Thornton Dial: High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man)

In this piece, Thornton Dial recalls one of the most horrifying specters in American history and consciousness—the African slave ship.

LIFE Photo Collection

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Between 1501 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were forcibly removed from Africa to serve as slaves in the New World. Of these, over 2 million would not survive the Middle Passage aboard ships that took them to North, Central, and South America.

High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) (2002) by Thornton DialOriginal Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

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High and Wide: Carrying the Rats to the Man

In the work of Thornton Dial, history often insinuates itself into the present. Hidden symbols suggest further twists of meaning and connect the events of the past to ongoing struggles.

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His 2002 work, High and Wide: Carrying the Rats to the Man presents an ominous scene of entrapment, composed of welded iron bars, chains, and tangled fencing.

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The golden yellow sails of the ship are goat hide, a reference to the trade in human chattel, a cargo of human flesh.

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The nation’s culpability remembered by the eerie presence of the U.S. flag hanging from the ship’s prow.

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Chained at center is a disturbing and paradoxical figure: a stuffed Mickey Mouse. With a dark sense of irony and humor, Dial uses the pop-culture icon as a tongue-in-cheek representation of the slaves, imprisoned down in the ship’s hold like rodents.

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Appearing here in a smudged blackface and with his traditional white gloves, the familiar figure takes on the additional identity of a black minstrel, whose self-lampooning antics once helped to promulgate America’s racist ideology, a ratting out of his own.

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The destination for Dial’s slave vessel is represented by a line of mountains, the artist’s recurring symbol for the daunting obstacles that blacks must continue to overcome, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “mountain of despair.”

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At the foot of the mountains is a city scene, not a small town from the eastern seaboard of eighteenth-century America, but a harbor view of a major modern metropolis.

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The image is the cover of a child’s grammar book titled High and Wide, a reference to the towering realm of the modern urban world, whose grim tenement blocks, housing projects, and rat-infested welfare hotels are contemporary counterparts to the past horrors of Dial's ship.

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