Searching the past for an understanding of the present
"Records are produced as the result of some human activity whether grand or mundane, and preserved because they have immediate and long term usefulness. The need to remember and learn from past experience demands that we consolidate what we know in reliable ways." *
A continuous, yet unknown, African American literary tradition has existed since 1827 when the first black periodical, Freedom's Journal, was published, and a significant number of documents have been produced relating to African American life, but what records might be used to illustrate the issues that 19th-century African American women considered important enough to write about?
What documents could I find that would be telling? What images could have been seen through the eyes of a 19th-century African American citizen? What might a black woman have seen or visually recorded? This was the task that I took upon myself in searching for images for this site. I hoped for a collection of images that would voice the same concerns as those of the writers.
In many ways I felt uniquely qualified and privileged to conduct this search: I am an African American woman photographer/storyteller at the turn of the 20th century who has discovered some literary foremothers; it was the reading of words written by African American women one hundred years ago, the discussion of images with collection curators and librarians, and the process of sorting through and juxtaposing images that provided critical insight into the lives of 19th-century African American citizens and into my own production.
In my initial research, I found such a contradiction between the dignity and authority of the texts and the often degrading, posed graphic representations that my criteria for image selection became familiar body language, evidence of African culture, and any evidence that the photographic subjects might be taking control of their own representation through conspiratorial glances, transgressive expressions, or assertive body language. Reading into the images, I posited: What were the eyes saying? What were the hands saying? I looked at the spatial relationships within the photograph. Do I see any familiar faces? Any family here? Where is the Black person in relation to others portrayed in the group shot? Oftentimes, the African American in the photograph was peripheral.
Stereographic portraits of African Americans were rare. I wondered why some images were made -- certainly not to inform me one hundred years later.
Who photographs? Who gets photographed? What is the purpose of the image? What motivated the image maker?
I looked for the rare, the dignified, and the historically significant image. Relationships between the photographs proved revelatory. Images viewed together often provided deeper insight than each one could, individually.
Selected images were separated into broad organizing categories: cultural expression, education, family, labor, organizations and institutions, politics, portraits, religion, views. Slavery and The Civil War were such distinct features of the era that they merited their own categories.
The concerns of the 19th-century African American women writers -- spirituality, reunion of family members, humanity, physical punishment, abuse, cruelty, brutality--mirror my present-day concerns. There is a striking similarity between "then" and "now." I hope that this consolidation of images of 19th century African Americans will stimulate your interest in history and in the construction of your own analyses.
Marilyn Nance, July 1997
[*] Toole, James P., Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists. 1990. Page 7.
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