Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography.

Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography. – book reviews

David Nicholson

For her book Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (New Press. January 1995. $23), Deborah Willis Braithwaite solicited 18 contributors in an attempt to turn on its head the old cliche about a picture’s worth. The resulting thousands of words are decidedly uneven, a curious hodgepodge that mixes the personal with the political. Here and there, like cherries in an underdone fruitcake, are gems. For the most part, however, this is a book whose contents are everything one would expect in these politically correct, separatist times–predictable Afrocentrism and feminist cant, an abundance of academic jargon, and a sustained lack of any real insight.

In her preface, Braithwaite recalls three conversations that “made me wonder why there has been no text offering a critical discussion of the photograph or the maker of the photograph in the African American community.” The question is apt because there is, of course, a rich history of black photographic images dating back to the 1830s. Most of these early images are vicious stereotypes–“young black boys used as alligator bait, and old, grinning black men eating watermelon”–reflecting how whites wanted to see blacks.

However, as early as 1840 the first known black photographer, Jules Lion, demonstrated the daguerreotype process in New Orleans, and there is now a large body of work by black photographers. Recent interest in their lives and art has sparked a dialogue about “the ways one looks at and interprets photographs and how identity and representation are constructed in photographs of African Americans.”

Picturing Us aims to be part of that dialogue. It also aims, Braithwaite makes clear, “to stimulate further discussion and advance critical writings in photography.”

These are, to be sure, laudable goals. For too much of our history, black images in art, photography and film have been created as well as interpreted by whites. Thus the reinterpretation of black images, in whatever medium, is an important task. Perhaps, however, this job is best left to novelists and poets, to those who have thought deeply about the glories and limitations of being human. The task is too important, as Picturing Us inadvertently makes clear, to be ceded to the academics, ideologues and cultural politicians who dominate this volume.

The book’s problems are manifold. To begin with, many of the writers have chosen photographs of purely personal significance–pictures of themselves as children, pictures of mothers, fathers and grandmothers. Thus Braithwaite writes about a photograph of her sister and herself; National Public Radio commentator Vertamae Smart Grosvenor writes about a picture of her grandmother, Estella Smart; bell hooks writes about a photograph of her father, as does E. Ethelbert Miller; and Lise Hamilton writes about a photograph, taken by her father, of her mother and herself as a baby.

All of us have family photographs, as well as stories to go along with them that may be of interest to other family members and friends. Rarely, however, are they so powerful, so compelling as to contain meanings that transcend the personal and warrant telling to a larger group. Such is the case here. Most often the essays are mundane, with a leavening, as in the case of Vertamae Smart Grosvenor’s reminiscence of her grandmother, of the “faux primitif.” bell hooks flirts with the provocative and original in her essay about her father before succumbing to bland polemics.

Elsewhere, readers may feel uncomfortably as if eavesdropping, unwillingly bearing witness to grief that more properly should have remained private. Such is the case when Lise Hamilton writes about her feelings following the death of the white grandmother who refused to accept her fully.

Here and there, however, the contributors rise to the occasion. E. Ethelbert Miller’s memoir of his father is poignant and powerful, managing to convey both love and mystery–how many of us, after all, will ever really know our parents? The tone is dispassionate, never succumbing to sentiment or false piety. Miller’s father was also a photographer, though the author did not always know this. Thus he is forced to imagine his father at work, developing “his pictures in the dark, mixing chemicals the way my mother prepared meals.” Later, he concludes: “Photographs remind us of who we are, our ties to people and places. It is my understanding today that my father was looking for something in the dark. A way of creating a past or maybe even a family. There in front of his own eyes he could give birth to images.”

Miller’s essay is a quest for understanding, as is Adele Logan Alexander’s exploration of her paternal grandmother, Adella Hunt Logan, who at 47 killed herself by jumping from a classroom window at Tuskegee Institute in 1915. Born into a free family of color, Logan was active in the women’s suffrage movement and a teacher at Tuskegee. Though as a child Alexander had known of this remarkable woman, it was not until she was an adult that she began the journey of deeper discovery. Her essay traces her search for Logan’s antecedents, a search that led to the town of Sparta, Ga., and the discovery that Logan’s grandmother, Mariah, was the daughter of a white judge, Nathan Sayre, who had lived in complete defiance of law and local custom with a black woman named Susan Hunt in the early 1800s.

The narrative is rich in color and detail, and though Alexander mentions the book that resulted from her research, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, this is no mere advertisement. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Kathe Sandler’s essay on a photograph of freed slaves taken in 1863. The essay is less about the photograph than about Sandler’s film, A Question of Color. Worse, it covers ground the film ought to and ends up piling on detail after detail about the making of the movie–detail more appropriate for some other forum.

This, however, isn’t the worst of it. Luke Charles Harris writes about the white backlash against affirmative action in language that attempts to borrow the power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches. He succeeds, however, only in giving a history lesson and writes scarcely at all about the photograph in question. Carla Williams writes about a 19th-century photograph of a black woman masturbating, a provocative enterprise, embodying as it does the explosive notion of black sexuality, but ends with a puzzling and extraneous account of taking nude photographs of herself. And Robert A. Hill contributes a long (and extensively footnoted) essay about Marcus Garvey that readers lacking a doctorate in semiotics may be forgiven for skimming.

The more I look at Picturing Us, the more I think back to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s recent traveling exhibit, which surveyed the work of black photographers from 1840 to 1940 and featured about 80 photographs.

From visiting cards and posed photographs destined as gifts for loved ones, that exhibit established the importance–and the ordinariness–of photography in black life. To be sure, there were pictures of the great and famous–Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar–but there were also many, many photographs of ordinary black folk standing outside of theaters, attending political rallies, or simply enjoying themselves.

Two photographs come immediately to mind. One, dated 1910, showed a group of black men playing croquet on a wide lawn in Mississippi. The other, also taken in Mississippi, showed couples picnicking in Gulfside, rows of automobiles in the foreground, and in the background a clubhouse and couples strolling on a pier.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the photographic evidence of our history isn’t just about slavery, about lynchings, and about degradation. It’s about ordinary lives filled with dignity, culture and beauty, not solely a history of racism and oppression that leads, almost inexorably, to black middleclass angst about family and origins–the helpless, impotent rage of a privileged class that characterizes too much of Picturing Us.

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