A reflection on teaching The Afric-American Picture Gallery
Assistant Professor of English
I taught “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” in the fall of 2015 in an upper-level English department seminar entitled “The American Renaissance in Black & White.” The course consisted of about twenty students, largely juniors and seniors who majored in either English or English Education. As its title suggests, the course readings focus on black and white writers in the United States between 1830 and 1865. The class is largely organized into pairings, and so for example we read Emerson’s “Nature” alongside Nat Turner’s Confessions, Frederick Douglass’s “The Heroic Slave” alongside Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” alongside James Whitfield’s “America.” We also read a series of secondary pieces connected to our primary works. In its current iteration we did not pair Wilson with any other particular white writer (a point I will return to later in this reflection), and as a secondary text students read a chapter on “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” from Ivy Wilson’s Specters of Democracy, entitled “The Colored Museum.”
We spent three sessions (one week) on “The Afric-American Picture Gallery.” The first session began with a student presentation on the work as well as Ivy Wilson’s book chapter. The presenters focused especially on the idea of the paintings in the picture gallery not only representing particular historical moments in the black experience, but also how the text’s suggestion that the images would spark particular kinds of recollections from spectators that transcended the specific content of an image. In order to dramatize this notion, the students showed the class a collection of contemporary images and led to a discussion about what potential histories specific images invoked. For example, the presenters displayed an image of an intact World Trade Center, which the rest of the class immediately connected to the attacks on September 11th. The presenters then used this example to discuss how particular iconography can become inextricably linked to a particular history. After the student presentation we then continued into a discussion of how the text of the “Picture Gallery” invited us to interpret some of the images described. We focused in particular on the narrator’s reading of pictures 5 and 6, “The Underground Railroad.”
During the second class period we focused first on the question of genre in the “Picture Gallery,” with an eye towards the text’s multigeneric qualities. We then moved in to a discussion of the Black Forest episode, and how that set piece works, thematically and generically, within the “Picture Gallery” as a whole. Students had had no trouble discussing the images in the picture gallery during our first class session, but struggled when we turned questions of genre and a focus on the Black Forest. When, at the end of our week discussing the “Picture Gallery,” I asked students about this difficulty, they responded that the material was so unfamiliar that they had a hard time finding a way in to the discussion. In order to better prepare students for this sort of material, I plan in the future to pair the “Picture Gallery” with a selection from Edgar Allan Poe. I suspect that the “Picture Gallery” would work well alongside the short story “The Man in the Crowd” or the novella Arthur Gordon Pym, and will try these out in the future.
For our third and final session on the “Picture Gallery” I had students do an assignment that underscored the place of Wilson’s work in the Anglo-African Magazine. I directed students to a digital copy of volume one of the Anglo-African Magazine (freely available on HathiTrust), and asked them to identify one article from the magazine and be prepared to discuss its relationship to the “Picture Gallery.” I had done a similar kind of assignment when teaching “Theresa” in Freedom’s Journal in a different class, with great success. And again, the students excelled at this sort of project. They read widely in the Anglo-African and connected the “Picture Gallery” to a range of articles in the magazine, as well as to some of the images printed in that publication. Despite some hiccups, which I will try to address in future classes, the week we spent on “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” opened up discussions on later texts that we could not have otherwise had, especially in terms of genre and print culture. This is an incredibly important work that challenges students and teachers to rethink what they think they know about early African American literature, and how to teach it, and I plan to incorporate the “Picture Gallery” into other kinds of courses including a survey of early African American literature and a graduate seminar on early African American print culture.