“The Alphabet Is an Abolitionist”

Last week I had a chance to stop by the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in Washington to take a look at their new exhibit,  The Civil War and American Art.

One of the paintings on display is Eastman Johnson’s The Lord Is My Shepherd. Completed  just a few months after the Emancipation Proclamation, it depicts an African-American man reading from a Bible.

The Lord Is My Shepherd, by Eastman Johnson.

The Lord Is My Shepherd, by Eastman Johnson. Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum

From the exhibition notes:

The Lord Is My Shepherd does not distinguish between literacy in the service of faith or of political awareness. Literacy was in its own way a declaration of independence and humanity for a people long denied both. The idea of wanting to learn—through reading, writing, talking, and being heard—was a powerful force in black communities. It embodied the concepts of determination and self-advocacy, of independent thinking and initiative. As a writer for Harper’s Weekly bluntly put it, “The alphabet is an abolitionist. If you would keep a people enslaved, refuse to teach them to read.”

The exhibition is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until April 28th, and then moves on to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May.