Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists

By Jontyle Theresa Robinson | Go to book overview

Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 6-7.
St. Clair Drake, "Hide My Face? On Pan-Africanism and Negrirude," in Soon, One Morning. New Writing by American Negroes 1940-1962, ed. Herbert Hill ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 99.
Michele Wallace, "Modernism, Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture," in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minhha and Cornel West ( New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), p. 46.

I use the neologism "Afro-U.S.," interchangeably with the more problematic (because it concedes to the pernicious, if pervasive, taxonomies of race) term U.S. black, in an effort to avoid the cultural imperialism involved in terminology that implies that the African-derived population of the U.S. is the only group of people of African descent in the Americas. A dislike for monotonous diction, however, sometimes leads me to revert to this troublesome use of the term "African American."

My use of the term "significant" here is a kind of shorthand for a distinction that can be made between works about which we no longer know, in part because they either were not exhibited at prominent sites or were not regarded as artistically noteworthy in their day, and works that gained sufficient attention in their time to enter the historical record.
Stuart Hall, "The West and the Rest of Us," in Formations of Modernity, ed. Stuart Hall and Brain Gieben ( Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), pp. 317-18.
For examples of recent art historical investigations of the colonial/ modernist nexus, see Abigail Solomon Godeau "Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism", Art in America, vol. 77, no. 7 ( July 1989): 118-129, 161. See also Patricia Leighten "The White Peril and L'Art négre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism", An Bulletin, vol. 72, no. 4 ( December 1990): 609-30.
Roland Oliver and J. D. Fage, A Short History of Africa ( New York: Penguin Books, 1990), pp. 115-24.
Charles J. Montgomery, "Survivors from the Cargo of the Slave Yacht Wanderer", American Anthropologist, vol. 10 ( 1908): 611-23; St. Clair Drake, The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion ( Chicago: Third World Press; Atlanta: Institute of the Black World, 1970), pp. 41-43.
See Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 59-60, for an illuminating analysis of the ideological implications of Douglass' defense of African humanity and denunciation of the modern erasure of African history in an ethnological lecture he delivered in various venues from 1854 on. For a brief discussion of James P. Ball's celebration of African history and culture in his 1855 abolitionist panorama, see my "The Challenges of the 19th Century: Two Recent Landmark Publications on African American Production", The International Review of African American An, vol. 12, no. 1 ( 1995): 57-58.
Kevin Gaines, "Uplift Ideology as Civilizing Mission: Pauline E. Hopkins on Race and Imperialism", in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease ( Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 435-36.
Karen Sanchez-Eppler, "Bodily Bonds: The Intersecting Rhetorics of Feminism and Abolition", Representations, no. 24 ( Fall 1988): 9.
Joy S. Kasson, Marble Queens and Captives: Women in NineteenthCentury American Sculpture ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 3. For a discussion of the economic basis of this shift and the specifically bourgeois character of the cult of true womanhood that emerged as a result, see Ronald T. Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19thCentury America ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp. 139-40. For an especially trenchant analysis of the racial parameters of this discourse, see Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood, pp. 23-30.
In this regard, it seems telling that the first American-born woman to have lectured in public was Maria W. Stewart, an African American who, in 1832 in Boston, delivered a series of lectures that were subsequently published in William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist weekly, The Liberator. Conversely, the fact that the first white American women to speak publicly, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, did so in 1837 on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society is paradigmatic of the historical relationship of both nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles. For a pioneer study of this parallel in the histories of the early woman's suffrage movement and the birth of contemporary feminism, see Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), especially p. 24.
A failure to fully grasp this distinction, in my opinion, ties at the heart of Kirsten Buick's oddly ahistoric reading of Edmonia Lewis's figures of women of color. Buick's claim that the Victorian cult of "true womanhood" extended undifferentially to black women and therefore determined Lewis's representations of gender, fails to take into account both the contested nature of dominant nineteenth-century gender ideals and the pivotal role of black women as symbols of the intersection of ethnic and sexual exploitation, as well as role models for white female political activists in the emergence of nineteenth-century feminism. Kirsten P. Buick, "The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography", American Art, vol. 9, no. 2 ( Summer 1995): 5-19. For a discussion of nineteenth-century black women's awareness of and responses to their exclusion from the ideology of true womanhood, see Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood, pp. 32-39. For a complex and subtly nuanced reading of the black woman's symbolic function in the discourses of feminist abolitionism, see Sanchez- Eppler , "Bodily Bonds".
This is not to say that black women failed to go abroad, a misconception that the European travels of Phyllis Wheatley, Ida B. Wells, Lucy Parsons, and Sarah Parker Remond belle. Yet to a startling degree, with the exceptions of Remond (who published a letter in the London Daily News protesting the anti-black bias of British reports on Jamaica's 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion) and Anna Julia Cooper (who delivered a paper on "The Negro Problem in America" at the first Pan-African Conference in 1900 in London), Afro-American women seem remarkably silent in the annals of nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury black diasporic debates. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, pp. 17-18. Dorothy B. Porter and Sarah Parker Remond, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, ed. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston ( New York: WW. Norton, 1982), p. 523. Mary Gibson Hundley, Anna Julia Cooper , Dictionary of American Negro Biography, p. 128.


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Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Dedication 5
  • Acknowledgments 5
  • Contents 7
  • Preface 9
  • Foreword 11
  • The Visual Education of Spelman Women 12
  • Notes 13
  • Passages - A Curatorial Viewpoint 15
  • Notes 36
  • Warrior Women: Art as Resistance 39
  • Notes 47
  • Triumphant Determination: the Legacy of African American Women Artists 49
  • Notes 78
  • African American Women Artists - Into the Twenty-First Century 83
  • Notes 93
  • Hagar's Daughters: Social History, Cultural Heritage, and Afro-U.S. Women's Art 95
  • Notes 108
  • Illustrations and Biographies 113
  • Afterword 161
  • Chronology 162
  • Selected Bibliography 165
  • List of Illustrations 172
  • Index 174


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