Professor Jasmine Cobb of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina concluded the 2019 spring lecture series with her discussion of the aesthetic issues of slavery and its effect on the lives of people of color. Her talk, entitled “New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair after Emancipation” opened with a newly unveiled carte-de-visite of Harriet Tubman. Cobb presented the argument that hair conveys freedom and respectability in this photograph of Tubman, and in other images of freed slaves after Emancipation. Cobb displayed images of Frederick Douglass to represent how his changing hairstyles were a purposeful choice to showcase his changing identity.
Along with hair, flesh is a site of violence, and the body acts as the archive of that violence. Cobb analyzed the “Middle Passage iconography of ripped and torn flesh” on the carte-de-visite of Gordon, a freed slave who escaped from a Louisiana plantation in 1863. Gordon’s hair corresponds to his back, and tells the story of violence and autonomy much like the flesh.
The newspaper description of escapee Harriet Jacobs’s hair to pass as a white woman and her proximity to whiteness as a woman of mixed race seems to remove her from the narrative of slave violence. In reality, the practice of shaving or forcibly cutting the hair of a slave as punishment causes black hair to serve as an archive of slave violence. Cutting black hair close to the scalp signified possession and ownership. Frederick Douglass, and other freed slaves, may have grown their hair to signify their autonomy. The maintenance and practice of hair is a form of freedom.
We are grateful to Professor Cobb, above, for sharing her insights and discoveries with us, and for engaging with AU students and faculty in a question and answer session following her talk.