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Bayou Bend African American Material Culture: An Online Collection

As Americans think about equality’s past, present, and future on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Bayou Bend Collection looks to its objects and images to present the central role that African Americans play in U.S. history. Inspired by four key questions that have shaped African American history, this online collection presents various works from Bayou Bend that emphasize an important belief: Black history is American history.

Collection 1: How did the work of enslaved and free black Americans influence their lives?
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Any worker’s labor will shape his or her life. The enslaved and free blacks of the United States and the greater Atlantic world (including Europe, North and South America, and Africa) also had to battle the limits created by the oppressive racial system under which they lived. These objects show how life and work intersected for African Americans.

Collection 2: How did African Americans react to oppression?
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Black history has often been told in opposites; for instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. vs. Malcolm X and their differing ways of addressing civil rights. They represent two opposing ways African Americans reacted to an oppressive racist system, accommodation/assimilation or resistance/separation. But historians now recognize that humans respond to harsh living conditions in complex ways. Black history must be examined with eyes open to many methods of survival.

Collection 3: How did social and political movements influence slavery as an institution and as a lived experience?
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Social and political movements throughout America and Europe influenced the character of slavery in the United States. Those who defended slavery and those who opposed it both tried to change the extent and conditions of slavery across America. The debates between pro-and anti-slavery supporters changed the lives of black Americans.

Collection 4: How was the image of Africans and African-descended people portrayed in the visual and material culture of the Atlantic world?
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For thousands of years Africans and African-descended people have appeared in Western art. Yet not until the 1950s did scholars begin to investigate the meaning of blacks in the art and design of the larger Atlantic world (including Europe, North and South America, and Africa). Prompted in large part by Houston’s own Dominique de Menil, whose photo archive The Image of the Black in Western Art is now run by the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, the study of the image of Africans and African-descended peoples tell us much about the social, political, and cultural context in which black history—and therefore American history—took place.