Home > Research > Publications & Outputs > Spectacular Pain

Electronic data

Text available via DOI:

View graph of relations

Spectacular Pain: Violence and the White Gaze in American Commemorative Culture

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2023
Number of pages297
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Using case studies that range from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century in literature, photography, performance, and museums, this thesis examines how the white gaze has shaped commemorative representations of slavery and racial violence. Through mapping how visual representational tropes have rendered the Black body in pain a passive receptacle of violence to accommodate an audiences’ emotional engagement, I argue that the foundation of
commemorative practice’s focus lies within white western notions of pain, power, and the body, which ultimately risks obfuscating African American lived and historical experience. Fundamentally, this study also considers how Black authors, artists, and activists have worked to respond to and challenge these representations.

I begin with an explication of how anti-slavery authors and artists in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries perpetuated white modes of looking at Black pain, before proceeding to trace the thread of representations following slavery and abolition that focus primarily on Black pain to emotionally engage with audiences. I interrogate photographic representations of slavery and racial violence, including the famous image of “Gordon” and his scarred back,
James Allen and John Littlefield’s Without Sanctuary collection, and the work of African American photographer J.P. Ball. I also examine reenactment performances including Colonial Williamsburg’s 1994 reenacted slave auction, Conner Prairie’s ‘Follow the North Star’ programme, Dread Scott’s ‘Slave Rebellion Reenactment’, and the Moore’s Ford lynching reenactment.

This research draws from observational research conducted at key museum and memorial sites, including the Whitney Plantation (2014), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016), and the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial to Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (2018). As the most recently established sites, these institutions provide an illuminating record of how far commemorative practice has come, and hint at new directions for its future. Ultimately, I advocate for commemorative sites to establish and prioritise
explicit connections between slavery, the foundation of the US, and the impact of racial violence on present-day racial inequality. To do so, I highlight the importance of how commemorative sites in the present can draw inspiration from Black embodied acts of counter-narrative production to re-humanise their historical representations of Black enslaved and Black suffering bodies and free them from the constraints of the white gaze.