What Should I Do With My Portrait of a Slaveholding Ancestor?
Your story reminds me that one of my given names, Akroma-Ampim, connects me with an illustrious 18th-century ancestor of my own — an Asante general who, in what is now Ghana, took his share of war captives. Some were remanded to forced labor on farming settlements; others, quite possibly, were sold into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If I had a portrait of Akroma-Ampim to display, I would tell people what I know of him, including his role within a culture and economy of slaving.
In the tribunal of posterity, what were matters of pride regularly become sources of shame. We can actually find consolation in this: It suggests that some moral advances may have accompanied the obvious technological ones. It also suggests that we should give thought to what our progeny will make of us.
I am looking to grow my art collection. I value diversity and appreciating other cultures and would like to buy art with nonwhite people depicted, although I myself am white. Every time I go to purchase it, I hesitate and fear that I am just engaging in tokenism. Can I as a white person purchase and display art of Black people? Name Withheld
Why, yes. I understand that your unease is a result of conscientious self-scrutiny. But should your identity determine what art you can value, learn from, engage with or own? You’re a woman who buys paintings by male artists, I suspect, and if you own figurative art, I’ll bet the figures aren’t all female either. You’re an American, I imagine, but it wouldn’t occur to you that you couldn’t buy a painting by or of a Canadian. Of course, if you buy art by Black people that you don’t truly value or appreciate simply in order to have a more diverse collection, that would be tokenism. Not so if you like it.
At the same time, there’s nothing wrong in having a collection that’s focused, even in its subject matter. Again, a home is not a public institution. If you had the means, nothing should stop you from collecting only Joseph Cornell boxes, say, or only the haunting interiors of Vilhelm Hammershoi. Diversity isn’t necessarily an ethical desideratum in a collection. What would be sad would be to exclude subject matter because it was, in some sense, Black and you were not.
Indeed, we should be dismayed if white people were generally hesitant to acquire art that depicted Black people. Jacob Lawrence — perhaps you know his marvelous Toussaint L’Ouverture panels? — did his late-1940s series “In the Heart of the Black Belt” on commission from the editors of Fortune magazine. If self-scrutinizing buyers came to share your misgivings, the outcome would be akin to a boycott of such depictions, depressing the market for them and making it more difficult for their creators, who are very often Black artists, to secure a livelihood.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)