New Book by UA Art Historian Exposes the Artistic Concealment of Enslaved People

Associate Professor Dr. Rachel Stephens has published a new book, Hidden in Plain Sight: Concealing Enslavement in American Visual Culture, with the University of Arkansas Press.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists crafted a variety of visual messages about the plight of enslaved people, portraying the violence, familial separation, and dehumanization that they faced. In response, proslavery southerners attempted to counter these messages either through idealization or outright erasure of enslaved life. Stephens’ book offers a wide-ranging view of the ways that slavery and enslaved people were hidden, omitted, or idealized in southern art of the antebellum period.

Historic Tuscaloosa will host a book release event with a talk by Dr. Stephens and a book signing on Thursday, September 28, 2023, at 5:30 p.m. at the Jemison-Van De Graaff Mansion, 1305 Greensboro Avenue, in Tuscaloosa. The public is invited to attend.

Stephens said, “Although I considered myself a historian of Southern art, I initiated the project with the realization that very little in the art and archival records I had encountered addressed enslavement. This led me down a research path attempting to discover and uncover the major themes that the Southern art of slavery addressed. In the process, I found that so much of the history of enslaved people, and the people themselves was intentionally covered up or written out. This project was a first attempt to uncover the visual record of Southern slavery and understand how the visual arts were utilized in pro-slavery arguments.”

Dr. Stephens is an associate professor of art history at The University of Alabama. She is the author of Selling Andrew Jackson: Ralph E. W. Earl and the Politics of Portraiture. In preparing this project, Stephens served as a Tyson Scholar at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the fall of 2018; a fellow at Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition in the spring of 2019; and an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow at CASVA in the fall of 2020.

For more information about The University of Alabama’s programs in art history and studio art, visit our Degree Programs page.