A reflection on teaching The Afric-American Picture Gallery
Assistant Professor of English
University of Central Arkansas
William J. Wilson’s “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859) was on the syllabus for the upper-level survey of African American Literature that I taught in the spring of 2016. We spent two class periods on it (and no doubt could have spent more). It was my first time to teach Wilson. In this iteration of the course, I aimed for broad coverage (in terms of century, author, and genre) of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Beginning with eighteenth-century authors Equiano and Wheatley, we moved on to nineteenth-century authors, including Whitfield, Douglass, Harriet Wilson, and Watkins Harper. With particular focus on the New Negro Movement and writings through mid-century, twentieth-century authors included Hughes, Wright, and Hurston, before we concluded with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). Among this grouping of authors, some of whom were familiar to the class but many of whom were not, Wilson helped us think about literary history from a number of angles—for example, literary significance and canonicity in relation to genre and materiality. How should Wilson’s ephemeral publication venue—the Anglo-African Magazine—inform our understanding of the “Picture Gallery” and its place in African American literary history? Does a text published in such a venue and never reprinted in the period have a place in a survey of African American Literature that needs to cover so much ground?
Students were particularly interested in talking about the relationship of the textual to the visual, readily appreciating the ways in which the text signals an awareness of both the overabundance of degrading images of black life (from fugitive slave advertisements to the minstrel stage) and a dearth of images depicting the variety of black experience (including notable persons from the black community). Building on this interest, I cued up Beyoncé’s music video that had just recently been released, “Formation.” The video’s producers wanted pictures of affluent black families from early America but quickly realized the difficulty of finding such images, despite the history of prominent and well-to-do black families in Philadelphia and other urban centers. The class was eager to consider the ways in which Wilson’s commentary on visual representation remains relevant for the twenty-first century.
If Wilson’s focus on visual culture seemed to be a new theme among the texts we had read thus far in the semester, the class made connections between Wilson’s rhetorical style—strident tone and political boldness—and other black-authored antebellum texts. Discussion circled back to texts by Douglass and Whitfield as well as those they knew from other contexts, including David Walker’s Appeal. When Ethiop, the narrator, tours the artist Bernice’s picture gallery, his attention settles on the tablet that had been unearthed from the Black Forest, which Ethiop reproduces in full for readers of the “Picture Gallery.” Titled “Year 4,000. The Amecans, or Milk White Race,” it functions as a potential future history as it describes a white slave-holding people who, successful for a time, eventually decline and disappear: “But wo was unto them; and their works with their evil deeds seem to have perished with them.” The class speculated that by having Ethiop reproduce the text for readers, Wilson communicates a politically scathing message buffered by its circumscription within the tablet, a strategic deployment of a text-within-a-text. This observation led to productive discussion of the ways in which Walker, Whitfield, Douglass, and others package penetrating, forceful rhetoric.
The tablet, Ethiop reports, “challenges the attention of the Historian, the Ethnologist, and the Antiquarian. Is it fiction, is it history, or is it prophecy? Who can tell?” We eventually arrived at the insight that this description of the tablet as defiant of classification also applies to Wilson’s text itself, leading one student to speculate about the degree to which we might consider disorientation as both a literary and political strategy.
Discussion of individual sections of the “Picture Gallery” were rich and illuminating, even as we struggled to articulate the architecture or mode that holds it together. The “Picture Gallery” reflects Wilson’s familiarity with a number of genres—including the slave narrative and urban sketch—without conforming to any one of them. This observation would later help us think about Harriet Wilson’s manipulation of the conventions of sentimentality in her novel from the same year, Our Nig. Descriptions such as “genre-bending” and “experimental” were helpful if not fully satisfying. But, overall, the “Picture Gallery” heightened our sense of the difficulty of interpreting black-authored texts from this period strictly according to genre. Given that students often come to my courses with the misconception that early African American literature is genre-specific—namely, limited to the slave narrative—this was no small insight.
For our final class of the semester, long after we had read and discussed the “Picture Gallery,” we worked to draw connections among texts read over the course of the semester, and Wilson figured prominently in our conversation. For example, we pinpointed a recurring and overt interest among black authors whose works we had read to connect the past to the present in the face of white America’s denial that such connections exist. Students were able to place Wilson in conversation with Wheatley, Watkins Harper, Chesnutt, Hurston, and Coates. The “Picture Gallery” is worth reading and teaching not only because it is a remarkable, compelling, and impressive work, but also because it can help readers come to new realizations about other texts. For these reasons and more, I look forward to incorporating the “Picture Gallery” into future courses.
 See Patrick Sisson, “Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’: How a Historic Pasadena Home Went Southern Gothic for this Year’s Biggest Video.” Curbed. 9 Feb. 2016. Web. 1 March 2016.