In William J. Wilson’s “The Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859), we are introduced to a fictional piece of work titled “Year 4,000. The Amecans, or Milk White Race” which graphically details the “de-evolution” of the white race over the course of several millennia. Primarily, it can be seen as a distant and radical utopia for African Americans where they no longer face the cruel reality of slavery, or even whites for that matter. Additionally, this piece also provides a sense of premature justice for the African Americans, as the descriptions of the white race’s biological developments can be inferred as graphic illustrations of karma. Ethiop, the narrator, describes such physical characteristics in a series of paragraphs where he details their “sharp white teeth” and other animalistic traits. Ironically, however, the majority of Ethiop’s narration was centered around qualities that weren’t so animalistic. For example, he states,
“Their faces were long and narrow, and their noses sharp and angular, and their nostrils thin; so also were the lips of their sunken mouths.” (pg. 175)
While this may seem like an ominous description of some ghastly animal, it is simply a description of the average European facial structure. While hyperbolic and exaggerated, this depiction mainly highlights the physical differences between Europeans and Africans. An article highlights such differences and how each racial group has varying physical traits including skin color, head form, stature, hair, eyes, nose, etc… So, this description of the white race from the year 4,000 uses basic “white” physical features to portray a vile animal that would terrify readers. This was a huge blow to the household white supremacy of the 19th century, as the qualities white Americans held so tightly as their key to superiority was now being described as monstrosity. In addition to attacking the biology of Caucasians, Wilson’s literature acted as a double-edged sword by insinuating that black qualities should be sought after instead. In a world where skin-bleaching has been commonplace for many ethnicities, it is imperative for works like this to be circulated as they’re one of the best practices in preventing “white-washing.”
Another interesting point made in this passage was the hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders. Ethiop notes that white slaveholders will build massive temples to worship God and all his laws, but will not allow blacks to. Furthermore, he points out that whites claim loyalty to God and his words but simultaneously abuse black men, women, and children on a daily basis. This selective following of religion has persisted to the modern era where we see bigotry, racism, and other forms of hatred take precedence over morality and other spiritual values.
I believe that the most impressive point of this excerpt was Wilson’s depiction of a world where the power dynamic between blacks and whites was reversed. To say that America will belong to the blacks one day and that the whites, like their barbaric practice of slavery, will wither away is beyond courageous and it is one of the ultimate examples of how literature can inspire hope for a better future. As a Jew, I compare it to the creation of Israel by Holocaust survivors. Except African Americans experienced an institution that systematically dealt with them like material objects and officially degraded their existence to that of animals for hundreds of years. It makes sense that, in their ideal world, the group of people who subjected an entire race to such a fate faces a similarly agonizing destiny.