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9.1: Representing "Race"- From Emancipation to Jim Crow

  • Page ID
    172913
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863- in the midst of the Civil War-finally freed black Americans to claim their constitutional civil rights. But their newfound autonomy provoked racist images in the press. Like the physical and social boundaries confining black Americans, these racist caricatures drew perceptual boundaries, intended to limit the possibilities of the newly freed race by distorting and dehumanizing its members' appearance. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment granted voting rights to black men. Black emancipation and political sovereignty, as the scholar Kirk Savage has analyzed, challenged older traditions of representation and dramatized the role of the arts in creating a new space for the freed black.

    In art, an emergent language of realism countered the persistent stereotype of blacks as indolent, childlike, emotional, and lacking reason or will; both black and white artists reconceived the image of the new black citizen while tracing the ongoing impact of ethnic typing and caricature. In examining these artworks, we confront a broader dilemma: how to understand a historical experience defined by skin color without limiting and defining the black American by that alone.

    Thomas Nast: Racial Caricature and the Popular Press

    Throughout the nineteenth century, ethnic typing was directed at drawing boundaries between "us" and "them," shifting categories that at various times included blacks and immigrants from Ireland, Asia, and eastern Europe. Viciously racist caricatures frequently appeared in the widely circulated cartoons of the popular press. Produced since the eighteenth century, the cartoon, with its physical exaggeration, topicality of subject matter, humor, narrative condensation, and visual drama, was not considered art. Regardless, such images wielded considerable power and influence in society.

    The consummately skilled political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902)-creator of the Democratic Donkey, the Republican Elephant, and the popular image of Santa Claus-won both admiration and loathing during his career. Ulysses S. Grant credited Nast's cartoons with helping him get elected to the presidency, while the corrupt Boss Tweed of New York held Nast responsible for his downfall: " ... my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures."1

    Figure 9.2: THOMAS NAST, "Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day," Harper's Weekly, February 8, 1879. Private Collection.
    Figure 9.2: THOMAS NAST, "Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day," Harper's Weekly, February 8, 1879. Private Collection.

    Between 1862 and 1885 Nast produced some three thousand cartoons, mostly for Harper's Weekly , and shaped political opinion by unmasking the lies and hollow rhetoric that beleaguered the nation's public life. Nast' s political cartoons operated in the gap between the nation's ideals and its behavior; he directed images, for instance, against the persecution of Chinese laborers and other ethnic injustices. "Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day" (fig. 9.2) targets the hypocrisy of the Nativist movement against Chinese immigration. Nast grasped the structural character of American racism: minorities occupied interchangeable positions in a society where power was linked to white ancestry, and sustained by skin color.

    Figure 9.3: THOMAS NAST, "The Ignorant Vote-Honors Are Easy," Harper's Weekly, December 9, 1876. Private Collection.
    Figure 9.3: THOMAS NAST, "The Ignorant Vote-Honors Are Easy," Harper's Weekly, December 9, 1876. Private Collection.

    Yet Nast also stereotyped ethnic minorities when it served his own purposes. Irish Americans had long occupied the margins of the European social order, and like African Americans, they were also the subjects of caustic caricature following their mass immigration, leaving Ireland on the heels of the potato famine (1845- 9). After the Civil War, Nash's cartoons pitted African Americans and Irish Americans against one another, portraying Irishmen as bestial and lazy in contrast to the hardworking and honest black farmer, whose civil rights he ardently defended. By the end of Reconstruction, however, Nast had discarded his earlier support for black emancipation, turning his visual talents against the African American citizen he had earlier embraced. In "The Ignorant Vote- Honors Are Easy" (fig. 9.3), caricatural representations of a black and an Irish voter are weighed as equally ill-equipped to assume citizenship.

    The Mixed Legacy of Emancipation: Monuments to Freedom

    Figure 9.4: THOMAS BALL, Emancipation Group (Freedmen's Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln), Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., 1876. Bronze, approx 9 ft high (2.75 m). National Park Service.
    Figure 9.4: THOMAS BALL, Emancipation Group (Freedmen's Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln), Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., 1876. Bronze, approx 9 ft high (2.75 m). National Park Service.

    Thomas Ball (1819-1911), an American sculptor from Boston, was inspired by the assassination of Lincoln to create his Emancipation Group of 1876 (fig. 9.4). Living in Florence at the time, Ball departed from the neoclassical and allegorical mode in favor of greater naturalism. Wearing contemporary dress, Ball's figure of Lincoln rests his unfurled Emancipation Proclamation upon a shield bearing the national coat of arms. His left arm is outstretched, conferring freedom on a crouching slave. The act of emancipation travels in one direction, from Lincoln to slave.

    Ball's sculpture expresses the hierarchy of master over slave, and white over black, in other ways as well. On the verge of standing, the kneeling slave is still bound to the earth, while Lincoln towers above him. The trappings defining the terms of cultural participation-books, proclamations, symbols of nation-are all on the side of Lincoln. Meanwhile, the black man remains naked, lacking attributes of power.

    While aspiring to represent a new era, Ball's Emancipation Group uses the traditional language that blocks new ways of imagining black identity. His freed slave gazes up, as if hearkening to his new status. Yet his individuality is crushed by the weight of old assumptions.

    THE FREEDMAN. Another sculptor-John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910)-offered a strikingly different conception of the freed slave. Though done two years before Ball's, Ward's Freedman imagines the agent of emancipation to be the man himself. The Freedman eliminates the figure of Lincoln, focusing instead on the powerfully modeled slave. Entirely nude except for drapery across his loins, he still wears one manacle on his left wrist. His torso twists to the right, where his arm anchors the torque of his body in a pose that conveys coiled strength. His seated posture implies a further ambiguity-is he resting his weight upon the tree trunk that props his body up, or is he preparing to stand? The tension of his pose suggests an open-ended future no longer dictated by external forces but by the internal poise and dynamic power of the man himself.

    Like Ball's sculpture, The Freedman was originally intended as a monument (p. 280). But unlike the later work, The Freedman speaks a sculptural language that originates in antiquity. The classical canon of proportion, the athleticism of idealized male form, and the graceful torsion of head and body, are all apparent in Ward's freedman. Unusually for this period, Ward uses a heroic model from antiquity-the Hellenistic Belvedere Torso, which linked physical perfection with moral grandeur-to represent a racial type that had been ordinarily associated with grotesque exaggeration and ungainly proportions. Conveying physical power and individualized features, Ward's Freedman holds the promise of fuller human endowments and responsibilities.

    The Freedman reflects the uncertainties of the future. This black American frees himself through his own efforts. Yet he cannot act alone. A decade of federally enforced efforts to establish a new order of equality collapsed in 1877, foreclosing for the time being the unrealized promise of racial justice.

    Figure 9.5: LUCINDA WARD HONSTAIN, Pictorial applique quilt, 1867. Cotton, 97 x 84 in (246 x 213 cm). International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
    Figure 9.5: LUCINDA WARD HONSTAIN, Pictorial applique quilt, 1867. Cotton, 97 x 84 in (246 x 213 cm). International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

    AN EMANCIPATION QUILT. A striking social document of Emancipation done in needlework at the conclusion of the war is Lucinda Ward Honstain's (1820-1904) quilt (fig. 9.5). In forty appliqued blocks, she combined family biography, political commentary, genre scenes, and conventional decorative motifs common to mid-century applique quilts. The central rectangular block depicts Honstain' s own home in Williamsburg, an area of Brooklyn, New York. Below, an equestrian figure probably represents her daughter Emma, an accomplished horsewoman. To the right is a three-masted ship from the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard where Emma's husband's ship had embarked for its Civil War tour of duty. In the second row from the bottom, one of the blocks depicts a man driving a horse-drawn wagon. Embroidered on the side of the wagon is "W B. Dry Goods," a reference to the firm of Ward and Burroughs owned by the artist's brother.

    Honstain was a professional dressmaker. Yet she was avidly interested in the events of the day, for in the sewing she did for herself she commemorated patriotic, military, and political themes, including Jefferson Davis (1808-89) (second row, middle). The famous Confederate president had been released from prison in 1867-the year she was working on the quilt-after two years' incarceration .for treason. In the third row, left, an eloquent reminder of the Civil War is inscribed in the embroidered message "Master I am free," uttered by a black man facing a white man on horseback. Honstain' s family had owned slaves when she was a child; after the passage of the New York antislavery law of 1827, those freed blacks continued to live in the neighborhood. In several scenes, Honstain provides insight into the jobs available to freed blacks in New York City: boot black (bottom row) and ice cream vendor (second row, left). Though the assimilation of blacks into the trades was a major theme in social and literary discourse of the period, this was seldom depicted in genre painting, making this quilt an even more notable artifact of nineteenth century American visual culture.

    Honstain's opinion about African Americans is hard to discern. Like many images circulating in the popular press, her quilted and stitched image does not avoid stereotype, in the use of large everted lips and other exaggerations of physiognomy, suggesting that there were few other models on which to base a view of the black American.

    Saint-Gaudens's Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw: Common and Uncommon Soldiers

    Figure 9.6: Augustus Saint Gaudens, Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, 1897. Bronze relief, figures lifesize. Knoxville marble frame.
    Figure 9.6: Augustus Saint Gaudens, Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, 1897. Bronze relief, figures lifesize. Knoxville marble frame.

    Perhaps no nineteenth-century image of black Americans so well captured the unfinished project of race equality, launched by the Civil War, as Augustus Saint-Gaudens's (1848- 1907) Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw (fig. 9.6). Dedicated in 1897, it prompted the French sculptor Auguste Rodin to remove his hat in homage. 2 Yet this memorial, despite its power to imagine new possibilities, also embodied the limits of "equality" The Shaw Memorial has yielded a wide range of interpretation, from the celebratory to the critical.

    Robert Gould Shaw was the only son of a prominent Boston family of abolitionists. Following Emancipation, the Northern army began accepting African American volunteers, many of them former slaves who faced skepticism about their courage under fire and ability to follow army discipline. Shaw was selected by the Governor of Massachusetts to lead the 54th Regiment, one of only two all-black regiments to fight in the war. Two months after parading through the streets of Boston, Shaw and most of his regiment were killed in a doomed effort to take Fort Wagner in South Carolina from the Confederate army, who outnumbered them two to one. Stripped of their uniforms, Shaw and his men received a Confederate burial in a mass grave; Shaw's family resisted offers to rebury his body, insisting that he remain with his troops.

    Individual identities- with the exception of Shaw's were lost until a rededication of the memorial in 1982, when names of the black regimental members were inscribed into the stone reverse of the monument. Yet from the start, Shaw's family had wanted names to be attached to the anonymous black soldiers, "in order," in the words of Shaw's sister, "to leave no excuse for the feeling that it is only men with rich relations and friends who can have monuments."3

    The rise of realism, while it might continue to express the old forms of racial hierarchy ( as in Thomas Ball's memorial), also instigated a new, more individualized representation of African Americans, as evident in the Shaw Memorial. As with his other memorials to Civil War heroes, Saint-Gaudens combines specificity of observation-based on some forty preparatory studies done from life-with a figure in the allegorical mode who hovers above the mounted Shaw, carrying an olive branch, signifying peace, and poppies, alluding to death and remembrance. A sense of determination and movement is balanced by reverential stillness. The architectural frame for the memorial designed by the architect Charles McKim of the firm of McKim, Mead, and White-resembles a shallow proscenium arch; the regiment, facing stoically forward, marches in unison to the beat of the young drummer at the head of their ranks. Just as they paraded through the streets of Boston prior to their departure for the war, they also proceed across the stage of history toward destiny. Here and throughout, Saint-Gaudens seamlessly integrates realism and allegory.

    Saint-Gaudens accepted the commission for the monument in 1884, but it took him nearly fourteen years-until 1897- to complete. His initial sketches reveal conventionality: an equestrian monument to the lone hero. But, under pressure from Shaw's family, the sculptor eventually placed Shaw in the midst of his troops, recognizing that his heroism arose out of his bond to his men, bearing witness, in the words of the philosopher William James at the dedication of the memorial, "to the brotherhood of man."

    In Saint-Gaudens's memorial, the tiers of black soldiers are ranged in orderly files around Shaw. They are the foot soldiers whose gallantry, while appearing less glorious than the exalted vision of Shaw, is no less worthy. Distinguishing between common and uncommon heroes, Saint-Gaudens nonetheless acknowledges the entwined fates of white and black. Yet his vision still centers on the white man who leads, miraculously borne above the chaos of war into a timeless realm.

    The Post-War South: Richard Brooke and Winslow Homer

    In the decades after the Civil War, a number of white artists took up the subject of black life in the South, including Richard Brooke (1847-1920) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910). For Brooke, newly returned from study in the Parisian studio of Leon Bonnat in 1879, southern black life offered an American version of the peasant subject matter so appealing to European artists in the later nineteenth century.

    Figure 9.7: RICHARD BROOKE, A Pastoral Visit, 1881. Oil on canvas, 47¾ X 65¾ in (121.2 x 167 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 9.7: RICHARD BROOKE, A Pastoral Visit, 1881. Oil on canvas, 47¾ X 65¾ in (121.2 x 167 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

    A PASTORAL VISIT. This painting by Brooke of 1881 (fig. 9.7) is staged to furnish "characteristic" attitudes and types of black life. The slumped father gazes wearily toward the upright figure of the pastor, who returns his look with an implied rebuke, while the middle daughter gives a sidelong glance in the direction of the visitor. Beneath the polish of Brooke's academic style are longstanding stereotypes. The powerful matriarch ladles food onto the minister's plate, arms akimbo, while her husband seems disinclined to anything but playing the banjo. Yet the figure of the black father-despite his posture-is powerfully and realistically modeled, in keeping with the artist's French academic training.

    A Pastoral Visit offered audiences a picturesque and humorous scene distanced from caricature by its mastery of academic realism. Yet Brooke's image also reveals the persistence of old stereotypes, making the drama of the newly reunited black family a spectacle that deftly avoids the difficult uncertainties faced by black communities following Reconstruction.

    DRESSING FOR THE CARNIVAL. In 1877, Winslow Homer traveled from Boston to Petersburg, Virginia, a city familiar to him from his days as a Civil War illustrator for Harper's Weekly. Homer's decision to revisit the site coincided with the end of Reconstruction, as the federal government withdrew its troops from the South. Homer traveled south just as these troops were headed north, and his intention to paint black life in Virginia-can be understood as a symbolic counterpoint to the federal withdrawal. Homer wished to paint what the art historian Nicolai Cikovsky has called "national subjects," images that spoke to the concerns of the day. The question of what would happen to the former slaves of the South-how they would survive economically, what their social and political future might entail-was especially timely after the collapse of Reconstruction, as the federal government abandoned its protection and the former Confederacy reverted to southern control.

    Figure 9.8: WINSLOW HOMER, Dressing for the Carnival, 1877. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in (50.8 x 76.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Lazarus Fund, 1922.
    Figure 9.8: WINSLOW HOMER, Dressing for the Carnival, 1877. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in (50.8 x 76.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Lazarus Fund, 1922.

    In a painting now known as Dressing for the Carnival (fig. 9.8), Homer combined his own brand of realism- flattened spaces, loose and vigorous brushwork-with historical and symbolic references. Dressing for the Carnival (1877) depicts two women, both probably former slaves, sewing last-minute touches to the patchwork costume of the man at the painting's center. The two American flags held by the children on the right remind the viewer that the man is about to join an Independence Day parade. The shape of his hat recalls a Phrygian cap, worn by freed slaves in the Roman Empire, and associated with liberty since the Revolutionary era of the late eighteenth century; its red, white, and blue colors meld the themes of American freedom from colonial rule with African American emancipation. For blacks during Reconstruction, Independence Day represented an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and their integration into the mainstream of American history.

    Homer's painting extends, however, beyond the Fourth of July to allude also to Jonkonnu, a festival occurring around Christmas that fused West African and European performance traditions. Jonkonnu was celebrated on plantations from the Caribbean to Virginia. During the festival, slaves would don masquerade costumes, pass beyond the picket fence that usually separated the slave quarters from the master's residence, and perform on the front porch of the plantation house, often in comic fashion. They were rewarded with coins and gifts from the master. The shreds of cloth that adorn the central figure in Dressing for the Carnival resemble the strips of fabric that adorned the costume of the "Pitchy Patchy" or "Rag Man" from Jonkonnu.4 They also allude to "Harlequin"-a clown-like character in European masquerade traditions known for his wit and guile.

    Dressing for the Carnival is less a simple description of everyday life among former slaves in the South than a meditation on the fate of African Americans in post Reconstruction America. The painting dramatizes both the dignity of Homer's subjects and the tenuousness of their lives. They shuttle between American celebrations of freedom and post-Reconstruction denials of it. They marry ancestral West African with European performance traditions. They costume themselves for succeeding in a white world. The sewing skills of the women-their ability to adjust the man's costume just so-contrast implicitly with their lack of control over the larger forces of the outside world, the one on the other side of the fence. Will the costumed man need to dance and sing in minstrel fashion in order to solicit the good will of his former masters, or will he soon join the Fourth of July parade as an enfranchised citizen?

    Though Homer poses no answers to these questions, he also refuses to simplify the questions. The painting's sense that freedom is as much play-acting as reality reflects Homer's desire to capture black experience outside the prevailing stereotypes. He alludes instead to the precarious nature of black economic survival (the rags and the children's bare feet), to the prospect that the future will only repeat the past (the plantation world on the other side of the fence), and to the endless improvisations that former slaves must make. At the same time, the small white butterfly frozen in mid-air behind the man's head carries associations of flight, freedom, and transformation. The question that Homer poses for the viewer is: how are we to interpret that butterfly? Is it an affirmation of the aspirations of the figures surrounding it, or is it a suggestion of how much has been-and will be-lost?

    Figure 9.9: WINSLOW HOMER, The Gulf Stream, 1899. Oil on canvas, 28 x 49 in (71.1 x 124.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wolfe Fund.
    Figure 9.9: WINSLOW HOMER, The Gulf Stream, 1899. Oil on canvas, 28 x 49 in (71.1 x 124.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wolfe Fund.

    THE GULF STREAM. More than twenty years later, Homer provided a tragic answer to the questions posed in the earlier picture. The Gulf Stream, 1899, sets an isolated black man, stranded on a rudderless boat, against a swarm of circling sharks (fig. 9.9). The turbulent water is flecked with red, signifying the violence that comes not only from the sea and sharks, but from the large waterspout-a kind of tornado at sea- in the far right background. Sharing the horizon with the waterspout, but at the opposite end of the canvas, a tall-masted ship heads serenely into the light, away from the stranded boat.

    The background ship represents the community in a general sense, and, as a visual pun, the "ship of state." Its distance from the horrors of the foreground suggests the indifference of the nation to the plight of the stranded black man, who looks away from the ship, having long since abandoned any hopes of help from that quarter. Instead he directs his attention to the shark-infested waters, intent on survival. The odds that he will succeed look slim.

    In the ocean to his right a school of flying fish breaches the red-capped surface. The fish embody freedom, and they contrast, in their flight, with the earthbound fate of the painting's protagonist. They provide the painting with a visual equivalent of the small white butterfly in Dressing for the Carnival. In the earlier painting, the butterfly represented simultaneously a vision of freedom and an ironic comment on the difficulty of attaining it. In The Gulf Stream, the flying fish are entirely ironic. They dart to the right as the boat wanders hopelessly to the left. Divided between the two, the black man looks toward the fish while his body drifts with the boat. Freedom exists as a vision that recedes even as he watches.

    The chain-like forms at his feet are in fact stalks of sugar cane. They allude to his dependence on field work, bodily labor, and an international market that exports the raw products of the South and the Caribbean to manufacturing centers-and profits- elsewhere, large and overwhelming forces that radically curtail his freedom and render him helpless.

    Though the imagery of Homer's paintings tends to be natural, the crises they reveal are invariably social. Homer's critics have tended to interpret him as a painter of timeless, universal human truths. We need to understand him, instead, as one of America's most astute social commentators.

    Figure 9.10: WINSLOW HOMER, The Turtle Pound, 1898. Watercolor, 16 X 21⅜ in (40.6 x 54.3 cm). The Brooklyn Museum, New York. A.T. White Memorial Fund and Others.
    Figure 9.10: WINSLOW HOMER, The Turtle Pound, 1898. Watercolor, 16 X 21⅜ in (40.6 x 54.3 cm). The Brooklyn Museum, New York. A.T. White Memorial Fund and Others.

    THE TURTLE POUND. In contrast to the despair of The Gulf Stream, Homer created a series of remarkable watercolors during his visit to the Bahamas in 1898. These intimate scenes portray indigenous figures in their everyday work environments. In The Turtle Pound (fig. 9.10), for example, Homer shows two Bahamians, at home in the water, transferring a sea turtle to a holding pound where it can grow and fatten. The men are defined by their mutual cooperation, their intent engagement in their work, and their indifference to the viewer, whom they do not acknowledge. They work beyond the industrialized rhythms of factories and time clocks, and their gracefulness mirrors the wholeness of their world. They embody for Homer what industrial America had lost: a unity of mind and body prior to the modern "division of labor." This organic unity of body and soul, man and nature, extends to the very substance of this watercolor. Homer allows the whiteness of his drawing paper to show through, weaving its texture into his arrangement of clouds and pound boards.

    Harriet Powers's Bible Quilts: Popular Religion and Black Emancipation

    Figure 9.11: HARRIET POWERS, Bible quilt, c. 1895. Cotton, 60 X 105 in (152-4 x 266.7 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
    Figure 9.11: HARRIET POWERS, Bible quilt, c. 1895. Cotton, 60 X 105 in (152-4 x 266.7 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

    We have already seen one example of how women used needlework to explore the black presence in the public sphere. The African American quilter Harriet Powers' s two Bible quilts, one in the Smithsonian ( c. 1886), the other in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (c. 1895, fig. 9.11), are among the best known and most widely illustrated examples of the quilting arts. A seamstress who was born a slave in Georgia in 1837, Powers (d. 1911) completed these two works in her late middle age, using a range of typical fabrics of the time. Most of the work was done on a sewing machine, in a free-spirited manner more concerned with her message than with delicacy of execution. Powers's quilts demonstrate that black women-the most marginalized voices in nineteenth-century culture- were engaged with the social and religious issues of their day. While they could neither vote nor wield direct political power, women articulated ideas in the medium they knew best-cloth.

    Powers called her quilts "sermons in patchwork." She turned to needlework- a medium readily available to her as a black woman-as a way of participating in a tradition of biblical prophecy traditionally dominated by men. The quilt illustrated here is composed of fifteen scenes, many referring to biblical stories, including Adam and Eve, Jonah and the Whale, Job, Moses, John baptizing Christ, and the Crucifixion. Four other scenes depict mysterious weather occurrences, among them "Black Friday" in 1780-when pollution caused by forest fires darkened the sky- and the meteor storms of 1833 and 1846. A fifth tells the story of an "independent hog that ran five hundred miles from Georgia to Virginia," possibly a reference to runaway slaves during her youth.

    The square directly in the center of the quilt depicts the all-night Leonid meteor storm of November 13, 1833. Eight yellow stars stand out vividly against the blue background. A large white hand is appliqued to the upper left corner of this central block. Powers said of this event, "the people were fright and thought that the end of time had come. God's hand staid the stars." Some scholars have linked Powers's quilts with West African traditions of pictorial appliqued banners. But in fact, most slaves in Georgia had been brought from the Central African regions of Angola and the Congo, rather than West Africa. Powers's quilt does contain cosmological symbols-hand, eye, snake, sun, and cross-used in the various West and Central African cultures from which slaves were taken. So it is possible that such symbols fuse African and Christian prophetic traditions.

    Powers was a devout Christian who exhibited and sold her quilts at international fairs to white buyers. Her Smithsonian quilt was displayed at the 1886 Cotton Fair in Athens, Georgia, and circumstantial evidence suggests that the quilt illustrated here was on view at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, where the black educator Booker T. Washington first proposed his ideas about improving the condition of southern blacks through economic self-reliance and cooperation with their former masters. Powers's quilt, however, sounded a different message. In the popular tradition of interpreting natural events as providential warnings, and in the symbolism of runaway slaves, Powers gave African Americans a more active role in shaping their own destinies. Her unforgettable pictorial narrative is a potent symbol of African American creativity and tenacity in the aftermath of slavery.

    Henry Ossawa Tanner

    In the post-war years, many Americans assumed that slavery had deprived blacks of both tradition and history, a devastating denial of identity and shared humanity. The black academically trained artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) had a stake in issues of cultural identity other than that of white artists painting black subjects. Tanner engaged racial stereotypes only to turn them around in a respectful exploration of black traditions.

    Tanner's father was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; he had grown up steeped in ideals of black cultural uplift, access to education, and belief in the place of the African American artist in the nation's future. Yet he had also experienced racial harassment from students at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was studying under Thomas Eakins. Like many artists of his generation, Tanner went to study in Paris, making his permanent home there from 1894 on, and winning respect and admiration from the French, who considered him, according to one critic, "the greatest artist that America has produced." 5 Much of his later career was devoted to biblical history paintings, which he did as an expatriate.

    Figure 9.12: HENRY OSSAWA TANNER, The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Oil on canvas, 49 x 35 in (124 x 90 cm). Hampton University Museum, Virginia.
    Figure 9.12: HENRY OSSAWA TANNER, The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Oil on canvas, 49 x 35 in (124 x 90 cm). Hampton University Museum, Virginia.

    THE BANJO LESSON. In 1893 Tanner painted this work (fig. 9.12) while in Philadelphia, to which he had returned from Paris to recover from typhoid fever. The Banjo Lesson was one of two genre paintings Tanner produced at this time in which poor southern blacks, still scarred by slavery, are presented with unsentimental dignity. The reserve of Tanner's subjects departs from the traditional image of the gregarious black performer. The Banjo Lesson was painted three years before the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), during a period when whites were committing lynchings and other crimes of intimidation to reestablish racial separation in the South.

    In this quiet scene a young boy is cradled in the arms of an older black man who holds up the neck of the banjo- an instrument too large for the boy to support. The boy tentatively strums the banjo with his awkwardly cocked right hand, while his left hand struggles with fingering. The two figures form a tight compositional and emotional unit, thoroughly absorbed in their world. They are situated in a simple, scrubbed domestic interior, the remains of a meal just eaten visible on the table in the background. An internal radiance sets off the massive dark brow and head of the man and illuminates the face of the young boy, a study in concentration. Knees spread wide, the man frames the boy in a metaphor of protection, tradition, and the bond furnished by music as it is passed from generation to generation. Tanner may have drawn this subject on travels to North Carolina before returning to Paris. As the art historian Judith Wilson has pointed out, Tanner transforms the conventional view of blacks as innately musical by emphasizing the role of teaching in the transmission of black cultural forms. 6 The young boy's face is illuminated from the left, in a traditional metaphor of enlightenment. In their embrace of vernacular subjects, these works by Tanner look forward to twentieth-century black artists who explored the place of tradition in black cultural identity.

    Traditions have a double-edged significance in African American communities, asserting continuity but also recalling a history of oppression. Tanner remained sensitive to this. In his work the banjo-associated with the minstrel tradition of grinning, extroverted blacks-becomes an instrument of generational exchange. Furthermore, as a New World adaptation with roots in Africa, the banjo harkens back to a preslavery past, and reconnects with ancestral traditions. Even so, Tanner explores black tradition in a style of painting that is indistinguishable from that of white American artists who, like him, also studied in Paris in the later nineteenth century.

    Tanner's position between the worlds of American and French art, and between a supportive black family and white patrons, may, as Al Boime has suggested, have freed him from confining perspectives and allowed him to confront the experience of African Americans with new directness. Held up throughout his life as a representative of his race, Tanner himself resisted being labeled a "Negro" artist, insisting that race was irrelevant to his ambitions. And yet Tanner's social experience endowed him with uncommon sensitivity to the problems of black representation.