Photography: The Disconnects Between Subject, Photographer and Viewer

The advent of smartphones has granted everyone the power to be a photographer and to capture their stories through the art of photography. Those who take and edit their own photos have perfect control over the images they present to the world through social media and other means of sharing. However, when someone else is behind the camera, this level of control is relinquished and the photo falls subject to many of the photographer’s biases often leaving a lot of room for interpretation surrounding the goals of the photo. It is the disconnect between the photographers intentions whether conscious or not and the resulting photo that makes photography such a unique and useful medium especially for Africana theorists given that this divide is often quite large. The intentions of the photographer are often just as or even more important than the subject of the picture itself and complicating the narratives of the photographers allows for a greater understanding of the moment captured in the photo and of history at large. 

The lack of a physical record of the photographer’s intentions means the researchers often have to work backwards basing their work heavily on the physical characteristics of the photo or sometimes a caption. They can use how the photo has been interpreted throughout history in tandem with the photographer’s supposed intentions to draw greater conclusions about the subject matter.  Dixa Ramírez in her analysis of the photo captioned “Come into the house honey, dat picture man’ll steal you,” argues that the picture relies on the physical characteristics of what the woman was wearing to draw a connection to the mammy caricature that arose as a result of slavery in the United States despite the photo being taken in the Dominican Republic. The caption is supposedly what the woman was saying to the child and urges the viewer to listen to the photo instead of simply observing it. The caption serves to guide the viewers, but simultaneously limits the room for interpretation. To reconcile this, Ramírez presents an alternative method to examine photos like these which she calls “mote refusal”. In doing so, she is rejecting the initial intentions of the photographers and imposing and sharing hew own ideas and beliefs onto it.

One of the choices that a photographer gets to make is the angle at which the shot is taken. This impacts what is included in the photo, but also how the viewer interacts with it. It is also important to consider what the photographer is willing to sacrifice through using a particular angle. Charles Moore’s photograph of Vera Pigee’s hair salon taken in 1961 seems to simply highlight that there much was more than hairdressing happening in her salon. However, the angle of the photo provides more insight into the intentions of the photographer. There is a poster containing information that dates the photo.  It is not the focal point of the photo, but nonetheless provides useful insight to the dedicated viewer. This was included over the bottom part of the room showing that the photographer valued the information present on the poster and would rather include it over what was in the lower part of the room. The photographer also does something interesting where although it was taken in a mirror, due to the angle, the photographer remain unseen. This puts the main focus onto the woman in the chair getting her hair done while Pigee teaches her how to register to vote. It also more effectively transports the viewer into the photo because they are simultaneously receiving a straight on view of the action, but it is also from the perspective of as if the viewer was beside Pigee, involved in the action. Seeing what the subjects would be seeing instead of simply observing them allows for this greater level of connection between viewer and subject and helps to bridge the gap between them. In this case, it was likely intended to encourage others to creatively use whatever resources available to them to fight for civil rights. 

The ways in which the gap between subject and viewer has been examined as a result of the photo is also often a topic that should be examined. Kevin Quashie uses this gap present in the 1968 photo of the awards ceremony of the 200m dash to convey his greater message about the importance of quietness as a means of analysis. This photo is taken from a slightly lowered angle which works with the pedestal the athletes were standing on to put the viewer physically below them. This photographer made the conscious decision that their fists were more important than their feet and point the camera upwards. This also creates a contrast between Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ fists the clear night sky. According to the photography technique of leading lines, in this case the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the clenched fists due to the high levels of contrast and the slightly diagonal lines of their arm. The viewer then makes their way down through the rest of the photo as opposed to working across the photo.  Quashie goes on to discuss the impact of the photo and that it likely went far beyond and maintained a greater cultural impact than expected by the photographer. He critiques how it has been analyzed over the last 50 years, and proposes an alternative way of examining it through the lens of quietness. He is shocked that the interiority of the photo is easily overlooked when it is so clear in the photo in the way that their heads are bowed in prayer and emphasizes the importance of considering all the features of a photo, even the ones that are not as instantly eye catching. 

Given that the accessibility of photography has continued to increase, it will likely continue to have a great impact on Africana research. It is important to consider many of the different ways that a photo can be analyzed in order to convey something more than what is directly visible. 

Bibliography 

Hamlin, Françoise. “Africana Studies and History: Building Archives.” Providence, RI 11/21/2019

Präkel, David. Basics of Photography 01: Composition. London : AVA Publishing, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=_kbRUmMrZycC&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:”DavidPrakel”&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjb0Obrg5rmAhUjc98KHTvMAEgQ6AEwAHoECAUQAw#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Quashie, Kevin Everod. The Sovereignty of Quiet beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Ramírez, Dixa. “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects.” Small Axe , July 2018, DOI 10.1215/07990537-6985831.

The Importance of Black Spaces

The 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library became the epicenter for black art and literature soon after its construction in 1905. Located near the heart of Harlem, it gave black artists the unique opportunity to present their work and to reach audiences of color during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Its presence encouraged those who lived in Harlem to get engaged in a public discourse with fellow community members and provided a space for people to become more connected with their histories and their current lives. James Baldwin, one of the many notable people who visited this library described his experiences. “I went to the 135th Street library at least three or four times a week, and I read everything there. I mean, every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me. And I was trying to make a connection between the books and the life I saw and the life I lived.” The influence of this shared space of intellectualism on the Harlem community cannot be understated and expands well beyond the walls of the library itself. 

This is one example of a space created with the intention of allowing black people to flourish. Black spaces have taken a wide variety of forms to serve various communities. Those who spend an extended amount of time within these spaces are invariably afforded the opportunity to reconcile their conflicting identities and leave with a greater sense of self-assurance. The experiences within a space impact how people interact with the rest of the world. Therefore, attempting to draw lines to determine where the effects of these spaces end is futile.

Dotun Ayobade’s explanation of the importance of the Afrika Shrine and the Kalakuta Republic in relation to Fela Kuti’s Queens and their identities highlights these intersecting identities and how existence within these spaces affected the interactions in what he refers to as “transient spaces.”Ayobade counters the persisting narrative of The Queens as either victims to Fela Kuti forced into this lifestyle or as completely free agents over their lives. The importance of a middle ground between these two extremes is mirrored in how Ayobade examines the ways that space impacted the lives of The Queens. Although The Queens often underwent a physical transformation before entering the Shrine, their appearances within this space are not the limit of their identities. Ayobade critiques this means of creating knowledge and argues that it is limiting in nature especially given that Fela Kuti had control over everything that happened within the space. “As such, to circumscribe the women’s appearance to the stage is to reproduce the stubborn view of them as ‘locomotive artists’ bereft of character and faculty. It is for this reason that we need to formulate a more complex view of space, especially those typically associated with Afrobeat” (Ayobade 2017, 5). Following this quote, it is the simplicity surrounding how space is studied that limits the understanding of The Queens. These spaces intersect with one another and studying one without considering the others is a disservice to the legacy of The Queens. 

Ayobade therefore placed The Queens’ on-stage performances and experiences within Kalakuta in the context of how they operated in the world. The status claimed by the Queens due to their involvement with Fela Kuti presented them with the opportunity to achieve greater autonomy even outside of the spaces in which they lived and worked but more importantly, outside the realm of Fela Kuti’s sphere of influence. Ayobade cites several examples of The Queens stripping authority figures of their power through disconcerting acts of intimidation in full Queen makeup. Their makeup and status allowed for the temporary dismantling of the power structures within airports and police stations for example. While the study of the physical manifestations of the Queens’ identity within the spaces of the Kalakuta and the Shrine are limiting in nature, how their appearances allowed them to navigate the rest of the world is an underdeveloped area of research. The need for examining the Queens outside of their domestic and work spaces is apparent and only then can a full understanding of The Queens be constructed. It is important to consider how their identities in relation to their physical appearances altered depending on the spaces they inhabited.  

Lucia Trimbur researched the athletes who frequented a Brooklyn Boxing gym in the early 2000s in her essay “‘Tough Love’: Meditation and articulation in the urban boxing gym.” She examines the dissonance between the narratives of self-worth and personal responsibility utilized by the coaches to motivate their athletes and the anti-black racism serving as the reason why many of the coaches got involved with boxing and continue to support young boxers. The intersection of these two discourses encouraged the cultivation of an environment that boxers used to physically get stronger in order to build a more secure masculine identity, but also to create a support system filled with peers who are more than willing to help with problems from outside the gym. 

Even though the gym operates as its own independent entity and serves as an escape for many from the harsh realities of the real world, the unique guidance provided within this space allowed the boxers to re-enter the world with greater understanding of their place within it and how to operate in such a way to achieve success in whatever form that may take. The constant emphasis on teaching and accepting direction from a wide array of perspectives, especially in the context of how anti-black racism heightened the struggles associated with finding a job, a place to live, or parenthood in general, reaffirms the notion that certain identities are pliable. Trimbur writes, “It encourages young men to view their worth in different ways, to create and measure the meaning of their lives in different spaces, and to see that no identity is final” (Trimbur 2001, 350). The boxers’ identities within and outside of the space are not mutually exclusive nor finite but are the result of a narrative of the obligation to get stronger within the greater context of the disadvantages that they experience. The coaches’ understandings of the world affect what and how they teach their athletes. The ideas of individualism and strength when blended with the underlying forces of race resulted in a space which provided many individuals the opportunity to grow. Like in the 135th Street library, the boxers had the opportunity to look at themselves and the world in a different way as a result of the space which they inhabited. 

Bibliography 

Anderson, Sarah A. “”The Place to Go”: The 135th Street Branch Library and the Harlem 

Renaissance.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 73, no. 4 (2003): 383-421. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4309684.

Ayobade, Dotun. “‘We Were On Top of the World’: Fela Kuti’s Queens and the Poetics of  

Space.” Journal of African Cultural Studies.

https://canvas.brown.edu/courses/1078815/files/62175207?module_item_id=10506395

Trimbur, Lucia. “‘Tough love’: Mediation and Articulation in the Urban boxing gym.” 

Ethnography 12, no 3 (2011). 334-355. https://canvas.brown.edu/courses/1078815/files/62175184?module_item_id=10506387

“135th Street Branch, New York Public Library.” NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. http://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/new-york-public-library-135th-street-library/

Separate and Still Unequal: The Effects of Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education was arguably the most important legal decision of the 20th century because of how it created exponential and lasting change within America’s educational system. However, what initially had the potential to be quite beneficial for black students in America was implemented in such a way that continues to systemically disadvantage these students. Although the court decision itself did not radically change the racial make-up of many schools, it had a dramatic impact on black communities and how they interacted with schools that were no longer theirs. This decision was born out of an attempt to eliminate the “separate but equal” ideology that dominated the twentieth century until this point. While it’s commonly understood now that separate inherently means unequal, the elimination of this standard only served to blur the lines of inequality and provide an easy escape to all other questions concerning education equality. The implementation of this court decision only addressed the issues with separation to some extent, but managed to contribute heavily to the systemic racism within schools that can still be seen today because of how it ignored a lot of the progress made by black schools attempted to “solve” inequality by single faceted way. 

Student teacher relationships are an extremely important aspect of childhood and adolescence, and Brown v. Board of Education thoroughly altered how these relationships were formed. As a result of the decision, thousands of black teachers across the country were let go due to their schools’ forced closures and the difficulties associated with finding work in predominantly white schools. Given that the student bodies of most schools remained relatively unchanged, several white teachers ended up in predominantly black schools unsatisfied with their jobs (Citation 3). While desegregation was an important step on the seemingly never ending path to equality, it did not suddenly eliminate racism and racist stereotypes. In the case of Brown it actually brought these stereotypes to one of the most important sites of child development. Many white teachers had lower expectations for black students which set the stage for underperformance on standardized tests limiting future opportunities (Citation 1). This was a huge change in pace from black teachers who were seen as role models within their communities. Teaching was a respectable profession that many members of the black middle class held and what they taught often went far beyond the classroom. “The best characterization of the teachers is that they were preparing students to compete in the desegregated world that did not yet exist” (Citation 4). This quote from Vanessa Siddle Walker implies that these teachers were preparing their students for life in a white world. Even before Brown, these students were primed for the notion that a well adjusted black student behaves consistently with a Eurocentric worldview, however they were taught was within the context of survival (Citation 5). After Brown, these students were almost immediately forced into this context, and the students who were able to execute this behavior most effectively found the most success. 

Before Brown, black schools were a critical institution in several black communities in America. The incoming teachers disrupted this establishment that the community had relied on for decades and engendered the lack of trust between parents and teachers that exists to this day. Black schools operated very independently due to a lack of interest from white school boards and governments (Citation 1). This meant that these schools could hire people and budget its money freely keeping the community in mind with school principals often serving as liaisons between schools and communities. After Brown, there was no longer a guarantee that teachers or school administrators had the best interests of the students in mind, and this was revealed especially through cases where disciplinary action was taken. Black students were disproportionately punished by school administrators in subjective cases more frequently and for longer (Citation 1). Constant punishment during childhood leads to a distrust of authority with much more severe consequences later in life. This environment of distrust often hindered the learning experiences of black students contributing to the system of oppression that continues to benefit white people.  

Formal racial segregation has been outlawed in schools for over 65 years, yet there are still very few schools that represent anything close to true integration. This is because many schools are zoned meaning that they theoretically represent the students who live in the neighborhood. However, many neighborhoods were manufactured and continue to be manufactured under a system that allows wealthy white people to take advantage of “neutral laws,” and manipulate the value of homes and apartments across the United States. Redlining and blockbusting severely limited the options black people had when trying to buy a house, and were only some of the ways that black neighborhoods were created, stigmatized, and eventually devalued (Lecture, 10/1/2019). These processes had the effect of racializing poverty and creating an association between blackness and negative living conditions. The consequential lower property taxes within these neighborhoods led to less school funding, and fewer educational opportunities.

Brown vs. Board of Education presents a positive facade of the state of the educational system in this country, and makes it easy to ignore the everlasting problems that have accumulated in the ongoing education crisis. The case feeds the mentality that there is an even playing field, and that hard work is the only way to get ahead when in fact, black students are systematically denied access to educational resources and opportunities. Additionally, the importance and the successes of black schools and teachers were overlooked or simply ignored, and the long standing relationships with the communities they served were completely disregarded. Commitment to true integration, an ideal that has yet to be achieved, clouded the vision of the initial goal of this court case: education equality. 

Bibliography

1) Irvine, Russell W., and Jacqueline Jordan Irvine. “The Impact of the Desegregation Process on the Education of Black Students: Key Variables.” The Journal of Negro Education 52, no. 4 (1983): 410-22. doi:10.2307/2294948.

2) Seitles, Marc. “The Perpetuation of Residential Racial Segregation in America: Historical Discrimination, Modern Forms of Exclusion, and Inclusionary Remedies.” Florida State University Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law 14, no. 1 (Fall 1998): 89-124. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ab6d/7b9fa7cc9de6b5631275c56db7d1129916cf.pdf?_ga=2.14148279.1004140104.1570173341-808391280.1570173341.

3) Tillman, Linda C. “(Un)Intended Consequences?: The Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on the Employment Status of Black Educators.” Education and Urban Society 36, no. 3 (May 2004): 280–303. doi:10.1177/0013124504264a360. 

4) Walker, Vanessa Siddle. “African American Teaching in the South: 1940-1960.” American Educational Research Journal 38, no. 4 (2001): 751-79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3202502.

5) Wells, Amy Stuart, and Robert L. Crain. “Perpetuation Theory and the Long-Term Effects of School Desegregation.” Review of Educational Research 64, no. 4 (December 1994): 531–55. doi:10.3102/00346543064004531.

–Christina Crockett