Social History, Cultural Heritage, and Afro-U.S. Women's Art
[T]hough Afro-American cultural . . . history commonly regards the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in terms of great men, as the Age of Washington and Du Bois . . . these were the years of the first flowering of black women's autonomous organizations.
Du Bois convened his Fourth (and last) Pan-African Congress in 1927, in New York. Most of the 220 delegates represented American Negro women's organizations.
St. Clair Drake2
IN HER 1990 essay "Modernism, Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture," Michele Wallace complained eloquently about the absence of African Americans from prevailing accounts of modernism and the absence of women from counterhistories of African American modernism. While she persuasively argued "the interdependency [of] issues of ethnicity and sex" in the formation of an Afro-U.S. modernism, Wallace refrained from naming particular women whose art played that initiatory role. 3 A startling omission, this lack of specificity indicates how deeply hidden much of the history of black visual production remains.
Widespread reluctance to abandon conventional definitions of "modernism" in which "style" outweighs "content" has also impeded efforts to name women pioneers or precursors of an African American modernism. Detecting non-canonical brands of modernism and retrieving marginalized modernist histories requires a close scrutiny of the various socio-cultural contexts that determine both an art form and its content. Thus, the following essay outlines some of the social and artistic frames within which a key trope of U.S. black modernism -- the celebration of African identity -- emerged. It also locates the earliest, significant appearances of this theme in the work of two African American women, Edmonia Lewis and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. 4
In "The West and the Rest of Us," Stuart Hall has demonstrated the crucial, though frequently overlooked or under-examined, role of colonialism in the formation of modern European culture. 5 Increasingly, art historians are probing links between colonial politics and early modern art. 6 Yet, all too often, theorists of an African American modernism forget that the so-called "New Negro" came of age in the heyday of Western imperialism. Forgotten too are the ways in which early twentiethcentury black cultural self-assertion was a product of nineteenth-century abolitionist and post-Emancipation anti-racist struggles that took place in an international context of colonial commerce, evangelism, exploration, and imperialist expansion. 7
During the antebellum era, blacks in the United States saw Africa as the former home of captives imported illegally as late as 1858, as well as a focus of various African American colonization schemes and black Protestant missionary efforts. 8 Black abolitionists, ranging from Frederick Douglass to African American photographer James P. Ball, also recognized that European myths of African "barbarism" or "savagery" provided excuses for slavery. 9 After Emancipation and the brief period of federal protection under Reconstruction, African Americans faced a "red tide" of unprecedented anti-black violence and a program of systematic disfranchisement not unlike today's reversal of Civil Rights and Affirmative Action legislation. Then as now, the defense of African civilization not only staved off black despair, but also aimed to counter an ascendant "scientific" racism that licensed