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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Identity
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Identity
Text 1. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 2. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 3. Self Image
Text 4. Public Image
» Reading Guide
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Text 5. Racial Identity
Text 6. History
Text 7. Culture
Text 8. Africa
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Reading Guide
4.  Public Image
- The "Negro banjo player": images from the 19th century
- W. E. B. Du Bois, African American photographs assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition
    Young woman

The "Negro" stereotypes that pervaded mass media at this time ranged from the dehumanizing "mammy" and "Tom" caricatures to the debasing and incendiary depictions of the lustful "brute" (used as the core image in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation). Valentine cards depicting gleeful "colored boys" eating watermelon, cereal boxes touting "pickaninny" and "coon" logos—even photograph postcards of mobs and their lynch victims—were marketed as standard consumer fare. What effect did such images have on blacks' self-image? on whites' image of justice and equality? How did black leaders work to counter this imagery?

To address these questions we view two sets of images. The first consists of seven images of the "Negro banjo player," most depicting the common stereotype of a benign carefree black man engaged in trivial leisure. The first six images were created by white men, while the final image, The Banjo Lesson, was painted by the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (after his emigration to France). While these images do not include the most offensive depictions of the time, they offer a solid starting point for discussion. The second set of images was compiled for the explicit purpose of countering these negative images. For the American Negro Pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition, W. E. B. Du Bois compiled two albums of photographs entitled "Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A." and "Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A."; they display the wide variety of physical features and social status among African Americans in just one state (a former slave state as well). As Du Bois asserted in Paris, these images "hardly square with conventional American ideas" of black identity and achievement. His efforts were no match for the pervasive stereotypes, of course, but they represent the beginning of an active campaign to counter the dehumanizing imagery mass-produced by white society. 4 printout pages, plus online viewing of the Du Bois albums (from which you may choose to print a selection).

Discussion questions
  1. Define the common features of the "Negro banjo player" in the seven images. How are they used to demean the black man? Why does this persona of the "Negro" pose no threat to white society?
  2. How does Henry Ossawa Tanner return dignity and identity to this image in his 1893 painting The Banjo Lesson?
  3. What themes does Du Bois emphasize in his selection of photographs in order to counter the "conventional American ideas" of black people?
  4. Compare Du Bois's albums for the 1900 Paris Exposition with the "Negro Tableaux" created by Meta Warrick for the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial. How did the differing audiences affect the creation of the displays?
  5. How are honor and power conveyed in the images that counter the negative stereotypes?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans create personal and group identity after emancipation?
  •  How did the challenge differ for those who were previously enslaved and those who were not?
  •  How is Christianity central to African Americans' search for identity in this period?
  •  How does a culturally disenfranchised group create a "usable past" that guards truth yet nourishes the future?

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Freedom | Identity | Institutions | Politics | Forward

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