University of Hartford
I taught the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” as part of my survey of African American Literature, a course I have taught several times using a chronological organization strategy. This time, though, I was inspired to try something a bit different, so I organized my course according to genre (with chronological organization structuring each of the generic units). There was only one exception to this chronological/generic structure: I started the prose nonfiction unit (and hence the course) with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which turned out to be a great choice. The students were totally engaged with this very readable book, and we had three solid days of discussion—days during which I could barely get a word in because the students had so much to say. After we finished Coates’s book, we moved on to C19 prose and through the essays of the Black Arts Movement. Then, it was on to performance and visual culture and the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.”
My hope was that the idea of the visual in the “Gallery” would interact productively with our readings of plays like Trouble in Mind, Slave Ship, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as well as our reading of In Our Terribleness (1971), a picture book (with actual pictures!) co-authored by Amiri Baraka and Billy Abernathy. My overarching focus in this unit was on the ways that text and action/image worked together and the significance of the performative in African American cultural production more generally. I hoped that the “Gallery” would help me talk about an early history of the visual/performative in African American letters.
Excepting this kind of general orientation and a brief explanation of the JTO initiative, I did very little to prepare the students for the reading. I wanted them to know why we were reading the text, but given my students’ level of engagement and contextual knowledge, I did not want to burden them with too much. The text had to stand—more or less—on its own. Moreover, I taught the “Gallery” in a single day, which was probably ambitious. The benefits of adding this engaging text notwithstanding, I feel that I gave it short shrift (though I find that the one-semester survey course is always an exercise in exclusion, so that’s hardly unique to this text).
Though I think I burdened the reading with too many expectations/demands (I was hoping it would represent print culture, ideas about visual culture and representation, and C19 literature more broadly) our day of discussion on the “Gallery” was productive and interesting. Perhaps due to the strangeness of Wilson’s gallery walk, students seem to have read the text with some attentiveness (always an issue at my institution) and they brought questions and ideas with them to class. We focused primarily on two images in our discussion: the slave ship and Mount Vernon.
The slave ship image was particularly useful for my class of novices since many of them were unfamiliar with C19 or contemporary discourse surrounding the middle passage. Ethiop is not subtle as he describes the “Satanic Majesty, gloating over the whole scene,” and this orientation helped my students understand the strains of critique running throughout the “Gallery.” What they especially noted was that “Ethiop” was showing them how to look and what to look for. Perhaps, we decided, African American art was less about who was doing the painting and more about who was doing the viewing (and from what angles).
This point became even more clear in the “Mount Vernon” section wherein Ethiop admonishes us “How careful ought we to be, then, in word or deed about Mount Vernon.” As my students noted, that “care” manifests in the narrator showing a very particular view of Mount Vernon that does not correspond at all to the “popular American feeling” then or now. Most of our discussion during class focused on the particular image of decay that confronts us in the picture, that is: “while in front, a living slave of to-day stands, with the bones of Washington gathered up in his arms, and labelled [sic] ‘For Sale’ ‘Price $200,000; this negro included.’” This arresting image is, in its broad strokes, easy to understand. At the same time, the density of the detail here allows for close reading. We talked at length about Washington’s price, the other man “included” with the bones, and about the significance of “Money Wanted” in context. One student rightly noted that this kind of image sought to re-write American history; another piped in to say that such a rewriting is also at work in Coates’s Between the World and Me, and that set us off on a discussion of the larger project in African American literature. This allowed me to talk a bit about critique as a central feature of that literature but also to talk about the hopeful, utopian, or apocalyptic alternatives that also feature in African American writing. We embraced the idea of “the alternative” and used that to move into the Black Forest section, though that section ended up getting scant attention given our focus on the earlier chapters.
I liked working with this text since it is sui generis and enables a range of discussions that are harder to have with well-known C19 texts like Douglass, Jacobs, Wilson, or Brown. In the future, I would probably teach this piece in a more advanced course and allow two days for discussion. In a survey, the strangeness of the “Gallery” is harder to discern since almost everything I teach is new and strange to my survey students; in a different context, though, the unique qualities of the text would stand out and make for profitable discussions about print culture, form, and point of view.