There is a strange irony to the "Slave Master" in this photograph being named "Abraham" at just about the time that another Abraham, Abraham Lincoln, was being elected to the Presidency of the United States, the Abraham whose Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 would soon bring an end to the careers of all slave overseers.
The irony is compounded by the resonance of the name with the Abraham whom three religions â€•ï¿½Judaism, Christianity, and Islam â€•ï¿½consider the origin of their monotheistic faiths, religions which, at their best, see that faith as a foundation for freedom.
What makes this photograph so powerfully terrible is the coiled brutality that looms behind it, past the stillness of the image: in the tightly clenched hand that grips the whip, in the icy stare of what must have been bright blue eyes, given how light they are in this black white photograph. This is an occupational image, one in which the person portrayed chose to sit with a tool of the trade that most fully symbolized and embodied his identity and profession, and so it is fair to conclude that Abraham took genuine pride in his ability to wield this whip effectively in the everyday duties of his work. It is worth asking, how far have we truly come from a world in which such brutality and dehumanization could be a matter of professional pride?
For a slideshow of images that explore the violence, both explicit and implied, in this period of American history, see here.