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.
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.”