What should I do with my portrait of slave ancestor?

Your story reminds me that one of my first names, Akroma-Ampim, connects me to an illustrious 18th century ancestor, a General Asante who...


Your story reminds me that one of my first names, Akroma-Ampim, connects me to an illustrious 18th century ancestor, a General Asante who, in what is now Ghana, took his share of war captives. Some were sent to forced labor in agricultural settlements; others, most likely, were sold in the transatlantic slave trade. If I had a portrait of Akroma-Ampim to show, I would tell people what I know about him, including his role in a culture and economy of slavery.

In the tribunal of posterity, subjects of pride regularly become sources of shame. We can actually find solace in this: It suggests that some moral advancements may have accompanied the obvious technological advancements. It also suggests that we should think about what our offspring will do with us.

I am looking to develop my art collection. I appreciate diversity and appreciate other cultures and would like to buy art with non-white people depicted, although I myself am white. Every time I go to buy it, I hesitate and I am afraid to only do tokenism. Can I, as a white person, buy and display works of art by black people? Name withheld

Why yes. I understand that your discomfort is the result of conscientious self-examination. But should your identity determine what art you can value, learn, engage or own? You’re a woman who buys paintings by male artists, I guess, and if you have figurative art, I bet the characters aren’t all female either. You are American, I imagine, but you wouldn’t think that you couldn’t buy a painting by a Canadian. Of course, if you buy artwork from black people that you don’t really like or just don’t like to have a more diverse collection, that would be tokenism. Not if you like it.

At the same time, there is nothing wrong with having a focused collection, even on its subject. Again, a home is not a public institution. If you could afford it, nothing should stop you collecting just the boxes of Joseph Cornell, say, or just the haunting interiors of Vilhelm Hammershoi. Diversity is not necessarily an ethical desire in a collection. What would be sad would be to exclude the topic because he was, in a certain sense, Black and you were not.

Indeed, we should be dismayed if whites were generally reluctant to acquire works of art depicting blacks. Jacob Lawrence – maybe you know his wonderful Toussaint L’Ouverture panels? – made his late 1940s series “Heart of the Black Belt” at the request of the editors of Fortune magazine. If self-examining buyers came to share your reservations, the result would be a boycott of such representations, depressing the market for them and making it more difficult for their creators, who are very often black artists, to make a living.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at NYU. His books include “Cosmopolitanism”, “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity”. To submit a request: Send an email to eticist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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