hooks--Glory

hooks--Glory - hooks, bell. Art on My Mind: Visual...

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Unformatted text preview: hooks, bell. Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: The New Press. 54-64. In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life A LWAYS A daddy’s girl. I was nor surprisedthat my sister V. became a lesbian, or that her lovers were always white women, Her worship of Daddy and her passion for whiteness appeared to affirm a movement away from black womanhood and, of course, away from that image of the woman we did not want to become—our mother. The only family photo- graph V. displays in her house is a picrure of our dad, looking young with a mustache. His dark skin mingling with the shadows in the photograph. All of which is highlighted by the white T—shirt he wears. ‘ In this snapshOt he is standing by a pool table. The look on his face is confident, seductive, cool—a look we rarely saw growing up. I have no idea who took the picture, only that it pleases me to imagine that he cared for the person—deeply. There is such boldness, such fierce openness in the way he faces the camera. This snapshot was taken before marriage, before us, his seven children, before our presence in _ his life forced him to leave behind the carefree masculine identity this p056 conveys. The fact that my sister V. possesses this image of our clad, one that I had never seen before, merely affirms their romance, the bond between. the two of them. They had the dreamed-about closeness between father and daughter, or so it seemed. Her possession of the snapshot confirms this, is an acknowledgment that she is allowed to know—yes, even to possess—that private life he always kept to himself. When we were-chil— dren, he refused to answer our questions about who he was, how he acted, what he did and felt before us. It was as though he did not want to remember or share that part of himself, as though remembering hurt. Standing before this snapshot, I come closer to the cold, distant, dark man who is my father, closer than I can ever come in real life. Not always able to love him there, I am sure I can love this version of him, the snap shot. Igave it a title: "in his glory.” 1N OUR GLORY: PHOTOGRAPle AND BLACK LIFE 55 c. i Snapshot of Veodis Watkins. 1949. Coortery of ball books. Photographer unknown. Before leaving my sister‘s place, I plead with her to make a copy of this picture for my birthday. She says she will, but it never comes. For Christ- mas, then. It’s on the way. I surmise that my passion for it Surprises her, makes her hesitate. My rival in childhood—she always winning, the pos— sessor of Dad’s affection—she wonders whether to give that up, whether she is ready to share. She hesitates to give me the man in the snapshot. After all, had he wanted me to see him this way, “in his glory," he would have given me the picture. My younger sister G. calls. For Christmas, V. has sent her a “horrible photograph” of Dad. There is outrage in her voice as she says, “It’s dis- gusting. He’s not even wearing a shirt, just an old white undershirt.” G. keeps repeating, “I don't know why she has sent this picture to me.” She has no difficulty promising to give me her copy if mine does not arrive. Her lack of interest in the photograph saddens me. When she was the age our dad is in the picture, she looked just like him. She had his beauty then, the same shine of glory and pride. Is this the face of herself that she has forgotten, does not want to be reminded of, because time has taken such glory away? Unable to fathom how she cannot be drawn to this pic— ture, I ponder what this image suggests to her that she cannot tolerate: a .t‘ 56 ART ON MY MIND grown black man having a good time, playing a game, having a drink maybe, enjoying himself without the company of women. Although my sisters and I look at this snapshot and see the same man, we do nor see him in the same way. Our “reading” and experience of this image is shaped by our relationship with him, with the world of childhood and the images that make our lives what they are now. I want to rescue and preserve this image of our father, not let it be forgotten. It allows me to understand him, provides a way for me to know him that makes it possible to love him again, despite all the other images, the ones that stand in the way of love. Such is the power of the photograph, of the image, that it can give back and take away, that it can bind. This snapshot of Veodis Watkins, our father, sometimes called Ned or Leakey in his younger days, gives me a space for intimacy between the image and myself, between me and Dad. I am captivated, seduced by it, the way other images have caught and held me, embraced me like arms that would not let go. Struggling in childhood with the image of myself as unworthy of love, I could nor see myself beyond all the received images, which simply rein— forced my sense of unworthiness. Those ways of seeing myself came from voices of authority. The place where I could see myself, beyond imposed images, was in the realm of the snapshot. I am most real to myself in snapsllotshthere I see an image I can-love. My favorite childhood snapshot, then and now, showed me in costume maSquerading. Long after it had disappeared, I continued to long for it1 and to grieve. I loved this snapshot of myself because it was the only: image available to me that gave me a sense of presence, of girlhood beauty and capacity for pleasure. It was an image of myselfI could gen~ uinely like. At that stage of my life I was crazy about Westerns, about cowboys and Indians. The camera captured me in my cowgirl outfit white ruffled blouse, vest, fringed skirt, my one gun and my boots. In thi; image I became all that I wanted to be in my imagination. For a moment, suspended in this image: I am a cowgirl. There is a look ofheavenly joy on my face. I grew up needing this image, cherishing it— my one reminder that there was a precious little girl inside me able to know and express joy. I took this photograph with me on a visit to the house of my father’s cousin Schuyler. His was a home where art and the image mattered. No wonder then ’ , that I wanted to share my best" image. Making my first real journey 1&4413Jnfiflkthmgu'l. .pmm-aamusxaxa 4.. carry. IN OUR. GLORY: PHOTOGRAPHY AND BLACK LIFE 57 away from home, from a small town to my first big city, I needed the secu- rity of this image. I packed it carefully. I wanted Lovie, cousin Schuyler’s wife, to see me uin my glory." I remember giving her the snapshot for safekeeping: only, when it was time for me to return home, it could not be found. This was for me a terrible loss, an irreconcilable grief. Gone was . the image of myself I could. love. Losing that snapshot, I lost the ptoofof my worthine ss—thar I had ever been a bright-eyed child capable ofwon— der—«the proof that there was a “me of me.” The image in this snapshot has lingered in my mind’s eye for years. It has lingered there to remind me of the power of snapshots, of the image. As I slowly complete a book ofessays titled Art on My Mind, I think about the place of art in black life, connections between the social construction of black identity, the impact of race and class, and the presence in black life of an inarticulate but ever-present visual aesthetic governing our relationship to images, to the process ofimage making. I return to the snapshot as a starting point to consider the place of the visual in black life_ the importance of photography. ‘ Cameras gave to black folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we iii could participate fully in the production of images. Hence it is essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationship of black life to the visual, to art making, make photography central. Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construc- tion of an oppositional black aesthetic. Before racial integration there was a constant struggle on the part of black folks to create a counterhege— .: monic world of images that would stand as viSual resisrance, challenging racist images. All colonized and subjugated people who, by way of resis— tance, create an oppositional subculture within the framework of domi— nation recognize that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site ofongoing struggle. The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access. To many reformist black civil rights activists, who believed that desegregation would offer the humanizing context that would challenge and change white supremacy, the issue of representation-wcontrol over imagesflwas never as important as equal access. As time has progressed and the face ofwhite supremacy has not changed, reformist and radical blacks would likely agree that the field of 55 ART ON MY MIND representation remains a crucial realm of struggle, as important as the question of equal access, if not more important. Roger Wilkins empha— sizes this point in his recent essay "White Out.” In those innocent days, before desegregation had really been tried, before the New Frontier and the Great Society, many of us blacks had lovely, naive hopes for integration . . . In our naiveté, we believed that the povvet to segregate was the greatest power that had been wielded against us. it turned out that our expectations were wrong. The greatest power turned out to be what it had always been; the power to define reality where blacks are concerned and to manage perceptions and therefore arrange politics and culture to reinforce those definitions. Though our politics differ, Wilkins's observations echo my insistence, in the opening essay of Black Lover: Rare and qurerenrarian, that black people have made few, if any, revolutionary interventions in the arena of representation. In part, racial desegregation—equal access—offered a vision of racial progress that, however limited, led many black people to be less vigilant about the question of representation. Concurrently, contemporary com- modification of blackness creates a market context wherein conventional, even Stereotypical, modes of representing blackness may receive the greatest reward. This leads to a cultural context in which images that would subvert the status quo are harder to produce. There is no "per- ceived market" for them. Nor should it surprise us that the erosion of oppositional black subcultures (many of which have been destroyed in the desegregation process) has deprived us of those sites of radical resis— tance where we have had primary control over representation. Signifi- cantly, nationalist black freedom movements were often concerned only lwith questions of “good” and "bad" imagery and did not promote a more expansive cultural understanding of the politic: of representation. Instead they promoted notions of essence and identity that ultimately restricted irand confined black image producrion. ' No wonder, then, that racial integration has created a crisis in black ' life, signaled by the utter 1055 of critical vigilance in the arena of image making—by our being stuck in endless debate over good and bad imagery. The aftermath of this crisis has been devastating in that it has led to a relinquishment of collective black interest in the production of images. Photography began to have less significance in black life as a lN OUR GLORY: PHOTOGRAPHY AND BLACK LIFE 5') means—private or public—~by which an oppositional standpoint could be asserted, a mode of seeing different from that of the dominant culture. Everyday black folks began to see themselves as not having a major role to play in the production of images. _ To reverse this trend we must begin to talk about the Significance of black image production in daily life prior to racial integration. When we concentrate on photography, then, we make it pessible to see the walls of photographs in black homes as a critical intervention, a disruption of white control over black images. Most Southern black folks grew up in a context where snapshots and the more stylized phorogtaphs taken by professional photographers were the easiest images to produce. Displaying these images in everyday life was as central as making them. The walls of images in Southern black homes were sites of resistance. They constituted private, black~owned and —opetated gallery space where images could be displayed, shown to friends and strangers. These walls were a space where, in the midst of segregation, the hardship of apartheid, dehumanization could be countered. Images could be critically considered, subjects positioned according to individual desne. Growing up inside these walls, many of us did not, at the time, regard them as important or valuable. Increasingly, as black folks live in a world so technologically advanced that it is possible for images to be produced and reproduced instantly, it is even harder for some of us to emotionally contexa tualize the significance of the camera in black life during the years of racial apartheid. The sites of contestation were not oar there, in the world of white power, they were wit/air: segregated black life. Since no “white” galleries dis- played images of black people created by black folks, spaces had to be made within diverse black communities. Across class boundaries black folks struggled with the issue of representation. This issue was linked with the issue of documentation; hence the importance of photography. The camera was the central instrument by which blacks could disprove representations of us created by white folks. The degrading images of blackness that emerged from racist white imagination and that were circulated widely in the dominant culture (on salt shakers, cookie jars, pancake boxes) could be countered by “true—to—life” images. When the psychohistory of a people is marked by ongoing loss, when entire hisroties are denied, hidden, erased, documentation can become an obsession. The camera must have seemed a magical instrument to many of the displaced and marginalized groups 60 ART ON MY MIND trying to carve out new destinies for themselves in the Americas. More than any other image—making tool, the camera offered African—Americans, dis— empowered in white culture, a way to empower ourselves through represen— tation. For black folks, the camera provided a means to document a reality that could, if necessary, be packed, Stored, moved from place to place. It was documentation that could be shared, passed around. And, ultimately, these images, the world they recorded, could be hidden, to be discovered at another time. Had the camera been there when slavery ended, it could have provided images that would have helped folks searching for lost kin and loved ones. It would have been a powerful tool of cultural recovery. Half a century later, the generations of black folks emerging from a history of loss became passionately obsessed with the camera. Elderly black people devel- oped a cultural passion for the camera, for the images it produced, because it offered a way to contain memories, to overcome loss, to keep history. Though rarely articulated as such, the camera became in black life a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation as well as a means by which alternative images could be produced. Photography was more fascinating to masses of black folks than other forms of image making because it offered the possibility of immediate intervention, useful in the production of counterhegemonic representations even as it was also an instrument of pleasure. The camera allowed black folks to combine image making, resistance struggle, and pleasure. Taking pictures was fun! Growing up in the 19505, I was somewhat awed and at times fright- ened by our extended family's emphasis on picture taking. From the images of the dead as they lay serene, beautiful, and still in open caskets to the endless portraits of newborns, every wall and corner of my grand— parents' (and most everybody else’s) home was lined with photographs. When I was young I never linked this obsession with self—representation to our history as a domestically colonized and subjugated people. My perspective on picture taking was also informed by the way the process was tied to patriarchy in our household. Our father was definitely the “picture-takin’ man." For a long time cameras remained mysterious and offlimits to the rest of us. As the only one in the family who had access to the equipment, who could learn how to make the process work, my father exerted control over our images. In charge of capturing our family history with the camera, he called and took the shots. We were consrantly being lined up for picture taking, and it was years before our “as, -..__'.a.;-__.....u.»._...._._.. IN OUR GLORY: PHOTOGRAPHY AND BLACK LIFE 6i household could experience this as an enjoyable activity, before any of the rest of us could be behind the camera. Until then, picture taking was serious business. I hated it. I hated posing. I hated cameras. I hated the images that cameras produced. When I stopped living at home, I refused to be captured by anyone's camera. I did not wish to document my life, the changes, the presence of different places, people, and so on. I wanted to leave no trace. Iwanted there to be no walls in my life that would, like gigantic maps, chart my journey. Iwanted to stand outside history. I That was twenty years ago. Now that I am passionately involved With thinking critically about black people and representation, 1 can confess that those walls of photographs empowered me, and that I feel their absence in my life. Right now I long for those walls, those curatorial spaces in the home that express our will to make and display images. Sarah Oldham, my mother's mother, was a keeper of walls. Through— out my childhood, visits to her house were like trips to a gallery or museummexperiences we did not have because of racial segregation. We would stand before the walls of images and learn the importance of the arrangement, why a certain photograph was placed here and not there. The walls were fundamentally different from photo albums. Rather than _ shutting images away, where they could be seen only upon request, the walls were a public announcement of the primacy of the image, the joy of 7 image making. To enter black homes in my childhood was to enter-a ‘world that valued the visual, that asserted out collecrive Will to pal‘CICh pate in a noninstitutionalized curatorial process. I - For black folks constructing our identities Within the culture of apartheid, these walls were essential to the process ofde'colonization. In opposition to colonizing socialization, internalized raCism, these walls announced our visual complexity. We saw ourselves represented in these images not as caricatures, cartoonlike figures; we were there in full CllVED sity of body, being, and expression, multidimensional. Reflecting the way black folks looked at themselves in those private spaces, where those ways of looking were not being overseen by a white colonizing eye, a white- supremacist gaze, these images created ruptures in our experience of the visual. They challenged both white perceptions of blackne ss and that realm of black—produced image making that reflected internalized racism. Many of these images demanded that we look at ourselves with new eyes, that we create oppositional standards of evaluation. As we looked at black skin in 62 ART ON MY MIND snapshots, the techniques for lightening skin that professional photogra~ phers often used when shooting black images were suddenly exposed as a colonizing aesthetic. Photographs taken in everyday life, snapshots in par- ticular, rebelled against all those photographic practices that reinscribed colonial ways oflooking and capturing the images of the black "other." Shot spontaneously, without any norion of remaking black bodies in the image of whiteness, snapshots posed a challenge to black viewers. Unlike photographs constructed so that black images would appear as the embod— iment of colonizing fantasies, snapshots gave us a way to see ourselves, a- sense of how we looked when we were not “wearing the mask,” when we were not attempting to perfect the image for a white—supremacist gaze. Although most black folks did not articulate their desire to look at images of themselves that did not resemble or please white folks' ideas about us, or that did not frame us within an image of racial hierarchies, that desire was expre Ssed through our passionate engagement with infor- mal photographic practices. Creating pictorial genealogies was the means by which one could ensure against the losses of the past. Such genealogies were a way to sustain ties. As children, we learned who our ancestors were by listening to endless narratives as we stood in front of these pictures. In many black homes, photographs—especially snapshots—were also central to the creation of "altars." These commemorative places paid homage to absent loved ones. Snapshots or professional portraits were placed in specific settings so that a relationship with the dead could be continued. Porgnanrly describing this use of the image in her novel jazz, Toni Morrison writes: . . . a dead girl’s face has become a necessary thing for their nights. They each take turns to throw off the bedcovers, rise up from the sagging mattress and tiptoe over cold linoleum into the parlor to gaze at what seems like the only living presence in the house: the photograph ofa bold, unsmiling girl staring from the mantelpiece. If the tiptoer is Joe Trace, driven by loneliness from his wife's side, then the face stares at him without hopeor regret and it is the absence of accusation that wakes him from his sleep hungry for her company. No finger points. Her lips don't turn down in judgment. Her face is calm, generous and sweet. But if the tiptoer is Violet, the photograph is not that at all. The girl’s face looks greedy, haughty and very lazy. The cream-at-the-top-of—the—milkpail face ofsome— iN OUR GLORY: PHOTOGRAPHY AND BLACK Lll’lZ 63 one who will never work for anything, someone who picks up things lying on other people's dressers and is not embarrassed when found out. It is the face ofa sneak who glides over to your sink to rinse the fork you have laid by your place. An inward face—~whatevcr it sees is its own self. You are there, it says, because I am looking at you. I quote this passage at length because it attests. to a kind of connection to photographic images that has not been acknowledged in critical discus- sions of black folks' relationship to the visual. When I first read these sen— tences, I was reminded of the passionate way we related to photographs when I was a child. Fictively dramatizing the extent to which a photo— graph can have a "living presence," Morrison describes the way that many black folks rooted in Southern tradition once used, and still use, pictures. They were and remain a mediation between the living and the dead. To create a palimpsest ofblack folks' relation to the visual in segre— gated black life, we need to follow each trace, not fall into the trap of thinking that if something was nor openly discussed, or only talked about and not recorded, it lacks significance and meaning. Those pictorial genealogies that Sarah Oldham, my mother‘s mother, constructed on her walls were essential to our sense of self and identity as a family. They pro- vided a necessary narrative, a way for us to enter history without words. When words entered, they did so in order to make the images live. Many older black folks who cherished pictures were nor literate. The images were crucial documentation, there to sustain and affirm memory. This was true" for my grandmother, who did not read or write. I focus especially on her walls because I know that, as an artist (she was an excellent quiltmaker), she positioned the photos with the same care that she laid our her quilts. The walls ofpictures were indeed maps guiding us through diverse journeys. Seeking to recover strands of oppositional worldviews that were a part of black folks’ historical relationship to the visual, to the process of image making, many black folks are once again looking to photography to make the connection. The contemporary African—American artist Emma Amos maps our journeys when she mixes photographs with paint» ing, making connections between past and present. Amos uses snapshots inherited from an uncle who once took pictures for a living. In one piece, Amos paints a map of the United States and identifies diasporic African presences, as well as particular Native American communities with black kin, marking each spot with a family image. 64 ART ON MY MIND Drawing from the past, from those walls ofimages I grew up with, I gather snapshots and lay them out to see what narratives the images tell, what they say without words. I search these images to see if there are imprints waiting to be seen, recognized, and read. Together, a black male friend and I lay out the snapshots of his boyhood to see when he began to lose a certain openness, to discern at what age he began to shut down, to close himself away. Through these images, my friend hopes to find a way- back to the self he once was. We are awed by what our snapshots reveal, what they enable us to remember. The word remember (re—meméer) evokes the coming together of severed parts, fragments becoming a whole. Photography has been, and is, cen- tral to that aspect of decolonization that calls us back to the past and offers a way to reclaim and renew life-affirming bonds. Using images, we connect ourselves to a recuperative, redemptive memory that enables us to construct radical identities, images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye. ...
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This note was uploaded on 09/29/2010 for the course ENGL C1010 taught by Professor Macdonald during the Fall '08 term at Columbia.

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hooks--Glory - hooks, bell. Art on My Mind: Visual...

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