A reflection on teaching The Afric-American Picture Gallery
Assistant Professor of English
Texas A&M University-San Antonio
I taught William J. Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in an MA-level graduate seminar focusing on representations of enslavement and race in U.S. literature. Students read “Afric-American Picture Gallery” for a class meeting that focused on aesthetic and visual logics of race. My goal was for students to consider these logics as presented in both white- and Black-authored texts from multiple genres. Students read the “Picture Gallery” alongside Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Frederick Douglass’s “The Claims of the Negro Ethnographically Considered,” and James McCune Smith’s “Heads of Colored People.” The class contained six students, half of whom had read “Benito Cereno” previously. All the other material was new to them. (Only a couple had read Douglass’s 1845 Narrative; we read Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom two weeks after this session.)
This was the first class meeting of the semester that did not focus primarily on a book-length text supplemented with secondary material. Students appreciated the opportunity, after a stretch of classes focused on a single author, to see how a cluster of contemporary voices engaged in broad conversation with one another around a series of related themes.
We spent roughly the first third of our two-and-a half-hour session discussing “Benito Cereno,” followed by approximately thirty minutes each on Douglass, McCune Smith, and Wilson. I had expected the group primarily to juxtapose Wilson’s portraits with those of McCune Smith and to consider Wilson’s representations of the pictures and white viewers’ responses in relation to Douglass’s condemnation of phrenology, but they instead were mostly interested in the portraits’ connections to “Benito Cereno.” We discussed the ways in which the pictures—in a style analogous to Melville’s—teach by example, employing irony and eschewing didacticism as they deconstruct epistemologies of whiteness, and students developed productive lines of thought concerning their respective representations of revolution (in Haiti and fear of slave rebellion in the U.S.). At the same time, students focused on differences, noting that Wilson’s portrait of a slave ship is accompanied by an interpreter—the tour guide—a benefit that Delano in “Benito Cereno” clearly could have used. Students also found similarities with William Wells Brown’s Clotel, insofar as both Brown and Wilson reject normative perspectives on U.S. culture and history. Along these lines, since some of the students were more familiar with 20th-century U.S. literature, they wanted to discuss the proto-modernist elements of Wilson’s series.
I organized the readings for this session so as to build up to Wilson, both because his text was the latest published and because many of the issues raised in the other texts are addressed in the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” Despite the relatively circumscribed amount of time we spent discussing the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” and the students’ interest in intertextual analysis, we touched on a wide range of issues raised by Wilson’s text—historiography, visual culture and ekphrasis, and the Black press.
Students responded very positively to the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” When class ended, they had still more to say about it and about specific sections in particular. I plan to teach Wilson’s text in future courses and believe that it would work at various levels. The next time I teach it, I want to ensure that I devote more time for discussion. I suspect that I will spin off “Benito Cereno” into its own week and teach a class that focuses on Wilson primarily, alongside Douglass’s “Claims” and McCune Smith’s “Heads,” supplemented by scholarship such as John Ernest’s and Ivy Wilson’s work on the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” as well as background material on nineteenth-century visual culture and aesthetics. This way, students can draw connections to “Benito Cereno” while also more thoroughly examining the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” on its own terms and in relation to Douglass and McCune Smith.