Committed to Memory
The Art of the Slave Ship Icon
Cheryl Finley

How an eighteenth-century engraving of a slave ship became a cultural icon of black resistance, identity, and remembrance

One of the most iconic images of slavery is a schematic wood engraving depicting the human cargo hold of a slave ship. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, it exposed this widespread commercial practice for what it really was--shocking, immoral, barbaric, unimaginable. Printed as handbills and broadsides, the image Cheryl Finley has termed the "slave ship icon" was easily reproduced, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was circulating by the tens of thousands around the Atlantic rim. Committed to Memory provides the first in-depth look at how this artifact of the fight against slavery became an enduring symbol of black resistance, identity, and remembrance.

Finley traces how the slave ship icon became a powerful tool in the hands of British and American abolitionists, and how its radical potential was rediscovered in the twentieth century by black artists, activists, writers, filmmakers, and curators. Finley offers provocative new insights into the works of Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, and many others. She demonstrates how the icon was transformed into poetry, literature, visual art, sculpture, performance, and film—and became a medium through which diasporic Africans have reasserted their common identity and memorialized their ancestors.

Beautifully illustrated, Committed to Memory features works from around the world, taking readers from the United States and England to West Africa and the Caribbean. It shows how contemporary black artists and their allies have used this iconic eighteenth-century engraving to reflect on the trauma of slavery and come to terms with its legacy.

Cheryl Finley is associate professor of art history at Cornell University. She is the coauthor of Harlem: A Century in Images and the coeditor of Diaspora, Memory, Place: David Hammons, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Pamela Z.