Jay and Deborah Last Fellowship: “Kneeling and Fighting: African American Artists’ Depiction of Black Humanity”
My project at the American Antiquarian Society investigates how African American visual artists produced work that acted as counternarratives to the racist messages contained in popular literature, images printed in newspapers, and blackface minstrel shows performed on stages during the middle half of the nineteenth century. From images of the supplicant slave to engravings depicting Black intellectuals and leaders, my project recognizes the significance of these black artists’ battle to convince white Americans of black people’s humanity before and after the Civil War. Engravers and photographers figure most prominently in my study, especially those who worked in the South, the Midwest, and along the East Coast.
In order to discern the artistic and political conversations with which nineteenth century African American artists were fluent, my research project at the American Antiquarian Society investigates two bodies of work. The first includes nineteenth century documents that negatively stereotype African Americans as inept, unintelligent, and indolent. These negative portrayals of “authentic” blackness are essential for understanding the ways in which African American artists’ work directly and indirectly countered these claims and proposed their own visions of African American identity and culture. This second body of work demonstrates how and why African Americans used print and visual culture to subvert racist representations of blackness in the nineteenth century.
I am drawing on a vast array of sources for this project including sheet music, caricatured prints, frontispieces, African American newspapers, cartes de visites, Civil War ephemera, pamphlets, and manuscripts. These sources will help piece together these visual artists’ life stories and the wide-ranging subjects of their work.