Commonplace


Just Teach One

On Teaching William J. Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery”

Lori Leavell
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? (more…)

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