Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits


The new National Museum of African American History and Culture is collaborating with the National Portrait Gallery on it inaugural exhibition of African American photographic portraits. Selected by guest curator and photography historian, Deborah Willis, this exhibition explores the medium’s influential role in shaping public identity and individual notions of race and status over the past 150 years.

The exhibition’s title was inspired by the rallying cry of celebrated abolitionists Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) who challenged African Americans to rise up and emancipate themselves. “Let your motto be resistance.” he exclaimed. “Resistance! Resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance!”

The portrait subjects come from many sectors of the African American community. Nineteenth-century figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Edmonia Lewis are included, as well as twentieth-century icons W.E.B. Du Bois, Lorraine Hansberry, and Wynton Marsalis. Among the featured photographers, who employ a variety of strategies to create their powerful images, are Mathew Brady, Berenice Abbott, James VanDerZee, Doris Ulmann, Edward Weston, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, and Carl Van Vechten.

Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

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