What Should I Do With My Portrait of a Slaveholding Ancestor?

My family’s ancestors, the Bibbs, were key figures in the establishment of Alabama. My great-uncle was its territorial governor, appointed by James Monroe, and was elected to the governorship when Alabama entered the union. These ancestors had plantations and owned slaves.

I possess a large, elegant portrait of this slaveholding governor, William Wyatt Bibb (1781-1820). This portrait held a place of honor in my childhood home and hangs over the mantel in my living room. I even named one of my sons Wyatt in the governor’s honor. Formerly, I did not give much thought to the Bibb family’s role in the institution of slavery. Now I have, and I have misgivings about displaying a portrait of a problematic ancestor.

I had the painting appraised years ago and was told that as an unauthenticated portrait it was worth about $5,000, and if it could be authenticated, it would be worth about $50,000. If I got the portrait authenticated, I could sell it and donate the money to an organization focused on reparations. This would assuage my conscience. On the other hand, this portrait has been in the family for about 200 years, and I am the steward of it. If I decide to keep it, how might we display it so as not to cause offense? Name Withheld

“The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there,” the narrator of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between” says in the novel’s famous opening line. The point is not that we shouldn’t make moral judgments of other times or other places. Hartley’s narrator, looking back on his own youth, does that all the time. But we can judge our forebears aright — distinguish among conformists, reactionaries and rebels — only if we recognize that they did live by different norms. It can be startling to learn that Toussaint L’Ouverture, famous as Haiti’s great emancipator, was also a slaveholder. And if you’re taking comfort in a Northern lineage, you might want to bear in mind that New York residents could be legally held in bondage until 1848, or that, in the same decade, enslaved people could still be found in Pennsylvania, a place of much abolitionist ardor.

William Wyatt Bibb is not your historical or moral contemporary; a great many of his beliefs and values would have been remote from yours. We can confidently venture that he accepted that women should, as St. Paul urged, defer to their husbands. What matters, for your immediate purposes, is what Governor Bibb symbolizes to you now.

Your ancestor, like so many Americans, accepted, practiced and no doubt defended a notably cruel form of racial slavery. Although he lived in communities where it was taken for granted, the practice was a terrible wrong, and plenty of his countrymen recognized this. His participation in this evil clearly swamps his achievements in your mind. You cannot give his portrait a place of honor in your heart or in your home.

The fact is, though, that we have to live with the past, even if it is a foreign country. We can’t just put it behind us. Nor must we remove from our homes or our albums every picture of someone implicated in evil. We are not responsible for what they did and do not have an individual responsibility to atone for it. We can’t undo these injustices; their victims aren’t here to receive recompense. But as a society, we can acknowledge our difficult history — with both its vices and its virtues — and aim to address the persisting wrongs that derive from past moral error. In doing so, articles from that history like your family portrait can provide tools for reflection. Indeed, you might want to keep Governor Bibb around precisely because he reminds you of the misdeeds of the past, in a notably personal way.

You ask how, if you choose to retain the painting, you could display it in a way that doesn’t cause offense. Yet offense isn’t what’s at issue; your home is not a public institution, and it seems very unlikely that your guests will recognize the portrait’s subject unless you inform them. For any visitor who takes notice of the picture, though, you’re well situated to provide the appropriate context. But you should also feel free to sell the painting to raise money for a good cause. Or you could do good in another way: by donating it to the right kind of museum, which could exhibit your painting in a manner that makes clear the historical truths about its subject.

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.)

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button