An earnest account of abolitionism’s forgotten “poster child.”
In 1855, when she was only 7 years old, Mary Mildred Williams experienced two life-altering events: Her family was freed from slavery, and her photograph was taken for the abolitionist cause. The resulting daguerreotype, circulated widely by white anti-slavery leaders, depicted a light-skinned child whose features were deemed “indisputab[ly] white” by the press. Billed as a “white slave,” Williams was eagerly exhibited by Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator, to sold-out audiences, making her a living prop on the main stage of the anti-slavery movement. Rhetoric used by such leaders succeeded in igniting white American sympathy, a “selective solidarity” that was otherwise uninspired by dark-skinned black people’s well-documented traumas. In a spirited narrative, photographer Morgan-Owens (Dean of Studies/Bard Early Coll. New Orleans) highlights Williams’ trajectory into the spotlight. Along the way, the author confronts a range of often unspoken realities, including the anti-black sentiments that permeated the white abolitionist community, the rampant sexual enslavement that black women endured, and the subsequent dynamic of colorism employed in so-called progressive white America. Though the author occasionally struggles to convey the complex web of Williams’ life and historical context, her passionate investigation notably uplifts Williams’ true surname, rebuking the historical record for identifying Williams by the family name of her slave father’s owner. Morgan-Owens ambitiously attempts “to name, and correct” the “myopic failures of white sympathy” that she documents in her book, succeeding mainly in the former. Self-aware as she strives to be, white gaze is conspicuous, from the author’s overconfident fictionalizations of Williams’ behaviors and emotional responses to her dramatic indictment of “us,” the “future readers, who might not remember the tragedies borne.” Since people of color are not likely to forget such history, perhaps Morgan-Owens is speaking to her own. Still, the book is a valuable contribution to abolitionist history.
An imperfect but worthy perspective on a critical period of American history.