From now until March 21, the Faulconer Gallery is presenting Influence: Faculty Selections from College Collections, a faculty-curated exhibition that displays four professors’ “cabinets of curiosities.” These cabinets are meant to act as visual representations of themes central to the faculty members’ teaching and research. Influence began as a one-week faculty summer seminar to explore the art collection and evolved into a full exhibition.
The exhibition was curated by Assistant Professor of English Shanna Benjamin, Professor of Biology Jackie Brown, Associate Professor of German Daniel Reynolds, and Special Collections Librarian Catherine Rod. They mined the College’s collection for works of art and artifacts that fit their areas of expertise.
Benjamin assembled a collage of paintings, etchings, quilts, texts, memorabilia, sculpture, and more to depict the haunting history surrounding the emergence of “sorrow songs” in African American communities in the American South. These artworks and texts combine to create a scrapbook, loaded with emotional weight, as the viewer re-examines a chapter of America’s complex past through the narration of African American sorrow songs.
Working within the context of black cultural studies, Benjamin follows the development of sorrow songs in the South. She explains, “One would think that given the history, African American culture would be so burdened that the culture, the people, would break. That, as history tells us, is not the case. The affirmation that descendents of those first Africans developed was through sorrow songs and the ‘moan.’” She argues that following the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, sorrow songs voiced the frustration of newly manumitted African Americans who, despite the efforts of the Freedsman’s Bureau to provide professional and educational opportunities, were nevertheless subject to lynching, intimidation, and mob violence by the Ku Klux Klan.
Benjamin cites the work of African American civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, who in 1903 documented contemporary sorrow songs that spoke to black Southerners’ emotional burdens. The songs, Benjamin says, “speak to the emotional burden born by black Americans” and allow the voices of “‘brothers and sisters’ to speak to the past while looking toward the future.” Sorrow songs are not one-dimensional, DuBois warns, but instead are brimming with contradictions — at once troubled and hopeful, dark and light, referring to past injustices while remaining eager for the fresh possibilities of the morning.
Benjamin’s cabinet demonstrates that the powerful emotive qualities of sorrow songs resonated with subsequent musical movements, such as the blues. Although the essential melancholy character of sorrow songs remained the same, they were reinterpreted in light of historical shifts in black communities. Benjamin says that in the 1920s, African Americans experienced greater mobility, but also significant restrictions. As the acknowledgement of civil rights and equality increased, the guttural cries and moans of sorrow songs were endowed with greater agency; to represent not a vehicle for complaint, but one of recognition, a fragile existential cry for place and home. Sorrow songs remained hopeful for the promise of a better future, Benjamin explains.
Benjamin presents her “curiosity cabinet” not as a means to erase traumatic memories of America’s past, but to celebrate the continued triumph of African American literature, culture, and people. Their stories and music vibrate through the times as tales of hope, persistence through challenges, home, and family — a song with global appeal and recognition.
Jackie Brown’s cabinet examines animal behavior, an appropriate topic following the anniversary of Darwin’s birth and his published theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species. The artifacts in Brown’s cabinet take a look at how humans interpret animal behavior and whether we project our own emotions on animals in an effort to understand their actions and reactions.
Influence: Faculty Selections from Grinnell College Collections runs concurrently with a student-curated exhibition, Repeat, Reveal, React; Identities in Flux. Visit the Faulconer Gallery to learn about upcoming events.
—Maggie Kamraczewski ’10