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  • Writer's pictureW.S. BARNETT

I Will Preach With My Brush

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

An artist's brushstroke of hope for generations to come.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson (1893, Oil on canvas) is his most esteemed work of art. Tanner, the first renowned African American artist, depicts one generation teaching another, and a vision of hope and freedom. The Banjo Lesson, located at the Hampton University Museum, is a rite of passage from darkness to light.

The Banjo Tells a Story

In African and West Indian culture, instruments made of gourds, later developed into the banjo, were intrinsic to the music of slavery. The banjo represented the terrors and triumphs of African-American culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At that time, the banjo, a mainstay of minstrel shows and blackface skits – was a means to publicly ridicule former slaves, deeming them inferior, inadequate, and incapable of excelling in education or having successful careers.

"Many of the artists who have represented Negro life have seen only the comic, ludicrous side of it, and have lacked sympathy with and appreciation for the warm big heart that dwells within such a rough exterior." Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner’s intent with The Banjo Lesson was to paint a picture of buoyancy and a promised future for African-Americans post-Civil War, to emerge from the combat and take hold of their dreams. The son of a former slave and an abolitionist minister, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s passion for art and his drive to excel as an artist is displayed in this gentle scene of a young child learning to play an instrument that symbolized both culture and music, slavery and freedom. Tanner’s father expected him to follow his footsteps to be a minister and discouraged a career in art. Henry became a minister of a different kind. He said, “I will preach with my brush." His art, which focused primarily on biblical themes, exemplified the Gospel story profoundly. The Banjo Lesson was one of a few of his depictions of African-American culture.

Passing the Torch, Shaping Future Generations

Tanner masterfully intermingles light and shadow, cool and warmth, to convey a passing of the torch to future generations. The scene takes place in a humble, quiet log cabin room illumined by a fire’s glow. The old grandfather holds his grandson steady as he fixes his eyes and hands on the strings, eager to learn. The grandfather, placed within a dark blue shadow, is the past, slavery, and deferred dreams. Bathed in the fire’s warm light is the boy, representing hope, freedom, and realized dreams.

The Banjo Lesson represents a seed planted within a child for a brighter future. The Bible is a seed - God’s Story of creation and redemption. Its past and present teach that we are assured of a bright and glorious future – eternal life by embracing faith and a personal relationship with Christ. When these seeds are planted, hope springs forth, and new life begins. Scripture charges us to tell the Story to the next generation – a story of trial and triumph, hope and healing, life, and Light.

Dr. Ben Carson's clarion call to teach the next generation powerfully spurs action: "I'm very hopeful that I'm not the only one who's willing to pick up the baton of freedom, because freedom is not free, and we must fight for it every day. Every one of us must fight for it because we're fighting for our children and the next generation."

What seeds are you planting? What lessons are you teaching?

". . .that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn,

and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God

and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments."

Psalm 78:6-7

Copyright 2020 William S. Barnett

"The Banjo Lesson" Wikipedia

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