A reflection on teaching The Afric-American Picture Gallery
University of Wisconsin-Madison
I taught the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in a course called “Long Before Harlem: Early Black Literature.” This was a small seminar course, capped at 24 students, and it was full. Because of the way the course was listed, it drew a wide variety of students. There was no prerequisite, but the course could also be taken for graduate credit. My seminar was comprised of a variety of students from various majors and schools within the university. They ranged from first-year students to graduate students. While this array did prove challenging, no students had not studied African American literature before 1900 in real depth, so the “newness” of the field proved useful for making connections across a range of interests and abilities. This course was an intermediate-level literature course, which met the university’s “Ethnic Studies Requirement.” In courses meeting this requirement, at least 25% of material must address “the experiences and/or theoretical understanding of” “persistently marginalized groups” in the U.S. Among other things, the learning outcomes of are intended to give students more “awareness of history’s impact on the present.” I framed the course in order to survey a broad array of genres in which African American people wrote. Students read this piece toward the end of a long semester of situation African American writing. We had talked about the broad field of African American literature, the incorporation of African American authors into the predominantly white field of American literary study, and the creation of an African American literary canon. We also talked about texts that have been considered important “firsts” in this body of literature, and discussed the “recovery” of African-American literary texts. Students even did a bit of archival research of their own, using nineteenth-century newspapers at the Wisconsin Historical Society and researching and presenting on texts in small groups. In my list of readings for such a class – which I understand more often than not to be the only African American literary studies course my students will ever take – I generally try to incorporate both “canonical” early African American texts and lesser-known texts. One difficulty I often have in paring down my syllabus is to strike a balance between texts I think students “have” to have read (e.g., Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) and others that will help to give them an idea of the breadth of the field. “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” also brought an interesting generic addition to my syllabus.
I placed the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in a section of the course dedicated to “Publication and Recovery.” It was therefore accompanied by reading and discussion of texts including Martina and Mary Anne Dickerson’s albums, digitized by the Library Company of Philadelphia, and readings from the Colored Conventions, based on the transcription project founded by P. Gabrielle Foreman at the University of Delaware. We had read work by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, including poetry from her rediscovered Forrest Leaves and her serialized temperance novel, Sowing and Reaping, also reading Eric Gardner’s essay about the rediscovered fifth chapter. As we approached the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” students were also in the midst of their own group archival research projects, reading newspapers to find one “Cool Thing” to research and present to the rest of the class. When teaching early African American literature, I always like to spend some time discussing the work that has made the texts we are reading available to us. From Jean Fagan Yellin’s research into Harriet Jacobs’ family to Henry Louis Gates’ Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers to his and Nellie Y. McKay’s first edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, I worked to teach students about the scholarly work that has made the classes I teach possible. The “Just Teach One – African American Literature” project presents another great opportunity to make this work more visible to students. As they worked through their own newspaper research projects (some students were working with the Anglo-African Magazine), they came to better appreciate and understand the work of recovery, and from here they approached “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” not only in content but in this larger context of African American literature and literary scholarship. I also worked to integrate my students’ research with newspapers at WHS special collections with a variety of electronic resources (including the Documenting the American South North American Slave Narratives Collection and the Accessible Archives African American Newspapers Collection) so that they could compare some of the various resources available.
As we discussed the text, students were drawn to the Wilson’s descriptions of his imagined gallery’s artwork and we devoted some time to a discussion of how readers might visualize these and what this collection as a whole might suggest about the author’s ideas of African American art. Students made connections to our ongoing discussion of African American literature – where we find this collected, who learns about this literature and why, who assesses it and how. During this portion of our discussion, we turned to Wilson’s description of Picture IX, the painting of Mount Vernon, and his claims about the depiction he describes:
I must plead in excuse, therefore, that in the conception of this picture, the Artist has simply failed; if not in faithfulness to the original, certainly in gratifying the popular American feeling.
The description of George Washington’s home allowed for a discussion of “founding fathers” and the history of slavery in the United States. We had read some “canonical” slave narratives early in the semester (Douglass, Jacobs, Northup) and students had read and presented individually on lesser-known slave narratives over the course of the semester. Recognizing the various ways slavery does (or doesn’t) appear in many of our assigned texts, students had discussed the importance of this theme in African American literature. In Wilson’s description, students brought up alternate depictions of slavery that worked alongside antislavery literature, and to which it responded.
As one might imagine, our assigned readings had been sometimes ambivalent about slavery, but were overwhelmingly antislavery and abolitionist where slavery was addressed explicitly. While in other classes I sometimes teach proslavery literature and plantation nostalgia fiction alongside antislavery materials, I generally do not assign my standard versions of these things for a straight-up African American studies class. Instead, I talk a bit about how we might locate and parse the different arguments to which antislavery writers responded. Students picked up on this tactic for discussing the painting of Mount Vernon, using this as a launch pad of sorts to discuss larger issues that had helped to frame our course: questions of U.S. histories and who depicts them, preconceptions about bodies of art or literature and how this frames our viewing/reading; questions of reality/authenticity and its relevance for art and literature, and questions about access to and availability of African American works and what institutions support them.