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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Peoples

depictions of African Americans by white artists
African Americans
- Black and white colonial Americans view each other, selections from journals, letters, narratives, and official reports (PDF)
- Three depictions of African Americans by white artists, 1710-1761 (PDF)
- Two views of the Stono Rebellion: white and black, 1739 & ca. 1937 (PDF)

Remember Christian; Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
Phillis Wheatley, 1773     

. . . even the thought of liberty must never be suffered to contaminate itself in a negro's mind . . .
Boyrereau Brinch, ca. 1810   

He die but he die for doin' de right, as he see it.
George Cato, ca. 1937, on Cato,   
leader of the 1739 Stono Rebellion   

In other sections of this Toolbox we explore various aspects of the African American experience in colonial America—as newly arrived captives, as an enslaved minority, and as a critical labor supply and economic commodity. What about "as people"? How did the African and European inhabitants of British America view each other in the 1700s before the Revolution?
  • Black and white colonial Americans view each other. From journals, narratives, reports, poems, and other documents come these statements by white and black residents of British America as they consider the racial "other" in their lives. Although the record holds much more commentary by whites than blacks, it reveals the "unhappy influence," as Thomas Jefferson later noted, "on the manners [behavior] of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us."1
    • - Commentary by African Americans (Olaudah Equiano, Boyrereau Brinch, Venture Smith, and Phillis Wheatley) and European Americans (Cotton Mather, William Moraley, William Byrd, Landon Carter, Daniel Horsmanden, James Glen, Charles Hansford, Johann Martin Bolzius, Benjamin Franklin, and Virginia slaveholders in runaway slave advertisements.

  • Three depictions of African Americans by white artists. Awaiting discovery in the records of antebellum slaveholders are undoubtedly many sketches of African Americans; they await the diligence of researchers. The few pre-revolutionary depictions that we have of slaves are those done by professional white portraitists. Two are formal elaborate portraits of the young sons of wealthy Maryland planters, with their submissive black "servants" gazing admiringly at them. The third is a rare portrait in which the slave—an older black woman in Boston—is the subject of the work. Use the questions in Discussing Art to view the artworks in their entirety before discussing the portrayal within them of African Americans (also see portrait questions below).
    • - John Greenwood, Jersey Nanny, mezzotint (with poem), Boston, 1748.
    • - Jnius Engelhardt Kühn, portrait of Henry Darnall III, age 8, and his slave, Maryland, ca. 1710.
    • - John Hesselius, Portrait of Charles Calvert, age 5, and his slave, Maryland, 1761.

  • Two views of the Stono Rebellion: white and black. On September 7, 1739, in South Carolina occurred a slave uprising which, although brief and quickly suppressed, alarmed white colonists throughout British America. About fifty enslaved African Americans, perhaps responding to the promise of freedom in Spanish Florida, stole weapons from a store and killed about twenty white settlers as they headed south. Most were soon killed or captured, tried, and executed. As a result, South Carolina enacted stricter limitations on slaves' conduct, especially their freedom on Sundays to "work for themselves."2 Two perspectives on the uprising are presented here. The first was written by an unidentified white official soon after the uprising. The second is a family account narrated almost two centuries later by a great-great-grandson of one of the slave leaders. What does one learn from each account? from reading both accounts? What is the primary tone and message of each account? What accounts for their stark differences?
    • - Author unknown, "Account of the Negroe Insurrection in South Carolina," 1739.
    • - George Cato, oral interview, South Carolina Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration, ca. 1937.

Study these texts and portraits with other selections in this Toolbox:
Also consult the Themes FREEDOM and ENSLAVEMENT in the toolbox The Making of African American Identity: Vol. 1: 1500-1865. How did enslaved Africans and European colonists adapt to the insistent diversity imposed on each by the other? What decisions did they make in response? How did these decisions influence pre-revolutionary America. (12 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Overall, what impressions do African Americans and European American express about each other in the readings and portraits?
  2. What factors represent dominance or submission, respect or contempt, trust or distrust between black and white colonists?
  3. Describe the "perspective span" in the whites' commentary on African Americans, from most positive to most negative. What might account for the span?
  4. Describe the "perspective span" in the blacks' commentary on white colonists, from most positive to most negative. What might account for the span?
  5. Where might one find more evidence of the African American perspective on white colonists in this period?
  6. How did enslaved Africans and European colonists adapt to the insistent diversity imposed on each by the other?
  7. What decisions did they make in response? How did these decisions influence pre-revolutionary America?
  8. Analyze the similarities and differences between the two accounts of the 1739 Stono Rebellion—by narrator and by time span since the event.
  9. Consider the words used to describe the Stono event: insurrection, rebellion, revolt, uprising, war. Who uses which term(s) and why?
  10. Consider the statement of historian Alan Taylor: "As the colonial population became less English, it assumed a new ethnic and racial complexity, which increased the gap between freedom and slavery, privilege and prejudice, wealth and poverty, white and black."3 How do these readings illustrate Taylor's point?

Portrait questions
  1. Quickly jot your first impressions of the African Americans depicted in the three portraits. What adjectives describe the stance, demeanor, and facial expression of the slaves? What nouns express their mood, self-image, and status?
  2. How are they dressed? How are they positioned in the portraits?
  3. What do the objects in the painting reflect about the enslaved person? Why are they there?
  4. How does each portraitist use color, light and dark, background content, placement of people and objects, the point of the subject's gaze, and other devices to convey an impression?
  5. What overall impressions do you think the artists meant to convey?
  6. What does each portrait convey of the slave's personal response to being sketched or painted?
  7. To what extent do the portraits Europeanize the Africans?
  8. How realistic is each portrait? What criteria could you use to evaluate a portrait's accuracy?

Framing Questions
  •  What varieties of personal experience did the circumstances of life in eighteenth-century British America make available to the people of the colonies—native-born or immigrant; free, bonded, or enslaved?
  •  How did they respond to the racial, ethnic, religious, and economic diversity in British America? How did they define tolerance, peers, rights, and opportunity?
  •  How did their responses to diversity shape colonial society as a whole?
  •  By 1763, what would "American" mean to the diverse peoples of North America?

Blacks' and whites' perspectives:  6
Depictions of African Americans:  2
Two views of Stono Rebellion:  4
TOTAL 12 pages
Supplemental Sites

Narratives (full text) in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Library On the Stono Rebellion, 1739, in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH) Testimony on the "New York Conspiracy," 1741, in History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York (CUNY)

Toolbox Library resources, from the National Humanities Center TeacherServe resources, from the National Humanities Center

1 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781, Query XVIII.

2 Mark E. Smith, ed., Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt (University of South Carolina Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xiv.

3 Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (Viking/Penguin, 2001), p. 303.

-John Greenwood, Jersey Nanny, mezzotint, 1748. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, #1971.715. Permission pending.
-John Hesselius, portrait of Charles Calvert and his slave, oil on canvas, 1761, detail. Baltimore Museum of Art, 1941.4. Reproduced by permission.
-Justus Englehardt Kühn, portrait of Henry Darnall III, oil on canvas, ca. 1710, detail. Maryland Historical Society, 1912-1-3. Reproduced by permission.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Europeans I   2. Europeans II   3. Native Americans
4. African Americans   5. Women   6. Diversity

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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