When Blacks Were Part of America, but Not

Image of the Week: The positions of figures in 1848's War News From Mexico are key to understanding attitudes of the era.

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Richard Caton Woodville, War News From Mexico, 1848. Oil on canvas, 27 by 25 in. Bentonville, Ark., Crystal Bridges Collection.

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

By the mid-19th century, the fine arts were playing an important role in shaping the self-image of America. A key example is War News From Mexico, painted by the Baltimore artist Richard Caton Woodville. It was exhibited at the American Art-Union in New York in 1849 to great acclaim, then distributed across the country as a large-edition print.

Only the title reveals the cause of the excitement in the painting. The newspaper held by the central figure on the porch has brought important though undisclosed news about the war then being fought between the United States and Mexico. The dramatic reading takes place on the simple, somewhat dilapidated porch of a local gathering place, identified by the sign on the gable as the "American Hotel." Metaphorically, this building represents the United States, a sheltering, though often dysfunctional, nexus of politics, camaraderie and dissent.

Off the porch to one side are a seated black man and a young black girl, presumably the man's daughter. The plain working clothes of the man and the pathetically tattered dress of the girl are indicative of life at a barely subsistence level. While at rest, they have been distracted by the commotion on the porch. They listen attentively but impassively as the news is received by its intended audience.

The ambiguous social and legal status of the black man and child at this crucial point in the country's history is signaled by their position in the painting. On the one hand, they are foregrounded in the space closest to the viewer and are illuminated by the same strong light that so clearly reveals the reactions of the white men assembled on the porch.

On the other hand, they are excluded from the dense knot of activity, attentive to the news but relegated to the status of powerless observers. The black man and child form a cohesive group that offers a powerful commentary on the reactions of the figures above them. The red, white and blue of their clothes may allude to the crisis of slavery in the United States.

The men on the porch represent the response in microcosm of the entire nation of white, enfranchised males to the deeply divisive issue of the Mexican-American War. Many saw it as a divinely sanctioned opportunity to achieve the country's ultimate destiny within the vast continent, while others feared the spread of slavery that such westward expansion would inevitably bring.

The reserved, not to say complacent, response of the black figures in the right foreground to the news instills a sense of foreboding in the scene. The effect is one of the "calm before the storm," a cataclysm whose fateful course had already been irrevocably set.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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