Analysis of Nell Painter's "Creating Black Americans"

Nell Painter’s ambitious undertaking with “Creating Black Americans” reflects a public desire to understand more about the lived experience of African American people. Painter attempts to do this without exhaustive quotes or interviews, but instead by utilizing art. The following review discusses the specifics of her choices as well as the positive and negative implications of publishing a work in this style.
Chapters one through three (1-3) discuss a broad African history as well as a more specific history of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. In her initial chapter Painter beautifully narrates a complex and concise history of the African continent, and illustrates it with relatively modern, post 1900, art. The figures that Painter chose for this chapter include a lovely, but distractingly modern sculpture of an Ethiopian woman with Egyptian motifs (the statue reads like a living sarcophagus), juxtaposed next to a painting of an ethnically ambiguous man fishing (pg 8). Both of these pieces are poorly incorporated with the text, and though they are lovely, they serve no real purpose in the context of this chapter. Her second chapter discusses the “Captives Transported” (pg 21) from Africa to the Americas; the title page yet again utilizes art produced in the late 1900s, but this particular piece (which shows the Statue of Liberty depicted with distinctly African features, holding an African child and turning her back on a sea of people who appear to be drowning after a fire on a slave ship) is a more fitting illustration for this chapter than Painter’s previous inclusions. This chapter details the specifics of the trade by numbers, and also by details of the experience itself. While the charts depicting the overwhelming volume of individuals forcibly transported were impactful, it was the artwork that really set the tone for this chapter. “The Middle Passage” by Tom Feelings (pg 30) depicts African men who are shackled and looking both afraid and heartbroken as they are being sold for weapons and other goods, while the king stoically rests in the background, shackled women at his feet. This particular piece is one of Painter’s best- placed works of art in the text; it is seamlessly blended into the content and provides additional depth to the history without being an unnecessary distraction. The third chapter, which describes the African Diaspora, is one of the most strongly written chapters in the textbook, but it begins with weak incorporation of the artwork. “The New Ring Shout” (pg 42), a circular art piece that depicts the multicultural nature of African Americans, located at the central rotunda of the Federal Building in New York is poorly presented. The photograph of the piece in the text is at an angle, and difficult to see. Conceptually it is very interesting, but the point of including art in a textbook is to represent something that cannot be conveyed by words alone, this particular piece is distracting at best. The remainder of the chapter is much more adeptly illustrated. Religious art including a quilt, and a modernist interpretation of the last supper perfectly compliment the progression of the history of religion in the text. A photograph of an interracial couple, and a portrait of a black poet are perfect complements to the text they accompany; the complex relationship between African Americans and Native Americans, and the discussion of black art, respectively.

The following two chapters, four and five, discuss the lives of free blacks and well as enslaved blacks from 1770-1859. Painter provides a brief history of the era as well as some insight into the feelings of both groups at the time. There is a heavy reliance on representations of prominent figures of the era, Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman are all depicted several times. There are also representations of more common folk, such as a doll which depicts a black women, presumably a slave, playing with a white baby while her own child clings to her skirt (pg 91), and Claude Clark’s “Slave Lynching” which depicts a white man publicly beating a naked black woman (pg 90). The juxtaposition of the images in this chapter, from figureheads to enslaved people, nurturing caretakers to torturous men, works well in conjunction with the text. The images provide an added layer of complexity to the story, assuring the reader that this is more than dry history; this is the story of people’s lives.

Chapter six utilizes art in several ways: as a narrative element, as pure illustration, and to evoke an emotional response. This is the first of Painter’s chapters to extensively include poetry. J. Madison Bell’s “What Shall We Do with the Contrabands” (pg 110) calls for the inclusion of black soldiers to fight for the Union in the civil war. This poem describes pages worth of descriptions and emotion in three stanzas and is woven beautifully into the text. The second poem in this chapter, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “The Colored Soldiers” is equally as moving, but far longer than is appropriate for this chapter; it would have been better suited as an excerpt. Some of the art in this chapter seems more decorative than it is complementary; a portrait of Harriet Tubman by Charles White (pg 121) shows her seated and looking stern, while the text speaks of her compassion and aptitude, the artwork seems oddly juxtaposed to the text and does not reflect the general feeling of the section. Some of the pieces however, could not have been more perfectly chosen; a painting by John Jones “The New Order” (116) depicts Colin Powell astride a white horse, looking proud and stoic, while Robert E. Lee anxiously looks on. This portrait notes the changes that have occurred since the civil war, reflects the fear many white southerners felt and the pride that African American’s have, and continue to feel, by serving their country. This piece embodies much of what is included in this chapter, and additionally incorporates it into a more modern atmosphere.

Painter’s chapter on Reconstruction utilizes much less art than in previous sections. A portrait, “The First Colored Senator and Representatives, in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States” (138) is an appropriate, though traditional use of illustration in a text. The remaining artwork, one depicting a “Buffalo Soldier” and the other depicting black soldiers guarding Chinese laborers, (both pg 143) are reflective of the text and of African American sentiment regarding those topics.

Chapters eight and nine are filled with art. These two chapters follow African American history from the segregated Deep South to the emergence of the “New Negro”. The artwork in these chapters focuses primarily on portraits, which evolve beautifully over the span of the section. The beginning of chapter eight depicts hard working and over- worked laborers in pieces such as “Waterboy” (pg 150) and “Chain Gang” (pg 153), and towards the middle of the chapter begins to present art representative of the changing times. “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (pg 162) shows the stereotypical “Mammy” figure reclaimed and carrying a rifle, standing in front of a backdrop of the stereotypical smiling Aunt Jemima. “The KKK Barbeque” (pg 170) complements the text speaking of women’s changing power and depicts both black and white women burning members of the KKK. The “New Negro” chapter shows African Americans in a very different light. For the first time in Painter’s text black people are depicted as wealthy and at leisure. Though the mood of the text is significantly different in this chapter, it is the art that helps the reader transition through an era.

Chapters ten through thirteen, which span the 1930’s to the end of the Cold War are awash with illustration. Photographs become more prominent in this section, largely due to the prevalence of the medium during this time. Both modern and realist art play deftly off of the text and serve as appropriate and often moving visual representations of the sections in which they are included. A photograph of Malcolm X (pg 255) and an abstract bust representing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (pg 274) are only two examples of the diverse, well places pieces in this section.

The concluding chapters in Painter’s text focus on modern and political art as parallels to the changing political atmosphere for African Americans since the mid 1960s. A Caucasoid graffiti portrait of Jesse Jackson (pg 327) stands out as a moving protest piece and ties in with the text perfectly.

Painter pushed limits of convention with this textbook. Although her choices in certain portions of the book seem contrived, overall the artwork she included was a brilliant addition to the text. By including art she was able to provide a deeper level of understanding to the reader, not only the history from an academic point of view, but perhaps insight into the experience, as it was viewed by African Americans.