THE MIRROR OF RACE PROJECT
The working thesis of the project is that these images from 1839–1876 demonstrate that race in this period (spanning approximately forty years; before, during, and after the Civil War) was a much more fluid and ambiguous concept than we may now assume. The project’s aim would be in part to discern and address how these images from the past dislocate our own present presumptions about the representation of race. Of course, some images may seem only to confirm our expectations of that era’s depictions. This tension is what the Mirror of Race intends to explore.
But beyond the historical dimension, the project hopes to hold up these images as a mirror to our present, to confront our understanding of the meaning of race today. The earliest form of photography introduced in the United States was the daguerreotype, in 1840. Daguerreotypes are, in strict point of fact, mirrors. Each one is a unique image produced on a reflective, silver-coated copper plate. As such, the daguerreotype serves as the “image” for all the images presented in the Mirror of Race project. In such photographs, we see ourselves in two senses: we see our ancestors and so our past, but we also see our own reflections on the same surface. Seeing, then, is a central theme to the idea of the project, for seeing underlies so much of the representation of race as grounded in appearance and seeing is what we do when we reflect in — and on — the mirror.
It is precisely because of the dislocation of time that the images collected here may serve as an opportunity to reflect on what race means in the United States today — and what it can, should, and should not mean in the future. The hope underlying the elements of the Mirror of Race project is that these photographs from a century and a half in the past can instigate the kind of productive conversation, both academic and public, about race that often seems so hard to promote.
The Mirror of Race project envisions a range of venues for the display and discussion of the images such as this website, lecture/performances, teaching materials and other interdisciplinary, multimedia undertakings. Please visit often to get updates on these developments
The multi-faceted nature of the Mirror of Race project offers a unique opportunity to engage audiences, both on-line and at the lecture/performances, in a fresh discussion of race in the United States. Audiences will be encouraged to relate their own stories and preconceptions about race to the images and the stories being told. Because the lecture-performances will be coordinated with this web site that includes images, commentary and essays, as well as venues for viewers to offer feedback, the conversation will be an ongoing one. Schools and colleges that engage the lecture/performances will have, in the online exhibition and website, a tool for continuing research and classroom discussion.