Last post, I wrote about William J. Wilson’s motivation for writing the “Afric-American Picture Gallery (1859). Today, I want to expand on that conversation some and show how Wilson, under the pen-name Ethiop, challenges the master narratives of American history in much the same ways that David Walker, John Russwurm, Samuel Cornsih, Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, and others did during the early to mid-nineteenth century. Specifically, I want to look at Ethiop’s depiction of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and how that depiction calls upon readers to actively challenge the ways they think about the past. At the conclusion of this post, I want to briefly mention a couple of ideas I have been thinking about for when I teach this text again.
In “Picture IX.–Mount Vernon,” Ethiop notes that Washington’s home “has become of late the great popular theme of the American people” with its name ringing from the pulpits, rostrum, press, and elsewhere. Appearing at the same time that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association sought to purchase Mount Vernon and preserve it for generations to come. Edward Everett assisted with this cause and traveled the nation delivering his “Oration on the Character of George Washington” to help raise so the association could purchase the estate. Everett argues that Washington was a man of “serene dignity. . .whose probity you would trust with uncounted gold. . .whose lead you would implicitly follow in the darkest hours of trial.”
The memory of Washington centered on his role in the founding of the nation, eschewing linkages to the role that slavery played in his economic endeavors. Describing the painting of Mount Vernon, Ethiop asks what the place is exactly. He continues by intoning, “Mount Vernon as the readers most know is a spot of earth somewhere in Virgina, and once the Home of the Father of this Country. How careful ought we to be, then, in word or deed about Mount Vernon.” Ethiop reminds readers of the reverence attached to any memory of Washington and his role in the genesis of the democratic experiment that would become the United States. However, Ethiop immediately undercuts this perception as he begins to describe the painting that depicts Washington’s estate.
If the viewer wishes to see the idyllic, pastoral image of Mount Vernon that audiences came to expect and revere, then the artist, as Ethiop notes, “has simply failed” because rather than presenting a majestic image of the estate, the artist shows Mount Vernon in a state of utter decay. The grounds, laid out by Washington himself, appear “all in a state of dilapidation and decay,” and the “old slave hut, like so many spectres shadows forth decay.” The painting shows every inch of Mount Vernon falling apart, and it centers in on the slave cabins as “haunting” the grounds. Rather than a tranquil image, Ethiop shows that the artist purposefully counters the patriotic image of Washington and replaces it with the realities of Mount Vernon, an estate where enslaved individuals worked and lived to make Washington wealthy.
Ethiop continues by noting that he has never, personally, seen Mount Vernon, but he cannot help but ask if the image is a true representation of Washington’s land. If it is, Ethiop then ponders, “Is this the home of the Father of his country?” (emphasis in original). This question, accompanied by the depiction that Ethiop provides, echoes Frederick Douglass’ questions about Washington and the apparent blind reverence for the Founding Fathers that obstructed their true selves. In What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852), Douglass calls upon his audience to question their continued blind reverence for Washington and others: “Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout–‘We have Washington to our father” (emphasis in original).
Like Ethiop, Douglass directly calls out blind patriotism. He follows up his statements with an allusion to Marc Antony’s speech William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
The evil that men do, lives after them,
The good is oft’ interred with their bones.
Ethiop picks up on this, I would argue, when he has slaves digging up Washington’s bones as they are about to be sold. As Ethiop looks at Washington’s tomb, he sees the freshly unearthed coffin, “just behind which stands the ghost of his faithful old slave and body servant; while in front, a living slave to-day stands, with the bones of Washington gathered up in his arms, and labelled ‘For Sale’ ‘Price $200,000; this negro included.'” Referencing the sale of Mount Vernon, this image represents items that need to be studied further.
On one hand, the image joins the past and the present together with the ghost of Washington’s “body servant” and the flesh of the “living slave.” While Washington’s accomplishments made the rounds, Ethiop and Douglass make sure to remind readers that “the evil that men do” does not remain buried in coffins with the flesh and blood of the dead individual. Instead, the ramifications a person’s evil actions, in this case slavery, continue to influence the world long after the person has passed on. David Walker makes this abundantly clear when he breaks down Thomas Jefferson’s racist thoughts in his Appeal. Douglass does this when asks why we should continue to venerate Washington. Solomon Northup does this in the same manner when he comments that the slave dealer James Burch “no doubt, with uncovered head, bowed reverently before the sacred ashes of the man [Washington] who devoted his illustrious life to the liberty of his country.” In each of these instances, and more, the authors challenge the master narrative and call upon us to question how we construct and perceive the past. To drive this point home, Ethiop states, “Edward Everett, the distinguished limner of Washington should see [the painting], and if any, point out its defects.”
There is more that could be said here, but I feel like this may be turning into a larger project. Before I end for today, I want to mention two things I have been thinking about when I teach the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” again. For one, I am considering having students map out the artistic pieces in the classroom. Ethiop’s notes where each piece resides, specifically indicating north and south. I think this activity would be a good way to have students visualize the gallery and the ways we can use space to analyze the text. As well, I want to have students spend some time parsing out the various debates for that visitors to the gallery have when talking about the African American advancement during the period. There are varying perspectives here, and having students talk about these and seeing which one Ethiop possibly agrees with would be a way to sow students that African American though was not, and is not, monolithic and homogeneous.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.