A Professor’s New Book Examines the Meaning of ‘American’ Identity

Published: September 13, 2019

What is the story behind this painting? What is the painting responding to? What does it refer to in a cultural sense?” These are among the questions that Hayes Peter Mauro, Associate Professor in Queensborough’s department of Art and Design, asks his students every day. “I want them to be literate in terms of what images mean—in whatever form— and how they impact us.”

The image Mauro is referring to is a photograph by John Choate titled Wounded Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear, Timber Yellow Robe. This photo was made by Choate, a 19th century American photographer, while employed by the Carlisle Indian School, a federally-funded boarding school for Native American youths. The children were sent to Carlisle from their homes on reservations to be “Americanized,” or made more “civilized,” a process deemed humane at the time. Chaote was hired to photograph students when they entered the school and then some time later, in order to “document” their transformation from “savage” to “American citizen.” Such images, and the perceptions they embody, reflect Mauro’s area of scholarly expertise in art and images, and how they intersect with other fields of interest such as science, politics, religion, ‘the totality of our visual environment’.

These fields of interest are the central focus of Mauro’s book, Messianic Fulfillments: Staging Indigenous Salvation in America, (University of Nebraska Press, August 2019).  The book critically examines the role of evangelical movements in shaping American identity and visual culture from the Colonial period through the Gilded Age. It features a broad range of works by evangelically inspired Anglo American artists and photographers, such as the aforementioned John Choate. 

Each chapter focuses on a separate religious movement in America and how these movements sought to assimilate and spiritually “save” Native Americans through varying methods of evangelization. Thus, in separate chapters, the book considers Puritanism, Quakerism, Mormonism, and the Social Gospel movement of the Gilded Age; all of which sought out to evangelize dark skinned people to prepare them for entrance into what was perceived to be Christ’s kingdom.

Mauro remarked that, “I want to raise peoples’ consciousness of how images are used by a variety of entities including the federal government, artists, religious sects, marketing agencies, and corporations to guide perceptions of reality.”

After graduating from Florida State University, Mauro earned his Ph.D. in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center. His first book, The Art of Americanization at the Carlisle Indian School (University of New Mexico Press, 2011), addressed the role of pseudoscientific knowledge and its role in the perception of and subsequent visual representation of Native Americans and African Americans. Dr. Mauro also chaired a panel on the aesthetics of the alt-Right political movement at the College Art Association conference in 2018. He recently edited an issue of the International Review of African American Art, a scholarly journal published by Hampton University. He has also curated the annual spring Juried Student Art Exhibition at Queensborough’s QCC Art Gallery.

Mauro expresses his deep gratitude to the many beloved individuals and organizations that helped to facilitate his work, especially Matthew Bokovoy and Heather Stauffer at the University of Nebraska press for their expertise in preparing his most recent manuscript for publication. He also thanks the CUNY Academy, which awarded him the Wasser Award, and supported completion of the book.

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