Kara Walker

Kara Walker’s artwork unsettles. It offers discomforting views into the complex intertwining of violence and intimacy, pleasure and power, freedom and enslavement that runs through our nation’s fraught past. Drawing from nineteenth century literary genres and forms, Walker asks questions about how our present continues to be informed by our history of racial slavery. Through her use of the silhouette and her references to popular sentimental fiction and slave narratives, Walker’s visual narratives reconsider the roles that stories play on both personal and national levels.

Guiding Question

How is History Represented?

Kara Walker's work not only prompts us to engage with the history of slavery, but it also asks us to consider how visual representation is connected to this history.

Teaching Difficult Histories

The United States is a country with two dominant narratives—one is a story celebrating freedom and one is a story about its opposite: unfreedom. The two narratives actually depend on each other, and the history of slavery in the United States is fundamental to them both. The story about freedom and liberty, however, gets told much more frequently, creating a shadow story out of the other—one that is being increasingly reckoned with as this Reading Resources guide is published.


The following exercises are structured to sequentially build on each other. The first activity prepares learners for the difficult conversations compelled by Walker’s work, and we advise you to begin there.

Due to this content’s challenging nature, we have not provided dedicated activity versions for children. We do, however, encourage children to learn about the history of slavery and abolition and have included resources in our Additional Materials below.

We would also love to hear how you have used Reading Resources. Please share feedback and student work here.

Activity Group 1: Before Beginning: Teaching History

However upsetting the history of slavery is, we must engage it in all of its complexity. In this section, alongside other educators, we provide initial frameworks and strategies to support engaging with both the history of slavery, and with the ways this history is misrepresented in some educational materials.

Activity Group 2: Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War

What is a primary source? How is it different from a secondary source? Why does this distinction matter?

Given your work in the previous two sections, we now invite you to consider how Walker uses primary documents from the nineteenth century in her artwork.

Activity Group 3: A Subtlety and We the People

This section encourages you to continue researching and thinking about Walker’s art practice and its relationships to history. By comparing projects by Kara Walker and fellow artist Danh Vo, it considers how many artists, not unlike historians, engage with historical narratives and the visual forms important to those narratives.


Below is a selected bibliography on slavery and resistance organized by age group.


Glenda Armand and Colin Bootman, "Love Twelve Miles Long." Lee & Low Books, 2015.
Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier, "Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave." Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010.
Charlotte Forten, "Diary of Charlotte Forten: A Free Black Girl Before the Civil War." Capstone Press, 2014.
Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson, "Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad." Scholastic Press, 2007.
Charles R. Smith Jr., "Brick by Brick." Amistad, 2015.

Additional Resources

Seattle Public Library's Recommended Children's Books about Slavery & Resistance
Social Justice Books: Bibliography on Slavery, Resistance, and Reparations for Elementary School
Teaching Tolerance: Lies My Bookshelf Told Me: Slavery in Children's Literature


Laurie Anderson, "Chains." The Seeds of America Trilogy, Book I. Atheneum Books, 2010. (Anderson’s historical novel is told from the point of view of a teenage girl who is kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in Colonial America on the cusp of the American Revolution.)
Tonya Bolden, "Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental American Man." Harry N. Abrams, 2018.

Kathleen Van Cleve and Erica Armstrong Dunbar, "Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away." Aladdin, 2019.

Sharon Draper, "Copper Sun." Atheneum Books, 2006. (This novel follows teenage Amari as she is kidnapped from her African village and sold into slavery in the Carolinas. She and her indentured servant friend, Polly, try to escape their bondage and flee to Spanish-ruled Florida.)

Monica Edinger, "Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad." Candlewick, 2013.

Julius Lester, "Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue." Hyperion Books, 2005. (Written in dialogue format much like a play, this novel centers around a slave auction in the United States.)

Walter Dean Myers, "The Glory Field." Scholastic Paperbacks, 2008.

Additional Resources

"13 Honest Books About Slavery Young People Should Actually Read", Huffington Post.
Social Justice Books: Bibliography on Slavery, Resistance, and Reparations for Middle School


Primary Sources

William Wells Brown, "Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States," 1853.
Frederick Douglass, "The Heroic Slave," 1853.
Harriet Jacobs, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," 1861.
"Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the 18th Century," edited by Vincent Carretta. The University of Kentucky Press, 1996.

Additional Resources

Ibram X. Kendi's Antiracist Reading List, New York Times
The Schomburg Center's Black Liberation Reading List for Adults

Additional Materials


Reading Resources: Kara Walker is available as a downloadable PDF.

We would also love to hear how you have used Reading Resources. Please share feedback and student work at [email protected].


Reading Resources: Kara Walker was produced by Wendy Tronrud (A.R. T. Education Consultant) in collaboration with Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in 2019-20.

A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

We also thank:
National Endowment for the Arts
H.W. Wilson Foundation
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Mackenzie Salisbury
A.R.T. Board of Directors
A.R.T. Advisory Board
and most specially, Kara Walker.

Design by Document Services and Other Means.
Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2020.

All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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