I’m not gonna lie, the race issue makes me a little uncomfortable. Not because it’s an issue I know nothing about, but it’s because of the explosive nature that lies behind misunderstood conversations about the issue. In the culture we live in, volumes like Seeing Race in Modern America, are crucial not only because they raise the topic to a level where people are comfortable engaging but because of the importance of having our views challenged.
As one who studies the context of the Civil War and Reconstruction I was immediately drawn to chapter 3 simply titled, “Bought and Sold”. He opens this brutally honest chapter with the story of James Silk Buckingham who went to New Orleans on a tour of the slave states. While there he stopped in the Rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel to watch an auction where slaves were the hot commodity. He writes, “There were a half a dozen auctioneers, each endeavoring to drown out every voice but his own, and all straining their lungs, and distorting their countenances in a hideous manner”. Drawing his focus on the “unhappy negro family” at the center of the bazaar, Buckingham notes that, “their good qualities were enumerated in English and in French, and their persons were carefully examined by intending purchasers.” The description of this graphic scene almost makes me sick but it’s definitely something I need to understand the mindset behind, and I think more of us need situations like this in order to understand the conversation happening across the table from us.
Guterl goes on to add that, “To see blackness in the age of slaveholding was to see a commodity, to see no difference between “estates, pictures, and slaves. But it was also, as Buckingham noted, to see the slave, a subject and an object, elevated above the ordinary goods offered up by the caterwauling auctioneer.” He continues on to describe that the “negro body” was used to sell just about anything, and includes in this chapter photographs which illustrate this point. It’s hard to look at these photos which he includes due to the fact that they are representing the negro body as a selling point for anything from cleaning services to the sales of corn.
Guterl does a good job of drawing the reader into something they may not be ready for but quickly turns it around and places the next steps into the hands of the person looking at the text. He draws from even the smallest objects, say a can of coke, the racial implications or such things and urges the reader not to be quick in overlooking those implications. Through the visuals in this book of everything from movies to magazines to marketing strategies, Guterl takes the reader on a trip that isn’t soon forgotten. Every now and then a volume like this comes along and stirs the racial bee’s nest and get’s people thinking and seeing in a clearer way. I appreciate what Guterl has done here and I look forward to reading more of what he has to say on this issue.
Guterl, M. (2013). Seeing Race in Modern America (p. 248). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.