The banjo can represent the careful navigation of a racist landscape a young African American boy must master as he learns to tweek the strings of everyday survival. The grandfather is lovingly showing him how to play the social chords in the same way James Baldwin approaches the difficult yet necessary conversation on racism and race relations with his 14 year old nephew in his book The Fire Next Time. Both images, visual and literary, are familiar territories to Black parents who begin their day by preparing their children for possible murder, if not harassment, by those who refuse to see their value.
Portraits of African Americans were especially key to redefining Black people in America. They intentionally contradicted the more preferred images racist Whites would push in all facets of American society, including Hollywood, to help shape White America's perception of Black Americans in order to continue fostering the myth of White supremacy by controlling how we see Black people. It is only through the dismantling of false images and unfinished stories that we discover who we can be as a nation still defining itself.
In this room, we are reminded why celebrating Black/African American history is vital to the national discourse on race relations by learning about buried and denied artwork by slaves and former slaves whose artistic footprints would have never surfaced from total dismissal, had it not been for modern artists like Jonette O'Kelley Miller to ensure their relevance to future artists here in the U.S. and abroad.
Kahlil Koromantee teaches Intercultural Awareness at Manhattanville College where he also helps manage the College's Center for Inclusion, the campuses go-to department on matters of diversity and marginalized populations. In addition, he writes motivational books for parents and youth advocates who seek culturally competent tools in working with hard to reach teens and young adults.
Great, thoughtful exhibition! I was introduced to works of art by artists I had not known about. The social narrative of the exhibit is clear and translates beautifully while taking in the works of art in each room, while Jonette O’Kelley Miller narrates. This exhibition is presented in such a fluid way, I could sense myself moving from room to room. While viewing the acceptable stereotypes in Room 1, I reflected on the fact that negative stereotypes of African Americans are so pervasive and deeply held, but it takes enormous and ongoing effort to dismantle them. The negative imagery and experiences of African Americans throughout history has seeped into the the anti-black subconscious, and manifest themselves as the social issues of today, such as the killings of unarmed black men by police. The most insidious effect to some black people who have been constantly bombarded with racist imagery and messaging is that they develop an internalized racism. As a photographer, I took particular interest in Room 2. Coming from Room 1, it was refreshing to see the monochromatic vintage portraits of ‘The Dubois real people, by black photographers I didn’t know. I was surprised to learn the story of William Biggerstaff, and think it’s great that his final portrait by J.P. Ball enters the annals of history. The photographs in Room 2 are dignified portraits of everyday black people that not only reflect the subject’s humanity, but also the photographer’s. Room 3 was fascinating and once again I was introduced to black Fine Artists who created some stunning works of art. The bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw by M. Edmonia Lewis is exquisite and was a particular favorite of mine. I also appreciated the tidbit about getting the family’s blessing to reproduce and sell the bust with proceeds benefitting back soldier’s. The background info on each piece was informative and piqued my curiosity to learn more about these and other black artists in history.
Ocean Morisset is a self-taught, award-winning photographer with nearly twenty years of experience specializing in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. A self-described “humanitarian-with-a-camera”, Ocean also explores Fine Art Portraiture and engages with a wide range of subjects in life, though his passion remains in telling stories with photos.
The breaking down of societal and cultural walls begins with a recognition and dismantling of the bricks that deliberately built them. No better way to crumble the mortar of longtime prejudices than with erudite facts and clear information, both of which compose the three short films,"19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality." Jonette O'Kelley Miller (writer and narrator) and Mara Mills (Studio Theater in Exile), have crafted an astute and articulate accounting of history's systemic palette of racism, particularly through the arts. All three episodes pair imagery with narration; an insight into paintings, sculptures, photographs and mini-bios of its subjects. I can see this as a continuing series, an educational tool that should be mandatory for schools across the country. It did what all documentaries aim for: taught me a great deal, made me reassess the arts as promoted by mass idealism and had me grieve at the heartless short sightedness of our ancestors.
Fine artist, illustrator, and longtime circus acrobat Karen E. Gersch, has a BFA from Pratt Institute and is Russian trained in circus arts. A founding member of the Big Apple Circus and VT's Circus Smirkus, she has traveled and performed around the globe. "The Art of Balance", a program she created culled from her longtime career, has enriched youth and teens for three decades. Gersch relocated to Orange County from Manhattan eight years ago, continuing to teach, paint and write.
Jonette O'Kelley Miller's virtual exhibition of "19th Century Stereotypes vs 19th Century Reality" is visually beautiful and continues to shed light on the continued perpetuation of the African-American as submissive, lazy and as caricatures drawn and/or painted with bulging eyes and big lips as demonstrated by white artists in Room 1 of her exhibit during this period. However, in Rooms 2 and 3 Ms. Miller counters these images with truthfulness and accuracy by showing the many contributions of African-Americans who were gifted painters, sculptors, and artisans during this time who often had to flee the country where they were born to be accepted as artists.
Through Ms. Miller's engaging narration of this exhibit one is drawn into this virtual journey of a piece of black history that I had no knowledge of until now and I am grateful and more knowledgeable of our heritage because of it!!!
Bravo Ms. Miller and thank you,
- Roxanne Reese
Roxanne Reese is an actress, singer, comedienne and storyteller with many stage, television and movie credits. Ms. Reese starred on Broadway as the Lady in Brown for Colored Girls...and was nominated for a Jeff Award in Regina Taylor's Play "Magnolia" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Ms. Reese is best known on the television as Shirley Dupree the character that she created while working at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in the "Martine" series, Living Color and in Big Mama's House 2 on the silver screen. Currently Ms. Reese can be seen on the Netflix Series "Family Reunion" as Sister Patty and as a storyteller with the Los Angeles based company Tales by the Sea.
Ms. Reese's greatest personal accomplishment to date was touring for one full year as the opening act for her comedic idol, Mr. Richard Pryor.
In his new posthumously-published autobiography, It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior, freedom movement elder Rev. C.T. Vivian describes his childhood as impoverished in economic status, but not in learning. Born in 1924, Rev. Vivian discusses his maternal grandmother’s central commitment to education – not only to the “three R’s” but also to knowledge of the long, rich history of their people.
“One particular book caught my eye,” he says in reference to his grandmother’s large collection of volumes in their house, “The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements by William Wells Brown.” The author was a fugitive slave and abolitionist who traveled internationally, and his 1863 publication was a formative text for Vivian, who quotes from its preface: “If this work shall aid in vindicating the Negro’s character, and show that he is endowed with those intellectual and amiable qualities which adorn and dignify human nature, it will meet the most sanguine hopes of the writer.
In “19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality,” curator Jonette O’Kelley Miller offers a powerful contrast to the story often told of Black American life in the 1800s. Drawing on a range of artistic genres – photography, paintings, sculptures, woodwork, quilting, and metalsmithing – this collection describes the intellectual and artistic prowess of peoples of African descent during the antebellum and postbellum periods. In so doing, she offers a different mechanism for challenging white supremacy and thereby pushes back against normative themes of slavery, political resistance, and physical labor.
Using Henry Ossawa Tanner’s poignant 1893 painting The Banjo Lesson as its central text, Miller shows the need to step outside that limiting framework. This beautiful rendering of an intimate moment of intergenerational love, which has adorned my own child’s bedroom wall for many years, evokes the words of scholar Kevin Quashie. In his 2012 book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, Quashie argues: “The determination to see blackness only through a social public lens, as if there were no inner life, is racist—it comes from the language of racial superiority and is a practice intended to dehumanize black people.
In addition to the diversity of content, this exhibition stands out due to the narration provided by Ms. Miller. I found myself fascinated by the back stories she provides to many of the selected works. For example, I listened several times to her description of the portrait of William Biggerstaff by J.P. Ball, Sr., which appears in a set of works gathered by W.E.B. Du Bois for an international exhibition in Paris, France at the turn of the century. The image itself is striking, but we further learn that “in keeping with Ball’s use of photography as social documentary, his photograph is the first of three revealing Biggerstaff’s subsequent execution and death.
Likewise I was struck by the bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw sculpted by M. Edmonia Lewis – created from memory and some drawings, as the subject had died during the civil war. Ms. Miller describes that “Shaw’s parents gave Lewis permission to sell copies of their son’s bust, which Lewis did to help 19th century African-American soldiers get equal pay.”
In total, this online exhibition should revise the ways that educators and historians consider African-American life in the 1800s. The prototypical focus on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction are necessary but limiting, as they exclude a broader understanding of the inner lives of Black people throughout the century – and how those experiences will ultimately inform the Harlem Renaissance and other forms of art and culture that emerge in the early 20th century. We need multilayered collections like this one, accompanied by dramatic storytelling such as provided by Ms. Miller’s narration, to add nuance, depth, and complexity to our understanding of the African-American experience.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Codeswitch podcast, Lonnie Bunch, 14th secretary of the Smithsonian – and the first Black person to hold that distinction – described his idea of creating what would become the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He said, “If I could come back and with a group of people build a museum that reflected the richness and the complexity of African-American history for everybody, then maybe that I could nurture the souls of my ancestors.” With “19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality,” I believe that Ms. Miller has done precisely that."
- Ethan Vesely-Flad, Director of National Organizing Fellowship of Reconciliation
Ethan Vesely-Flad is director of national organizing for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR-USA), the oldest interfaith peace and justice organization in North America. Ethan networks and mobilizes national coalitions and grassroots FOR members for human rights advocacy and social change. His work has taken him throughout the United States and thirty-plus other countries worldwide to strengthen racial justice, ecological sustainability, LGBTQ rights, demilitarization, and interfaith understanding. A past editor of The Witness, Fellowship, and GraceOnline magazines, Ethan’s writing has also appeared in ColorLines, The Huffington Post, The Source, Waging Nonviolence, Episcopal Life, and other publications. He lives in Asheville NC (ancestral land of the Anikituwagi, or Cherokee) with his family.
We do well to examine the truly rich cultural and historical roots of African American art traditions. If for no other purpose than the eradicating and deconstructing of what can only be described as the racist historical and mythological depictions of Africans and African Americans as ignorant, docile and less than human. Images created and enforced to justify the enslavement, atrocities and brutality of human beings.
Jonette Miller has successfully assembled an important academic artistic overview of a people in her exhibit 19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality. Viewers are provided with a historical and sociological framework and context with which to view and interpret the exhibit. We see the degradation but we also see the tenderness and dignity in images such as “Portrait of a Couple” By Thomas F. Askew, “Portrait of Frederick McGee” By R. Harry Shepherd and “The Banjo Lesson” By Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Visit Studio Theater in Exile for Black History/Herstory Month, Mara Mills, Artistic Director to view Jonette Miller’s 19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality. It is an experience and exhibit well worth seeing.
- Lorraine Currelley, Poet Laureate and Interdisciplinary artist
Lorraine Currelley is a poet, writer, Pearls of Wisdom Storyteller and State of New York Bronx Beat Poet Laureate 2020-2022 awarded by the National Beat Poetry Foundation, Inc. She's widely anthologized and the recipient of numerous awards. She's the executive directors for Poets Network & Exchange, Inc., and the Bronx Book Fair. She has a Masters in Mental Health Counseling and a Certificate of Specialization in Thanatology (grief and bereavement). She resides in New York City.
Jonette O’Kelley Miller presents an excellent narrative of African American stereotypes in the 19th Century. One can appreciate her mindfulness in choosing to focus on this period in American history. This exhibit reveals how the seeds of the hurtful African American stereotypes were planted during this time.
In her guided virtual tour, Miller takes us through three virtual exhibition rooms to reveal how some of these stereotypes evolved. Room 1 features Accepted Stereotypes. Room 2 features Dubois’ Real People. Room 3 features Real People’s Fine, Decorative and Folk Creations.
Miller explores the disturbing Darwinist view characteristic of how white artists depicted/depict Blacks. The styles ranged from blatant images to the more subtle and somewhat subliminal images within the details of the art. Miller explains why and how White artists chose to characterize Black people in their art. In Room 2, the Real People are shown in their humanity and dignity. An example of how art can correct and elaborate on history.
In Room 3, the 19th century work of African Americans is featured, although much of it was dismissed at the time. The art includes paintings, decorative works, quilts and sculpture. The work in this room, which demonstrates artisanship and creativity that once again belies the stereotypes on Room 1.
This exhibit brought to light, for me, how woven into the false history of our country the stereotypical images are. It was a pleasure and a relief to see propaganda juxtaposed against truth.
Toni Quest refers to herself as an entrepreneurial artist. She is a Law of Attraction practitioner, specializing in the life coaching of artists about the business of their art. In her recently published memoir, Actualized, a Life in Progress, Quest candidly tells the stories within the story of her life. Her award-winning piece, 'U.S. in Us' is featured on the cover of the anthology, View from the Middle of the Road, Volume II, U.S. in Us ' (PRA Publishing). A selection of her poetry is featured in the anthology as well. Currently, Quest hosts the popular podcast, Energy Stoners ™ Café. She interviews noteworthy people from around the world. Quest can also be seen on Talk with TQ, on local cable and Youtube. Both shows are produced and directed by James H. Brooks.
Toni Quest has moderated panel discussions, and delivered speeches on a number of topics, including art, environment, and spirituality. Her speaking venues have ranged from radio and cable TV to Columbia University and historical museums. As an adjunct professor, Toni Quest has taught psychology, sociology, geriatrics, academic writing and American history. She genuinely enjoys facilitating the active exchange of ideas between learners. Her latest instructional design explores how the artist, as sole proprietor, can become a successful entrepreneur. The course gives a practical overview of various avenues in which artists can generate streams of revenue. Attitudes about money and prosperity are discussed, as they pertain to the law of attraction. Toni Quest has exhibited and curated for galleries in New York City, Westchester County, NY, Georgia and South Carolina. Noteworthy is Art and Jazz, which featured the art of American military veterans.
Her love of art lead Quest to become a juror for the Mondial Art Academia, located in Montpellier, France. As a permanent juror, Quest views the art of entrants for their annual international art competition. Quest began designing jewelry in 2009. She launched the Energy Stoners ™ Jewelry designs and salons in 2014. Her jewelry features genuine energy stones, including quartz crystal, in energetic designs. Quest currently hosts the popular podcast, Energy Stoners ™ Café, where she interviews interesting people from many walks of life. She also hosts the talk show, Talk with TQ. Her shows are heard and viewed globally. Toni Quest holds an MAED/AET in adult learning theory, and a BFA in Communication Arts. She is also a member of Toastmasters, International.
As a young black male, I have fought black stereotypes my entire life so the first stereotype exhibit really resonated with me for several reasons. Art carries so much history and tells so many untold stories and that was represented incredibly in this exhibit. There are many stereotypes and stigmas surrounding the black community that stems from specific events and times in history, which were displayed here.
I recently found out that blacks had a huge part in creating the country music genre so to see so many pictures with the man with a fiddle prompted me to dig in a bit more and do more research on what and how much black folks have contributed the country music genre. Art has always had a way of igniting the desire for more knowledge on what my ancestors went through and where I come from and represent.
Each exhibit was wonderfully done and curated but the first stuck with me the most and related directly to some of my experiences and struggles as a black male in this world.
- Dwindell Feeley
Digital Media/ Non Profit Entrepreneur and founder of #LoveYourBlackCommunity, Dwindell Feeley was born and raised in NY and is currently living in Portland, Oregon. Dwindell has his own Digital Media company ‘Dwin’s Designs’, shares his story/obstacles to inspire through different mediums while serving Portland’s black community through #LoveYourBlackCommunity which has served over 75 black children in the last 8 months. Through mutual aid initiatives like collaborations with pdxfreefridge on free community fridges, hair/cooking/creative arts programs for black youth, financial literacy programs for black adults, assistance programs like school supplies for black families among many other things, #LoveYourBlackCommunity is making a REAL impact on Portlands black communities and is looking to do so all over the United States in the future.
To find out more about Entrepreneur & Founder of #LoveYourBlackCommunity Dwindell Feeley visit him on Instagram: @Loveyourblackcommunity
Jonette O’Kelley Miller’s exhibition “19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality” offers a delightful and informative retreat into the post-bellum era of the American Civil War through the visual art which was created at the time.
Each of the three gallery “rooms” host themes that are as winsome as they are provocative. Each and every painting, sculpture, photography and textile selection are unique treasures which have fascinating backgrounds and origins. Ms. O’Kelley Miller masterfully critiques each installment, providing fodder for thought beyond that which is offered by the art itself.
This work sets out to debunk popular stereotypes of Black life during this period by documenting the reality of Black life through art and imagery. W.E. Dubois’ intent to do the same at the Paris World’s Fair could have been a footnote or a nod, instead it was a rich tribute which punctuated the exhibit with the historicity of its purpose. It was a ‘great and noble’ purpose – wonderfully accomplished.
- Doria E. Hillsman
Doria E. Hillsman is a teacher and adjunct professor of chemistry in Rockland County, NY. She has served on the Board of Directors for the Arts Council of Rockland and is a violinist, performing with various groups in New York and northern New Jersey. She is the Vice-President of Programming and newsletter editor for AAUW-Rockland and serves as Secretary for the Nyack Branch NAACP.Ms. Hillsman is the mother of two adult sons and has two grandchildren all of whom she is immensely proud.