicate more than what the images show and assist in further understanding, as Wood suggests.

The images within the chapter act as tools to show how society, during the time, portrayed escaped slaves. The first set of images displayed were used as runaway ads, but then also utilized to promote slave auctions. As Wood uses the word “propaganda” to describe the images. Language was a major element when it came to slave runaway images. Enslaved people were compared to all types of animals and called all sorts of things. Wood, for a good portion of the chapter, references Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was an influential individual in the early 1800s. Coleridge was one of many white abolitionists who critiqued runaway slave images.

Essentially, Wood brings to focus how texts and images can support or contradict what is going on. Wood truly captured me and I plan on reading more of his book. I think it is an interesting concept to see how texts and images can describe a single event or movement and how the same things can support or negate a cause. I think Wood choosing slavery really helped to drive his point.

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