Detail of a porcelain cameo showing a Black man in profile shackled at the wrists, with his hands pleading. shackled
"Am I not a Man and a Brother?" (detail), c.1787, modeled by William Hackwood (English, 1738–1820), made by Josiah Wedgwood (English, 1730–1795). Purchased with the Elizabeth Moran Endowment for American Art, 2022. 2022-140-1.

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”: Antislavery Art in the PMA’s Collection

Lucia Olubunmi R. Momoh

A few months ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art added two small yet vital items to its collection: a ceramic medallion (fig. 1) fabricated at the Wedgwood pottery in Etruria, in Staffordshire, England, in the late eighteenth century; and a miniature painting on ivory (fig. 2) likely created in Connecticut around the same time or shortly after. The latter inspired by the former, both pieces feature the profile of a nearly nude Black man on bended knee. Depicted with a meager piece of cloth hanging from his hips and shackles confining his wrists and ankles, the figure clasps his hands together before his face in prayer while gazing up and out of the frame—toward God or the viewer. Over the supplicated body arches the phrase, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Color photo of a kneeling and shackled Black man on a porcelain medallion
Fig. 1 Josiah Wedgwood (English, 1730-1795) and modeled by William Hackwood (English, 1738-1820), Am I not a Man and a Brother?, 1787. Purchased with the Elizabeth Moran Endowment for American Art, 2022. 2022-140-1
Painting of a kneeling and shackled Black man painted on a locket.
Fig. 2 Am I not a Man and a Brother? Around 1790 – 1820, United States. Bequest (by exchange) of R. Wistar Harvey. 2022-96-1.

Often referred to as the “Wedgwood medallion,” the “slave medallion,” or alternatively the “antislavery medallion,” Am I Not a Man and a Brother? (fig. 1), as museums more commonly title the emblem today, was first produced by Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) in 1787 as a portable black-and-white jasperware ceramic coin—like the one acquired by the PMA—on behalf of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (S.E.A.S.T.). Wedgwood’s cameo quickly became a popular accessory for British abolitionists, who prominently displayed the icon on their bodies (embedded into bracelets, pins, and necklaces) and in their homes (inlaid in gold to be hung on walls or placed on snuffboxes). Thus, abolitionists ostensibly mobilized the kneeling man’s image to promote abolition in a manner similar to how Black Lives Matter bumper stickers, T-shirts, posters, and flags function today.

However, it is essential to understand that this image became very popular among white abolitionist circles because it presented the Black figure (the Black man) as subordinate and nonthreatening, thus reinforcing racial hierarchies and white supremacy. In Am I Not a Man and a Brother?, the Black man requests his freedom—or perhaps, a more precisely, he requests an acknowledgement of his humanity—and will ideally be gifted it (freedom or humanity) by white benefactors. For this act of mercy, these avocats expected gratitude—exhibited in model behavior from Black people. Abolitionists who wore and distributed the medallion were not necessarily encouraging Black individuals to take liberty into their own hands—as would happen in Haiti following the successful revolt that ignited on August 21, 1791—they merely supported the idea that Black people were humans (that Black lives matter); and that Black people could assimilate into Western Christian culture, or return to Africa.[1] What’s more, many who wore or owned the medallion, may have not been in favor of Black emancipation.

In the late eighteenth century, many abolitionists (on both sides of the Atlantic) felt skeptical of the feasibility of immediate emancipation. Though sympathetic to the plight of those enslaved, many argued that first merely cutting off the “fresh supply” of captive labor from Africa (via the abolition of the slave trade) would force slaveholders to better treat those they enslaved, ostensibly lessening excess violence and blatant torture. As George Boulukos notes in his monograph, The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture, writers originally mobilized the trope of the “grateful slave”—visually manifest in images like that of the kneeling figure in chains—to promote the amelioration, or betterment, of the conditions of slavery.[2] Better treatment, some believed, would induce those enslaved to willingly devote themselves to a “benevolent master.” Indeed, S.E.A.S.T. initially only endorsed the abolition of the slave trade and sought to invoke this established trope when designing their official seal.

Presented to the Society by Joseph Wood (1750-1821) in October 1787, the printed “seal” functioned as the organization’s letterhead, appearing on all S.E.A.S.T. documents and publications, featuring the kneeling Black man surrounded by the motto, “Am I not a man and a brother?” (fig. 3).[3]

Black and white drawing of a kneeling and shackled Black man.

Fig. 3 It was this design that fellow S.E.A.S.T. member Josiah Wedgwood reproduced, with modeler William Hackwood (c. 1757–1839), in December 1787, when Wedgwood began fabricating the ceramic version of the seal for distribution and display.

The little emblem—or, in the words of Saidiya Hartman, “Wedgwood’s pet negro”—quickly made waves across the Atlantic.[4] By January 1788, the medallions landed in the Americas after Wedgwood personally sent “a few cameos” to a man in Philadelphia he greatly admired: former enslaver and “cautious abolitionist” Benjamin Franklin. In a letter addressed to Franklin—then President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society—Wedgwood expressed his hopes that, “the subject of freedom itself will be more canvassed and better understood in the enlightened nations.” Franklin, acknowledging the medallion’s power, replied that “it may have an effect equal to that of the best written Pamphlet.”[5] Accordingly, once in the United States, they were quickly distributed and soon replicated by ceramicists, painters, textile artists, and printers.

Demonstrating the medallion’s potency and popularity, the recently acquired painted miniature on ivory (fig. 2) represents an early response to this imagery. Molded to an oval locket frequently used by American miniaturists in the Connecticut area beginning in the 1790s, the image illustrates the creative liberties taken by local artists with an additional outdoor scene featuring pine trees and huts, or slave cabins. Interestingly, the huts in the background could place the figure in Africa, as opposed to the United States, and thus could be arguing for the abolition of the slave trade—which the US would criminalize in 1800 and England would outlaw in 1807—and, thus, depending on the year it was created, could be arguing for the abolition of the slave trade—which the US would criminalize in 1800 and England would outlaw in 1807—and, thus, potentially the amelioration of slavery. Alternatively, the huts could represent slave cabins, as pine trees are not native to West Africa and enslaved Africans built their own dwellings—though this could also demonstrate the artist’s lack of familiarity with the architecture of enslavement in the South or foliage in Africa.

Photo of a china sugar bowl with a kneeling and shackled Black man among palm trees.
Fig. 4  Sugar Bowl and Cover, 1830s, United States. Purchased with funds contributed by Lauren Sara and with the McNeil Acquisition Fund for American Art and Material Culture, 2017. 2017-23-1a,b

Later references also in the PMA’s collection include a sugar bowl likely made in the United Kingdom in the 1820s or 30s that features a kneeling female figure in chains (fig. 4) and young girl’s sampler (fig. 5) from 1840 also embroidered in the UK that curiously references a “Nelsons Moniment”—likely the monument to Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) in Liverpool that features four prisoners of war sculpted in bronze and chained to its base. The sampler and the sugar bowl demonstrate how the image would continue to proliferate in the nineteenth century as white abolitionists grew to support universal Black emancipation.

Color photo of a fabric embroidery sampler. It reads, (top left) "This world is vain/And full of pain/With cares and troubles/Sore but those are blest/Wich (sic) are at rest with/Christ for evermore." Top right: "Love the Lord and he will/Be a tender father unto/Thee this I did to let you/See what care my parents/Took of mee (sic)". Middle: "Hannah Bloom Work Aged 11 1840. Bottom left: "He is brought as a lamb/To the slaughter and as a/Sheep before her shearers/Is dumb so he openeth/Not his mouth/ISAIAH CHAP LIII/VERSE 7" Bottom right: "The young lions do lack/And suffer hunger but/They that seek the Lord/Shall not want any good thing."
Fig. 5 Hannah Bloor (English, 19th century), Sampler, 1940. Whitman Sampler Collection, gift of Pet, Incorporated, 1969. 1969-288-317.

However, As Caitlin Meehye Beach reminds us, “Even when mobilized in the context of opposition to slavery, the representation of the enslaved subject is always an act laden (or latent) with the dispossessive violence of slavery.”[6] Presently, these emblems reflect the neoliberal notions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century white abolitionist, who hoped to ameliorate the “plight of the Negro” while maintaining racial hierarchies and distancing themselves from charges of culpability. Entering the PMA collection at a moment of great change and introspection, the Wedgwood medallion and Connecticut miniature allow the museum to better address the history of the abolition movement, while serving as a reminder of the limitations of its leaders, who could not fully grasp the concept of Black equality and citizenship. It is because of their failures that today it is received as a charged, political statement when someone declares, “Black Lives Matter.”

Lucia Olubunmi R. Momoh is a curator, writer, and scholar currently serving as the Constance E. Clayton Curatorial Fellow in American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her curatorial practice supports and engages with historical and contemporary artists and works that reveal the complex realities of and urgent threats to life and love on Earth. Centering African Diasporic perspectives in Western art history and cultural institutions, Momoh’s research and writing investigates constructs of race and formations of national and imperial identities in the Americas during the nineteenth century, how museums uphold these ideologies, and the potential for art to dismantle them.

[1] Many abolitionists were wary of the ability of freed Black people to truly integrate into (white) American society, and they instead focused efforts on sending freed people “back to Africa,” where they would colonize places like Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the United States, the American Colonization Society, initially the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, formed to encourage and support the migration of freeborn and emancipated Black citizens to Africa. Leaders like Robert Finley (1772–1817) modeled this initiative after British efforts to resettle London’s “black poor.” For more information see Nemata Amelia Blyden, “‘Back to Africa’: The Migration of New World Blacks to Sierra Leone and Liberia,” OAH Magazine of History (vol. 18, no. 3, 2004), 23–25.
[2] George Boulukos, The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
[3] L. Richard Smith, Josiah Wedgwood’s Slave Medallion (Sydney: The Wedgwood Society of New Wales, Inc., 1999), p. 3.
[4]Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (London: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books Ltd., 2021), 169.
[5] Caitlin Meehye Beach, Sculpture at the Ends of Slavery (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2022), 13.
[6]Beach, Sculpture at the Ends of Slavery, 8.