African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (2/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

Robert S. Duncanson (1822 – 1871)

After Joshua Johnson, the next known Antebellum Era African-American artist is the exceptionally talented landscape artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1822 – 1871). Born biracial and free in New York, Duncanson painted literary inspired landscapes in the Hudson River School style of American art.

Racial overtones are found in two of his paintings: View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky and Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853 painted a year after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the View he depicted two white children standing next to a Black man with scythe and a Black woman in the background hanging clothes to dry. He also showed a white family out on a leisurely picnic while the two African-Americans worked.  Kentucky had still not abolished slavery, and rural Kentucky contrasts sharply with the bustling city across the river. Through this painting Duncanson gives a visual of his outlook on slavery and the dependence of the bustling city on slave laborers. Cincinnati was a hotbed of anti-slavery movement, and Duncanson not only participated in abolitionist activities, he also sold paintings and donated money to the cause.

Duncanson took inspiration from literary classics when he painted – he based his famous painting Land of the Lotus Eaters on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem and presented it to him when he went to study art in Europe.

Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861
Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine 1871 -inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.”

Duncanson was the first truly successful African-American artist, not only in the US but also in Europe.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (1/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?  

Joshusa Johnson (1763 – after 1826), Earliest Known African-American Artist.

The earliest known African-American artist is antebellum era artist Joshua Johnson who painted in the early 1800s. He lived in Baltimore and advertised himself as a self-taught portrait artist. He may have been biracial and earned his freedom which allowed him to become a financially successful professional artist. He painted local resident – sea captains, merchants, shopkeepers and their families.

Of the about 80 paintings attributed to Johnson only one is signed, and only two are of African-Americans. His portraits are formal mostly with plain backgrounds, though some have tiled floors and windows with distant landscapes. If he included other objects, they were letter, books, gloves, parasols, riding crops dogs, flowers and fruit.

Very little is known about Joshua Johnson – interestingly his paintings are dated because of the ages of the known sitters not because of when he might have painted them. Only two of his paintings were of African-Americans – of Daniel Coker (1780 – 1846), a biracial African-American who gained his freedom and became a Methodist minister. Coker moved to Sierra Leone with his family and started the West Africa Methodist Church. The second was of an unknown cleric.

(Images courtesy NGA & Smithsonian).


Where did this powerful term, this hashtag that has galvanized a nation, and become the rallying cry for a generation – where did it come from?

Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors

The year was 2013, and George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Alicia Garza was shocked, saddened, and frustrated to hear the verdict, and immediately wrote a series of Facebook posts – what she later called a Love Letter to all Black People, “stop saying we are not surprised. That’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” Followed by another simple, yet powerful message,“black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”

The Facebook messages were then shared by her friend and activist Patrisse Cullors who used her message to form the powerful hashtag, “declaration: black bodies will no longer be sacrificed for the rest of the world’s enlightenment. I am done. Trayvon, you are loved infinitely. #blacklivesmatter.”

This was followed by another Facebook post that was a call to action, and was the first time the hashtag was characterized as a movement,

“Alicia Garza myself, and hopefully more black people than we can imagine are embarking on a project. we are calling it BLACKLIVESMATTER”

“#blacklivesmatter is a movement attempting to visiblize what it means to be black in this country. Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation. Rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”

Another civil rights activist Opal Tometi recognized the potential of the hashtag and the three of them created an online space for this movement to grow – somewhere where others could join and spread awareness.

Colin Kaepernick & #blacklivesmatter – he refused to stand for the national anthem

For most of 2013, the hashtag gained traction on social media as a rallying cry for a civil rights movement, but remained within the confines of social media. It was not until 2014, when Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island by a police chokehold, followed by the August 2014 killing of teenager Michael Brown by a police office in Ferguson, Missouri, and race relations came to a boiling point with demonstrations and protests continuing for weeks that #blacklivesmatter came to be used both offline and online for a movement.

According to the Pew Research Group, #blacklivesmatter appeared on Twitter a total of 11.8 million times between July 2013 and March 2016. I am sure when the word is analyzed for 2020 it will easily cross the billion mark.

With its civil rights roots, its longevity in this short attention span world, and its phenomenal spread across the world, it is clear that this powerful and meaninful term is not just the rallying cry of 2020, but of an entire generation unwilling to accept racial inequality. The hashtag has created a new mechanism for confronting this racial inequality and has become synonymous with the fight against systematic and structural racism.