A reflection on teaching The Afric-American Picture Gallery
English, Drake University
I taught the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in a senior capstone class of English and Writing majors – with journalism students and education/English endorsement students in the mix as well. I organized the course around ideas and texts related to ekphrasis, which was a really helpful concept for appreciating the “gallery” references in the serialized piece. The class had previously read Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, and I think those two texts provide an excellent pairing due to their focus on different forms of art/aesthetics; violence; social issues; and the telling of “history.” I will summarize three productive engagements with the text.
1) Ekphrasis. Because of our earlier reading, students were interesting in tracking moments in which the text seemed to adhere to the frame of the “gallery” and moments in which the text seemed to escape or challenge that frame. In particular, they enjoyed considering which narrative aspects could be seen as writing about paintings. Sometimes the description of visitors to the gallery was seen to be very visual, as if the “gallery” setting itself was a canvas; at other times, conversations or descriptions seemed to be dramatic, literary or removed from the visual mode in other ways. The Black Forest episodes were more interesting to the class through this lens. Some of them felt that the references to travel suggested that the “tour” was entering the world of the picture, in an Alice in Wonderland sort of fantasy. Others felt that the Black Forest episodes were a journey to an alternative sort of gallery, in which racial issues and power were reversed. Still others thought these episodes were a travel into “history,” juxtaposing the gallery with other representations of history.
2) Students were really interested in the way in which the text challenged notions of race in connection to history. Because Hamilton is such a hot new musical, they were making connections between the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” and the musical in terms of history-telling, connections between history and art, and “performativity.” They were interested in the references to the slave ship painting (particularly what was said and what was not said), the final entries on the Underground Railroad, and the Black Forest sections.
3) Students were really interested in thinking about the audience of the piece. For example, their sense of the magazine was that it was directed toward people identifying as African-Americans. However, they felt that many of the entries were trying to educate readers about racial issues and seemed to be written for a different audience – one less aware of racial prejudice, one perhaps needing to be encouraged to take a position of racial tolerance, etc. In other words, they were unsure from entry to entry about audience issues, humor, satire or related concerns about “how” to read the text.
Because this was a capstone class with significant individual projects, I did not assign papers or assignments for this reading. However, I did ask that students bring in visual representations of “Afric-American” history or art from the 19th century to compare other “samples” with the selections from the gallery. I could easily see doing more with such an assignment. I could also see asking students to contrast the role a work of “art” has in The Marble Faun to the role a work of “art” has in the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” I think this text is very generative in terms of considering writing (and different literary genres) in connection to visual arts, especially painting.