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.
I began by giving a little background on the Anglo-African Magazine and Wilson’s other newspaper writing, as well as the Just Teach One: Early African American Print initiative. The students were really engaged by the idea that they were reading something that very few people had read for a long time, and it seemed to encourage them to think more ambitiously. Given that the text itself was new to us, I asked, did it resemble anything they had read before? We talked a bit about the sketchbook genre and Ethiop’s narrative persona as a “rambler” who “stumbles over” the gallery. We also experimented with thinking of him as a flâneur who roams the city, observing his surroundings—but unlike the solitary flâneur, we noted how Ethiop invites the reader to join him in his looking. Then one student said tentatively, “Maybe this is anachronistic, but did this remind anyone remind anyone else of sci-fi?” And that’s when our discussion really took off.
It was the tablet that prompted the student’s sci-fi comparison, but once she made it, we began to tune in to so much that was fantastical about the story. What is Ethiop’s relationship to the gallery? He happens upon it, but then he seems to have some kind of curatorial role. How does one reach the gallery? Strangers visit, but Ethiop also calls it a “secret.” (Here Jasmine Nichole Cobb’s theorization of the “invitation-only” space of the parlor offered a valuable point of comparison.) Impressive portraits of people of African descent existed in 1859, as the JTO: EAAP website illustrates, including depictions of some of the same people whose portraits hang in the Gallery. So why does Wilson invent fictional paintings and sculptures? Where is the Black Forest, both a carriage ride and a world away from the Gallery? And what kind of causality governs this world, in which looking at a picture of the Black Forest summons an invitation to visit it?
The class was especially interested in the relationship between “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” and the Black Forest. If the pictures in the gallery, as Ivy Wilson puts it, “embed a recessed futurity, one that functions as a signal of a proleptic black politics,” what do we access in the Black Forest’s extravagantly fantastical space? Students pointed out that the story shifts into a more allegorical mode at this point, not least in the name of the forest, whose blackness obviously signifies well beyond that of its German namesake—though it is less obvious how. Not surprisingly, they were fascinated by the image of the artist working underground, as well by the revelation that he keeps the man who once enslaved him captive there. One student pointed out a possible reference to Revelations, where the devil is chained up and cast into a pit. Another student suggested that alternate temporalities seem to obtain in the Black Forest, evident most obviously in the Tablet’s message from the year 4000 but also in the odd syntax of sentences like Bernice’s statement about his former owner, “Long years have since gone by. I yet have him in my possession.” Since reading Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities earlier in the semester, the students had wrestled with the idea of messianic time; finally we had a concrete example!
Our discussion was wide-ranging, as the story’s own multiplicity practically demands, but one theme that kept emerging was the vertiginous relationship Wilson draws between artistic representation and the real. Several students noted that Ethiop’s account of looking at pictures is oddly recursive: “a picture…paint[s] the memory,” he explains, suggesting that the effect of pictures to turn viewers into pictures themselves. They noted that this porousness between representation and the real contributes to the story’s fantastical qualities, but they also suggested that it expresses a political desire that works of art might usher into existence a world that does not yet exist. Wilson draws the reader into this alternate reality, as well, both in Ethiop’s explicit invitation to enter the fictional gallery (“Well, here we are”) and in his implicit directions for placing ourselves there. The precise locations Ethiop gives for many of the pictures had prompted me to ask the students to make gallery maps as they were reading. In class, we pored over these maps, expecting them to reveal a pattern. Yet the exercise proved to be a (productive) failure: we found that orienting ourselves in the gallery only made it more disorienting. What looked like a gesture toward realism actually summoned an organization whose contours we could not yet discern