'To Disembark': The Slave Narrative Tradition

Article excerpt

Art is a social construct. A work of art is what an artist says is a work of art, and is considered great when, over time, it manages to transcend the circumstances of its making and its expression. (David Ross, Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art)

To Disembark, Glenn Ligon's recent installation at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, D.C., alludes to the title of a book of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks,(1) suggesting the arrival at the end of a physical journey that, recast in literature, frequently serves as a motif for a journey into one's self. The installation begins with the artist "boxing" black experience by creating a series of packing crates modeled on the one described by ex- slave Henry "Box" Brown in his Narrative of Henry Box Brown - Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. From each crate Ligon has constructed, a different sound issues, such as a heartbeat or African-American music ranging from early forms like the spirituals to contemporary forms such as rap. Surrounding these boxes are posters for runaway slaves in which the artist characterizes himself - in words and period images - as the slave being advertised. The framed posters resemble nineteenth-century broadsheets circulated to advertise for the return of escaped fugative slaves. Following this is a series of stencils painted on the wall whose text is derived from an essay by Zora Neale Hurston titled "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." Read from top to bottom, the stencils repeat but increasingly obscure significant passages from Hurston's essay.

The last element in this installation, however, relies on the literary genre of the slave narrative as its primary resource. In a series of framed etchings hanging side by side on the gallery wall, Ligon has reproduced in authentic typescript and form frontispieces that would introduce the published narrative of an ex-slave. By assuming another series of ironic identities - as the author on a series of title-pages from nineteenth-century slave narratives - Ligon demonstrates that African Americans are still trying "to disembark." This sentiment is further reinforced by Ligon's including the works of contemporary black writers to supplant traditional "sacred" texts like Bible verses, or supporting testimony from distinguished white persons customarily presented on the title-pages of ex-slave narratives. By positioning himself as a fugitive slave or an ex-slave narrator and by including contemporary writings against the background of a traditional genre, Ligon demonstrates that a slave narrative tradition is ongoing in its formation in literal, literary, and also visual ways. By exploring slavery's painful past, Glenn Ligon hopes to understand his own. Furthermore, he gives viewers an imaginative way to participate in the same process of self/historical construction.

Ligon's use of a literary form as an inspiration for a visual work demonstrates his historical awareness that self-portrayals by African Americans first received their most compelling representation not in the form of images but in the form of words. Aided and encouraged by Northern abolitionists, more than 100 ex-slaves wrote book-length narratives before the end of the Civil War. In the process they created a unique genre of literature that at the time of the books' publication was widely read and appreciated by a public that had "itching ears to hear a colored man speak, and particularly a slave. . ." (Gates xi). The writings of ex-slaves were viewed as both powerful works of literary art and persuasive tools for articulating and advancing the abolitionist agenda. These narratives offered convincing evidence in making a case for the humanity of people of African descent by setting forth a particular image of ex-slaves that emphasized commonly admired human traits and virtues. As Lucius C. Matlock wrote in 1845,

Naturally and necessarily, the enemy of literature [American slavery] has become the prolific theme of much that is profound in argument, sublime in poetry, and thrilling in narrative. …

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