Book Review: Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present
Publication Date: Nov 01, 2005
Format: Hardcover, 480 pages
Imprint: Oxford University Press
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Parent Company: University of Oxford
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Book Reviewed by Kam Williams
’Over the course of more than two centuries, black American artists have represented their history- scrupulously, meaningfully, and brilliantly.
Their efforts represent a beautiful example of African-American historical agency, which makes black people historical actors, not passive victims of history’ The work of black artists contradicts demeaning conventional images of black people and puts black people's conception of themselves at the core of African-American history. Whereas U.S. culture has depicted black people as ugly and worthless, black artists dwell on the beauty and value of black people’
Virtually all the images in Creating Black Americans are by African-Americans. By conscious design, negative stereotypes do not appear.
Although negative images still appear in American culture, I do not
reinforce humiliating, insulting depictions of African-Americans; better that my
readers discover a rich new body of images produced by black people themselves."
’Excerpted from the Preface
While I have studied straight history books and perused plenty of art books, I don't remember ever coming across a comprehensive text which attempted to illustrate history exclusively with fine art. And I've certainly never seen such a tome devoted exclusively to African-Americana.
Fortunately, this novel idea did come to Nell Irvin Painter, and that vision inspired her to execute the elegant Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. Painter, Professor of American History at Princeton University, and former director of the School's Black Studies program, has successfully come up with a unique way of matching meaningful, magnificent paintings, sculptures and photographs with her stirring yet scholarly account chronicling all the traumas, tragedies and triumphs of black people here over the generations, from the inception of slavery through The Declaration of Independence, The Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, The Harlem Renaissance, The Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, and right up to today's Hip-Hop Generation.
The book incorporates works from around 100 noted African-American artists, ranging from the readily recognizable Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence to the relatively obscure though no less deserving, such as Joshua Johnston, a freedman who painted over 80 portraits in Baltimore between 1795 and 1825.
Though Creating Black Americans may be worthwhile for the art history lesson alone, as it includes brief bios of each contributor, what makes it most valuable is its refreshing restatement of the black centuries-long struggle to survive from the perspective of the exploited.
In much the same way that Gospel music stirs one's soul, the passion of these endlessly inventive artists helps set the record straight about the black experience in a profound way which mere words could never do. The pictures then combine with enlightening entries which repeatedly turn the conventional wisdom on its head, such as the often unchallenged notion that slaves were docile. We learn that at least 25 revolts occurred in America even before the patriots embarked on their own American Revolution.
In 1712, Africans and Native Americans joined forces for a bloody revolt in New York City, while another major rebellion transpired in South Carolina in 1739. After observing whites gaining their independence from England, Denmark Vesey led an 1800 rebellion of over a 1000 slaves in Virginia.
Enriching on several levels, Creating Black Americans is a masterpiece because it offers a deeper understanding of all the painful suffering and adversity endured by a proud and determined people while simultaneously bearing witness to a cultural legacy equally rich with strength, hope and faith.