the Verbal and Visual Arts
Nell Irvin Painter
As a biographer, I propose to bring together two ordinarily separate fields, black studies and art history. I urge biographers - particularly of subaltern subjects - to break their methodological habits and make full use of pictures. “Subaltern subjects” refers to individuals who are oppressed on account of their group identity, for instance, white women and members of stigmatized minorities. In recognition of the possibility of subaltern subjects' exercising power over others, the term “subaltern” conveys the complexity of subordinate identities. Images contain a wealth of meaning about biographical subjects and about the cultural and historical conventions that mold subaltern identities.
African American studies understandably regards European cultural history with a certain distrust, for Western civilization has denigrated people of African descent since the institutionalization of the Atlantic slave trade and the building of American culture around the political economy of African slavery. Scholarship and popular culture express their negrophobia differently; whereas much scholarship pretends black people do not exist, popular culture has offered an abundance of stereotypes. Before the late twentieth century, black people all too often appeared in words or pictures as objects of insult. The combination of blindness and indignity still dismays Africana scholars and discourages us from burrowing too deeply into Western thought.