By Ethan Vesely-Flad
In his new posthumously-published autobiography, It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior, freedom movement elder Rev. C.T. Vivian describes his childhood as impoverished in economic status, but not in learning. Born in 1924, Rev. Vivian discusses his maternal grandmother’s central commitment to education – not only to the “three R’s” but also to knowledge of the long, rich history of their people.
“One particular book caught my eye,” he says in reference to his grandmother’s large collection of volumes in their house, “The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements by William Wells Brown.” The author was a fugitive slave and abolitionist who traveled internationally, and his 1863 publication was a formative text for Vivian, who quotes from its preface: “If this work shall aid in vindicating the Negro’s character, and show that he is endowed with those intellectual and amiable qualities which adorn and dignify human nature, it will meet the most sanguine hopes of the writer.”
In “19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality,” curator Jonette O’Kelley Miller offers a powerful contrast to the story often told of Black American life in the 1800s. Drawing on a range of artistic genres – photography, paintings, sculptures, woodwork, quilting, and metalsmithing – this collection describes the intellectual and artistic prowess of peoples of African descent during the antebellum and postbellum periods. In so doing, she offers a different mechanism for challenging white supremacy and thereby pushes back against normative themes of slavery, political resistance, and physical labor.
Using Henry Ossawa Tanner’s poignant 1893 painting The Banjo Lesson as its central text, Miller shows the need to step outside that limiting framework. This beautiful rendering of an intimate moment of intergenerational love, which has adorned my own child’s bedroom wall for many years, evokes the words of scholar Kevin Quashie. In his 2012 book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, Quashie argues: “The determination to see blackness only through a social public lens, as if there were no inner life, is racist—it comes from the language of racial superiority and is a practice intended to dehumanize black people.”
In addition to the diversity of content, this exhibition stands out due to the narration provided by Ms. Miller. I found myself fascinated by the back stories she provides to many of the selected works. For example, I listened several times to her description of the portrait of William Biggerstaff by J.P. Ball, Sr., which appears in a set of works gathered by W.E.B. Du Bois for an international exhibition in Paris, France at the turn of the century. The image itself is striking, but we further learn that “in keeping with Ball’s use of photography as social documentary, his photograph is the first of three revealing Biggerstaff’s subsequent execution and death.”
Likewise I was struck by the bust of Col. Robert Bould Shaw sculpted by M. Edmonia Lewis – created from memory and some drawings, as the subject had died during the civil war. Ms. Miller describes that “Shaw’s parents gave Lewis permission to sell copies of their son’s bust, which Lewis did to help 19th century African-American soldiers get equal pay.”
In total, this online exhibition (a collaboration between Studio Theater in Exile and Hudson Valley MOCA) should revise the ways that educators and historians consider African-American life in the 1800s. The prototypical focus on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction are necessary but limiting, as they exclude a broader understanding of the inner lives of Black people throughout the century – and how those experiences will ultimately inform the Harlem Renaissance and other forms of art and culture that emerge in the early 20th century. We need multilayered collections like this one, accompanied by dramatic storytelling such as provided by Ms. Miller’s narration, to add nuance, depth, and complexity to our understanding of the African-American experience.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Codeswitch podcast, Lonnie Bunch, 14th secretary of the Smithsonian – and the first Black person to hold that distinction – described his idea of creating what would become the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He said, “If I could come back and with a group of people build a museum that reflected the richness and the complexity of African-American history for everybody, then maybe that I could nurture the souls of my ancestors.” With “19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality,” I believe Ms. Miller has done precisely that.