Runaway Slave Portraiture, Aesthetic Culture, and the Emergence of Racial Sense

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Sue Shon


Runaway slave newspaper advertisements constitute some of the earliest visual formulations of supposedly legible racial meaning in the Americas. Numbering in the thousands, these missing persons reports contain rare pre-photographic portrayals of self-emancipated individuals “seen” by a public. By reading the advertisements with and against the grain, this essay explores the logic of seeing in these early forms of racial profiling and speculates about how descriptive language makes race feel as if it is and ought to be visible and transparent to the beholder. Racial visibility was and is produced by the layers of abstraction undertaken to represent what could already be recognized as “racial” in public culture and affirms a perceptual experience I call racial sense. A theory of racial sense is developed in this essay by reading Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic philosophy alongside Sylvia Wynter’s critique of the human. This theory of racial sense challenges the distinction between aesthetics and science as staged by the modern project of the human.

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