Edmonia Lewis’s work Forever Free (1867) (Figure 1) depicts two figures, a male and a female at the moment of gaining their freedom after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The female wears a belted dress, kneeling on one knee, with her hands in prayer looking upwards. Her hair is long and straight and parted in the middle. She has slight facial features and her nose is straight. On her left ankle is a manacle and chain that disappears into the base of the sculpture, giving the appearance of being attached to a ball and chain just to her left. The male figure is standing dressed in cloth shorts. His left hand is raised towards the sky, on his left wrist is a manacle and broken chain, his left foot is propped on a ball and chain. His right hand rests on the shoulder of the kneeling woman, who leans against his right leg. Unlike the woman’s features, the male’s nose is broader and his lips fuller. His hair, not straight like the females, is a tight bunching of curls.
Forever Free, originally titled The Morning of Liberty, is a representation of the freedom given to African Americans after the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. The male with his arm raised with the other on the kneeling woman is telling of the freedom that man receives first. As Kirsten Buick argues, a woman was still vulnerable to the sexual gaze of the white man until a black patriarchy has been set up. Once a black patriarchy has been set up the woman is no longer property of the white male, but under the protection of the male within a family setting. This reading of Forever Free supports the view that Edmonia Lewis was in no way commenting on the status of women within society, but depicting the expected aspects of family life that the newly free African American’s were to participate in. The male figure in Forever Free has the features of an African American man, however the female figure does not. Between her facial features, hair, and the white of the marble, the female figure is read racially as a white woman rather than an African American freed slave. Edmonia Lewis, conformed to the ideal sculpture of the nineteenth century, depicting a female form that conforms “across the barriers of race, to the gender ideals of her time”
While men in Lewis’s work “signify ethnicity” and are “carriers of specific identities, they are the ‘bearers of meaning,’” this decision to obliterate race within the female figure was also likely to be due to the influence the Cult of True Womanhood had throughout society during the nineteenth century. The Cult of True Womanhood states simply that women are supposed to be domestic, submissive, pious, and virtuous. All aspects considered to make one a “good” woman within society. During the nineteenth century, the “purging” of blackness was a theme in antislavery fiction. The only way to “depict goodness in Black subjects involves the obliteration of Blackness” argued Karen Sánchez-Eppler. The black and Indian woman had to be cleansed of her identity to be considered acceptable in the nineteenth century. The rhetoric surrounding blackness and the intersection it had with slavery is one explanation as to why Lewis did not racialize her female figures.
1. Kristen Pai Buick. Child of Fire Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): 53.
2. Ibid. 50.
3. Kristen Pai Buick. “The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography.” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 12.
4. Ibid., 12.
5. Ibid., 14.