Talking in Pictures


Thinking About Talking in Pictures—March 18 2022

     When I started this blog, and indeed, this portion of my work on visual images, which I think I would need to track back to a point after I had finished my phd in visual culture at NYU Tisch in 1999 and even then after having come to live with mom and dad in 2007 after my sojourn in Ithaca as a visiting professor of African American Studies at Cornell University, I was convinced some visual representations, perhaps in particular certain genre of personal photographs, had a power to speak for themselves that no other medium could approximate. I now think that I was bias as well as wrong.


      The bias came from the fact that in my family my grandmother, whom I knew as Momma Jones and Mme. Willi Posey) and my mother were ardent collectors of family photographs mostly for professional work reasons. My grandmother collected photos of her fashion shows and photo shoots and my mom collected photos of herself documenting the various stages of her life, which she commemorated most vividly in her Change: 100 Pound Weight Loss Story Quilt of 1986, of art related events, of art, and art projects and performances. Even my grandmother's earliest photograph collection, which were executed by professional photographs who were friends--there were many photography studios all over Harlem, and maybe all over the South--document the clothes that she made for her children when she was still confined to being a stay at home mom to my mother, her older sister Barbara and her brother Andrew (both now deceased) in the 20s and the 30s.


    My grandmother did not get to work professionally as a seamstress and a designer until late in the 40s after divorcing my grandfather Andrew, mom's father who drove a sanitation truck. This legacy of fashion, art and photography I suspect goes further back as well to my grandmother's grandmother Betsy Bingham. In 1978 and then again in 1980 I interviewed Momma Jones at length. I had in mind to do a history of Harlem more in line with what was then known about the Harlem Renaissance, but actually what she talked about most was her family in the South and their lives in Harlem in the teens and twenties, which didn't really include the literary version of the Harlem Renaissance I was craving but rather the Harlem of the Lafayette theatre, the Savoy Ballroom and other performance venues. Which is also why I was so delighted by Toni Morrison’s version of Harlem in her novel Jazz, which wasn’t about the literary stars but about the ordinary people. On the other hand, it was also a Jazz composition in words as well. 


    Momma Jones had aspired to be a dancer as a young woman and participated in dance contests with her childhood friend and boyfriend Thomas Morrison, which she says they often won. Momma Jones would surprise Tommy by marrying a recent transplant from Tampa, which he had introduced here to, named Andrew Jones. After Andrew and Momma Jones broke up, Mr. Morrison (what I called him as a child) began to keep company again with Momma Jones. He was in fact my godfather and a grandfatherly figure as well as my actual maternal grandfather Andrew. He had married a friend of Momma Jones and they all remained friends.


    What makes me think that this fashion and photography self conception goes back at least to Betsy is the way my grandmother referred to her grandmother. In the interview she said "Betsy had everything." Who refers to their grandmother as Betsy! But slowly with scrutiny of the family history and genealogy I understood that shes was referring to Betsy Bingham who had been born a slave, a dressmaker and who died not until she was 100. Her mother and her, both quilters, lived together until Susie Shannon's death at about 100.


    To return to the point, I think I was so struck by the power of these photographs mainly because I had not had a chance to see them from the time my grandmother died, when I was 29 (1981) until after I returned from Ithaca and came to live with mom and dad in Englewood. At that point, mom gave me basically unlimited access to her photographs. She said, with a tone of resignation, I have done all I can to keep them save. Now it is your turn.


    I went a little crazy with joy. To see many pictures I hadn't seen in 27 years. And to see pictures I could only have imagined and never seen. Oh my gosh, as I looked at them, I could hear the people talking, I could read what they were saying in their faces. Or so I thought. But that was an illusion, an expression of my deep longing to be reunited with these people I had known and known of as a child, and the images which my grandmother readily shared with me. She had a large breakfront in her living room with draws and doors. Inside were all her albums organized neatly according to her categories. Sometimes she used them to work with customers who wanted clothes made. When she died and I got sick, all of that disappeared from my life.


    What my mother did, which is what people often do with inherited photographic collections is that she removed all the photographs from the photo albums, thus destroying whatever information Momma Jones left via the arrangements she had. When I finally got to the pictures, there was one album filled with small shorts of my grandmother wearing her clothing. These were glued to the album so it had been impossible to remove them. This book was particularly helpful, obviously composed around the same time that my grandmother did the clothing for my aunt’s wedding in 1950. The photos, themselves, were taken by Mr. Morrison, who was also in some of them wearing a tuxedo. Rather my mom had organize them as she wished, inadvertently removing or diminishing the prominence of images that presented her with problems of interpretation or with unpleasant feelings. We all do this. It can’t be helped. But in the process, whatever information the last collector, in this case my grandmother, mom’s mother, left is lost. 

        Eventually one day, the pictures will come into the hands of someone who has no idea who any of the people in the photographs are. In fact I have such an album I inherited from my father’s side of the family from his mother. I suspect one album is composed of photos related to the family of her second husband, not my grandfather, whom we knew as Chiefie in Jamaica. There are two lanky black males, twins I suspect, often featured in the photos. Could Chiefie have been a twin. Have been wanting to reunite these photos with the only person I still know who would know but there are so many strands to pursue.  It is true of course that some photos, in and of themselves, are more eloquent. We think of these as art as well. But the art comes in I think to the degree that the maker of the image has been able to disguise or smooth over the explicit content in favor of the content of the imagination. 


Primarily my mom’s organization was centered around separating photos of her from photos of everyone else--models, family friends, and other family. Some of the photographs of my grandmother became a part of that collection but not many, and mostly in regard to my grandmother’s collaboration with my mom on her art. After all, even when family photos are requested by writers or media, the purpose is an illustrative one. You worked with your mother? Do you have any pictures of you working with your mother? .


My mother was 50 years old when her mother died, 51 years old when her sister died in 1982. I think her actions were generated by the emotional pain of this process. Also she would begin to put the photos to good professional use. Mr. Morrison, who married my grandmother in 1978 I think, outlived my grandother to marry again. We all think that Mr. Morrison took with him some of the earliest pictures of Momma Jones, particularly of her dancing days, and maybe days of dancing with him. I distinctly remember pictures of Momma Jones doing head stands, and splits and other kinds of gymnastic moves. He lived in Setauket. He then died of Alzheimers whereupon I assume this third wife and her famly inherited the photos.


I don't know who he married or how to catch up with those pictures. But my topic here is the realization that the pictures don't in fact narrate themselves and never do. It is very very important that we tell the stories about the photographs we have, regardless of how powerless and overwhelmed we feel about that task. The photos need our help. I remain fascinated however by what we think we can see in a photograph without specific instruction as to its contents.


I don't think there could be a time in which this realization that images need narrative explanations is more important. In the situation of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd's death and Me Too, I can't think of anything more urgent for those of us who are older to understand and to pass onto those who are younger. We all watched on video as a police officer held his knee on George Floyd's neck for over 7 minutes, which resulted in his death. And yet now we must endure a discussion of what should become of this guy, what is he guilty of which corresponds to our penal code. What is there to discuss? We all saw the pictures, the moving pictures.


Another recent instance was the storming of the Capital, which has precipitated endless discussion and gathering of evidence. Who were these people? Well we saw them, didn't we? Yes but who were they and what were they about? This discussion will go on and on until all several hundred of them are rounded up and even then the discussion around them, even their convictions may be mired with ambiguities.


Because this ambiguity lies at the very basis of what our species is about. Our species is about language. And now that we are also equally about visual images and representations (digital etc), the words will need to catch up with the images. There is nothing unambiguous about images. Or maybe the way to put it is that there is nothing about which we all agree in regard to the true meaning and nature of images. And so I have found my reason and motivation for continuing to write in the age of images. In particular the seemingly least ambiguous images--documentary and portrait photography and documentary and ethnographic film--require the most explanation.


Works of art, even those which includes photos and film, at least are brought to us through an effort of interpretation on the part of the artist. In other words, they are skewed to a certain effect. I call that effect or is it affect: art.


Talking in Pictures Outline

PART I Before 1900 Saartje Baartman (the Hottentot Venus) and Africans on Display Former Slaves--Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Others References: Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. S Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (1876) and the Columbian Exposition (1893) References: *Christopher Robert Reed, All the World is Here! The Black Presence at White City. Indiana UP 2000; Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. University of Chicago Press 1984. MM. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. University of Virginia Press, 1998; Robert W. Rydell, editor, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1999. Ida b. Wells et al. Jim Crow: Ira Berlin, et al. Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk about Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. The New Press 1998 (with 2 audiotapes); Claude H. Nolen, African American Southerners in Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction. McFarland 2001; Thomas C. Buchanan, Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004; Robert Darden, People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. Continuum 2004. PART II—1900 HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES AND PHOTOGRAPHY Paris Exposition—Negro Exhibition compiled by W.E.B. DuBois References: A Small Nation of People: WEB Du Bois and African American Portrait of Progress by David Levering Lewis, Deborah Willis et al, Amistad in association with the Library of Congress, 2005. ISBN: 0060817569 Philadelphia Negro by W.E.B. Du Bois, University of Pennsylvania Press 1995 ISBN: 0812215737; The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, Norton Critical Editions ISBN 039397393x; The Illustrated Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, Eugene F. Provenzo and Manning Marable, Paradigm Publishers 2004, ISBN 159451030X; Photography on The Color Line: WEB Du Bois, Race and  the Visual Culture Michelle Shawn tk, Duke UP 2004. Prints & Photographs Reading Room “21. African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition—482” Personal Outline of Contents—include here. Wm Sheppard, the Kuba and the Belgian Congo References: Arthur Danto et al, ART/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections. The Center for African Art & Prestel Verlag, 1989. Sheppard is a Hampton Graduate and also eventually donated his Kuba collection to Hampton where it remains in the Museum there. Just the most amazing story, subject of my grad student Ira Dworkin’s dissertation in English CUNY 1999 I believe. Hampton AlbumFrances Benjamin Johnston References: The Hampton Album: 44 Photographs from An Album of Hampton Institute by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Doubleday 1966; The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952. University Press of Virginia 2000.
34. Johnston (Frances Benjamin) Collection" Prints & Photographs Reading Room 38. Alan Lomax Collection 41. National Child Labor Committee Collection Hampton Camera Club and Paul Lawrence Dunbar References: To Conserve a Legacy: Art Collections at Historically Black Colleges edited by Rick Powell and Jock Reynolds Williams College Penn School PapersSt. Helena Island, South Carolina 3000 photographs 1860s through 1962; 
124 prints made from glass plates by Robert Richmond Miner
Instructor in drawing at Hampton and a professional photographer who visited Penn several times between 1907-1923. 
Also active in the Hampton Camera Club; illustrated some of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s books. Most of his photos of St. Helena were published in a volume edited by Edith M. Dabbs, Faces of an Island: Leigh Richmond Miner’s Photographs of Saint Helena Island (Columbia, SC: R.L. Bryan, 1970.) Booker T. Washington and Photography at Tuskegee
Related Topics--Racial Subject Matter Lewis Hine and Child Labor Vicki Goldsberg, Lewis W. Hine: Children at Work, Prestel 1999 ISBN: 3-7913-2156-0 Paperbook; Priceless Children: American Photographs 1890-1925--Child Labor and The Pictorialist Ideal, University of Washington Press, ISBN 0-295-98192-x; Maren Stang, Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950, University of Cambridge. Julian Dimock and the Carolinas Camera Man's Journey: Julian Dimock's South edited by Thomas L. Johnson & NIna J. Root, The University of Georgia Press 2002 Paperback Edition Jack Johnson: the Heavy Weight Champion References: Gerald Ward, Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise & Fall of Jack Johnson. Knopf 2004. Gerald Horne, Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920. New York University Press 2005. Ota Benga and the St. Louis Fair, 1904 Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination. Yale University Pres 1994. Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. St. Martin’s Press, 1992. PART III--The 1920s World War I Blacks in WWI--Wilson's segregation of the federal government, black troops in France, their heroism and their violent return to the South.   There aren't a lot of picture books but everybody has pictures of WWI soldiers in the families, maybe. I’ve got some. 
James Van Der Zee VanDerZee by Deborah Willis-Braithwaite, Harry Abrams 1998, ISBN: 0810927829; Word, Image, and The New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance by Anne Elizabeth Carroll, University of Minnesota 2005. Robert Roberts A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts, 1920-1936, Thomas E. Johnson and Phillip C. Dunn, eds., University of Washington Press, ISBN: 0-86316-175-8. Josephine Baker Jean-Claude Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Random House, 1993; Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Time Doubleday, 1989 Paul Robeson Louis Armstrong Lynching and Race Riots James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, Twin Palms 2000. Walter White, Fire in the Flint 1924. Anne Rice, ed. Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond. Rutgers UP 2003; Tim Madigan, The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. St. Martins, 2001. PART IV--The 30s Zora Neale Hurston—Folk Culture and Performance I Alan Lomax--Folk Culture and Performance II Prints & Photographs Reading Room 38. Alan Lomax Collection Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began, The New Press, 1993; The Land Where The Blues Began CD 1993. Gee’s Bend: Folk Culture III In addition there are online at the Library of Congress a series of essays entitled Documenting America with chapters devoted to the black images of Ben Shahn in Pulaski County, Arkansas, Arthur Rothstein in Gee’s Bend, Alabama and Gordon Parks in Washington, D.C. Slave Narratives WPA Doris Ullman Philip Walker Jacobs, The Life and Photography of Doris Ulmann. University Press of Kentucky 2001; The Darkness and The Light: Photographs by Doris Ullman. Aperture 1974. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic in Words and Photographs of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South by James Agree and Walker Evans, University of Georgia Press 1995, ISBN: 082031692X; And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, Seven Stories Press 2004, ISBN: 1583226575; Walker Evans: Photographs for the FSA, 1935-1938, Da Capo Press 1973, also available on line at the Library of Congress; Walker Evans: Cuba, The J. Paul Getty Museum 2001, ISBN: 0-89236-617-6; James Agee Rediscovered: The Journals of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Other New Manuscripts, University of Tennessee Press 2005, ISBN: 1-57233-355-3. PART V—THE FORTIES FSA PHOTOGRAPHY You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell & Margaret Bourke-White, University of Georgia Press January 1995 ISBN:082031692X. The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography, University of Tennessee Press 1992. Documenting America, 1935-1943 edited by Carl Fleischhauer et al, University of California Press in association with the Library of Congress, 1988. Stott, William 1986. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. University of Chicago Press. . Prints & Photographs Reading Room—LIBRARY OF CONGRESS WEBSITE “21. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black and White Negatives, 171,000, 22. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color –about 1600 color transparencies” Richard Wright and The Black Metropolis References: 12 MILLION BLACK VOICES by Richard Wright, Thunder Mouth Press December 2002 ISBN 1560254467; BLACK METROPOLIS: A STUDY OF NEGRO LIFE IN A NORTHERN CITY by ST. Clair Drake et al, University of Chicago Press 1993 ISBN 0226162346; BRONZEVILLE: BLACK CHICAGO IN PICTURES, 1941-1943 by Maren Stange et al, New Press 2004, ISBN 1565849000; CHICAGO'S SOUTHSIDE: 1946-48 by Wayne F. Mller. University of California Press 2000. D.C. AND HARLEM—GORDON PARKS AND OTHERS References: IN THE ALLEYS: KIDS IN THE SHADOW OF THE CAPITOL, Photographs by Godfrey Frankel, Smithsonian 1995; GORDON PARKS: HALF PAST AUTUMN--A RETROSPECTIVE; FLAVIO by Gordon Parks Norton 1978 GORDON PARKS: A POET AND HIS CAMERA, Viking Press 1968. The 50s—The Sweet Flypaper of Life References: Roy De Carava and Langston Hughes THE SWEET FLYPAPER OF LIFE by Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, January 1967. ISBN: 080901338X Used Paperback Reissue; A WAY OF SEEING: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HELEN LEVITT, with an essay by James Agee, Duke UP 1989;. CONSUELA KANAGA: AN AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER by Barbara Head Millstein and Sarah M. Lowe, The Brooklyn Museum in association with University of Washington Press, 1992. JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHY References: THE GREAT JAZZ DAY: THE STORY BEHIND THE MOST FAMOUS JAZZ PHOTGRAPH OF ALL TIME by Charles Graham et al, Da Capo 2000, ISBN: 0-306-81163-4; The Family of Man compiled by Edward Steichen References: THE FAMILY OF MAN by Edward Steichen, Museum of Modern Art Paperback edition 1955; PICTURING AN EXHIBITION: THE FAMILY OF MAN AND 19050S AMERICA, University of New Mexico Press 1995; PHOTOGRAPHY AND POLITICS IN AMERICA: FROM THE NEW DEAL INTO THE COLD WAR by Lili Corbus Bezner. Johns Hopkins University Press 1999. ADDITIONAL UNCLASSIFIED REFERENCES: NORTH WEBSTER: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY OF A BLACK COMMUNITY by Ann Morris and Henrietta Ambrose, Indiania UP 1993. ISBN: 0-253-33895-6. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994: A Preliminary Finding Aid by David E. Haberstich et al. Archive Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. http// Regarding Addison N. Scurlock, the finding guide says this of his portraits: 10—“Although the individual images in this vast quantity have limited research value in the usual sense, the aggregate represents a chronology spanning many years, which may be usefl for demographic and genealogical information and as visual evidence of changing styles in clothing, hair, and accessories. It constitutes a panarama of a significant percentage of Washingonians of the period, especially the black community.” Howard University from the 1930s through the 60s; Wedding Photos—no details; Total of 250 Images Other Penn School Resources--Archive 1000 unmounted photographs. Black and White prints of watercolors by Winold Reiss. Amateur and professional photographers all white. Several albums documenting the lives of the people of St. Helena over a 100 year period. 2 albums assembled by Helen C. Jenks, Photograph Album PA-3615/Volume 78 & 79, 1898 through early 1900s; Photograph Album PA-3615/Volume 80 1902-1905; Photograph Albums PA-3615Volume 81—early 1900s; Nine Volumes of official Penn School Display Albums, assembled and captioned by Rossa B. Cooley.—through the thirties, different compositions—local scenes, construction of school buildings, all the categories of the Hamptons and more. Detailed inventory of unmounted photographs although not available online I believe. Concerning Florence Mills:
Photographic History--American
Michael L. Carlebach, American Photojournalism Comes of Age. Smithsonian Press, 1997. Gandal, Keith 1997. The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum. Oxford 1997. Davidov, Judith Fryer 1998. Women’s Camera Work: Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture. Duke UP 1998. Fleishhauer, Carl et al. Documenting America, 1935-1943. University of California Press (1988) 1997. Stott, William 1986. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. University of Chicago Press. Naef, Weston 1978. Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography: The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz. Metropolitan Museum of Art and Viking, 1978. Photographic History--Anthropological Elizabeth Edwards, ed. Anthropology & Photography, 1860-1920. Yale University Press, 1992. Oksiloff, Assenka 2001. Picturing the Primitive: Visual Culture, Ethnography, and Early German Cinema. Palgrave. Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary. Verso 1994. Photographic History—Afro-American Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers: 1840 to The Present, Norton 2000. Deborah Willis and Carla Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. Temple University Press, 2002. Nicholas Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography. University of Tennessee Press, 1992. Photographic History: Native American Paul Richardson Fleming and Judith Luskey, The North American Indians in Early Photographs. Barnes and Nobles Books, 1986. Cultural Histories Using Photographic Collections Africa: Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination. Yale University Pres 1994. Arthur Danto et al, ART/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections. The Cener for African Art & Prestel Verlag, 1989. Assenka Oksiiloff, Picturing the Primitive; Visual Culture, Ethnography, and Early German Cinema. Palgrave 2001. Anne Hugon, The Exploration of Africa: From Cairo to the Cape, Abrams 1993. Raymond Bachollet et al. Negripub: l’image des Noirs dans la publicite, Somogy 1992. Croutier, Alev Lytle. Harem: The World Behind the Veil. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989. The U.S.: John W. Ravage, Black Pioneers; Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier. University of Utah Press 1997. William Loren Katz, The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion in the United States. Touchstone 1996. Ira Berlin, et al. Remembering Slavery: African Amerians Talk about Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. The New Press 1998 (with 2 audiotapes). Claude H. Nolen, African American Southerners in Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction. McFarland 2001. Thomas C. Buchanan, Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Robert Darden, People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. Continuum 2004. Gerald Ward, Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise & Fall of Jack Johnson. Knopf 2004. Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The Black Book. Random House 1974. Robert W. Rydell et al, Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States. Smithsonian Institution Press 2000. Richard Wormser, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. St. Martin’s Press 2003. Adam Fairclough, Teaching Equality: Black Schools in the Age of Jim Crow. University of Georgia Press 2001. Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. University of NC Press, 1996. Peter F. Lau, editor. From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy. Duke University Press 2004. Craig E. Barton, ed. Sites of Memory; Perspectives on Architecture and Race. Princeton Architectural Press 2001. Carl Fleischhauer et al, Documenting America: 1935-1943. University of California Press, 1988. Anne Elizabeth Carroll, Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana UP 2005. Mexico: Gerald Horne, Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920. New York University Press 2005. Brazil: Parks, Gordon 1978. Flavio. New York: Norton.


Blackside's The Great Depression Blackside 1993

Photograph by Dorothea Lange for the FSA available online at The Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection
Yesterday I hosted a full length screening of Blackside's monumental documentary on the Great Depression at the City College of New York in our Rifkind Center which is part of our English Department, which gave me a chance to see all 7 hours once again in the light of its reflection on so many things we are currently studying in my classes--both African American Literature and Culture from the 1930s through the 1960s among the undergraduates and Black Visual Culture with my M.A. students at CCNY and my Ph.D. and M.A. students at the CUNY Graduate Center.

It is such a wonderful and indispensable series although the one thing I could wish for is that the creators had thought to use more contemporary black visual art--in particular Jacob Lawrence or Charles Alston--as part of their otherwise thorough picture of the ethnic intersections of life among Americans from 1929 through the conclusion of The Depression with the entry into World War II.

But the archival footage,  the clips from contemporary films such as the Grapes of Wrath and Native Land, as well as a few Busby Berkeley Musicals, and the interviews with so many dear old friends who have now passed more than makes up for this. Just to name a few, Dorothy Height, Gore Vidal, the artist Ralph Fasanella, Ossie Davis, St. Clair Bourne, the father, as well as the sons (who haven't passed I assume) of Adam Clayton Powell, Joe Lewis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walter White.  Not to mention all the great interviews with witnesses of the times--union organizers and their descendants, journalists, factory workers and farmers.

You see the unfortunate thing is that this series is no longer in print. I was given the entire set as a gift from Blackside for some other service I did them and I kept it all these years and finally got it transferred to dvd.  The screening was a kind of a celebration, especially since I was use to watching it on video in my mother's kitchen on a small tv with many interruptions.  This instead was in a big beautiful room with wide screen projection (although, unsurprisingly, the print ccny's imedia made for me gratis doesn't retain the acuity of the video from which it was copied, which was exquisite).  The screening was very sparsely attended aside from my own students during their customary class meeting from 2 to 3:15 but this didn't bother me since it was the first time I had shown it and got to study it much more closely myself than if I had had a larger audience.

It is hard to imagine how one might squeeze more first rate history and American culture into a more commodious space or form.  Part one looks at Henry Ford's Model T as well as his vocal support of Hitler and Nazi fascism as the Depression began in 1929.  The footage of the plant in comparison to his lifestyle shown in newsreels is riveting.

Part Two divides its time between the then popular exploits of celebrated bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd and General MacArthur's little known but disastrous handling of the Bonus Army's protest in Washington D.C.

Part Three looks at Roosevelt's initial term as President, in particular in its impact on the city of New York working with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Robert Moses (albeit unwillingly), his fireside chats, in short, his rescue of American capitalism as Gore Vidal describes it.

Part Four focuses on the tragic plight of tenants and sharecroppers in the South, and in particular the tragic story of the attempts to create and sustain an racially integrated sharecroppers union, as well as the union battles in the Aliquippa steel mills of J and L, and the somewhat ameliorative creation of the NRA.

The fifth episode  takes on the Depression in California, the campaign of Upton Sinclair and the racism of the film industry in Hollywood, as well as the mounting racism against the Japanese community.

The Sixth episodes focuses squarely on the hypocrisy of the federal government in dealing with the racial situation in the South, the lynchings in particular and the anti-semitism despite the victories of Joe Lewis in the boxing ring at home and Jesse Owens at the Olympics in Germany. Fascism at home and abroad haunts the entire episode.

The 7th and final episode details recovery for some but not for all as the country goes to war with Japan, Germany and Italy, and, shamefully, interns Japanese Americans.  This episode also includes a special segment on photographer Dorothea Lange--the only really full on focus on a work of visual culture in the series's (that isn't a film)--who documented the poverty of unemployed migrants trying to get into California, which produced the famous photograph of Florence Thompson, the 32 year old widow stranded on a California road with her children around her in a make shift tent. The 1939 World's Fair in New York and the California Exposition give way to Pearl Harbor and the day that will live in "infamy." This episode includes, as well, A Phillip Randolph's proposed march on Washington, which results (according to the documentary, in the first presidential executive order dealing with race since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation) in the banning of racial discrimination in the defense industry, as well as a segment on Charles Houston's campaign to document segregation in the schools of the South, which helped lay the ground for the Supreme Court Decision of 1954 desegregation of the schools decision. 

In summation, just great great stuff.  I may screen it again next year.  In my view, it needs to be reissued, and would love to participate in a movement to do so, although I have some idea of the considerable obstacles involved but I think in the end it may turn out to be as important as Eyes on the Prize. In a sense, it functions as prequel to Eyes on the Prize.

I probably made a million spelling mistakes in this--written very quickly--but here it goes!


El Negrito de la Loteria

This is a post (in Spanish) that will take you to a blog called El Bable.  Then search for entry for May 2011 on El Negrito, concerning an African American figure included in a deck of cards as part of a Mexican game called the Loteria Mexicana or Mexican Bingo.

Henry Louis Gates mentions this figure, El Negrito, at the beginning of his chapter on Mexico in Black in Latin America.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr & The DuBois Institute: The Image of the Black in Western Art

Charles Cordier, Bust. Nègre en Costume Algérien or Nègre du Soudan, ca. 1957.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN/Image of the Black in Western Art (Harvard University) 7000 images released on Art Stor (december 1, 2011)

"Why (These) Books?" Relaunching The Image of the Black in Western Art
November 1, 2010
"Why are we reintroducing this series, and why in this form? Why undertake such an enormous project?
The most straightforward answer came from Tim Jones (art director at Harvard Press speaking at a 2 day conference called "Why Books?")
simply put, the bound, physical book is the perfect format for the information in this project. This is a lavishly illustrated series, containing over 3,000 images of art housed in over 500 museums and collections around the world. Currently, the fees charged for digital rights, as opposed to print, are just prohibitive. Meaning that there is no way we could afford to offer these images in any digital format for a price that would get these books distributed anywhere near as widely as the project deserves. We couldn’t do an ebook, we couldn’t do a comprehensive website, we couldn’t do a dvd."

These words describe a fascinating project on the Image of the Black in Western Art, which began in 1960 with the determination on the part of John and Dominique De Menil to collect and document images of people of African descent as portrayed in the course of the history of Western art. The resulting book projects were first published by Harvard University Press in the 1980s.  The archive of images presently resides at Harvard University under the direction of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Harvard University Press has undertaken to republish these books in fuller form and/or expanded versions of the first publications for a total of 10 books in 5 volumes, the last scheduled to be released in 2015 (the volumes go as far back as the Ancient world).

I have purchased five of the ones that are currently available with a focus on the period of the Renaissance in the West through the 19th century, not being able to figure out how to get the info they contained any other way although each volume is about $100 and I would have certainly avoided spending that money if I could have found another way to have complete access to the materials contained there in. Will endeavor to make sure that the CUNY Graduate Center has all the volumes and can make them available to our students.  I think it would actually be a great idea to republish these essays in a cheaper format, perhaps even with just lists of the pictures.

The Image of the Black in Western Art--
From The "Age of Discovery" to the Age of Abolition Volume III, Harvard UP 2011: 
Part 1--Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque
Part 2--Europe and The World Beyond 
Part 3--The Eighteenth Century

The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III
From the American Revolution To World War by Hugh Honour, Harvard UP 2012: 
Part 1--Slaves and Liberator Part I, expanded to include more color illustrations.
Part 2--Black Models and White Myths, New Edition Part 2 expanded to include essays on Goya by Victor Stoichita and on Russian painting by Paul Kaplan.

all edited by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

They are of great interest to me from a research standpoint in relation to my current teaching and reading on "Slavery and the Failure of Reconstruction"first in the United States in the 19th century and then throughout the New World from the commencement of slavery in the Dominican Republic in the 1500s through its official demise in the late 19th century in Cuba and Brazil, and my fascination with race and slavery as the object of an expanding terrain of of iconography and visual representation.

Although there has been much critique, a lot of it no doubt justified from the standpoint of specialization in these areas, I owe a great debt to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s recent endeavors to present slavery in the context of the longer history of the New World beginning with the Spanish conquistators and their earliest adventures in the New World, in which blacks were included, pictorially and otherwise at an introductory college level in the new textbook Life Upon These Shores and his series and book on Blacks in Latin America). Differences of language and lack of translation into english has held this door closed for a long time to the generalist. 

Now that Gates has thrown it open for me, it has led me to a considerable number of of other works in english exploring this world as well. 

Among them, Thomas Benjamin, The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400-1900, Cambridge UP 2009;
Kathryn Joy McKnight and Leo J. Garofalo, eds., Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 15560-1812, Hackett Publishing Company 2009;
Lowell Gudmundson & Justin Wolfe, eds., Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place, Duke UP 2010;
Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and The United States, Cambridge UP 2011;
David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, Cambridge UP 2000;
George Reid Andrews, Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000, Oxford UP 2004;
Toyin Falola and Keven D. Roberts, eds. The Atlantic World 1450-2000, Indiana UP 2008,

and finally the magisterial Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by David Eltis and David Richardson, Yale UP 2010, which accompanies the fast internet website, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, launched as the Voyages website in 2009 in



There are a vast array of sources available online and via documentary film and other sources on theories of evolution, much of it celebrating Charles Darwin as the father of the theory. Not only are these ideas key to our current understanding of human biology and the genome project but they often mobilize a fascinating series of visual techniques from photography and film to scientific illustration and the newer techniques in animation.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Commemorating Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday. WGBH 2001.


Mali Train Vendors

This seems so special. I like.


The Art of African Exploration at The Smithsonian

Sir Richard Francis Burton. Illustrations (sketches and drawings) from his many book documenting his explorations of the African continent in the 19th century. Some of these from Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast.

Artistic skill was an important tool in an explorer’s kit in the days before modern photography. Expeditions to Africa often included an artist to record the landscapes, wildlife, and peoples encountered on the journey.

In 1854 the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London advised travelers to carry everything from a sextant and compass to drawing materials and paints. The traveler’s goal was to make “imperfectly known countries” better known. Recording their observations through sketches, journals, and maps was an essential part of the journey.

Drawing upon his experiences in Africa, scientist Francis Galton expanded on the RGS’s advice with a wealth of practical tips in his book The Art of Travel (1855). The book proved popular with armchair travelers and seasoned explorers alike. The intrepid British explorer and scholar Sir Richard Francis Burton carried a copy during his own travels in Africa.

Quotation and Description of Page.

The address of African Exploration Images is

Smithsonian Blog

Announcing a photography initiative "The Bigger Picture" at This should be useful. Will take a look for myself and get back to this.


FSA Color--Belle Glade, Florida

This is a migrant worker dwelling in Zora Neale Hurston's Florida, Belle Glade 1944 taken in kodachrome color by photograph Marion Wolcott.  Fascinating.

Afro-Americans in the 40s--Color FSA Photos

These are photographs from the color collection of the FSA at the Library of Congress taken by Marion Wolcott and dated 1944.  These first three were taken in Belle Glade, Florida and illustrate some of the living conditions of migrant workers in Florida.  This is the kind of location Zora Neale Hurston would have visited in compiling her Mules and Men (1935) and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

This next photograph is also by Marion Wolcott in 1944 of a dwelling occupied by "mulattoes" in Louisiana.  You can see such photographs for yourself at  This is the front page of the color collection of the Federal Security Adminstration Collection, 1939-1944.  One can then browse the subject index (African Americans or Negroes), Creator (Marion Wolcott) and/or geographic location (Belle Glade, Florida or Louisiana).

This photo is also by Marion Wolcott and is taken upon the occasion of a picnic in St. Helena, South Carolina, obviously a picnic.  The people are moving naturally, not posing.  Also in the 40s. 


30 Americans: Rubbell Family Collection

“Thirty Americans” contains a near-comprehensive repertoire of the tropes of black postmodernism and the African-American sublime, in which the negativities of slavery, Jim Crow, blackface minstrelsy, racism, sexism and sexual slavery are constantly invoked and interrogated for the rich, dark spaces and designs that their still-warm undersides may reveal. Every African-American artist I can think of whose work I admire finds some way to signal his or her existential outsiderness. In a dominant visual culture in which blackness is often viewed as a negation of both culture and worth, the outside holds as much interest and cachet as the inside. We black people always want to know, regardless of our education and family background: What relation does your work have to the outside where most black people continue to be found everywhere you can look?

30 Americans: Rubbell Family Collection, Miami, Florida: 2008.


Jules Allen Photography--The Contemporary Scene

In tribute to the ongoing spirit of the historic vitality of the best tradition of street photography, I would like to dedicate this blog to the work of photographer Jules Allen (born 1947 in San Francisco, California). 

As much as I love to rummage through archival photography done by photographers who have come and gone, it is particularly inspirational to remember that there is still important work being done today by photographers who prefer to celebrate the lives of others rather than themselves.

In celebration of Jules Allen's fabulous new website, making widely available to fans of his photography for the very first time a sufficiently broad range of his work at, I am including here as well the text of a piece I wrote about Allen's photographs taken in Bamako and Conakry.

Jules Allen’s Photographs

By Michele Wallace
(Friday, September 26, 2003)

“Society never makes a man. It destroys him. What we see never fits what we say. The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”

Jean-Luc Godard

Why do we continue to need photographs anyway? More to the point, why do we continue to long to see photographs we haven’t yet seen? What is it we’re trying to find? In our current environment of globalization, digitalization, cell phones and satellites, what possible use could we have for another photograph? The answers lie in two words: aesthetics and information.
I suspect a lot of us have realized for some time now that Jules Allen makes very special photographs. For years he has kept his audience on a starvation diet, desperate to see more than we ever get to see. Yet despite this deprivation, his afficionados know his photographs the instant we see them by his unprecedented combination of sleek Modernist compositional wizardry with this ruthless insistence on plainly presenting the real material conditions of people’s lives wherever he finds them—on the streets of Harlem, in a boxing gym, among nudes in the studio, or, as in this case, in the streets and back alleys of Bamako and Conakry.
You see Allen has the listening eye that Godard speaks of. The capacity for the listening eye marks almost every great black and white photograph of street life in the 20th century with an inexorable rhythm, as though the shadows, despite their apparent stillness, were dancing with the pulse of the city. Many of Allen’s favorite street photographers—Manuel Alvaro Bravo, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Roy De Carava—all had it. Everything, every texture, every accident of weather or materials or light becomes crucial to the vision. The situation requires that the photographer make his decision of where the shot is in an instant. In order to do this, an infallible eye is necessary. I will say it again: an eye that listens.
Allen has that eye, or has trained himself to have that eye or to perfect that eye during his many years of patiently taking pictures wherever it seemed likely that he might stumble upon the truth of the juxtaposition of light and human existence. He is now at a point where his pictures speak volumes, tell stories, reassuring us that life isn’t anywhere near as bad as you may have been tempted to think it is.
I worry that Jules Allen and I and others our age are part of the last generation to learn to think completely in black and white film, that the younger ones can not fathom what the play of light and dark, and shadows, the translation of black skin into the rich tapestry of shadows of black and white film meant to us, and continues to mean to us. And that this discipline, which was forced upon us by black and white film (photography, advertising, film and tv) made us strong, and smart and resilient in ways they can scarcely imagine. It may be because in the context of such a ruthless hierarchy of light dark, blackness and darkness were so transparently the best possible thing to be from the standpoint of aesthetics. The blues on the one hand, the sublime on the other.
Perhaps even more essential to we blacks in the U.S. than the aesthetic visions such photography supports is the raw, unmediated information about the world we don’t yet sufficiently understand. Allen prides himself on surprising the life that lies just around every corner. These photographs are telling us at least one hundred very concrete things about that which we may think we already know but don’t know nearly well enough, the urban streets of a contemporary African Muslim city such as Bamako or Conakry.
I have never been to either place and yet through Allen’s images, I feel as though I have been prepared in ways that I could never gather from any other source. Of the 25 photos, I would divide them into three groups. They are all about people who are not being portrayed as foreign or exotic or distant in any way. Several of the pictures focus on small groups, several more focus on large groups and another set focuses on single figures, albeit there is frequently at least one other blurry figure in the background.
Among the small groups, there is the shot of the Ballet Africains dancers having an unguarded moment of relaxation at the stage’s edge, reminding me of Degas’ reposing ballet dancers of a century ago. One of the African dancers lies on her back, her feet dangling luxuriously over the edge.
There is another image of a few women in dresses trying to get past two men who are kneeling in a back courtyard with clothes hanging from the lines and a large industrial—looking well, from which they get their water. This is another kind of historical moment altogether from the Reuters, Times and BBC images from which we are usually asked to cull our information of the African continent.
There is another courtyard with hanging clothes, women cooking in the background at outdoor grills, a faucet dispensing water into a metal teapot being held by the hands of a man, his face blocked by the dangling clothes. He wears a watch on one wrist, and a wedding finger on his other hand.
A sexualized little girl stands among a small group in a courtyard, reminding us once again that the status of boys and girls is different in this society, and that the sex industry could be part of this little girl’s future.

My favorite image is of 2 slender fishing boats, fragile canoe-like structures, anchored side by side in the still water of the Niger River. Although there are no people in it, this picture too is about the people.
In another group photo, there are 4 males, 2 bodies, their beautiful chests, hairless and perfect like the finest ebony wood. They are laughing, playing perhaps, in a moment grabbed from the teeth of their workday to love each other.
A woman smiles in the background of a market scene through a group of men in the foreground too busy to notice that they are being observed in profile.
Everywhere we see little girls with wise, sad musical faces.
These pictures tell stories even as their abstraction compels us to see the organization of the shadows and of things that are not there. Allen always draws our attention to the actual conditions under which people are living, not by focusing on poverty but, nonetheless, with no chance to romanticize the surroundings or to misunderstand the critical lack of modern resources.

What is really fabulous in these photos is the edges, how the outer frame supports the center of the frame in terms of composition. Until you could almost say what the photo says, as though it was on the tip of your tongue. That is, of course, if it were say-able, which it is not.
There are the shots that focus on single figures, for instance, a head of a beautiful woman juxtaposed with the reflection of leaves in the glass of a car windshield. Then there are the large groups, among them two scenes on the beach. The first of boys playing in silhouette against the dusk, a mirror image of Thomas Eakin’s “The Watering Hole” for sensuality and masculine pleasure. Then there is the more distant shot of a group of men working, struggling perhaps with a fishing net on the beach as the sun comes up.
There is the congestion of the women in the market, their bodies swaddled in layers of clothe in the heat, their backs bent over in industry. There is also the stunning image of workers in a sculpture workshop where the fragments of sculptures look exactly like a pile of bones. Everything looks like at least like two or three different things, one of them always from some other world and not strictly capable of being put into words. These photographs leave you wanting more. Much more.



Picturing US History: Online Teaching Resource

I am thrilled to announce a new online resource being offered by the CUNY Graduate Center at the following link: and a wonderfully length list of web resources to be further explored.  More later.



Caption: The burning of Will Brown's body, Omaha, Nebraska, Sept. 18, 1919
Source: NSHS, RG2281-69
Nebraska born actor Henry Fonda was 14 years old when this incident occured.  He watched the riot from the second floor window of his father's printing plant across the street from the courthouse.  "It was the most horrendous sight I'd ever seen . . We locked the lan, went downstairs, and drove home in silence.  My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes.  All I could thimk of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope."

This material is taken from a series of pages on the history of racial tensions in Omaha at the following address-

I got interested in lynching because of my interest in African American visual culture. It seemed to me that it was necessary to add certain previously ignored elements to the aesthetic ensemble in order to more plainly see the traditions of an African American visual culture.

When I decided to do a Ph.D., my first impulse was to do it in Art History but after very little research I realized that it would be entirely an uphill battle to do extensive coursework in Art History, most or all of it having nothing to do with African American visual culture, and then compose a committee from the current personnel of the best departments of Art History. Your committee is just as important or even more so than the available coursework when it comes to completing the dissertation.

As I imagined it, the better field to pursue would be film because it meant that I would be studying the 20th century, a period during which I thought the impact and visibility of African Americans was undeniable. My tropes were passing, lynching and Jim Crow, which I borrowed from the concerns so prominent in the African American literature of the 20th century.

A collection of lynching photographs was published in 2000, WITHOUT SANCTUARY: LYNCHING PHOTOGRAPHS IN AMERICA edited by James Allen (I finished my Ph.D. in Cinema Studies at NYU in 1999), which increased the general knowledge of lynching episodes in American history. Meanwhile, I had begun to include lynching in the courses I offered at the Graduate Center in the English Program. One of the students in my class, Anne Rice, put together an anthology of writings protesting lynching, dating from 1889 through 1935. She asked me to write the foreword, which I gladly did. WITNESSING LYNCHING: AMERICAN WRITERS RESPOND was published by Rutgers University Press in 2003.*

It is a truly wonderful and indispensable book with selections of writings on lynching by Frederick Douglas, Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells, Pauline Hopkins, WEB Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Chesnutt, Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Walter White, Sterling Brown, Nancy Cunard, Claude McKay, Erskine Caldwell, Richard Wright, Countee Cullen, Esther Popel, Angelina Weld Grimke.

Anne has written for this book a wonderful, lucid, crystal clear and succinct introduction to the issues of lynching in American culture, as well as shorter introductions to each writer, and to each essay, short story, play or poem included in the book, weaving all the material in the book together into a perfect correspondence with the actual events of the period.

Since 2000, I have had several copies of this book in my possession but I always end up giving them away to people I think may really need to read it and who won't go to the store and buy it for themselves. During my recent visit to the Schomburg, I found a copy of it in the gift shop for a price of $7. The proprietor of the store told me that the book was out-of -print and had been remaindered, which explains why the book was so inexpensive.

Anne's purpose in doing this book was to make available in one place a range of relatively obscure writings on lynching, most of which I had never seen before. These were the historical witnesses to lynching, able to articulate for their audiences then exactly what they thought they saw along with its deeper meaning. And yet so few people have ever had a chance to read this proud American literature. Fewer still will have the chance with the passing of this book, an obscure title during the best of times, from availability.

Just this past Wednesday, Judith Killens, a former M.A. student at the Graduate Center, a teacher and an intellectual, was saying during a visit to my office at CCNY (NAC 6/223) that it was getting more and more difficult to explain to students why they needed to go to libraries and do research in an archive since more and more everything can be found online.  She was pointing out in particular a booklet that Ida B. Wells, her husband and Frederick Douglas had produced at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 with the title WHY ARE THERE NO BLACKS AT THE COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION which is now online in its entirety. 

But I still worry about what will happen to WITNESSING LYNCHING.  I still worry that first, having something online doesn't make it necessarily more available to the people who need it and 2) that some projects are inherently against the grain and are therefore invisible to the majority of the reading and thinking public.  

Another project which is also probably indispensable in its importance is REMEMBERING JIM CROW: AFRICAN AMERICANS TELL ABOUT LIFE IN THE SEGREGATED SOUTH edited by William H. Chafe et al, The New Press and Lyndhurst Books of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University Press, 2001, which contains two hours of interviews as well as a book of analysis and a transcript of the recordings, bibliography, etcetera and so forth. This project was in part inspired by the previous REMEMBERING SLAVERY project edited by Ira Berlin and others, and coordinated by Joe Wood, an editor and writer greatly loved and admired by myself and many others.  

I became Anne's mentor and the head of her dissertation committee. She subsequently wrote her dissertation on lynching and literature, completing her graduate work at the Graduate Center in 2004. She currently teaches African American Studies at Lehman College, CUNY, and is working on a book on lynching, photography and historical memory.

***There are inexpensive copies of WITNESSING SLAVERY at the Schomburg Gift Shop.  Also, they have piles of A SMALL NATION OF PEOPLE: WEB DU BOIS AND AFRICAN AMERICAN PORTRAITS OF PROGRESS, The Library of Congress with Essays by David Levering Lewis & Deborah Willis, 2003--African American Photographs Assembled by Du Bois for the 1900 Paris Exposition--at half price!!!! 


To Conserve a Legacy and Black Education

Concerning To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities edited by Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds, Addison Gallery of American Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem, MIT 1999.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Jo Moore Stewart, Spelman: A Centennial Celebration. Spelman College 1981.

Adam Fairclough, A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in The Segregated South. Belknap Harvard 2007.

The Black Washingtonians: The Anacostia Museum Illustrated Chronology. Wiley 2005.

George Sullivan, Black Artists in Photography, 1840-1940. Cobble Hill Books 1996.

To Conserve a Legacy is where and when the sense of this project of race and photography really begun to take shape for me. The book on Spelman’s photographs was something I remembered, and it gave me early on with some inkling of what archives of photographs at historically black colleges could provide. But it is only with this new technological piece (internet, blogging, scanning and so forth) that I could begin to imagine the possibilities for somebody like me who can’t begin to get physically to all these archives at black schools for envisioning, thinking, teaching and being inspired.

The story of Spelman might provide the corner stone of the chapter or chapters on black education. It is one of the two only black female colleges and it has such a great photographic archive so little seen by the outside world. The way the book is presented, I can’t tell who actually took these photographs. Was there the combination at Spelman as at Hampton and Tuskegee of photographs by teachers, alumni and hired photographers such as Frances Benjamin Johnston?

I always like to know who took the pictures because it helps a great deal with understanding and interpreting the point-of-view, which is usually being represented somewhere. I notice the early shots of graduates mirror again the aesthetic qualities visible in the Paris Exposition photos and in the Johnston photos. Of course, the early faculty of Spelman was white and I am reading Fairclough to gain a better sense of the lay of the land in terms of the different racial dispositions which lead to the various black colleges, normal schools, Baptist academies etcetera. I still haven’t a sense yet of exactly how many different kinds of black schools there were at any given time. But I think that it is something important to know in telling this story of black photography since the photographs obviously were composed in order to serve those interests. It is good to know that there is an archive which resulted in a regular publication because then one learns by observing the process of selection.

Rereading it I don’t think I had realized the extent to which the role of black women and the education of black women and Spelman has been minimized in the telling of the story of the struggle between DuBois and Washington. Of course, the story of black education is central to the unfolding drama of Jim Crow segregation and the struggle for Civil Rights. And it has always seemed to me that the story of black education and the history of black educational institutions function as an essential mystery within the larger mystery of how it is we are ever going to go about getting our people on the right track educationally.

But the piece of it that has made me so curious as somebody who was raised and educated in the North and in integrated private schools about what happened in the South and most particularly in its classrooms is this: if the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement (or cultural nationalism) was about achieving equality, wiping out the caste of slavery, and getting rid of discrimination, the greatest failure has been this eternal problem of mis-education or the lack of an adequate education which continues to plague our children, and to some degree all of us.

In my experience at Cornell’s Black Studies Program, one of the oldest in the country, I got the sense that this yearning for an education that can liberate us is as much of a problem at the Ivy League Colleges and the State Colleges as it has been in the historically black colleges, because the kids at the Ivy Leagues may be able to achieve in a superficial sense but at the price of knowing next to nothing about the struggles and accomplishments of their forebears, particularly their female forebears who were so crucial to their own survival and success.

Anyhow, it goes around and around in circles but what I am trying to say is that education continues to be a hard nut to crack for us black folks. In the discussions of the fight against segregation, the focus is on the physical conditions but what about consciousness and philosophy? And I don’t mean just vocational versus academic. When we are dealing with rural students from very poor communities in a section of the country in which a high school education is still a luxury for a majority of young Americans, why is the most important thing whether or not there is someone qualified to teach Greek?

I knew black women leaders and intellectuals were trivialized but that the story we tell ourselves about the history of black education marginalizes the role of black women even as we are told again and again that the women were the only ones who were able to advance, is ironic. I wonder where Zora Neale Hurston was when all of this was going on. Why didn’t she have the opportunity to be in those earlier classes at Spelman when she might have attended without having to feel as though she needed to lie about her age.

Also that the story of black women’s education would be marginalized by discussions of women’s education is also something I had thought about because wandering through the libraries at Cornell I got interested in this vocational, industrial focus in early women’s education in the form of Home Economics. There was as well a history of a vocational emphasis at Cornell, which had been co-educational from the outset and geared toward farming and rural occupations apparently from the outset.

(My Aunt Barbara was the apple of everybody’s eye when she graduated from Hunter College at 16 in I guess 1943 and went to college at New York University majoring in Home Economics with a focus on Dietetics. It seems unimaginable to me that this was seen as an advance over becoming a maid. It was just the first chapter in a short and tragic life but that’s the other book).

When I saw the Conserving a Legacy exhibition at the Studio Museum the summer of 1999, what really stood out for me were the photographs—15 by Frances Benjamin Johnston’s from the Hampton Album, 13 of the Hampton Camera Club and other anonymous works sent back by Hampton graduates, 3 by Leonard C. Hyman from Tuskegee, 5 by Cornelius Marion Battey of Tuskegee, 7 by Arthur Bedou of Tuskegee, 2 by William Christenberry of Hampton, 1 portrait of George Washington Carver when he was a young man by Charles S. Livingston, 11 by Leigh Richmond Miner at Hampton, 3 by Prentice P. Polk of Tuskegee, 5 by C.D. Robinson of Tuskegee, 1 by Richard Riley, 1 by Herbert Pinney Tresslar, 1 by Doris Ullman and 8 portraits of famous people by Carl Van Vechten in the 30s. Which totals about 69 or 70 photographs.

Primarily what interested me in this group were the photos from Hampton and Tuskegee and the different generic conventions they represented. On one level, they seemed somehow highly familiar and yet I also knew even if I had ever seen such pictures before, I knew little about them and the people in them.

At the same time, my preoccupation with African American visual culture in recent years made me immediately aware that here might be some aspect of the archive documenting our steps as a people from slavery to our present marginal status in modernity. It was clear enough that these pictures presented in a fairly straightforward and humble way students and teachers at or around the turn-of-the-century engrossed in the endeavor of educating the former slaves and their children.

I also knew from the central role played by images produced at Hampton and Tuskegee at the turn-of-the-century, as well as images of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, that the debate over manual training versus elite liberal arts training had been an issue and that these images portrayed institutions which were ostensibly devoted to so-called “vocational” training. Although I was also aware, given my interest in the Jim Crow violence which characterized this period in the South, that these schools functioned in the middle of an often terroristically violent environment. To look at these often tiny pristine images of African Americans whom I had wondered about so intensely for so long dressed so neatly in their period costumes, so serious in their preoccupation of getting an education and passing it on to the less fortunate children of the rural south was as healing as anything I had ever experienced during my years as a Northern African American. Of course, on some level I had always known there had to be such images since my great grandfathers and great grandmothers were such people, teachers in fact who started small schools in the South. But to actually see them finally on the wall of a museum I admire (not my ancestors particularly but some people like them) was to know immediately that I was going to spend a lot of time finding out exactly where they came from, how many there were and what they signified.

These images gave the lie finally to all the stereotypes that had ever worried me or any other African American. The debate was not even over whether or not they were positive or negative images or role models. It wasn’t a questions of whether the subjects were playing into some preconceived notions of African American abilities or not, as one would be led to believe in a novel such as Invisible Man. The point was that these people were every bit as real as Buck and Bubbles, as Williams and Walker, as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. And although the talented tenth must have been closer to a one thousandth at the time, nonetheless, they provide the balance of a picture of a people living under apartheid and making the very best of it under the circumstances.

There are the following articles in To Conserve a Legacy concerned with the photographs, short but providing crucial clues to my work:

1. Lux, Lies, and Compromise: The Politics of Light Exposure by Leslie Paisley.
2. Preserving the Cyanotype: Unlimited Access and Exhibition through Digital Image
3. Surrogates by MK Lalor, James Martin, Nicholas J. Zammuto
4. The Hampton Camera Club by Mary Lou Hultgren
5. Chronicling Tuskegee in Photographs: A Simple Version by Cynthia Beavers Wilson

About Me

My photo
I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.