Kara Walker and the Missing Pages of the History Books

Artist Kara Walker uses visual disruption to restore the significance of Black experiences to the Civil War’s legacy.

Micco Caporale

“Scene of McPherson’s Death” from Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated).

Since her New York art world debut in 1994, Kara Walker has been known for creating alternative narratives of slavery by repurposing anti-Black antebellum caricatures in black cut-paper silhouettes, an 18th-century portraiture technique. Through these scenes, she picks at how racial inequality has been created and maintained.

By overlaying Black bodies onto Civil War scenes and battles, Walker uses visual disruption to restore the significance of Black experiences to the war’s legacy.

Now, as the country grapples with still-standing monuments to Confederate leaders, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is exhibiting Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), a print series made by Walker in 2005. Displayed for the first time in its entirety, the prints explore how a 150-year-old conflict can still produce so many subjective truths.

In 15 prints, Walker superimposes her cut-paper silhouettes onto reproductions of pen and ink drawings from the illustrated 1866 Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion. For generations, the book was treated as an objective archival text, even though it elided racism’s role in the war. By overlaying Black bodies onto Civil War scenes and battles, Walker uses visual disruption to restore the significance of Black experiences to the war’s legacy. She also reminds viewers that those most affected by history are often cut out of it.

Walker is not one to make explicit calls to action through her works or artist’s statements, but this show begs the question: Who did the original Harper’s historical narrative serve? History is never neutral — a fact to be mindful of when considering whether dismantling Confederate statues is rewriting history” or simply making space for the histories that were never written. 

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Micco Caporale is an editorial intern at In These Times.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.