Teaching Reflection by 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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Teaching Reflection by Lara Cohen

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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