Teacher's Guide

Arts of the Afro Atlantic Diaspora

Contemporary painting shows human figures in small boat at sea. One figure faces front, one obscured by sail except legs. Various symbols surround.
Photo caption

Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992

This guide presents a variety of artworks, from the 17th century to the present, that highlight the presence and experiences of Black communities across the Atlantic world. Use the collections in the virtual gallery below to engage your students in conversation about the many narratives of everyday life, enslavement, and resistance that have been told through art. Lesson plans are provided to extend these conversations and help students consider the many and continuing legacies of the transatlantic slave trade.  


This resource is drawn from the content of the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington. All related materials found on EDSITEment have been provided courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.


Guiding Questions

How have histories of Black communities in the Atlantic World been told over time? Who has told them?

How did the middle passage impact the evolution of cultural traditions in the Atlantic world?

How do contemporary artists tell essential stories of Black life in the Atlantic world?

Virtual Gallery
Cavalry in turquoise hats and red jackets advancing on black, grey, and white horses
Photo caption

Jacob Lawrence, Lou Stovall (printer), Toussaint at Ennery, 1989

Jacob Lawrence, Lou Stovall (printer), Toussaint at Ennery, 1989, color screenprint on wove paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Alexander M. and Judith W. Laughlin, 1993.30.2

The Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington features more than 130 works of art in a variety of media. EDSITEment presents a selection of these in the resources below, including detailed descriptions, background on the artists, and discussion prompts. These artworks and all related materials found on EDSITEment have been provided courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Afro Atlantic Art: Portraits 

Afro Atlantic Art: Enslavements and Emancipations  

Afro Atlantic Art: Resistance and Activism 

Afro Atlantic Art: Everyday Lives 


Visual Approaches to Teaching the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Its Legacies

The activities in this collection pair artworks from the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition with NEH-funded resources. Used as a further exploration of the themes found in the artworks or to complement your existing social studies curriculum, these lessons offer opportunities for inquiry-driven learning as well as essential skills practice using digital databases and online archives.


Afro Atlantic: Mapping Journeys

Between 1517 and 1887, more than 12 million people were forcibly transported from Africa to conditions of enslavement throughout the Atlantic world. Kerry James Marshalls painting Voyager offers a symbolic interpretation of these journeys and the cultural legacies seen in the communities of the Afro Atlantic Diaspora. Use this painting alongside the rich data sets in the NEH-funded Slave Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database to introduce the geographic and economic legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and invite opportunities for further research by students. 


Afro Atlantic: Exploring Emancipation  

A.A. Lamb’s painting Emancipation Proclamation presents an imaginary scene at the U.S. Capitol where Abraham Lincoln and the Union cavalry appear as the heroes of emancipation. Using this painting along with other primary sources and entries from BlackPast (a project supported by NEH affiliate Humanities Washington), students can explore the successes and shortcomings of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction amendments, as well as the roles played by Black people in securing their own freedom. 


Afro Atlantic: Paths from Enslavement  

Aaron Douglas’s Into Bondage is a powerful exemplar of Harlem Renaissance visual arts. Debuting on Juneteenth at the Texas Centennial Exhibition, the piece was commissioned as part of the Hall of Negro Life, a special venue to highlight Black progress and potential. Use Douglas’s work to introduce the stories of famous Harlem Renaissance figures, including Langston Hughes, and to explore the history and importance of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of Black enslavement in the United States. 



Discussing Art in Your Classroom

Using visual arts to explore historical topics and spark inquiry can be a powerful alternative in the social studies classroom. You might consider collaborating with a colleague from your school's art department or a local museum to learn more about this approach. These guidelines from the National Gallery of Art may provide a useful starting point:

  • Give students ample time to observe the work of art before discussing it. Encourage them to look first at what is actually visible in the work of art, and then move on to potential questions or interpretations. 

  • For practical reasons, you may want to make the art images available in large hard-copy format or projected at a large scale. This will give students the flexibility to get up and move as they observe various details and viewpoints. 

  • Art is not simply a product—it reflects a process and an intention on the part of the artist. Help students consider the perspective and choices of the artist, and what their context (whether personal or historical) might have been. 

  • Students may be eager to hear a definitive “meaning “applied to the work. Very often, however, artists do not intend for viewers to gain one specific meaning. Encourage students to appreciate the complexity that comes with differing perspectives on a work of art. 

  • Through modeling and repeated discussions, encourage students to ground their interpretations or arguments on a work of art in visual evidence: What do you see that makes you say that? 

  • It may be helpful to review some basic vocabulary related to the making of art: medium, background, foreground, print, lithograph, etc. 

Approaching Difficult Subjects with Students

Honest discussions about the past are essential but often intimidating, even for educators eager to bring these conversations into their classrooms. As you approach teaching the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade or any “hard history” with your students, consider the guidelines below: 

  • Be explicit about the content to be seen, and express that students are welcome, either in class or one-on-one, to share the feelings that the content might raise for them. Acknowledge that everyone brings different experiences to the classroom, and that will mean a wide range of reactions or feelings about sensitive subject matter. 

  • Be clear about why the subject matter is being discussed—e.g., it is important to understand the realities of life for those who were enslaved in order to properly assess the continued impacts of slavery today.  

  • When possible, include first-person accounts or stories to personalize a difficult subject. Always help students to consider the perspective of the author or artist in relationship to the subject matter. 

  • Build in individual reflection time to allow students to process their thoughts and feelings independent of the group conversation.  

  • Explore further guidance from Learning for Justice on facilitating critical conversations with students