"Black Like Me": Celebrating Black History Month with Photography
Did you know that African American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass was the most photographed person in 19th century United States? He knew the power that his image would have as a free Black man who was educated, handsome, well-dressed and sophisticated (i.e., civilized) and equal to any white man. He used the new and evolving technology of photography to promote a specific message. He understood if you control your image you can affect the reality around you, and that the photographic image was not just about self-expression but also power.
From the same time period you may also be interested in looking at:
- Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century
- Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War
- Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier
- Black Frontiers: a History of African American Heroes in the Old West
I try to be sensitive in writing for the Library around not appropriating the voice of others. In an earlier blog post about the Black Panthers I placed a special emphasis on autobiography and interviews. In researching this blog I also became more sensitive to image appropriation. Self-expression and self-determination through image are as important as voice. Frederick Douglass had the power to control the production and distribution of his own image. For many Blacks, they could not control who took their photo or how it was distributed. But over time this changed and Blacks increasingly started photographing themselves, commissioning their own portraits and controlling more of their own image. For this year's Black History Month I wanted to explore some photography of and by the Black community.
Deborah Willis' Reflections in Black: a History of Black Photographers,1840 to the Present, published in 2000, was a ground breaking compilation of research bringing together the first history of African American photography and a unique view into their lives, reality and aspiration over time. It inspired a documentary Through a Lens Darkly.
With the growth of interest in black photography came the desire to collect and start studying the material. African American Vernacular Photography is a selection of works from the Daniel Cowin Collection (housed at the International Center of Photography). To quote from their website:
- There is little public documentation about the private lives of African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when their social transactions took place for the most part outside of public view and often away from the camera's lens. This exhibition offers a glimpse into the rarely presented everyday lives of African Americans through a variety of photographic genres and poses: formal studio portraits, casual snapshots, images of children, images of uniformed soldiers, wedding portraits, and "Southern-views" that were made for tourist consumption. While some of the sitters were celebrities of the day, the majority of subjects are unnamed Americans. The images attest to photography's ability to record personal histories for private uses and to create historical documents.
Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits is along the same vein as the titles above but it pulls from the US National Portrait Gallery. This is the published catalogue for an exhibition put on by the Smithsonian which explored "the span of a century and a half of both the photographic medium and the history of the United States as seen through an African American lens".
Deborah Wallis and Carla Good expanded the research and history of Blacks in photography and this lead to The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. They do an excellent job moving from earlier anthropological, sexualized and stereotypical types of photographs to more everyday images that more accurately reflect the sitters' realities. You may also be interested in Viewfinders: black women photographers which is a survey of black women photographers from the 19th century to the present day.
- Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery
- Visual journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties
- Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography
- An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography of Black Photographers, 1940-1988
The idea of Black beauty has been explored by both Deborah Willis and also Ben Arogundade in:
I don't want to leave men out of the contemporary photography pool. Vital Grace: The Black Male Dancer is a beautiful oversize book of photography. There are interesting interviews and essays with Black male dancers talking about race, masculinity and the tension between traditional ballet and modern dance. More broadly it explores the impetus to dance among these men. More sexually explicit (possibly even notorious) is Robert Mapplethorpe's Black Book of male nudes.
On a more everyday level there are also Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood and also Pop: a Celebration of Black Fatherhood.
Another example of contemporary photography that highlights the African American community is Detroit Unbroken Down. It looks at the myth of Detroit as an abandoned wasteland and focuses on the people (predominantly African American) who are still there. Many other American cities have hidden archives of African American photography including The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise or Charles H. Teenie Harris' Pittsburgh Courier newspaper photographs of the 1930s-1970s. There is also Picturing Black New Orleans: a Creole Photographer's View of the Early Twentieth Century.
It's interesting to look at the Detroit book and then look at some of the visual histories of Harlem which went through a period of abandonment but has also more recently had significant recovery.
Harlem looms large in the American consciousness:
- The Spirit of Harlem: Portraits from America's Most Exciting Neighborhood
- Harlem on the Verge
- Dawoud Bey: Harlem U.S.A.
- Harlem Photographs, 1932-1940
- Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film
- Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties
- VanDerZee, Photographer, 1886-1983
There is a deep African American visual legacy that awaits your discovery.
There's also a rich legacy of photographs around the Civil Rights Movement, both deeply sad and disturbing but ultimately uplifting. There is also Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle.
The Georgia State University Library has written a blog called Black History Month: Visualizing Black History which is an excellent, in-depth overview with many links to "significant online sources for photographs and images relating to African-American history". I highly recommend their blog post and the research and care that went into its writing.
And no discussion of mid-century African American photography can omit Gordon Parks, the first Black photographer hired by Life magazine. His photographs of the Fontenelle family from Harlem, whose lives Parks documented as part of a 1968 Life magazine photo essay, are especially moving.
This is not solely a historical journey though - there is much being done to document current life.
Including the vibrant gay Black and Hispanic house and drag ballroom scene:
I wanted to expand to some Caribbean photography. The hurricane that hit Haiti brought about a strong response from Canadians and Tent Life: Haiti explores life afterwards.
And lastly, from Africa you will find a diverse selection of mainly contemporary photography.
From Mali in western Africa the photographer Malick Sidibé has some amazing work starting in the 1960s:
From Nigeria, one of the economic powerhouses of Africa we see have a couple of interesting photographic books that look at the oil industry as well as the markets and merchants of Nairobi. For something that looks at historic photography you may be interested in Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge, Nigeria's Premier Photographer showcasing the fascinating photographs of Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911-1994), Nigeria's premier twentieth-century photographer and the first official photographer to the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Benin.
Moving to the east coast of Africa Ethiopie by Jean-Baptiste Huynh is a striking book of portraits.
South Africa and the apartheid regime have proved a rich, sad, but positive hopeful cache of photographs as well.
In terms of Canadian material there is much less that is purely photographic in nature. Toronto Public Library has a virtual exhibit called Freedom City: Uncovering Toronto's Black History that has many interesting photographs, ephemera and detailed historical explanations. I wrote a blog post called Bob Marley's Redemption Song: The Canadian Connection which has a good summary of Nova Scotian Black Canadian books. Readers may also be interested in the following titles:
- Viola Desmond's Canada: a History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised land
- The Black Battalion: 1916-1920 : Canada's Best Kept Military Secret
I want to wrap up with an explanation around the title of this blog post "Black Like Me". Firstly I am not Black but do you know the photo of President Obama bending over so a young Black boy can touch his hair? The boy is the son of a former White House staffer (traditionally staff have their photo taken with the president upon leaving their jobs). Jacob wanted to see if the President's hair felt like his and afterwards Jacob said the President's hair did feel the same as his own ... i.e "Black like me". It's a powerful and iconic photo for lots of other reasons (how humble is Obama in bowing before a young boy?) but race certainly plays into its power. That's one impetus that got me thinking of a blog post about photography and this specific title.
Jacob Philadelphia touches President Obama's hair - photo copyright by Pete Souza / White House
I remember as a gay teenager secretly reading my first gay novel (from the Richmond Hill Public Library by the way) and the "aha" moment when I found a character who was like me. I hope that Black readers of this blog, who may look at one of these photography books in person may also have an "aha" moment. A moment like Jacob had. I hope readers will see a book that shows people over time and in different places who are "Black like me".
While writing this blog post I had a selection of the books on a public information desk and a young Black man came up to ask me a music question and saw some of the covers and asked what I was doing. I explained I was writing a blog post on Black photography for Black History Month in February. He started looking through some of the historical books and was really interested - so much so he took one away to read. But he also asked if we had any books on photography from Western Africa. So I showed him the Trading Places The Merchants of Nairobi ... but this didn't interest him. He asked if we had any photographic books about Ghana (where his family was from). I did a search and ended up showing him Gold of the Akan from the Glassell collection. This really pleased him as it wasn't just artifacts but actually photos of people wearing and using them and he ended up reading this one in the library too. He had an "aha" moment with these two books.
Black Like Me is also the name of a well known and influential 1961 memoir by John Howard Griffin, a white man, who medically darkened his skin and spent one month passing as a black man in the segregated Deep South United States. He pretended to be black to experience it - he walked in another's shoes. But in the end, he went back to being white. Of course, walking in those shoes for short time is not like being born into them and living in them forever and yet, the book exposed more of the daily racism African Americans experienced to a much wider community.