Learning Curve


“No white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized,” wrote Booker T. Washington, “until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.” As a distinguished student at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Washington learned this lesson early. In “The Hampton Project,” currently installed at ICP’s uptown branch, Carrie Mae Weems delves into the history of Washington’s alma mater, tackling the question of what is lost when Anglo-European identity becomes the only game in town.

Founded in Virginia in 1868, the Hampton Institute was the first school to provide vocational training for the children of slaves and dispossessed Native Americans; it also offered lessons in etiquette, self-reliance, and Christian values. In 1899, the celebrated photojournalist Frances B. Johnston documented Hampton’s version of upward mobility in a suite of exquisitely austere photographs. In the 27 mostly modern prints on display in ICP’s downstairs gallery, Hampton students in starched white collars and military-style uniforms gravely go about their daily business: sketching flowers, laying bricks, attentively absorbing classroom lectures.

Some of these images reappear in Weems’s installation upstairs—enlarged, overlaid with text, and printed on diaphanous muslin banners hung from the ceiling—forming a richly layered visual environment that slowly gathers meaning as you weave your way through it. On a recorded soundtrack, Weems recites an incantatory narrative, awakening history’s ghosts and detailing the insidious before and after of cultural assimilation. While the paternalistic civilizing mission of the Hampton Institute may be an easy target, Weems’s elegant installation also points toward a broader critique of education’s homogenizing effect—whether at Hampton or at Harvard.