Black History Month Promotion
As many of our supporters know, we have been crowd-sourcing the artist’s fee for The American Renaissance Tarot. The art for the deck is scheduled to be completed this year: 2018. We are grateful to all of you who have commissioned Major Arcana images, as well as “small cards” featuring big-name writers like Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe.
In celebration of Black History Month, February 2018, we are appealing to you for help in realizing the 14 images for the Coins suit, which features African-American writers exclusively. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to view available commissions, or read about them on our shop page).
Some of these images have already been realized: the Ace, Seven, and Ten of Coins offer a visual tour of the three autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. The Ace features “Sandy’s root” from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the lucky object that helped Douglass to throw off the shackles of slavery. The Seven of Coins illustrates Douglass at his new venture, the North Star newspaper, after having broken ties with the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, described in My Bondage and My Freedom. The Ten of Coins depicts an elderly Douglass standing atop the Great Pyramid of Giza, an amazing feat that Douglass performed while traveling in Egypt, from the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
The Cast of Coins
Every suit in the Tarot has its “court” or ruling personalities. In this deck dedicated to nineteenth-century American writers, I have selected four African-Americans who best exemplify the archetypes of the Tarot’s court cards for the Coins suit. I re-conceptualized the traditional “Page” as a “Pioneer” so that I could honor beginnings instead of youthfulness. Thus, William Wells Brown, author of the first African-American novel, is our Pioneer, and will be depicted in one of his first money-making projects as a free man.
I re-imagined the traditional “Knight” as a “Missionary” to suit American themes. The Missionary’s energy is a zeal tending toward extremism, and our Missionary of Coins is Martin Delany. Delany was an extraordinarily talented free black man who briefly attended Harvard Medical School. Following the racism he encountered there, he advocated for racial pride and a return to Africa. But when Abraham Lincoln made Delany the first African-American military officer, he recruited black soldiers for the Union Army. In addition to his many accomplishments, Delany also wrote a book of racial mysticism: Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color.
Our Queen of Coins is Harriet Jacobs. Traditionally the Queen of Coins is resourceful, practical, and generous, and this image will honor Jacobs’ many selfless acts of service on behalf of freed slaves after the Civil War. Jacobs was active in assisting black refugees and orphans in Virginia, but perhaps her biggest sacrifice was to share her story of sexual harassment under slavery in her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs surrendered her own privacy in order to support the cause of her fellow sisters in bondage.
Our King of African-American writers could only be Frederick Douglass, the unofficial dean of black life in the nineteenth century. Not only was Douglass’ stirring rhetoric a constant source of racial uplift and effective resistance from the antebellum era through to Reconstruction, he was also a self-made man, as befits a King of Coins. Born a slave, by the end of his life Douglass had acquired several properties around Washington D.C. and had an estate that would today be worth about a million dollars. The King of Coins crowns a man who was not only a master of his craft but a worldly success as well.
Why to Support Us
Part of what inspired me in writing this project was the opportunity it gave me to highlight the black excellence and accomplishment that existed synchronously with the great writers of the American Renaissance. It’s not as if Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, and Hawthorne lived without knowledge of Frederick Douglass, for example, and it’s hard to imagine that the projects of the aforementioned writers would have proceeded in the same direction without the glaring shame of slavery (and the epic drama to end it) to shape them.
While increasing diversity is a worthy goal, it is also one for which modern college syllabi have attempted to correct. What sets this project apart is its appeal to a general audience which may not have the means, opportunity, or ability to read more obscure texts like William Wells Brown’s Clotel or Martin Delany’s Principia. While the philosophies of these writers were of course forged by the institution of slavery, users of The American Renaissance Tarot can learn about the range and depth of nineteenth-century black life beyond that single abhorrent word. From educated Northerners like Delany to escaped Southern slaves like Jacobs, from worldly men like Douglass to mystics like Paschal Beverly Randolph, nineteenth-century African-American experience cannot be reduced to “slavery.”
Though this would seem to be an obvious truth, in my experience college students have been genuinely shocked to discover that black life, and writing, were so rich and deep and exquisite in an era they have been taught to define with a single word. “Slavery” does not invite further thought because it is such a painful word; the creativity and experiences and literary symbols marshalled by these compelling black writers do invite further exploration, however, by virtue of their excellence.
It is my hope that The American Renaissance Tarot will help its users push past their own guilt and shame around the legacy of slavery, to the nuanced awareness of black presence and participation in nineteenth-century American life. With all these Tarot cards swishing past each other in constant recombination, white and black, black with white, I can only speculate about what a powerful subconscious tool this Tarot pack will make in its reclaiming of American history as a joint affair. We were never really “separate.” We have been co-creating this democratic experiment together through four centuries of American history, though only recently as avowed equals.
A Tarot deck that mixes and perpetually remixes black and white actively works against the disturbing rise of the “return to purity” narratives that the Trump presidency has authorized. With your support, we can transform the present by celebrating the deep roots of black excellence. We are advanced enough as a society to tell the story of African-American accomplishment without forgetting the grave history of slavery and the virulent racism in which it bloomed. We can take joy and pride in human stories of overcoming incredible adversity and be inspired by them as part of our collective American inheritance. I hope you’ll join me in realizing a project that probes beyond reductive accounts of American history to the truly diverse and dynamic realm of nineteenth-century life.
How to Support Us
For a contribution of just $100, you can commission one of the following Coins cards and receive an exclusive, one-of-a-kind print of the image signed by the artist on archival paper. As a special incentive, we will include an additional, limited-edition “Court of Coins” print with your order. Make your purchase in our shop.
View our list of available commissions below:
King of Coins: Frederick Douglass
Setting: Douglass’s estate at Cedar Hill in Washington, D.C.
Queen of Coins: Harriet Jacobs
Setting: Alexandria, Virginia, where Jacobs set up a school and provided aid to orphans and former slaves following the Civil War.
Pioneer of Coins: William Wells Brown
Setting: Buffalo, New York, where Brown made the youthful barbershop and banking venture that he describes in his slave narrative.
Missionary of Coins: Martin Delany
Setting: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Delany was active in founding one of the earliest Prince Hall Masonic Lodges, St. Cyprian No. 13.
Three of Coins: Planning: Frederick Douglass and two other slaves surreptitiously exchange ideas for escape.
Literary source: Chapter X. in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Four of Coins: Consolidation: Harriet Jacobs undertakes self-imposed imprisonment in a garret rather than be subject to the abuses of her master.
Literary source: Chapter XXI., “The Loophole of Retreat,” in Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Six of Coins: A gift: young Frederick Douglass is being taught to read by his mistress when his master catches them and puts a stop to the lessons.
Literary source: Chapter VI. in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Eight of Coins: Expediency: Martin Delany recruits Union soldiers for the Civil War dressed in his military regalia.
Literary source: Postcard portrait of Delany produced and sold by the Weekly Anglo-African newspaper commemorating his promotion to officer in the Union army, circa March 1865.
Nine of Coins: Independence: Harriet Jacobs holds her freedom papers at the Hudson River Valley estate of poet Nathaniel Parker Willis, where she is employed.
Literary source: Chapter XLI., “Free at Last,” in Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.