William Keane, The Old Banjo, ca. 1889
Oil on canvas, 39 7/8 x 24 7/8 in. (101.3 x 63.2 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, The Sidney M. and Florence H. Ehrman Fund, T.B. Walker Fund and the Huntington Trust Fund, 1969.2
As early as the 1740s, Africans kidnapped into the slave trade brought with them the banjer, a fretless gourd instrument used to accompany singers, which later evolved into the banjo. Often played in defiance of a racist system designed to suppress enslaved people’s humanity and creativity, the instrument came to symbolize cultural resistance and perseverance. With its distinctive sound and style, the banjo provided a framework for a musical tradition that preceded ragtime, jazz, and blues—all innovations by Black musicians—and established the foundations of modern American music. Keane’s banjo is surrounded by personal effects: sheet music, a crumpled hat, a peacock feather, and a pair of photographs showing a young woman and two unidentified young Black boxers. The boxing image evokes the history of early Black boxing champions such as Jack Johnson (1878–1946), who challenged racism in American sports and paved the way for future athlete-activists.
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