Ethiop [William J. Wilson] to Frederick Douglass, March 12, 1853
From our Brooklyn Correspondent.
DEAR DOUGLASS:-In my last I said something about our culture of the fine arts, music, &c. On reflection, I am still more convinced, not only of its propriety, but its utter necessity to our ultimate successful elevation. The ideas suggested by the old Italian's replies are worth some consideration.
I will state two: First: Since there is no demand by any portion of community for the application of the arts to our State, no one feels warrented in directing their attention that way. Second: That we, ourselves, can best apply the arts, literature, &c., to our own peculiar state of condition, though rude at first eventually, with all their refining influences. Our present quiet and retired habits of life, induced, perhaps, by reason of the pent-up and prison-like position we sustain to the rest of the community, if nothing else, should drive us to these pursuits. This condition, while I do not justify it, I speak rather of our contentment of it, ought to resolve our youth of taste and genius, to become the true masters of the arts in this republic. Freed as they are from the noise and bustle of commerce, the shackles and fanaticism of politics, or even the construction of the rough machinery of society, they ought to be the only correct observers and delineators of men, manners, and customs of this nation. No one can estimate what a few years of quiet and patient toil, though even through poverty and want it should be, might in this way accomplish for our, for the nation's and for the world's good. But how to begin? Whence the starting point? These are the questions; and yet the answers are plain and simple. Let every family, who has the slightest claim to respectability, place before its members the best models, especially of ourselves within reach, for their contemplation and pleasure. Hitherto, with few exeptions, we have had but caricatures, and what of real merit we have found, have not been appreciated.
A literary friend has just shown me an Album, perhaps the only one of the kind among the blacks in all Gotham, containing the portraits of Faustin I and the notables of his court; or, in other words, a birds-eye view of the Empire and her great men; and yet I am not sure that this excellent work—a treasure, and ought to be as a household God in every black family, so far from appreciation—is not more the subject of ridicule as far as it is shown; the more because of the subjects of which it treats, than its execution; so little studied and understood is this whole matter, and so little felt, as yet its beneficial influence within the pale of Africo-American Society.
But it is high time we had a change. What is there wanted? All the elements for the highest perfection of the fine arts are with us. Beauty, serenity, warmth, pathos, imagination, all are ours! Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe finds in "life among the black and lowly," warmth, pathos, high imaginative powers, love of the grand, sublime, serene—It merely wanted shape and direction. In all this, then, lay the elements for the highest culture. These qualities, if cultured and softened down, would paint the picture, chisel the marble, or touch the lyre that would exhibit that beauty of perfection, so long sought by the whites; but which, at best, is as cold
and calculating and inharmonious as their own white statures. Nor are we wanting in models of either grace or beauty for our study. Say what you will to the contrary, there is more soft and subdued refinement, more propriety and elegance of manners, in a lady of color, where the least shade of favor has been shown, than is found in the best trained white woman.
True, N. P. Willis had to go as far as the West Indies to find this fact; still this pink taste and fashion so found it, and confessed it. Ease and luxury, which give grace to manners and charm to life, even amid poverty, revel in the soul of a well bred woman of color. Her very voice finds utterance in soft and pensive cadence, which of itself seems the sweet music of life. This same Mr. Willis saw abroad what I see daily at home-high cast of beauty among the blacks.
I would give, said he, writing from the West Indies, $5,000 for an exact likeness for my own drawing-room, of a very old and very black man, with a very white and very long beard. I see daily, obtruding from beneath bonnets, black faces far more beautiful than white ones. Beauty there is, more varied yet harmonious. I speak divested of prejudice; and if I had any, it were better, since our pre-dispositions are entirely towards the whites, in looking at this whole matter, as can be clearly shown by our almost every word and deed.
But we demand a change. Let it begin immediately. Let attempts at drawing, painting, sculpturing, and music, rude tho' they may be, become the companions of our fire-sides; and the beauty and sublimity they inculcate, be infused into the minds of our youth. Despise not, rather encourage every efforts, from the humble charcoal sketch to the very beauty of perfection emanating from us. To all this let the drama, particularly directed in reference to our present and future position, he added; "enabling us thereby to exhibit, and see ourselves exhibited as we are, which is always one of the best means for the improvement and progress of a people." Viewing, finally, the whole subject, what a vast field it opens to colored men for their own improvement, and the elevation of their people; what an arena for recreation and amusement, to wile away the dull cares of life-of which ours is the dullest of the dull. At present we have no amusement-no proper places of resort.
Our men, and women, too, go about the streets with their heads bowed down like bullrushes, and brows o'ercast with nought but care. Give us relief, I say. Let New York take the lead. Any proper movement set on foot there by her intelligent men, will meet with a hearty response by thousands, both white and black, because it would show that we began to have respect for ourselves, and are becoming unwilling, further, to voluntarily pin ourselves fast of white men's skirts, when we may walk up the hill ourselves. Let a room for readings, or drawings, paintings, or sculpturings, or music, rare collections or inventions, or all of these, be opened in the hearth of Gotham; and Ethiop's word for its success. Come, gentlemen, who will lead?
All is tranquil in Gotham, and around the Heights, at least, within the black world.
Yours truly, ETHIOP.
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS, March 12th, 1853.