Notable Men, Invisible Women: Portraiture and African-American Identity

"The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. . . . The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self."

    These famous words, from W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903), illuminate the tradition of African-American portraiture, as presented in cover artwork for Callaloo. Significantly, photography is Callaloo's chosen medium for portraits of notable African-American men. As artifacts which, in the words of Roland Barthes, "lose the history of having been made," photographs emphasize their subjects' actions, while minimizing the role of the photographer as manipulator. They offer artistic escape from the self-consciousness described by DuBois, and necessitated by a racist society, liberating and empowering their subjects. In the realm of photographic portraiture, notable African American men seem able to express themselves un-selfconsciously, existing and allowing the camera to capture them, but not being forced to change their behavior to suit the camera's gaze. The subjects of these photographic studies: Richard Wright, with his dangling cigarette, John Wideman with his gesturing hand, are presented through the vibrancy of photographic realism as those in control of their images. The role of the "eye:" both that of the photographer, and of the subject's double consciousness, is diminished in favor of emphasis on action.

However, portraiture does not constitute a complete liberation from the "double" self-consciousness which DuBois describes as restricting African-Americans. While Callaloo offers photographic liberation to the notable African-American men it honors, no African-American women receive this treatment. Rather, all of the portraits of women are executed in paint, and emphasize the traditional physical "feminine" beauty of their subjects. They are either portraits of anonymous, unknown women, or are self-portraits: an explicit replication of the double-consciousness DuBois describes. The one exception, Lois Mailou Jones' portrait of the famed performer Lillian Evanti, still applies to this model of anonymous, generalized feminine beauty, in that Evanti is costumed as a character she had played, and thus robbed of the liberty of existing, in her portrait, as her true self.

The painted portraits of anonymous women, and their contrast with the photographs of famous men, reflect the difficulties of asserting feminine African-American identities. Emulating the classically artistic appreciation for feminine beauty allowed African-American artists to prove that they could stand alongside "mainstream" art. Asserting that the black female form is classically beautiful also marked an important artistic step. The artistic philosophy, articulated by African-American painter Eldzier Cortor, that "the black woman represents the black race," made African-American womanhood an important symbol, but robbed it of realistically specific representation in art.

This dynamic does not suggest that these painted portraits are not positive or important. Indeed, many are created by female African-American artists, an extremely substantial illustration of black female agency in a stifling society. Nevertheless, the pronounced differences in portraits of African-American men and of African-American women illuminate the unique difficulties of asserting African-American female identity.

Significantly, recent covers of Callaloo have deviated from the dichotomy of male photographic portraits and female painted portraits, with the painted portraits of male subjects by Irenee Shaw, Kerry James Marshall, and Ricardo Francis. However, portraits of famous African-American women, either in paint or photograph, have not yet appeared. Even special issues of Callaloo dedicated to study of notable women do not bear cover portraits of their subjects. The image of the African-American woman in art has not yet been liberated from the self-consciousness of viewing oneself through the eyes of others which the painted portraits and self-portraits suggest.

The lack of photographic portraiture of notable African-American women on the covers of Callaloo emphasizes the fact that, while photography has liberated famous African-American men, allowing them to present their faces to the world, scores of notable "invisible women" remain unseen.


Vol. 1, No. 3 (May, 1978)

Portrait of Ernest J. Gaines
Photo by Jim Santana


Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1983)

Debbie and Child
Bernard Young


Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1985)

Larry Neal
Photo by Roy Lewis


Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1986)

Richard Wright
Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Mississippi


Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring, 1987)

Nicolás Guillén


Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1989)

Madame Lillian Evanti
Lois Mailou Jones, 1940


Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter, 1991)

Witness #2
Stan Burnside
Oil on canvas
6½" x 8½"


Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer, 1992)

La femme qui pense
[The pensive woman]
Rigaud Benoît, 1947
Oil on board
24" x 20"


Vol. 16, No. 4 (Autumn, 1993)

Orixá Head
Yêda Marìa
Mixed media painting


Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994)

Self Portrait as a Lady
Lisa Teasley, 1993
Oil on canvas
30" x 44"


Vol. 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1995)

Wilson Harris, Scotland on Sunday, U.K.
Adam Elder


Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1997)

Gilda M. Edwards, 1987 24" x 32". Oil on paper.


Vol. 20, No. 4 (Fall, 1997)

Portrait of Eric Williams
Irenee Shaw, 1995
35" x 30", oil on canvas.


Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter, 1998)

Dark and Handsome
Kerry James Marshall, 1993
Collage and acrylic on canvas, 104" x 120".


Vol. 21, No. 3 (Summer, 1998)

Portrait of Nilka
José Maria Capricorne, 1986
Oil on canvas board
50 x 40 cm.


Vol. 21, No. 4 (Fall, 1998)

Photo of Sterling A. Brown


Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring, 1999)

(Scar) Face
Ricardo Francis
Acrylic and enamel on paper, 4' x 6', 1997


Vol. 22, No. 3 (Summer, 1999)

John Wideman
Photo by Phyllis Graber Jenson, Bates College

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