“Afric-American Picture Gallery” and Representation

This semester, I added William J. Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859) to my Early American literature syllabus. Every semester, I add one or two texts I have never taught to my courses. Recently, I have headed over to the Just Teach One site for some ideas. That is where I came across Rosa and the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” Today, I want to talk briefly about my experiences teaching the text and what I plan to possibly do the next time I decide to teach it. Keep in mind that I taught this text in a survey course, so I did not necessarily get to dive into every aspect of the text. Instead, I focused on overarching topics that connected to other texts we read throughout the semester.

William J. Wilson published the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” under the name of Ethiop in the Anglo-African Magazine, a periodical published by Thomas Hamilton. In 1853, Frederick Douglass’ Paper printed a letter from Wilson where he discussed his recent trips to art galleries in New York City. At he galleries, he commented on the lack of “distinguished black” images and figures in the galleries, concluding, “we must begin to tell our own story, write our own lecture, paint our own picture, chisel our own bust.”  Six years later, Wilson heeded his own call by penning the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.”

When covering the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in class, I used Wilson’s 1853 letter as a jumping off point and as a way to both look to the past, specifically 1827, to Wilson’s contemporary moment, and to our present cultural moment. Wilson’s letter evokes the same message and tenor as John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish’s “To Our Patrons” from the inaugural issue of the Freedom’s Journal in 1827. There, the editors proclaim,

We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publik been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles, for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle which tends to the discredit of any person of colour; and pronounce anathemas and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of this guilty one.

With the Freedom’s Journal, Russwurm and Cornish sought to provide their own voices to the public to counter “misrepresentations” and to forward the cause of African Americans in the United States. As such, they also saw their paper as way to educate and enlighten the masses, providing pieces on Haiti, Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Cuffee, and more. They sought to, essentially, correct the gaps in the historical and contemporary narratives that exclude Blacks from the conversation or presented them in stereotypical or derogatory ways.

The opening entry in the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” lays out a similar path to the one that Russwurm and Cornsih present for the Freedom’s Journal. Ethiop begins by describing his love for art and his continued “habit of rambling in search of, and hunting up curious, old, or rare and beautiful pictures.” This drive led him to discover the Afric-American Picture Gallery. This gallery, which Ethiop refers to as one of his “dearest retreats,” provides art of a variety of subjects from America and the world, and it presents “the careful observer and the think” with much to be pondered.

Ethiop notes that the artistic skill of the pieces vary greatly; however, this variation does not devalue them in any way because they present the viewer with an entrance into thoughtful contemplation and reflection. Upon first entering the gallery, Ethiop describes it for his audience saying, “The first thing noticeable, is the unstudied arrangement of these pictures. They seem rather to have been put up out of the way, many of them, than hung for any effect.” These sentences contain the thrust of Wilson’s goal with the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” The pictures arrangement is “unstudied” and they are “out of the way,” this commenting on the fact that African American history and accomplishments become subsumed with a master narrative that privileges and praises the accomplishments of individuals such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others while ignoring Benjamin Banneker, Phyllis Whealtley, and Crispus Attucks. Ethiop’s use of “unstudied” serves two purposes as well. For one, it shows the audience that the pictures appear to be arranged haphazardly. More importantly, though, it provides a comment on the images contained within the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” have not received the attention they rightfully deserve.

Finishing the opening description, Ethiop comments that the gallery is large and that the walls “contain ample room for more, and in many instances, better paintings.” Here, Ethiop looks forward, as he does with Young Tom and others later in the text, but he also relates that there are gaps exist in the historical record of understanding of the African American experience previous to his writing. He concludes by imploring artists to send the gallery their paintings, sculptures, and drawings so that they may appear within the walls of the gallery. While history exists within the gallery, it is not the complete history.

While Ethiop worked to inform contemporaneous readers about African American history and accomplishments, John Ernst notes that we can still learn from Wilson’s project because contemporary readers today “could get more from these fictional sketches [in the “African-American Picture Gallery”] than from most of the textbooks used in K-12 schools.” Ernest’s statement struck home with students because after showing it to them, I asked what they learned from Wilson’s text. Most said that they did not know about Crispus Attucks. Others said that they did not know about Margaret Garner.

During K-12 education, what do students learn and how do they learn it? I’ve written about some of the lessons that high school textbooks teach. On top of what gets taught, what gets omitted? The omissions are just as important as what gets included. The “Afric-American Picture Gallery,” along with Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, challenges students to think about the construction of history and how that history gets written. We covered Douglass’ speech the day before the “Afric-American Picture Gallery,” we covered two Phyllis Wheatley poemsthe same day, and we followed up with Solomon Northup. Each of these texts call upon readers to challenge the master narrative and to fill in the empty “unstudied” spaces.

Next post, I will continue with some of the other key points that we talked about when looking at the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” As well, I will briefly touch on some of the ideas I have been thinking about to prepare me to teach this text again.

I would love to hear your thoughts. As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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One thought on ““Afric-American Picture Gallery” and Representation

  1. Pingback: Mediated Voices in Longfellow’s “Poems on Slavery” | Interminable Rambling

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