cover of book
by Sarah Lewis
Harvard University Press, 2024
eISBN: 978-0-674-29772-2 | Cloth: 978-0-674-23834-3
Library of Congress Classification E185.61.L535 2024
Dewey Decimal Classification 305.800973


The award-winning art historian and founder of Vision & Justice uncovers a pivotal era in the story of race in the United States when Americans came to ignore the truth about the false foundations of the nation’s racial regime.

In a masterpiece of historical detective work, Sarah Lewis exposes one of the most damaging lies in American history. There was a time when Americans were confronted with the fictions shoring up the nation’s racial regime and learned to disregard them. The true significance of this hidden history has gone unseen—until now.

The surprising catalyst occurred in the nineteenth century when the Caucasian War—the fight for independence in the Caucasus that coincided with the end of the US Civil War—revealed the instability of the entire regime of racial domination. Images of the Caucasus region and peoples captivated the American public but also showed that the place from which we derive “Caucasian” for whiteness was not white at all. Cultural and political figures ranging from P. T. Barnum to Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois to Woodrow Wilson recognized these fictions and more, exploiting, unmasking, critiquing, or burying them.

To acknowledge the falsehood at the core of racial order proved unthinkable, especially as Jim Crow and segregation took hold. Sight became a form of racial sculpture, vision a knife excising what no longer served the stability of racial hierarchy. That stability was shaped, crucially, by what was left out, what we have been conditioned not to see. Groundbreaking and profoundly resonant, The Unseen Truth shows how visual tactics have long secured our regime of racial hierarchy in spite of its false foundations—and offers a way to begin to dismantle it.