FEATURE

Captured Images

A Vermont artist brings students face-to-face with her enslaved ancestors.

Our 5th graders at Union Elementary in Montpelier, Vermont, study slavery and the Civil Rights Movement as the culminating unit in a K-5 developmental counseling program. As co-counselors, we do our best to make this anti-prejudice curriculum relevant to our students’ real lives.

As European American teachers, however, we know that there is much we don’t know, and we seek frequent advice and feedback from our friends and school parents who are people of color.

Montpelier, the nation’s smallest state capital (population approximately 8,400), is a refugee resettlement area that is quietly challenging common assumptions about a racially homogeneous Vermont. We have refugee families from Bosnia, Central America and Congo, as well as African American, Asian American and multiracial families.

Our student body comprises 5.5 percent children of color and an additional 4 percent Bosnian, and our strong ESL program serves students whose first languages are Bosnian, Chinese, French and Spanish.

A primary concern when we discuss sensitive topics is to ensure a sense of safety for all students. For example, we’re mindful that, when one or two children are the only children of color in a group, they could easily feel conspicuous or vulnerable during lessons about slavery.

In this study, the students had already compared and contrasted illustrations in various multicultural children’s books. One goal of this activity was to introduce and normalize a working vocabulary of racial and ethnic categories — African American, Asian American, European American, Hispanic, Native American and Multiracial — so that children of all backgrounds would see their own heritage as one among the many represented in our country.

We had also listened to excerpts from Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave. An opportunity recently came our way that added a dynamic and unifying dimension to our 5th grade slavery study.

Local artist and professional counselor Cheryl Daye Dick had previously been a substitute teacher in our school. We learned that an exhibit of Cheryl’s recent work was about to open at the Vermont Supreme Court Building, and, for our purposes, the timing couldn’t have been better. The paintings in the show were portraits of Cheryl’s enslaved ancestors.

We told the students about our good fortune and made plans to take in the exhibit. We explained that the paintings were hanging in the Supreme Court Building — within walking distance of the school — and asked what connections they could make between slavery and laws.

Our students had studied a time-line of key events from the arrival of the first slaves in the West Indies, through slavery in the U.S., the Civil War and Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and resulting legislation. We also watched a movie (The Past Is My Own, a CBS Schoolbreak Special) that recreated a 1961 lunch-counter sit-in.

The students’ responses to the injustice they saw in the movie revealed their understanding that the country had needed new laws to ensure that Black and White people were treated as equals. We sent a letter to all 5th grade parents describing the show and inviting them to join us.

In separate visits by groups of 20, we walked to the Court Building, where Cheryl gave us a private tour of the exhibit. The children clustered tightly around her, settling quickly out of their fidgets to hear Cheryl tell about how she works, where her ideas come from, and what particular images mean to her.

"I’ve listened to family stories all my life," says Cheryl, whose relations include Bishop Henry Delany, the first African American bishop in the Episcopal Church, and artist Romare Bearden. "That was my dinner-table nourishment as a child, listening to my relatives from all around the South. My Uncle Bill, for example, kept his hair cut very short. I once asked him why he did that, and he said, ‘Because we were so fair-skinned, that was how they identified us as not being White. You had to keep your head almost shaved to go downtown.’ That is the kind of experience I think about when I’m preparing to paint."

Standing beside one of a pair of paintings called "Watching Meanness," Cheryl draws the children in. "What is this woman doing?" she asks.

"Watching," replies one child.

"Where is she?"

"In a house."

"Working in the kitchen."

"She sees something bad," says another.

"When I painted this," Cheryl says, "I was thinking about a cook in the kitchen, and how she would have to continue cooking as she watched her child being mistreated by someone in the owner’s family. Knowing that she would have to freeze her face instantly, in order not to give off any signal, to keep her child safe. Of course, she had to be even more harsh with her child later on to keep the child safe."

The facial expression of the woman in the painting is one that recurs here and there throughout the collection. Cheryl calls it "the thousand-yard stare."

An African American student pauses to gaze back at the impassive image of a girl her own age. "She’s probably wishing she was out here with us," the viewer says, "so she could have White friends."

Cheryl welcomes the specific interpretations her pieces evoke. "A woman came up to me and said that she worked at a battered women’s shelter, and that these paintings transcended all the racial barriers for her. They were about remembering that trauma. Even if you’re composed, even if you’re in safety, it’s still there. I pursued a graduate degree in counseling to try to answer the question ‘Why do people hate each other?’ I haven’t found the answer, and now I’m exploring the same question in my paintings."

Strong identification from viewers seems to mirror the artist’s emotional investment in each situation portrayed. "When I paint," she says, "I use crayon or watercolor in order to sketch quickly at first. I try to be inside that person. I don’t have to try, actually. Sometimes, I have to put my brush down and cry."

An important dimension of new historical research, Cheryl believes, is the opportunity to understand the "double-edged" trauma of slavery.

"I’ve just finished a painting of a very languid and passive blonde woman. It’s a nude portrait, she’s sitting up in bed. I named it ‘Southern Wife.’ A friend asked me what I was getting at, and I said, ‘If you’re the planter’s wife, and some of the slave children you see every day unmistakably resemble your own husband, where is your value? If your breasts are empty because someone else feeds your baby, who are you as a Southern wife? These aspects of your identity have been taken from you.’

Every time I finish a painting, I feel as if I’ve freed someone from anonymity.

"Teachers who are reading the new history are going beyond the old model of ‘These states became slave states, and these others became free states.’ They’re beginning to explore things like how institutions all over the country, such as banks and insurance companies, were deeply involved in slavery. In the old model, we were less likely to see the interwoven complexity of slavery, how it affected every state — North, South, East and West — in economic, social and emotional ways.

"When I talk to teachers here in Vermont, they often quickly point out that we were a major Underground Railroad route into Canada. And I just as quickly say, ‘And why couldn’t people stop here?’ I don’t have the answers, but these are the questions we have to ask. I’m hoping this new research doesn’t inspire anger. I’ve had these same concerns about my paintings. My hope is that they give teachers and students a neutral starting place, a human image they can relate to, project onto, go learn and think about at their own pace."

She points to a charcoal drawing titled "Fourteen — to Be Sold in the Morning." The strong simple lines depict a young woman in profile, sitting quietly.

"She knows she is going to be sold to another plantation tomorrow," Cheryl says. "Someone could look at that painting and not go too deeply and still say, ‘Oh, wow, to turn my 14-year-old over to strangers, that would be awful.’ Or they could go deeper and say, ‘She wouldn’t have any protection under the law, none from the church, none from the community, none from anywhere whatsoever.’ I hope people can take it in layers. My paintings give the viewer a private space — a place to stand in front of the image and ask questions about where we’ve been as a country, and where we’re going. We can’t move forward as a country until we understand the depths of our pain."

Students at the exhibit each received a questionnaire that guided them in a detailed viewing and imaginative interaction with a picture of their choice. As a final exercise, they had to make a sketch of the painting to use as an essay-prompt back in the classroom.

One teacher, Deb Hickey, included responses to the paintings in her language arts curriculum. After the energy and excitement of the field trip and discussion, students spent several sessions in quiet reflection, writing, feedback and editing.

"A girl is hiding food behind her back because she is hungry," one student wrote. "Her eyes and mouth make it look like she is caught."

"I see a girl sitting alone by herself," observed another, "with sadness in her face, loneliness, missing her family. The girl is mad and sad at the same time. I notice her face and her hands put together on her lap, the colors, her eyes and lips. It looks like she is thinking, ‘You are probably wondering what happened to me.’ "

Cheryl acknowledges that the intensity of her images can be unrelenting. "It’s not that I’m only interested in the harsh side of reality," she notes. "But, as many psychologists and others have observed, in order to know deep joy, you have to go deeply into your sorrow."

It is our job as counselors to help students identify and reflect upon both the emotions that Cheryl’s paintings depict in their subjects and the ones that they evoke in their viewers. Our 5th graders’ strong connection with these portraits suggests a kind of liberating empathy.

As Cheryl told us, "Every time I finish a painting, I feel as if I’ve freed someone from anonymity."

Plantation Vistas

When 19th-century artists painted plantation scenes, they usually began with preparatory sketches made while standing in front of a planter’s house or somewhere slightly below it.

 

From either position, their gaze — and that of anyone who looked at their paintings — was necessarily directed upwards. Viewing a plantation house from that perspective, one experienced a sense of the presumed authority of its owner. Artists painting plantations rendered images as seen by an upturned face, one that implicitly signaled submission and respect.

 

As important as position and gaze were the features of content that artists decided to highlight. Especially revealing of planters’ concerns was the way in which slavery was depicted.

 

Any successful plantation needed a reliable source of manpower, and southern planters secured the workers they needed by purchasing Africans, and later African Americans, who as the victims of chattel slavery would become laborers for life.

 

Over the course of two and a half centuries, the approximately 500,000 persons brought from Africa would increase eightfold; by 1860, almost 4 million captive blacks were counted in the federal census. This sizable slave presence was not only an indicative feature of the American South but the definitive characteristic of a plantation.

 

Yet, prior to the Civil War, surprisingly few black figures appeared in plantation paintings. The exclusion of slaves from paintings of plantations was, like the choice of the view from below, a powerful tactic that artists used to suggest a planter’s undisputed command over his estate.

 

If there were no blacks to be seen in a plantation landscape, then white people, by default, would have to be recognized as the primary occupants. Images of rural estates that presented no black figures, or only a few, were intended to flatter planters and their families by offering them visual confirmation of their claims to power and authority.

 

Given that the fortunes of slaveholders were in fact dependent on the efforts of a black majority — a population that on several noteworthy occasions opposed their captivity with acts of full-scale rebellion — members of the planter class were perpetually plagued with feelings of anxiety.

 

The pervasive whiteness of an idealized planter’s prospect offered, at least in symbolic terms, a reduction of the ominous black threat. By rendering slaveholding estates in a manner that either hid or diminished the presence of African Americans, those paintings functioned as documents of denial. Such paintings offered a soothing propaganda that both confirmed and justified the social dominance of the planter class.

 

Excerpted by permission from
The Planter’s Prospect ($24.95)
by John Michael Vlach
University of North Carolina Press
P.O. Box 2288
Chapel Hill, NC 27515-2288.