Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cincinnati Sees Art's Path through African American History

Today, the National Underground Freedom Center in Cincinnati is opening Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. It is a brave and powerful exhibition with some of the most painful American images ever photographed. I should say, I've not yet seen the show, though as an art historian who specialized in Critical Race Theory, I am familiar with this visual history.
As current images of Haiti's destruction and death toll fill television and computer screens, people around the world are mobilizing and an international state of compassion swells. The destructive act of nature calls on us to help those in need. However, lynching images draw on a different source of pain. Shame. These photos rightly implicate the American viewer and our history. I expect tears of shame will be shed at the Freedom Center in response to Without Sanctuary. It is the powerful role of art to force us to face history and its lessons no matter how painful.

The Enquirer is reporting on yet another story about art as a tool of history. Here a 136 yr old sketch is used as a genealogical tool. With the help of a Kentucky mother and daughter, the sketch of a North Carolina slave cabin will soon find its way into the hands of the artist's family now in College Hill. Henry Wister Tate's family knew about his life as a minister and perhaps knew his was at one time a slave, but focused more on his life in the church. The sketch may prove at least momentarily to be a painful confirmation of Tate family history. But without a doubt, it is a history H.W. Tate intended to record for memory. Tate not only took the time to sketch the cabin, but also identified himself, the cabin, the location, and the date. It is with this wealth of information, he insures that anyone who sees the sketch, particularly his family, will know and remember their history.

As an art historian, I am passionate about reminding my students and anyone who reads my blog, the important role art has in teaching history. Understandably, it is too often the most painful histories we would rather forget. Thanks to The Underground Freedom Center and artists like H.W. Tate, we are called on to remember.


pbernish said...

Thanks for your observations about the Freedom Center's exhibition. I hope you will visit us soon and see Without Sanctuary.