A few weeks ago, a friend and I saw the independent film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. It was about African American photographers, and more importantly, the images of black Americans that have been left out of the “family photo album” as the film’s narrator put it.
The film was a real education for me, showing images of African American families, working, middle class, even wealthy families, happily existing, just being another color on the American landscape, juxtaposed with the ones I think we all know: dirt-poor African American families and some that were staged (according to the narrator) of people stealing, and then of course, the lynching photographs which were sold as postcards and mailed around the country.
It happened that at the same time, I was just starting work on a Civil War book so images of Union soldiers in particular had a heightened impression on me. When Union soldiers are pictured in history books, they’re not often the former slaves who joined the fight, though even Lincoln admitted that it was the black troops who turned the tide of war in favor of the North.
Since then, I’ve been finding lots of images of African Americans in history that paint a very different picture from what I–and indeed all of us–have seen. I realized that the dearth of portraiture was like being erased from history. It’s painful. Britain’s Autograph ABP has an exhibit currently of photographs of black Britons from the 1800s which is illuminating. Years ago, there was a Smithsonian exhibit by Deborah Willis about black photographers. One of the inspirations for her exhibit, was a book called The Sweet Flypaper of Life. A narrative by Langston Hughes, accompanied by images of African American families looking exactly like every other American family, just with different color skin.
A few days ago, some people in my husband’s office said that he didn’t “act black.” It was supposed to be a compliment. I also came across this phrase recently in Misty Copeland’s biography. It’s funny how the people saying these things don’t realize that it’s racist. As if well-educated, well-spoken, classy African-descended people are some kind of anomaly. (Just so you all know, those are the only kind of black people that I know personally, and obviously just from family, I know a lot.) But it’s not imagery many people are familiar with. My recent post for CBC diversity covers some of the dangers of this.
Then my mother visited some family last weekend and came back with a few tales from our family history, including the revelation that somewhere back up the family tree was a white plantation owner, and possibly an Amerindian person (indigenous peoples from the Caribbean). My mother added that my father (who identifies as Indian descent) is also mixed, with some of his ancestry coming from Syria.
So I have this family–from everywhere, it seems–and I’d like to get them all into the family album. I wonder what I, as a writer and editor, can do about that.