The Legacy of African American Women Artists
TRITOBIA HAYES BENJAMIN
Did you have a genius of a great-great grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer's lash? Or was she required to bake biscuits . . . when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets. . . . Or was her body broken and forced to bear children . . . when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion, in stone or clay?
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens
AFRICANS FOUND a new and hostile environment in America. The brutality of slavery and the disenfranchisement of free blacks demanded that they recast themselves and their talents, assimilate and adapt in this hemisphere. Black women suffered from subordinated status, perceived "as workers first, women second, and always Black, the three identities locked them into positions of vulnerability. After the abolition of slavery they continued to be exploited as women in the labor market and in the home." 1 Later, the expectations placed upon women in the Victorian Age compelled them to observe a set of prescriptions that defined "true womanhood," i.e., being domestic, submissive, pious, and virtuous.
Women who contemplated a profession outside of the home were viewed as different, strange. By stepping outside of her perceived role in life as childbearer and nurturer, a woman became suspect and her intentions were questioned. Was she too masculine? unhappy? independent thinking? And although society reluctantly approved of white women actively practicing one of the arts, how was the black female viewed in this profession, and, moreover, when did she have time for such activities? Just as important, however, is the question that Walker begs, "How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century?" 2 We have no way of knowing what was lost under the conditions that placed black women at odds with their true desires. But the women who achieved despite the adversities facing them triumphed with a personal resolve and determination that propelled them into a profession reserved for and dominated by the white male.
Against these odds, black women became poets, writers, singers, organizers, conductors of the underground railroad, active in the abolitionist movement, and nurses to black soldiers during the civil war. They also founded orphanages and schools, became business entrepreneurs, photographers, craftswomen, painters, and sculptors. And, very early, they too began to help chart the direction of American art.
SARAH MAPPS DOUGLASS ( 1806-1882), a schoolteacher in Philadelphia, started her own school in the mid-1820s, teaching the children of many successful African American citizens in that city. 3 Her father, Robert Douglass, Sr., who emigrated from the Caribbean island of St. Christopher, was an officer of the Pennsylvania Augustine Society for the Education of People of Colour; Grace Bustill Douglass, her mother, ran a "Quaker millinery store." As parents of three visual