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“The Afric-American Picture Gallery” Reflection, James Finley

James Finley
Assistant Professor of English
Texas A&M University-San Antonio

I taught William J. Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in an MA-level graduate seminar focusing on representations of enslavement and race in U.S. literature. Students read “Afric-American Picture Gallery” for a class meeting that focused on aesthetic and visual logics of race. My goal was for students to consider these logics as presented in both white- and Black-authored texts from multiple genres. Students read the “Picture Gallery” alongside Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Frederick Douglass’s “The Claims of the Negro Ethnographically Considered,” and James McCune Smith’s “Heads of Colored People.” The class contained six students, half of whom had read “Benito Cereno” previously. All the other material was new to them. (Only a couple had read Douglass’s 1845 Narrative; we read Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom two weeks after this session.)

This was the first class meeting of the semester that did not focus primarily on a book-length text supplemented with secondary material. Students appreciated the opportunity, after a stretch of classes focused on a single author, to see how a cluster of contemporary voices engaged in broad conversation with one another around a series of related themes.

We spent roughly the first third of our two-and-a half-hour session discussing “Benito Cereno,” followed by approximately thirty minutes each on Douglass, McCune Smith, and Wilson. I had expected the group primarily to juxtapose Wilson’s portraits with those of McCune Smith and to consider Wilson’s representations of the pictures and white viewers’ responses in relation to Douglass’s condemnation of phrenology, but they instead were mostly interested in the portraits’ connections to “Benito Cereno.” We discussed the ways in which the pictures—in a style analogous to Melville’s—teach by example, employing irony and eschewing didacticism as they deconstruct epistemologies of whiteness, and students developed productive lines of thought concerning their respective representations of revolution (in Haiti and fear of slave rebellion in the U.S.). At the same time, students focused on differences, noting that Wilson’s portrait of a slave ship is accompanied by an interpreter—the tour guide—a benefit that Delano in “Benito Cereno” clearly could have used. Students also found similarities with William Wells Brown’s Clotel, insofar as both Brown and Wilson reject normative perspectives on U.S. culture and history. Along these lines, since some of the students were more familiar with 20th-century U.S. literature, they wanted to discuss the proto-modernist elements of Wilson’s series.

I organized the readings for this session so as to build up to Wilson, both because his text was the latest published and because many of the issues raised in the other texts are addressed in the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” Despite the relatively circumscribed amount of time we spent discussing the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” and the students’ interest in intertextual analysis, we touched on a wide range of issues raised by Wilson’s text—historiography, visual culture and ekphrasis, and the Black press.

Students responded very positively to the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” When class ended, they had still more to say about it and about specific sections in particular. I plan to teach Wilson’s text in future courses and believe that it would work at various levels. The next time I teach it, I want to ensure that I devote more time for discussion. I suspect that I will spin off “Benito Cereno” into its own week and teach a class that focuses on Wilson primarily, alongside Douglass’s “Claims” and McCune Smith’s “Heads,” supplemented by scholarship such as John Ernest’s and Ivy Wilson’s work on the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” as well as background material on nineteenth-century visual culture and aesthetics. This way, students can draw connections to “Benito Cereno” while also more thoroughly examining the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” on its own terms and in relation to Douglass and McCune Smith.

“The Afric-American Picture Gallery” Reflection, Lisa West

Lisa West
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. (more…)

“The Afric-American Picture Gallery” Reflection

Bryan Sinche
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.” (more…)

“The Afric-American Picture Gallery” Reflection, Ben Fagan

Benjamin Fagan
Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University

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.”

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Lara Cohen Teaching Reflection

English, Swarthmore College

I taught “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” in an Honors seminar called Early American Media Culture, which I offered for the first time this year. The class is very small—only five students—and very intense, meeting once a week for four hours at a stretch. We read “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” alongside Ivy Wilson’s chapter on it in Specters of Democracy: Blackness and the Aesthetics of Politics in the Antebellum U.S.; photographic portraits of Frederick Douglass and Laura Wexler’s essay on Douglass’s writing about photography, “‘A More Perfect Likeness’: Frederick Douglass and the Making of the Nation”; and digital versions of friendship albums kept by Amy Matilda Cassey, Martina Dickerson, and Mary Anne Dickerson plus Jasmine Nichole Cobb’s chapter on the albums’ “optics of respectability” in Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century. It was a rich week, full of great material, but even so, we ultimately had to make ourselves stop talking about “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” so that we could get to everything else. We were all that captivated by Wilson’s vision of Black visual culture. The students loved the whirlwind tour through multiple literary modes. They were fascinated by the space the story opens between writing and seeing. They thought Wilson was hilarious, and they were gleeful over his political audacity: his portrayal of a former slaveholder in chains, his deft evisceration of white people’s carefully crafted racial identities (“not Anglo-African, but Anglo-Saxon, or Anglo-American or something of that sort; botheration, I never could get the hang of these Angloes!”), and his prophecy of their eventual extinction.

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