Teaching Reflection by Brigitte Fielder

University of Wisconsin-Madison

I taught the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in a course called “Long Before Harlem: Early Black Literature.” This was a small seminar course, capped at 24 students, and it was full. Because of the way the course was listed, it drew a wide variety of students. There was no prerequisite, but the course could also be taken for graduate credit. My seminar was comprised of a variety of students from various majors and schools within the university. They ranged from first-year students to graduate students. While this array did prove challenging, no students had not studied African American literature before 1900 in real depth, so the “newness” of the field proved useful for making connections across a range of interests and abilities. This course was an intermediate-level literature course, which met the university’s “Ethnic Studies Requirement.” In courses meeting this requirement, at least 25% of material must address “the experiences and/or theoretical understanding of” “persistently marginalized groups” in the U.S. Among other things, the learning outcomes of are intended to give students more “awareness of history’s impact on the present.” I framed the course in order to survey a broad array of genres in which African American people wrote. Students read this piece toward the end of a long semester of situation African American writing. We had talked about the broad field of African American literature, the incorporation of African American authors into the predominantly white field of American literary study, and the creation of an African American literary canon. We also talked about texts that have been considered important “firsts” in this body of literature, and discussed the “recovery” of African-American literary texts. Students even did a bit of archival research of their own, using nineteenth-century newspapers at the Wisconsin Historical Society and researching and presenting on texts in small groups. In my list of readings for such a class – which I understand more often than not to be the only African American literary studies course my students will ever take – I generally try to incorporate both “canonical” early African American texts and lesser-known texts. One difficulty I often have in paring down my syllabus is to strike a balance between texts I think students “have” to have read (e.g., Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) and others that will help to give them an idea of the breadth of the field. “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” also brought an interesting generic addition to my syllabus.

I placed the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in a section of the course dedicated to “Publication and Recovery.” It was therefore accompanied by reading and discussion of texts including Martina and Mary Anne Dickerson’s albums, digitized by the Library Company of Philadelphia, and readings from the Colored Conventions, based on the transcription project founded by P. Gabrielle Foreman at the University of Delaware. We had read work by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, including poetry from her rediscovered Forrest Leaves and her serialized temperance novel, Sowing and Reaping, also reading Eric Gardner’s essay about the rediscovered fifth chapter. As we approached the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” students were also in the midst of their own group archival research projects, reading newspapers to find one “Cool Thing” to research and present to the rest of the class. When teaching early African American literature, I always like to spend some time discussing the work that has made the texts we are reading available to us. From Jean Fagan Yellin’s research into Harriet Jacobs’ family to Henry Louis Gates’ Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers to his and Nellie Y. McKay’s first edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, I worked to teach students about the scholarly work that has made the classes I teach possible. The “Just Teach One – African American Literature” project presents another great opportunity to make this work more visible to students. As they worked through their own newspaper research projects (some students were working with the Anglo-African Magazine), they came to better appreciate and understand the work of recovery, and from here they approached “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” not only in content but in this larger context of African American literature and literary scholarship. I also worked to integrate my students’ research with newspapers at WHS special collections with a variety of electronic resources (including the Documenting the American South North American Slave Narratives Collection and the Accessible Archives African American Newspapers Collection) so that they could compare some of the various resources available.

As we discussed the text, students were drawn to the Wilson’s descriptions of his imagined gallery’s artwork and we devoted some time to a discussion of how readers might visualize these and what this collection as a whole might suggest about the author’s ideas of African American art. Students made connections to our ongoing discussion of African American literature – where we find this collected, who learns about this literature and why, who assesses it and how. During this portion of our discussion, we turned to Wilson’s description of Picture IX, the painting of Mount Vernon, and his claims about the depiction he describes:

I must plead in excuse, therefore, that in the conception of this picture, the Artist has simply failed; if not in faithfulness to the original, certainly in gratifying the popular American feeling.

 The description of George Washington’s home allowed for a discussion of “founding fathers” and the history of slavery in the United States. We had read some “canonical” slave narratives early in the semester (Douglass, Jacobs, Northup) and students had read and presented individually on lesser-known slave narratives over the course of the semester. Recognizing the various ways slavery does (or doesn’t) appear in many of our assigned texts, students had discussed the importance of this theme in African American literature. In Wilson’s description, students brought up alternate depictions of slavery that worked alongside antislavery literature, and to which it responded.

As one might imagine, our assigned readings had been sometimes ambivalent about slavery, but were overwhelmingly antislavery and abolitionist where slavery was addressed explicitly. While in other classes I sometimes teach proslavery literature and plantation nostalgia fiction alongside antislavery materials, I generally do not assign my standard versions of these things for a straight-up African American studies class. Instead, I talk a bit about how we might locate and parse the different arguments to which antislavery writers responded. Students picked up on this tactic for discussing the painting of Mount Vernon, using this as a launch pad of sorts to discuss larger issues that had helped to frame our course: questions of U.S. histories and who depicts them, preconceptions about bodies of art or literature and how this frames our viewing/reading; questions of reality/authenticity and its relevance for art and literature, and questions about access to and availability of African American works and what institutions support them.

Teaching Reflection by Lori Leavell

English, University of Central Arkansas

William J. Wilson’s “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859) was on the syllabus for the upper-level survey of African American Literature that I taught in the spring of 2016. We spent two class periods on it (and no doubt could have spent more). It was my first time to teach Wilson. In this iteration of the course, I aimed for broad coverage (in terms of century, author, and genre) of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Beginning with eighteenth-century authors Equiano and Wheatley, we moved on to nineteenth-century authors, including Whitfield, Douglass, Harriet Wilson, and Watkins Harper. With particular focus on the New Negro Movement and writings through mid-century, twentieth-century authors included Hughes, Wright, and Hurston, before we concluded with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). Among this grouping of authors, some of whom were familiar to the class but many of whom were not, Wilson helped us think about literary history from a number of angles—for example, literary significance and canonicity in relation to genre and materiality. How should Wilson’s ephemeral publication venue—the Anglo-African Magazine—inform our understanding of the “Picture Gallery” and its place in African American literary history? Does a text published in such a venue and never reprinted in the period have a place in a survey of African American Literature that needs to cover so much ground?

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Teaching Reflection by James Finley

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.

Teaching Reflection by Lisa West

English, Drake University

I taught the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” in a senior capstone class of English and Writing majors – with journalism students and education/English endorsement students in the mix as well. I organized the course around ideas and texts related to ekphrasis, which was a really helpful concept for appreciating the “gallery” references in the serialized piece. The class had previously read Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, and I think those two texts provide an excellent pairing due to their focus on different forms of art/aesthetics; violence; social issues; and the telling of “history.” I will summarize three productive engagements with the text. Continue reading “Teaching Reflection by Lisa West”

Teaching Reflection by Bryan Sinche

University of Hartford

I taught the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” as part of my survey of African American Literature, a course I have taught several times using a chronological organization strategy. This time, though, I was inspired to try something a bit different, so I organized my course according to genre (with chronological organization structuring each of the generic units). There was only one exception to this chronological/generic structure: I started the prose nonfiction unit (and hence the course) with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which turned out to be a great choice. The students were totally engaged with this very readable book, and we had three solid days of discussion—days during which I could barely get a word in because the students had so much to say. After we finished Coates’s book, we moved on to C19 prose and through the essays of the Black Arts Movement. Then, it was on to performance and visual culture and the “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” Continue reading “Teaching Reflection by Bryan Sinche”

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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