African Americans in History, Art, and Museums

Selected titles reviewed in Choice about black history, art, and culture.

Burns, Andrea A. From storefront to monument: tracing the public history of the black museum movement. Massachusetts, 2013. 249p index afp ISBN 9781625340344, $80.00; ISBN 9781625340351 pbk, $24.95.

[Reviewed in CHOICE June 2014] When Americans think of the post-WW II African American civil rights movements, big events and significant individuals come to mind. In addition to artifacts that represent these very important components of this remarkable era, local, regional, and national museums have collected and continue to build treasure troves of archive and museum materials. The stories behind the challenges and perseverance of those who ensured that these museums opened their doors come to life in this fascinating and important work, which focuses on four institutions: the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC, and the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit. In each case study, the experiences of how these institutions were conceived and established shed light on the creative minds and fortitude of the many people who were committed to preserving the past. The book is very well written, and those outside academia will enjoy it. It will also be a remarkable addition to any collection in contemporary US history, museum studies, and African American history.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.

T. Maxwell-Long, California State University, San Bernardino

Cabin, quarter, plantation: architecture and landscape of North American slavery, ed. by Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg. Yale, 2010. 294p bibl index afp ISBN 9780300120424, $45.00.

[Reviewed in CHOICE December 2010] Often overlooked in favor of the masters’ residences, slave dwellings—integral to the daily life of many substantial antebellum American households—merit analysis and study as part of material culture/social history. Few historic house museums in the North acknowledge the presence of slaves, and the preservation movement often neglected the vernacular, self-constructed buildings that would have served as evidence of American slavery. This volume addresses that historical omission by assembling 12 essays (mostly contemporary, with four from earlier decades). Starting with a 1901 essay by W. E. B. DuBois, in which he examined materials, spatial configuration, and newly adapted African building traditions, the editors provide scholarly and insightful short introductions to each chapter, summarizing its thesis and relating it to others. Of note are chapters by Garrett Fesler, chronicling excavations, the discovery of traditional yard sweeping, and the adoption of that activity by rural southerners, both African American and white; and by Edward Chappell, offering detailed floor plans of kitchen lodgings. Most prior literature surveyed only a particular site or region, so the more comprehensive approach and greater geographic breadth here is an important addition to American architectural history scholarship. Indispensable for American history collections and useful for larger architectural history libraries.

Summing Up: Essential. Graduate students and researchers/faculty in American history.

P. Glassman, Felician College

Cahan, Susan E. Mounting frustration: the art museum in the age of black power. Duke, 2016. 344p bibl index afp ISBN 9780822358978 cloth, $34.95; ISBN 9780822374893 ebook, contact publisher for price.

[Reviewed in CHOICE August 2016] Mounting Frustration comprises well-researched, elegantly crafted case studies of the museum world in New York City during the rise of the Black Power movement. Telling the stories from the perspective of someone who worked in the trenches, Cahan (School of Art, Yale) offers the kind of insights and perspectives available to only those who understand the inner workings of institutions. She reveals the planning, plotting, tactics, strategies, and maneuvers of all parties involved in staging some of the most controversial exhibitions of the late 1960s. She then illuminates the significant correlation between racial politics in the US and the visibility and viability (waxing and waning) of artists of color in major New York museums. Cahan intends the case studies to reveal, as she writes in her introduction, “the techniques used to both accommodate and manage the inclusion, for some the ‘intrusion,’ of artists of color when the overt expression of racist attitudes and beliefs was becoming less socially acceptable.” Although the focus is on New York City in the late 1960s, this book is vital for any inquiry into US museums and how those museums continue to take shape. Her pointed and precise use of archival material makes this book not just a history but also a model for scholarly inquiry.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers.

K. P. Buick, University of New Mexico

Cantor, George. Historic landmarks of Black America. Gale, 1991. 372p index afp ISBN 0810378094, $29.95.

[Reviewed in CHOICE November 1991]Cantor, former Detroit Free Press travel editor, has compiled the most exciting, well-written, and informative guide to important African American landmarks since the American Oil Company’s 36-page, commemorative American Traveler’s Guide to Negro Monuments (1963), which included some 68 sites in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Historic Landmarks…lists more than 300 sites (churches, battlefields, parks, museums, grave sites, etc.) located in 46 states, Washington, DC, and Ontario. Entries are for “those places which have something tangible remaining for the traveler to see.” There are no serious omissions. The guide is divided into six geographical regions, and entries are arranged alphabetically first by state and then by city. A regional outline map with numbered sites precedes each regional listing. Each entry includes a description, location, hours, admission fee, facilities (picnic areas, trails, etc.), special programs, and telephone number; descriptions of permanent exhibits, displays, and additional attractions (myths and tidbits associated with the site) are added as required. “A Brief History of Black America,” an essay by Robert L. Harris (Cornell University), places the sites in proper historical context. Black-and-white illustrations and a timeline of important dates in African American history (1539-1989) enhance the guide admirably.

Summing Up: Highly recommended, without reservations, to all public and academic libraries regardless of size.

G. T. Johnson, Central State University (OH)

Cooks, Bridget R. Exhibiting blackness: African Americans and the American art museum. Massachusetts, 2011. 205p index afp ISBN 9781558498754 pbk, $29.95.

[Reviewed in CHOICE June 2012] Cooks (Univ. of California, Irvine) explores the representation of African American art and culture in American art museums. After discussing and analyzing the first-ever museum exhibition of art by African Americans, which was held at the Chicago Art Institute in 1927, Cooks dedicates each of the book’s five chapters to an exhibition chosen for its ambitious and strategic approaches. She situates each exhibit within its social and museological context, and presents the perspectives of the artists, curators, visitors, and critics involved. Cooks determines that one of two guiding methodologies characterizes each of the exhibitions: an anthropological approach that focuses more on artists than on their art; and a recovery narrative that is aimed at correcting past omissions. Her critical interpretations of exhibit layouts and the artworks presented within add another dimension to her critical analyses. Exhibiting Blackness grants readers an understanding not only of the history of exhibitions of art by African Americans, but also of the cultural anxieties and misperceptions that have surrounded them. In the conclusion, Cooks offers suggestions for future exhibition strategies that will further engage museums and their publics.

Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers.

J. M. Youmans, independent scholar

Cox, Julian. Road to freedom: photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968. High Museum of Art, 2008. 159p bibl afp ISBN 9781932543230, $40.00 .

[Reviewed in CHOICE May 2009]Published during the 40th anniversary year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Road to Freedom introduces itself as the catalogue of “the most significant exhibition of civil rights photographs presented in an art museum in more than twenty years.” Organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the show also traveled to the Smithsonian. The book displays 98 black-and-white duotone plates of photographs taken by sometimes-famous photojournalists as well as other witnesses of the Civil Rights Movement between 1956 and 1968. Also included are images from magazines and newspapers, along with reproductions of archival documents and posters. The body of the exhibition was constituted from the High Museum’s collection of 250 images, complemented by numerous loans. Coming after Phaidon’s thick volume Freedom (2002), by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, Road to Freedom provides fewer but better printed and credited images. The possible addition of some of the color work done at the time would have made this catalogue a landmark volume. Unfortunately, the image corpus is limited. This book should be of particular interest to students and scholars in sociology, anthropology, and history. The three-page bibliography adds to its usefulness.

Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers.

B. P. Chalifour, Community Darkroom / Rencontres d’Arles

Dallas Museum of Art. Black art—ancestral legacy: the African impulse in African-American art. Dallas Museum of Art, 1990, (c1989). (Dist. by Abrams) 305p bibl index ISBN 0810931044, $45.00.

[Reviewed in CHOICE September 1990] Not since David C. Driskell’s Two Centuries of Black American Art (CH, Apr’77) and Elsa H. Fine’s The Afro-American Artist (1973) has there been such a comprehensive survey of the African influence in American art history. This exhibition catalog synthesizes classic and new resources in scholarly essays that suggest a prevailing, singular continuity in the art of the black diaspora across Africa into the New World, from the traditional past into the modern present. African American artists, highly trained and self-taught folk artists alike, reveal in their diverse works visual characteristics that testify to a genuine tie with African tribal forms amid New World adaptations. Special attention is focused on the black migration from the South to the North, out of rural into urban centers. Characteristics linking artists of these traditions relate to Caribbean artists as well. Africa’s legacy to New World cultures is seen in a threefold commonality: a visionary presence captured in the art forms; a spirituality of passage and diaspora, of spirit-informed nature; the place of festival and ritual as essential to black expressivity. These elements create a “stylistic and spiritual kinship” with Africa and among New World cultures. New perspectives are illustrated by plates of both African tribal art and contemporary New World images placed together within the appropriate text. Following the essays are 170 highest-quality, full-color plates of the exhibition paintings and sculptures with detailed explanations next to each artwork. Works of 49 contemporary African-American and Caribbean artists are grouped to virtually synchronize with the essays. First, works of visionary and intuitive content; second, images of spiritual symbolism relating to African tribal concepts; third, painting and sculptures of festival and ritual themes and uses. Convincing verbal and visual presentations of the highest scholarly and aesthetic dimensions immediately reenforce each other to make the format as important and unique as the content. Researchers as well as general readers will profit from copious historical data a succinct chronology of the emergence and growth of black cultures in the New World from 1502 to 1989, and brief biographies with photographs of the exhibitors.

Summing Up: Highly recommended to all libraries.

J. L. Leahy, Marygrove College

Eichstedt, Jennifer L. Representations of slavery: race and ideology in southern plantation museums, by Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. 300p bibl index afp ISBN 1588340716, $45.00; ISBN 1588340961 pbk, $21.95 .

[Reviewed in CHOICE May 2003] Eichstedt (sociology, Humboldt State Univ.) and Small (African American studies, Univ. of California, Berkeley) visited about 130 plantation museums in Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana between 1996 and 2001, and evaluated the museums’ interpretation of slavery. Drawing on analytical concepts from the social sciences, such as trivialization, deflection, and symbolic annihilation, the authors conclude that at most “white-centric” sites, the contributions of African Americans are almost entirely ignored or dismissed. The authors also utilize the term “segregated knowledge” to describe sites such as Mt. Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg, in which the role of black people is presented only in completely separate tours from those intended for the “general public.” Overwhelmingly, the interpretive emphasis at these sites was on the valor of great white men and the material culture of their homes. These forms of presentation, according to the authors, constitute a discursive practice of symbolic racism. While little of this comes as a surprise, particularly for those familiar with the work of historians such as Mike Wallace and James W. Loewen, the book nonetheless serves as a powerful reminder that most plantation museums are alarmingly deficient in presenting a complete view of the past.

Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students and faculty.

S. L. Recken, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

In motion: The African-American migration experience.
Internet Resource.

[Reviewed in CHOICE August 2006 and visited May 2005] This Web site was developed by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and compiled and edited by center chief Howard Dodson as project director and Sylviane A. Diouf as content manager. The Web site is one piece of a four-part exhibit. The others are a book, In Motion: The African-American Migrant Experience (2004), also compiled and edited by Dodson and Diouf, and published by the National Geographic Society; an exhibition at the Schomburg Center; and educational materials for Black History Month. The Web site chronicles 13 African American migrations from the Middle Passage of the 16th century to contemporary influxes of migrants from Africa and the Caribbean. This perspective places the forced migrations of the slave trade within the broader context of self-motivated movements of African Americans, spanning four centuries. The exhibit was funded with a 2.4 million dollar grant through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, supported in part by the Congressional Black Caucus. The Web site provides hypertext access to more than 16,500 pages of text, over 8,000 illustrations, and more than 60 maps. A narrative introduces each migration system and is linked to illustrations and research resources consisting of primary and secondary sources, maps, and K-12 lesson plans. Bibliographies and links to related Web sites are also included, as well as a glossary offering detailed definitions of terms highlighted throughout the narrative. The site is a well-organized wealth of information. It can be easily searched through the migrations or geographically and chronologically. Images, maps, definitions, and primary documents are woven throughout the narrative. More audio materials might have made the site an even richer experience.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All age groups and educational levels.

B. C. Ryan, Syracuse University

Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating black Americans. Oxford, 2006. 458p bibl index afp ISBN 0195137558, $35.00.

[Reviewed in CHOICE October 2006] Painter (Princeton Univ.) offers an innovative and ambitious overview of the African American past that surveys the predominant political, economic, and demographic conditions of black Americans, and explores the ways in which historical subjects created meanings for their history. These meanings are most strikingly portrayed through the visual arts. The volume’s unique aspect is Painter’s inclusion of nearly 150 images—most in color—of paintings, sculptures, photographs, quilts, and other works by black artists, each of whom is described in a useful appendix. These images speak to the author’s stated interest in historical commemoration, though her discussion of this theme is superficial and incomplete. Also, the images, while engaging, are at times inadequately integrated into the accompanying narrative. Painter does discuss changing patterns in African Americans’ constructions of history through art, literature, and museums, and her early chapters on blacks’ perceptions of African and diasporic identities are thought-provoking. Despite its analytical and conceptual weaknesses, this attractive volume calls attention to the importance of self-perception and artistic expression in a people’s engagement with the past, and should generate further scholarly discussion of the interpenetrations of art and history.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.

M. Kachun, Western Michigan University

Powell, Richard J. To conserve a legacy: American art from historically black colleges and universities, by Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds. Addison Gallery of American Art/Studio Museum in Harlem, 1999. (Dist. by MIT) 240p bibl afp ISBN 0262661519 pbk, $35.00 .

(Reviewed in CHOICE November 1999)This impressive exhibition catalog of prestigious art in six historic black colleges and universities goes far beyond the scope of major exhibition records. It embodies a “new body of knowledge” never previously compiled in American cultural history, the outcome of an innovative project by two major art museums—The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Addison Gallery of American Art—and the traditionally black colleges and universities—Howard, Fisk, Clark Atlanta, North Carolina Central, Tuskegee, and Hampton—in collaboration with Duke University and Williamstown Art Conservation Center. This effort opens to the public not only a major exhibition of some 200 works by 100 master African American artists of the 19th through the 20th centuries. The project points up the role of the black institutions as preservers of the significant heritage of African American artists who emerge today as major American art masters and master artist-teachers. Works by Edmonia Lewis and Robert S. Duncanson, Henry O. Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, to today’s Sam Gilliam are exhibited with works of their peers of different cultural heritages such as John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and Josef Albers.

Summing Up: Valuable to American cultural history and rewarding for those searching for new dimensions in American heritage and art history. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through professionals.

J. L. Leahy, Marygrove College

Wilson, Mabel O. Negro building: black Americans in the world of fairs and museums. California, 2012. 442p bibl index afp ISBN 9780520268425, $39.95; ISBN 9780520952492 ebook, $39.95 .

[Reviewed in CHOICE July 2013] Wilson (Columbia Univ.) examines the participation of African Americans in world’s fairs, emancipation exhibitions, and early black grassroots museums from the time of the Civil War to the present. This volume does much to remind readers of the extensive racism, oppression, and disregard of the black race that continued for decades after the war. The inability of blacks to participate in Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and the unflattering representations of blacks as members of exotic African tribes in the Columbian Exhibition of 1893 marked a troubling period in America’s history. Finally, in 1895 at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition black groups successfully had a separate national Negro pavilion in which they were able to publicize their own portrayals of industriousness, moral uplift, bourgeois respectability, patriotism, and racial progress. Black pavilions and exhibits at subsequent world’s fairs and other events, including the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, provided a valuable sphere for an emerging class of bourgeois blacks to display their progress at improving their own lives. This book also effectively examines the institutional framework of grassroots black museums in northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit.

Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above; general readers.

J. W. Stamper, University of Notre Dame