5 Activisim and the White Savior

Piper Vladock

In class, we studied a medallion titled Am I Not a Man and a Brother. The medallion was created by William Hackwood for Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 using white jasper and black basalt.1 The image Am I Not a Man and a Brother originated from the official seal of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. When Wedgewood joined the committee in 1787, he took a plaster mould of the seal to form his medallion.2

This medallion and image were mass-produced to identify the people who were in support of abolition. However, the image was not copyrighted, so anyone could reproduce the image and put it on any product.3 Since it was mass-produced and sold, there would have likely been a profit to be made, although I have not yet been able to determine how much or where those profits were directed. However, there could be some positives from not copyrighting the images, it being that the image could be spread more easily and inform people about the abolition.

After researching the background of this image, I started to think about how much profit was made off the image, as it is one of the most famous images in support of abolition, and if that profit was used to help free the enslaved people.4 As well, I started to wonder if people would buy the image just to fit in or feel better about themselves as we see tensions rise between communities leading up to the Civil War.  A present-day example based on my own experiences is the “Instagram activism” that was most prevalent during the spring of 2020 following the death of George Floyd and the large recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement. This “Instagram activism” appears to be helpful and spread information, but really most people just repost stuff without caring about the activism.

Furthering this idea, some scholars have argued the abolition movement primarily focuses on the heroism and accomplishments of white people. As Kerry Sinanan has argued, “it is important to understand that many white abolitionists were blatantly racist and that white abolitionist rhetoric often demeaned African Americans; the goal of ending the system of slavery was not equivalent to seeking equality among different races.”5  With this perspective in mind, I think that this medallion could have been used to boost the wearer’s perception of themself, and to show off to others. Demir points out how white people were proud to be branded “Slave Stealer” to show their bravery and accomplishments rather than being proud about helping the enslaved people escape.

As well, I think that white saviorism can be signified by the image on the medallion. Looking at the enslaved man depicted in the medallion, he is nude except for a cloth to cover his genitals. The man is also bound by chains and kneeling on the ground with his hands clasped together, signifying to me that he is begging for mercy to the white abolitionists. This medallion signifies to me that the creator of the image wanted to show the man in a demeaning position that needed a white person to help him.

While the use of this medallion did bring awareness to abolition and certainly did help the enslaved people, as it was a well-known image related to abolition. There is a possibility that it is also tied to white saviorism, as described in Demir’s writing and what I believe the image to signify.


1 Birmingham Museum of Art, “Am I not a Man and a Brother,” March 27, 2018, September 29, 2021, https://www.artsbma.org/am-i-not-a-man-and-a-brother-medallion/.
2 Birmingham Museum of Art.
3 Birmingham Museum of Art.
4 Birmingham Museum of Art.
5 Kerry, Sinanan, “The slave narrative and the literature of abolition” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. A. Fisch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), quoted in Celine, Demir, “Abolition and the Whote Savior Complex” in Crossing Borders: From Slavery to Abolition, 1670-1865 (Philidalphia: Haverford University, 2020)

Bibliography

Birmingham Museum of Art, “Am I not a Man and a Brother,” March 27, 2018, September 29, 2021,https://www.artsbma.org/am-i-not-a-man-and-a-brother-medallion/.
Kerry, Sinanan, “The slave narrative and the literature of abolition” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. A. Fisch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), quoted in Celine, Demir, “Abolition and the White Savior Complex” in Crossing Borders: From Slavery to Abolition, 1670-1865 (Philadelphia: Haverford University, 2020) https://ds-omeka.haverford.edu/crossing -borders/exhibits/show/crossing-borders–from-slavery/crossing-borders–from-slavery.

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