Thursday, November 7, 2013


How accurately does 12 Years a Slave portray the visual as well as the emotional texture of slave life?

Compare filmmaker Steve McQueen's imagery to the excellent online resource The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record.

This is an incredible collection of period drawings, paintings, and sketches of slave life in North and South America and the Caribbean Islands compiled at the University of Virginia, through the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

In every image, the agenda of each artist cannot be discounted. Some are relatively straightforward; others are propaganda for the fiction of happy slave life, or, conversely, tinged with melodrama to promote the abolitionist cause. But all are fascinating.

These were my go-to images when I was posting my illustrated online novel set against the background of slavery in the West Indies, Runaways: A Novel of Jonkanoo.

If you're interested in learning more about the era depicted in McQueen's powerful film, this is a great place to start.

(Above left: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 years a Slave)

(Right: A Fugitive Slave, Surinam, 1839. Image Reference BEN1, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)

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