Banjo Picturing Right Through American History

A display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., focuses on the imagery of a central player in America's deeply conflicted racial history: the banjo.

Picturing the Banjo features paintings, lithographs and other visual media representations of the banjo from the era of slavery through contemporary times. The images track the arrival of an instrument that came from Africa with the slaves. As it was adopted by whites, the device fell out of favor with blacks, and became a tack of demeaning minstrel shows.  NPR newsman Paul Brown is also a banjo player. By the time I heard a banjo I was 5," Brown recalls "I ordered it through Sears Roebuck. Once I figured out how to tune it I was off and running." Beyond simply playing banjo, Brown has studied its history since his teen years. As he takes Debbie Elliott on a melodious tour of the display, he reflects on what it's like to play an device with a troubled past.

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