Social structures

Social categories and roles are always changing.

How do these shape government policy, culture and people’s lives?

Teaching Guides

Questions for looking closely and thinking critically, images to download — more coming soon!

Family, Community, Society

Essay by Dr. Matthew Dennis

Family lies at the heart of social life, an essential building block of communities and nations. But that simple, perhaps universal fact conceals enormous complexity. What is a family, and how should one be composed and operate? Who counts? In America, the answers to these questions have changed and stirred controversy, while the stakes have remained high. And complicating matters further is the American celebration of the individual—often mythologized as “rugged individualism.” How would (how could) diverse individuals and families—under dramatically changing conditions and disruptions—knit themselves together to form and maintain a society capable of realizing America’s dreams and promise?

“Improving” the New World

European colonists took up this question immediately. Colonial promoters often portrayed North America as a New Eden or Paradise. And yet, ironically, settlers immediately set out to “improve” it. The potential of the continent could only be realized through its transformation, they believed, by imposing their own environmental and social order. Colonists did not just find what they imagined was a New World. They made one. And America has been constantly remade by its people ever since.

Thomas Cole, The Hunter’s Return, 1845, oil on canvas, 153.7 x 101.9 cm (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

American landscape painting, blossoming in the early nineteenth century, reflected both the ideology and mythology of Edenic America, as we can see particularly in the work of Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School. In The Hunter’s Return (1845), Cole portrays American nature at its most picturesque, with even wilder, sublime peaks presiding over a new domestic world, a prosperous farmstead hacked out of the wilderness. This domesticated space represents improvement of both the natural and human landscapes, with its roughhewn but cozy cottage, vines and garden, and multigenerational family, to which its menfolk return carrying nature’s bounty. This is not the work merely of a solitary male pioneer; the toil and the achievement is communal.

By the 1840s, with industrialization well underway, Cole’s scene nostalgically expressed an earlier imagined order and promise, as well as a concern that manufacturing and urbanization might ruin the republic, both environmentally and socially. Cole’s scene implicitly claims that America actually was once such a place, a paradise benignly transformed by white settlers, a chosen people. Yet if the painting warns viewers of overdevelopment, early American settlers fretted about underdevelopment—the lack of social and godly order necessary to transform wilderness chaos into civilization. Cole’s ideal is the middle, mythic, pastoral space he celebrates here—a godly humanized abode superior to both wilderness and modernity. 

Whether fleeing persecution, evangelizing, or pursuing economic opportunities, early American settlers sought to create new social orders they believed critical to their success. Of course, America was neither new nor disorderly to its Native inhabitants, who had lived well there for generations. European colonists largely failed to see or appreciate the value of Native lifeways, and they contested their control of American landscapes. Often, they spoke of civilizing and Christianizing Native people, but the way they put it is instructive: they sought to “yoke” them to Christ and “reduce” them to civility. 

Freedom and unfreedom

Although America myth presents colonization as a quest for freedom and democracy, in fact colonists understood both as unruly and dangerous. Europe and the new world that settlers hoped to make were built on hierarchies, and it was commonly held that order and prosperity depended on maintaining people in their proper places. Historically, the most common condition of humanity has been unfreedom. Most people in Europe, the Americas, and around the world until quite recently in human history (within the last 200 years or so) have lived and worked in some form of bondage, whether as vassals, indentured servants, apprentices, or slaves. The indigenous people of North America were thus unique in their freedom—a condition that colonists feared and worked to curtail.

Spanish colonizers sought out centers of population where Native people could be organized to extract or cultivate wealth on behalf of their colonial lords, viceroys, and European monarchs. In a coerced bargain, they exchanged their labor and freedom for Christianity and dubious protection, organized through forced labor systems within reducciones (literally reductions, or subject communities). In California, Spanish soldiers and settlers aiding Franciscan priests established a chain of missions from San Diego north to Sonoma, which forcibly incorporated Native Californians, unsettling them, destroying their families and communities, decimating their populations (the Chumash, for example, saw their numbers fall from some 22,000 to barely over 2,000 by the 1830s), and turning their worlds upside down. Within the missions, they endured harsh new regimes of labor and austere social life, centered on church, barracks, fields, and workshops. 

Creativity in the face of adversity

Juana Basilia Sitmelelene, coin basket, c. 1815-1822, Sumac, juncus textilis, mud dye, 9 x 48 cm (The National Museum of the American Indian)

And yet their story is one not merely of suffering and disappearance but of creative adaptation and survival. Cultural creativity emerges by necessity within communities suffering great stress. Attesting to Native resilience, for example, is the remarkable product of one Chumash woman, Juana Basilia Sitmelelene, from Mission San Buenaventura. Its intricately incorporated, repeated heraldic imagery (based on a royal coin) acknowledges colonial rule. But the basket itself (c. 1815-22) celebrates Native “progress” while conserving traditional forms and materials derived from generations of Chumash basket makers—women artists uniquely skilled in turning wild sumac fibers into watertight vessels of practicality, Native meaning, and exquisite beauty. 

Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar, c. 1930s, clay and pigment, 13 x 21 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution).

Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar, c. 1930s, clay and pigment, 13 x 21 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution).

A stunning polychrome clay jar, made by the Hopi-Tewa woman Nampeyo in the early twentieth century, similarly expresses such adaptation, resilience, and artistry. Shattered by Spanish colonial occupation in the Southwest, the refugee Tewa people reconstituted themselves among the Hopi, where they persisted at First Mesa, a Native community that has existed for a thousand years. There, learning from her mother, Nampeyo created traditional pottery, adapting family designs she inherited while also fashioning innovations that looked both forward and backward. Blending Hopi and Tewa practices, reintroducing lost motifs and patterns, pioneering new techniques and shapes, and fashioning art objects for white tourists and collectors, Nampeyo used the marketplace as a means to manage community survival.

Slavery

Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 12, folio 54, 1585 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

The height of New World exploitation came with the introduction of slavery and the importation of enslaved Africans to supplement the labor provided by Native people, whose populations now faced a demographic collapse from pandemics caused by the inadvertent introductions of old-world diseases. In deadly waves of affliction Native numbers plummeted by as much as ninety percent. Nothing better explains the success of European colonization than the cruel impact of infection, and nothing proved more destructive to Native social worlds than their devastating encounters with smallpox, measles, the flu and other contagions.

Colonial labor regimes were simultaneously systems of social order and control, with slavery being the harshest and hardest to escape. And yet such arrangements were often justified as humane and protective, clothed in paternalism—the idea that slaves and others in bondage were unable to care for themselves and benefitted from the benign, parent-like care of their masters.

Francisco Clapera, set of sixteen casta paintings, c. 1775, 51.1 x 39.6 cm (Denver Art Museum)

Francisco Clapera, set of sixteen casta paintings, c. 1775, 51.1 x 39.6 cm (Denver Art Museum)

We can see the strict hierarchy of the diverse but stratified world of Northern New Spain in Francisco Clapera’s eighteenth-century casta (or caste) paintings, which organize people by race and the labor they perform, while suggesting peace and plenty inherent in an idealized colonial domain. Harmony and supportive family relations seem to prevail, with the faint promise that some might ascend the ladder of racial ranking over time. These paintings speak to the privileged—preaching stability, obscuring oppression, and banishing anxiety about the costs and consequences of exploitation.

Native populations displaced

In British North America, colonization proceeded largely through displacement rather than incorporation of Native people. Recall that no Indians actually appear in Cole’s Hunter’s Return, and they’re conventionally absent in most other landscape paintings, or appear as minuscule figures confined to the margins. Settlers imagined that they entered a virgin land, open to their settlement. In part America had been rendered more vacant (widowed) as epidemic disease reduced Native populations, but newcomers also undermined Native lifeways, expropriated land and resources, and waged a number of devastating wars.

British colonists diligently worked to push Native people aside and transform American natural and human landscape to serve their economic, social, and religious purposes. In Virginia, settlers became obsessed with the cultivation of tobacco, a noxious weed according to their king, James I, but also a valuable commodity, producing great wealth for some, misery for others. Cutthroat competition for land and labor—initially indentured servitude, exploiting mostly young white men transported from England—and unhealthy conditions limited family formation, creating social tumult and lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. Only with the growth of the even more brutal system of slavery, cruelly at the expense of enslaved African Americans, did social stability and elite patriarchal order emerge in the Chesapeake.  

“Little commonwealths”

Elsewhere, in northern and middle Atlantic colonies, family migration and religious purpose more quickly produced stable, ordered communities. Puritans in New England sought to create a bible commonwealth, based on small-scale agriculture, planned towns, and traditional families—themselves understood to be “little commonwealths.” Based on patriarchy—literally, rule of fathers—fathers presided in senior partnership with mothers, with children, servants, and slaves taking their places below in the hierarchy. As Connecticut authorities proclaimed in 1643, “the prosperity and well being of Common Weals doth much depend upon the well government and ordering of particular families.” Achieving individual freedom and equality in this new world was not the goal. As Massachusetts Bay’s leader John Winthrop acknowledged, “God Almighty . . . hath so disposed . . . in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.” And yet, through the increase of homogeneous, conservative patriarchal families, a relative equality of condition developed in New England, as family agricultural production thrived, population expanded, and farmsteads and towns spread across the landscape.

“The best poor man’s country”

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, 1826, oil on canvas, 83.5 x 106 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, 1826, oil on canvas, 83.5 x 106 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Greater liberty and equality emerged in colonial Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn on Quaker principles of plainness, humility, and equality. The Quaker Edward Hick’s early nineteenth-century Peaceable Kingdom paintings suggest the idealism that accompanied Penn’s experiment, with its invocation of the biblical Isaiah and its images of the wolf and lamb, Natives and newcomers, coexisting in peace. Though the colony would not realize all its hopes, and though indentured servitude and slavery were not absent, Pennsylvania became a place of agricultural and commercial prosperity, relative peace with its Native inhabitants, and for many “the best poor man’s country.” Economic development based on commerce and its rich agricultural hinterlands, rapid population growth via natural increase and steady immigration, and the emergence of vibrant urban life in Philadelphia made Pennsylvania a prototype for an emerging American society—and after the mid-eighteenth century, the center of the American Revolution. 

The great American agenda

The American War of Independence sparked a social as well as a political revolution. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed self-evident truths: that “all men are created equal” and possess certain “unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This radical promise did not distinguish among races, classes, religions, or even sexes, and Americans would struggle over the following centuries to realize these truths—to attain these rights—for themselves. The Declaration’s words rebuked slavery and promised equality to the enslaved and free people of color. Antislavery, abolitionism, and emancipation significantly challenged the American social world and its race-based hierarchy.  

Achieving liberation and equality became—and would remain—the great American agenda.  

Left to right: Allan Ramsay, George III, 1761-62; Charles Willson Peale, General Washington, after the Battle of Princeton, 1779; George Washington at the Altar of Liberty (handkerchief), 1819—here Washington stands on a pedestal, in front of the vacant pedestal from which a statue of King George had been toppled in 1776.

In 1776, American Independence rejected the rule of their colonial patriarch, King George III, but they immediately found a new, democratic patriarch, another George—George Washington—who became “the father of his country.” Grant Wood’s Parson Weem’s Fable (1939) provocatively comments on this symbolism and the underlying social order it represented, in its depiction of an iconic (though fictional) scene in Washington’s life—the moment when young George must admit to his own father that he’s chopped down a beloved cherry tree. The artist grants this fable its power while slyly critiquing it. The patriarch Washington, ironically, never fathered any children of his own, and here he’s at the mercy of his own father’s fury. Patriarchy, though entrenched in social life, is deflated, as is the claim that slavery—featured in the painting’s background—was a benign, paternal institution. If the youthful Washington could act so callously and likely bear a parental beating, how might enslaved people suffer at the hands of patriarchs? An enslaved mother and her helpful son dutifully harvest the plantation’s cherries. Their patriarch, presumably, is the wrathful elder Washington, and, if the plantation is one big family, then it’s a composite, interracial one that challenges social prescriptions and historical myths.

Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, oil on canvas, 127.3 x 97.5 cm (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819, oil on canvas, 61 × 50.8 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Among Washington’s greatest portraitists was Charles Willson Peale, but in his arresting painting of the formerly enslaved, free man of color, Yarrow Mamout (1819), we see a man as noble and dignified as any American statesman. Peale encountered Mamout in the nation’s capital, where he was painting the president and other dignitaries. Mamout’s very presence in Washington, D.C. and in Peale’s oeuvre contested the institution of slavery and illustrated the contradiction within a republic based on liberty and equality. Mamout as a practicing Muslim made further claims on American promises of freedom, and his advanced age—reportedly some 134 years—invites comparison to biblical patriarchs. And yet, the painting’s attribution momentarily lost, Mamout was for a time misidentified as Washington’s former slave. 

“Pursuit of Happiness”

As slavery was progressively banned in the North, free African American communities established themselves in northern cities, where black roots went back to their founding. Embracing opportunities and buffeting discrimination, free people of color found refuge in the families, businesses, and institutions they created, integrating themselves into urban life when possible and surviving (sometimes thriving) on its margins when necessary. In New York City, black residents founded Seneca Village uptown in the 1820s, beyond the heavily settled parts of lower Manhattan, in a place offering autonomy, safety, and the “pursuit of happiness.” Farms, businesses, houses, churches, and burial grounds anchored black social life, affirming America’s promise; its destruction in the 1850s to build New York’s Central Park, however, demonstrated how perilous the paths of equality and social justice were and would be for African Americans.

Central Park, an astonishing work of art, nature, and politics, was not designed to oppress African Americans, but building it nonetheless depended on a racist disregard for black people and their communities. In other instances, those defending social orders that discriminated by class, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality acted more consciously and willfully to maintain hierarchies, exclude, and constrain, while diverse, disempowered Americans continued to fight to achieve the social equality promised in the nation’s charters.  

Seeking freedom

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty — The Fugitive Slaves, c. 1862, oil on paper board, 55.8 x 66.4 cm (Brooklyn Museum)

William Howard, writing desk, c. 1870, yellow pine, tobacco box, and cotton crate wood, 154.31 x 75.88 x 60.17 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Seeking freedom, some enslaved blacks in antebellum America managed to “steal themselves” and escape north. If possible, they went in families—themselves improvised institutions amid the repression of enslavement—but the added dangers of traveling with small children often meant choosing between their families and liberation. The disruptions of the Civil War offered new opportunities for self-liberation, and those in the upper Confederate States seized the chance to seek U.S. Army lines and freedom, in family flights like the ones poignantly depicted by Eastman Johnson, for example A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862).

Following the Civil War—simultaneously the greatest disaster and greatest liberation in American history—black emancipation did not produce real equality, when the return of white supremacy in the rural South denied formerly enslaved people economic opportunity, social equality, or political rights as citizens. African Americans endured, despite exploitive new labor regimes, predatory legal codes, and the terrorizing violence of lynch mobs. 

During the 1870s, like many, William Howard and his family sharecropped for their former master’s widow in Madison County, Mississippi. Her paternalism barely masked the tyranny she and the new system imposed, but, beneath this oppression, Howard crafted something of great utility and beauty, exhibiting his ingenuity, artistry, and resilience: a desk, remarkably ornamented with the tools and accessories of everyday rural life, produced with recycled materials, including an old cotton crate. Its resourcefulness and creative whimsy, paired with its practicality, calls to mind the jazzlike quilts that African American women would continue to fashion from scraps of cloth, or the clothes enslaved people had made using castoff fabric, adding expression and individuality to the coarse, drab attire issued them by their masters. Such improvising was critical to individual and social survival.

Migration and immigration

Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call, 1948, tempera on board, 61 x 50.8 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

By the early twentieth century, with deteriorating economic and environmental conditions, and worsening white abuse, thousands of black families abandoned the South, seeking greater freedom, opportunity, and safety in northern cities, especially Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. New York’s Harlem became a great mecca of African American culture and life, a hub of modern black literature, music, and other arts, a place where African Americans could explore the possibilities of both racial integration and black nationalism. The African American painter Jacob Lawrence was the great chronicler of this

Great Migration. In his Migration Series paintings (1940-41), we follow the black Exodus and witness the new possibilities and achievements as well as the fresh forms of discrimination and violence African Americans faced in the North, as migrant families settled in, spread out, and challenged the social status quo. In his modernist street scene, Ambulance Call (1948), Lawrence captures the vitality of everyday black life in Harlem, in this case during a medical emergency facing one resident (and perhaps by extension the whole community). Here, only black medical expertise, institutions, and dedication, with the support of a diverse black community, will save the day.

Todros Geller, Strange Worlds, 1928, oil on canvas, 71.8 x 66.4 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

American cities have been tumultuous places of opportunity from at least the nineteenth century, magnets not merely to rural migrants but also to foreign immigrants. Waves of migration made cities racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse, socially and economically vibrant, and sites of innovation in American business, thought, and culture. As immigrants transformed American society, they faced their own challenges of acculturation, a theme perceptively explored in Todros Geller’s Strange Worlds (1928). An old Jewish man stairs wearily out of a compressed foreground, under Chicago’s elevated train tracks, before a dissonant mass media represented by news postings, with swirling elements of modernity behind him. The fractured modernist scene suggests both the prospects and perils of immigration and modern city life. Immigrants withstood bigotry and discrimination. But they also confronted the dilemma: How might America’s new freedom and opportunities affect their traditions, social order, and identities, which had defined old-world life?

Grappling with modernity

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 78 x 65.3 cm (The Art Institute of Chicago)

Such questions about the present and future were not limited to immigrants. Many voiced concerns about the consequences of modernity in the United States. A subtle and equivocal exploration of such matters—weighing past and present, traditional and modern, rural and urban—is Grant Wood’s 1930 painting, American Gothic. A rural Iowa patriarch peers out at us, expressionless, his dour daughter at his side, standing before their faded farmhouse, ornamented in its upper story with a churchlike gothic ogive window. Are they noble exemplars of the heartland, or, in this dynamic machine age, is their rural life archaic? Is the pitchfork a rustic tool or a peasant’s (or populist’s) weapon, defending against what unnamed threats? The two figures are not rendered as portraits of real people but symbolize this ambiguous rural world. If they represent a family, where is the man’s wife, the daughter’s mother, that daughter’s husband, and children that might suggest vitality and continuity? Is the patriarch stern or kind, resolute or resigned? The daughter looks down and away: is she distracted, afraid, anxious? Such questions are the point, describing a fraught moment in American social history.

Some Americans by now had concocted clear, disturbing, answers to the queries exemplified in American Gothic. Nativists (native-born whites who feared and loathed “foreigners”) expressed a reactionary antimodernism, laced with racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia, and sometimes violence. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged—nationally, in the North as well as the South, in cities as well as the countryside. The Klan rejected the social world America had become. Its public parades, cross burnings, and violence sought to intimidate and exclude diverse Americans, many of whom had only recently (or not yet fully) grasped the promises of American democracy—the Declaration of Independence’s pledge of equality and opportunity.

Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Such reaction bucked the strong tide of social modernity and liberation. Aspiration by Aaron Douglas, one of four panels painted for the 1936 “Hall of Negro Life” at the Texas Centennial Exposition, powerfully displayed the determination and optimism of black efforts to achieve their destiny as Africans and Americans. His richly symbolic painting references a deep history of African greatness, dating to ancient Egypt, records the suffering of slavery, but envisions a future of equality and greatness in the United States through education, science, industry, the arts—strikingly, even in the Jim Crow South and during the Great Depression. 

Depression and World Wars

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo California, 1936, printed later, gelatin silver print, 35.24 x 27.78 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Detail, Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo California, 1936, printed later, gelatin silver print, 35.24 x 27.78 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Ben Shahn, Miners’ Wives, c. 1948, tempera on panel, 121.9 x 91.4 cm (The Philadelphia Museum of Art) © Estate of Ben Shahn

The era of the Depression and the Second World War presented major social as well as physical and economic disruptions, requiring Americans to improvise and adjust. The environmental and economic crisis of the Dust Bowl pushed people off the southern plains to seek work and survival in California in the 1930s. Through Dorothea Lange’s moving photograph, Migrant Mother, Nipomo California (1936), featuring the worried but stalwart Florence Owens Thompson surrounded by her children, we are witness to such families’ strength through hard times and forced mobility. Similarly, the social realist painting Miners’ Wives (c. 1948), by Ben Shahn, depicts another natural and human (preventable) catastrophe with a matriarch at its center. Following the mining disaster that killed 111 men in Centralia, Illinois, a new widow’s deathly-white face stares into a void. Her husband dead, her family shattered, she will somehow manage and endure. 

Horace Pippin, Mr. Prejudice, 1943, oil on canvas, 46 x 35.9 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The crisis of the Second World War required extraordinary contribution from all Americans, forcing them to confront and set aside their durable prejudices. Horace Pippin’s Mr. Prejudice (1943), with its great V for victory in the center, highlights the segregation in America’s military forces that contradicted the nation’s principles and compromised the war effort. And Romare Bearden’s Factory Workers (1942) turns a spotlight on African American men denied employment in the steel industry, despite a presidential order prohibiting such discrimination. The two black men in the foreground appear disappointed but unsurprised. But necessity and the law demanded that production continue and expand, increasingly with African American and women workers too, upsetting social conventions but ultimately transforming the industrial workplace and American society. Meanwhile Roosevelt’s wartime Executive Order 9066 incarcerated some 120,000 Japanese Americans (mostly citizens) to bleak internment camps in the interior West—in a racist panic that ripped American social fabric and challenged its rights and principles.

Detail, Romare Bearden, Factory Workers, 1942, gouache and casein on brown Kraft paper mounted on board, 94.93 × 73.03 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Changing dynamics of American families

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, July 23, 1973, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art © Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Throughout American social history, families have offered refuge, bred joy, and organized and sustained life. Adjusting to conditions, they have nurtured their members and served as the bedrock of American communities. But they have also constrained Americans, when used as institutions of harsh social control, as in slavery and servitude, or when the evolving forms taken by families—diversely composed, improvised and inclusive, embodying greater freedom—have been disowned by the larger American society. 

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, in a performance art piece, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (July 23, 1973), calls attention to the changing dynamics of American families, particularly the challenges of identity and responsibility women have faced within them, as they attempt to balance work and motherhood. Ukeles makes visible the largely unseen work of women and mothers (as well as anonymous workers more generally), as she publicly washes the steps of the Hartford Athenaeum in 1973, practicing what she called “maintenance art.” In this act, she makes the mundane into art as well as social commentary, and she echoed the history of early-twentieth-century women, like Jane Addams, contesting prohibitions against their participation in public politics, by leveraging their domestic status as housewives to clean up their cities too—in a movement known as “municipal housekeeping.”

Efforts to match larger social acceptance with the evolving nature of real-life families continue in other public performances in contemporary America—in the quest for LGBT inclusion in St. Patrick Day parades or LGBT-sponsored Gay Pride events, for example, or in the increasingly mainstream wedding announcements of same-sex couples.

At the table

Carrie Mae Weems, untitled, from the Kitchen Table Series, 1990 (negative), 2011 (print), Gelatin silver print, 69.2 x 69.2 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art, © Carrie Mae Weems)

In his Farewell Address in 1989, the conservative President Ronald Reagan remarked, “Let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American—let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.” Reagan here celebrates a modesty democratic version of the classic American family, centered on the dinner table. The artist Carrie Mae Weems, in her contemporaneous photographs, The Kitchen Table Series (1989-1990), similarly affirmed this central institution, though from a different perspective. The artist’s images (posed, not snapshots) bring us into a woman-headed African American household—one contrasting with mythologized pictures of idealized middle-class white families, like those seen in a Norman Rockwell illustration. On display is the full range of family activity—moments of love and strife, laughter and tears, support and tension, pleasure and pain. Weems’s “Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird,)” one of the series, calls to mind Maya Angelou’s 1983 feminist poem and 1969 coming-of-age story, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—and an earlier 1893 poem, “Sympathy,” by the pioneering black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The caged bird of the photograph may be a metaphor, as in these literary works, for the complex snare that enmeshes African Americans—racism and discrimination certainly, but also social conventions and family and community prescriptions. Can the home be at once a shelter and a cage?

“We the people”

Nari Ward, We the People (black version), 2015, shoelaces, 8 × 27 feet (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas)

Nari Ward, We the People (black version), 2015, shoelaces, 8 × 27 feet (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas)

Nari Ward’s, We the People (black version, 2015), is a massive, near-billboard size work of art that presents those words—which open the U.S. Constitution’s Prologue—in a whimsical, DIY fashion, draped in thousands of multicolored shoelaces. The artist Jasper Johns spoke of “things the mind already knows,” and he presented such things (notably the American flag) in recognizable but altered ways to question their meaning, dismantling them in order to provoke us to rethink them. The iconic opening words of the Constitution, in their modified Gothic font, are just such things—a sort of “readymade” everyday sign or object we all recognize. And Ward’s mammoth wall forces us to ask, what—or who—are “the people”? Who’s speaking, who’s represented, in the Constitution and in the gallery? Its large size, its shoestrings in rainbow colors and varying lengths, its messiness and energy, make the broadest claim that American society is, or should be, as diverse and equal as possible. The wall seems to be alive, as the Constitution and American society must be agile, free, and democratic, organized by dynamic social institutions, American families and communities, that can give the nation life, order, and resilience.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.