Monthly Archives: September 2014

Lynching, Spectacle and Consciousness

Ida B. Wells Portrait

Ida B. Wells Portrait

African Americans have participated in the technical art of photography since the introduction of the daguerreotype in the 1840’s. From this inception, black Americans like Frederick Douglass understood the power of photography to visually represent a more truthful depiction of humanity more accessible than painting, illustration and sculpture. Douglass, who was highly active during the abolitionist movement, through the Reconstruction era, and in the early years of Jim Crow, utilized photography as a means to represent black Americans as humanly dignified, intelligent, and as equally worthy of socio-political positions as white Americans or any other race. He, along with other photographers and visual theorists, such as Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, combated racial supremacy with photography by authoring their own likenesses.

              An equally powerful activist, who collaborated with Douglass at times, employed photography in her advocacy campaigns with a radically different approach. In the 1890’s, Ida B. Wells became the pioneer of the anti-lynching movement.  Though she incorporated self-authored photographs in her campaigns, Wells commandeered photographs of black tortured bodies that were taken by white community members working to sustain and spread their racial ideologies. Wells used photography to fight white supremacy and it’s resulting violence. The photographs chosen for print were of lynch scenes­– tortured, broken bodies bound and hanged, proud murderers and accomplices gathered around the death scenes, all in black and white.

The act of photographing a lynch scene was in part born out of a deliberate need to control how black Americans were depicted and perceived in order to strengthen the power white of supremacy. Rather than solely creating new images to counteract racial injustice, Wells re-contextualized what was already available and reclaimed the images of black bodies, as gruesome as they were, for black Americans.

Wells began her campaign against lynching in Memphis, TN in 1892, after her friend, Tom Moss, and two of his associates were lynched for protecting their grocery story. Wells was forced to leave Memphis after she condemned the murders in her local newspaper. Wells lectured extensively in America and abroad calling people to action to end assaults against black Americans. She published “Lynch Law” in 1893 and in 1895, The Red Record, Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. In both publications, Wells incorporated photographs of lynch victims to accompany her writing, comprised mostly of factual accounts, as proof of the atrocities happening in the American south. Since her work, anti-lynching activists, artists, and families of lynch victims have used lynching photography to fight for and, for the most part, achieve racial and social justice.

 From left to right are Wells, Maureen Moss, Mrs. Betty Moss, and Tom Moss, Jr. Taken about two years after the lynching

From left to right are Wells, Maureen Moss, Mrs. Betty Moss, and Tom Moss, Jr. Taken about two years after the lynching

History of Lynching and Lynching Photography

In America, the phenomena of lynching reached extensive proportions from 1882 to 1930; at least 3,220 black Americans were murdered at the hands of predominately white Southerners. However, lynching of black Americans began after Emancipation in 1865. Under slavery, white slave owners saw black bodies as commodities; slaves were lucrative to the financial wealth of the owners. Seldom were enslaved peoples murdered, rather their spirits were broken, their families torn apart, their histories erased, and their bodies injured. After the enslaved were freed, made citizens, and allowed to vote by law, white communities, mostly in the south, worried that their economic, political, and reproductive ownership would be disrupted by equal participation of black communities. Thus, false justifications were made to lynch blacks under the pretenses of justice and security. There were no laws to protect black Americans from the lynch mobs.

The spectacle of lynching, which at times attracted massive numbers of attendees, was documented through photographs taken by both professional and amateur photographers. These photographic objects were kept by whites as souvenirs, often sold in the form of postcards along with other more demented mementos, such as the hair, teeth, and clothes of the victims. Photographs and postcards were also used to extend white supremacy to a wider audience within an inner circle of white southern communities in an attempt to strengthen and align them with racist ideology. The images were available for newspapers to print along with published accounts. However, most newspapers abstained, sometimes to protect the identity of the mob members, other times to refrain from sensationalizing violence. “Although the paper agreed that Hilliard was a “criminal monster” who committed a “diabolical crime,” it objected to the display of the photograph because it “pander[ed] to a base taste: of those “readers who delight in everything that is exceptionally horrible.” In some instances, mob members would not allow news reporters to photograph the lynch scenes, instead the right to photograph was given only to participants in the crime. This allowed mob members to control what images were documented and how the images were disseminated.

Leo Frank Postcard

Leo Frank Postcard

That white southerners understood their need to control the images gives evidence that they also understood their ideology was flawed. They feared that, in the hands of non-like-minded people, the photographs could be used to counter their assaults and disrupt their economic enterprises. Nevertheless, white communities were unable to contain the images solely in the hands of those sympathetic to white supremacist ideology. African Americans commanded jurisdiction over the photographs for their own political and social campaigns, continuing in the footsteps of Ida. B. Wells.

Imaging Resistance

In 1912, twenty-seven years after the publication of Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) printed photographs of lynchings in The Crisis magazine. An image of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, was printed on the cover of The Crisis magazine in 1916, along with an eight-page article about the event. “Copies were distributed to 700 newspapers, all the members of Congress, and prominent individuals in the arts and politics, as well as the 42,000 who subscribed to The Crisis.[6] By reprinting the images into widely circulating black press, the NAACP not only challenged white ideology but propelled larger numbers of Americans, white and black, citizens and politicians, to speak out against lynching and push for laws that would prosecute those responsible.

Onlookers with the Burned Body of Jesse Washington, 1916

Onlookers with the Burned Body of Jesse Washington, 1916

Two exhibitions were held in 1935 to further push for legislation to criminalize lynching. The NAACP organized An Art Commentary of Lynching, and a collaborative effort between the Artists’ Union, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Harlem-based Vanguard group, the International Labor Defense, and the John Reed Group organized the exhibition, Struggle for Negro Rights.[7] Though the two groups had a rivalry with each other, their goals were the same. Within these two exhibitions, the context of lynching photography further metamorphosed in the form of original works of art. All the artworks either directly referenced or responded to the photographic images of lynchings. Artists took what was, again, originally in the hands of white supremacists and challenged their doctrine. Some of the works of art brought to light undocumented violence, along with the documented lynchings. “Artists were also able to provide insight into activities that took place under cover of night or were shrouded in secrecy for which no photographs existed, making visible lesser-known expressions of mob violence, including the work of posses and manhunts or private mob tortures and executions.” Though an anti-lynching law still did not pass in legislation, the attention received by these powerful artworks reshaped perceptions of violence, black representation, and body image within a larger demographic, both nationally and internationally. The two exhibitions included artwork by both black and white artists at a time when there was not much collaboration between the two within the art world. The joining of forces between various artists and political groups, unified in the fight against supremacist tyranny, produced some of the most compelling socially aware artwork of the 1930’s, including works by Isamu Noguchi, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton.

Untitled (Lynching Scene), illustration 17, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932)

Untitled (Lynching Scene), illustration 17, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932)

Lynching photography continued to be employed in the work of artists and activists in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. “Black Panther Party Minister of Culture and artist, Emory Douglas, used photography to place lynching within a longer historical continuum.” Douglas’s photo collage, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” was published in a 1972 issue of The Black Panther newspaper. Artistic representations of lynching photography transformed the messages of earlier activists and artists into a modern context. As the fight for civil rights continued, black Americans used lynching photography for historical documentation of a brutal, not so distant, past, in order to attain political and social equality. The images were also used to critique the ways in which black Americans were viewed, by themselves and others, as dictated by the negative representations of their bodies objectified in the photographs and the spectacle of the lynchings.

Implications

“The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated and precisely for that reason this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.”[10] The spectacle of lynching, evidenced by photography, exposes a truth of false consciousness in an era of American history. Ida B. Wells knew that by exposing the spectacle, she could then expose the false consciousness of the society that created it. She used lynching photography as evidence of the most vicious and depraved expressions of colonialist and capitalist ideology, and used the photographs as weapons against the ideology itself. Her work influenced countless artists and activists who followed in her footsteps, fighting for legislation against lynching and for equal human rights. Contemporary artists and activists, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, continue to refer back to the history and imagery of lynching in their struggles against oppression, violence, and racial stereotyping.

Bibliography

Apel, Dora. Imagery of Lynching, Black Men, White Women, and the Mob. New Brunswick:

Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Debord, Guy. Society of Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994. http://www.antiworld.se/

project/references/texts/The_Society%20_Of%20_The%20_Spectacle.pdf.

Raiford, Leigh. “The Consumption of Lynching Images.” In Only Skin Deep, Changing Visions

of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, 267-273. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004.

Raiford, Leigh. “Photography and the Practices of Critical Black Memory.” History and

Theory, Vol. 48, No. 4, Theme Issue 48: Photography and Historical Interpretation (December 2009) : 112-129, http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezproxy.memphis.edu/ Direct.asp?AccessToken=5WFWF49TRPRSQFZ9FQJBJ4P6Q6V9TR96Q&Show=Object&msid=-427763845.

Wallace, Maurice O., and Shawn Michelle Smith. Pictures and Progress: Early Photography

and the Making of African American identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. The Red Record, Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in

the United States. 1895. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977-h/14977-

h.htm.

Wood, Amy Louise. Lynching and spectacle: witnessing racial violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill:

University of North Carolina Press. 2009.

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Culture and Resistance: Civil Rights Photography Memphis, 1968

Culture and Resistance: Civil Rights Photography Memphis, 1968

James R. Reid, Hamilton High School (March 28, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis

James R. Reid, Hamilton High School (March 28, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis

Abstract:

The modern Civil Rights Movement generated an abundance of photographs documenting the African American fight for economic, political, and social justice and equality.  It was a persistent battle against oppressive forces that operated in powerful positions of legal, social, and economic authority.  Local and national news outlets employed photography as a tool to record events surrounding the African American civil rights struggle.  Many photographs have transcended the historic archive to become iconic images that represent a collective memory of the era.  The archive, however, extends far beyond the published images well known today.

The struggle in Memphis is most often portrayed through images of the 1968sanitation strike and the subsequent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Local newspapers, primarily the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar, covered the sanitation strike throughout the duration, but ran stories in support of Mayor Henry Loeb’s obstructionist stance against the formation of a union.  During the strike, many members of the black community boycotted the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar because of the bias and dishonest reporting.

Meeting of Striking Sanitation Workers

Meeting of Striking Sanitation Workers, courtesy of Special Collections at University of Memphis.

The visual archive of photographs offers an important counterpart to the written historical record of the sanitation strike.  It calls for re-examination and interpretation by a diversity of scholars including historians, artists, and cultural specialists in order to document the history of a marginalized community, whose experience has been substantially misrepresented or left out of dominant historical narratives.

Alternative ways of interpreting these images can be realized by examining them for unexplored issues of race, gender, labor, and class, and how they intersect with aspects of activism, agency, and ideology.  The photographs expose a variety of African American responses to oppressive forces, including some aspects of cultural expression that emerged in response to changing social, political and economic circumstances.

 Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis.

Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections,
University of Memphis.

 Home of Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis.

Home of Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections,
University of Memphis.

Some of the most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement come from the Birmingham campaign organized to raise awareness of Birmingham’s discrimination laws and the Children’s Crusade organized by Reverend James Bevel.  Images of demonstrators attacked by police dogs, bracing against and falling from blasts from fire hoses and suffering heavy blows from policemen wielding nightsticks, and mass arrests of children were televised and published by news outlets around the world. The images exposed the abject violence and brutality used with almost total impunity by dominant forces to resist civil rights.  The horrifying images that streamed out of Birmingham were instrumental in creating sympathy for African Americans and mobilizing support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In his 1964 book on the Birmingham struggle, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King declared, “The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved.  It was caught – as a fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught – in gigantic circling spotlights.  It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world.”

Birmingham Campaign, 1963

Birmingham Campaign, 1963

Dr. King’s testament to the importance of photography as a truth-revealing medium, places him within a pantheon of black freedom fighters who encouraged the use of photography in the struggle.  Since the nineteenth century, African American leaders understood the power of representation to counter negative stereotypes, to advocate for legislative changes.  They also understood the utility of documenting racial violence in the struggle for social, political, and economic advancement.  Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Tubman all implemented photography in their struggles.  They are some of history’s earliest visual theorists and practitioners of photographic politics, and they were instrumental in creating a genre of visual culture stored in news media archives.

Invader as a Marshal and Policeman

Invader as a Marshal and Policeman, Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Memphis.

The Memphis Press-Scimitar archive holds pieces to the puzzle of an underwritten and often skewed account of the black civil rights history in Memphis.  By investigating and interpreting these photographs we can gain greater insight into the past as well as the ability to counter the sanctioned historical narratives through visual documentation of the community’s experience.

Blue Eye Soul Brother

Blue Eye Soul Brother, Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Memphis.

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Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, Farm Security Administration, Washington, D.C.

Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, Farm Security Administration, Washington, D.C.

Gordon Parks used the camera as his weapon of choice against what he hated most in the universe, racism, intolerance, and poverty. Many of the people Parks grew up with ended up in prison or murdered. The camera was his opportunity to not go the direction of his friends. Parks was highly prolific and highly decorated for his artistic achievements documenting social issues and the African American experience. Parks based his artistic pursuits and life philosophy on the lessons taught to him by his parents and his experience growing up in a segregated town in Kansas.

Parks was inspired by the photographic achievements of artists who worked for the farm security administration during the Depression era. He himself ended up training as a documentary photographer with the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker. Stryker pushed Parks to document racial strife in D.C. He is well known for his photographic essay projects, among other projects like writing and directing the movie Shaft, a lifetime achievement all its own. In D.C., Parks experienced the worse discrimination and bigotry he had ever seen. Parks began his photographic essay “American Gothic” based on the life story of Ella Watson. This photo essay is important because it was published in Life Magazine and part of the FSA program. It documented the status of people working in poverty. The photo of Ella Watson holding a broom and mom while standing in front of the American flag may be the most famous of this photo essay. he photographed Watson at home, church, on her way to work. All these photos speak about all the ways people navigate poverty.

Harlem Gang Wars 1948

Harlem Gang Wars 1948

His essay on gang-life in Harlem began after Parks was hired as the first black photographer for Life magazine. There was a need to cover crime and white photographers did not want to go to Harlem. Parks got to know Red Jackson, the light skinned leader of the mid-towners gang. Parks agreed to drive them around in his Buick for a couple of weeks. They ended up becoming good friends. Parks would not show Red with a gun in his hand. Parks destroyed the photos he took along with the negatives. Parks showed the ugliness associated with life.

Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader, 1948

Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader, 1948

In 1961 Parks’ photo essay focused attention on extreme poverty in Latin America called Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty. In a town outside of Rio de Janeiro, Parks met Flavio de Silva. Flavio and his family became the center piece of Parks’s story. This was one of the two best photo essays for Life magazine. Flavio was the oldest of 7 children. He was very sickly. Everyone lived in a 1 room shack and slept in two boxes. The lived off rice, beans and coffee. Parks commented that the 3 words the children most often said were “shit,” “motherfucker,” and “fuck you.” The cuss words show the detrimental killing affects of poverty. Parks became like a 2nd father to Flavio. He brought him to America for asthma treatment. Parks went back to see Flavio as an adult. he never got out of poverty. Parks learned then that throwing money at poverty does not solve it. Parks also covered poverty in America. He documented the Fontenelle family in Harlem. All of the family members died of drugs, gunfire, aids, or heart disease.

Gordon Parks, Fontenelle family

Gordon Parks, Fontenelle family

Parks was the first person to start documenting the Black Muslims for Life Magazine along with stories on the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. Parks worked on these assignments because white reporters were denied access. Parks approached the Nation of Islam through Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad, the leader, gave Parks his blessing and access to all rituals within the group. Parks covered the Black Muslims for three intensive weeks in 1969 and in 1970-71. He photographed Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver in front of a picture of H.P. Newton as well as the Black Panther Headquarters.

Gordon Parks, Female Black Muslims, LIFE Magazine

Gordon Parks, Female Black Muslims, LIFE Magazine

Parks is associated with the pre-Civil Rights era (1940s-50s), Civil Rights in the 1960s, the Black Power movement of the 1970s. He used his primary medium, photography, to address social issues, and document the African American experience.

GordonParks

********************If interested, please ask for bibliography*********************

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Ideas of Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Expressed Through Popular Culture of the Time

The Civil Rights and Black Power movements were major ideologies of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Civil Rights movement implemented civil disobedience and direct non-violent action to achieve political and social equality and justice for blacks in America. It was a grass roots movement that originated in the south as a response to enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws. Leaders of the Civil Rights movement include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the NAACP, Fannie Lou Hamer, and members of the Bus Boycott in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders. The Civil Rights movement was successful in achieving democratic rights for blacks and challenging the absence of those rights.

The Black Power movement focused on achieving economic and political power for blacks by controlling schools, business, and other institutions. Many of the leaders of the Black Power movement rejected integration and advocated for a separate nation built on pride and recognition of black history, culture and identity. Many of the movement’s leaders were frustrated with the non-violent approach of the Civil Rights movement and advocated for a more militant approach, even calling for an armed rebellion. Some justified this by saying violence had always been used to subordinate black people in America, thus violence was necessary to achieving autonomy. Important activists include Stokley Carmichael and Black Panthers members Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Angela Davis. The group’s ten point program clearly laid out their demands for autonomy and justice. The Black Panther style of black leather jackets, berets, sunglasses, and firearms was very distinct, and eventually found its way into popular culture.

By the 1970’s the FBI had destroyed the Black Panther organization, but the ideas had already permeated every aspect of American pop culture. Black press had always published articles and images about black issues. In the 1960’s the black press marketed black power and black pride heavily in from Afro centric advertisements to coverage of black uprisings. Other media such as Life magazine were printing articles about the riots, rebellions, revolutions, and activists. Magazines were important in disseminating the influences of black popular culture. Life magazine addressed issues of African American history, a major influence of the Black Power movement. The importance of teaching African American history was also a central to the writings of Alex Haley and celebrities like Isaac Hayes.

Questions about cultural ownership were raised when black culture left the community and was appropriated by popular culture. Album cover art for jazz and soul musicians used album art for political and cultural messages. Jimmy Smith referenced his cultural roots in a photograph of him standing in front of a traditional southern diner on his album titled Home Cooking. It recalls the teachings of Alain Locke for blacks to return to and embrace their southern heritage. James Brown promoted civil rights and black power messages in relation to biblical themes in the artwork for his album, Payback. Musicians also had strong messages in their music. Marvin Gaye’s concept album, What’s Going On, is a masterpiece. It was revolutionary for it’s time. He made it all himself. The concept grew out of him having a brother in war. Gaye sings about veterans dealing with changes. “What’s going on,” is also a good example of how African American language and culture became part of popular culture language and awareness. What’s going on?

Black Power movement had a huge impact on African American artists. There was a strong rejection of art for arts sake. Art played an important role in the black community dealing with black history and social issues relevant to the time. Graphic arts were especially useful to the Black Panther party.   Emory Douglas may be the best known artist of the black political poster. He was a revolutionary artist and the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party from 1967-1980. He combined art and message, which he learned from Aaron Douglass and Charles White, especially from White how to use text and image. Douglas covered issues of corporate politics, public housing, political prisoners, and boycotts among other important issues of the time.

Several artists worked to recreate the stereotype of the “mammie” figure. Murray DePillars’s illustration of Aunt Jemima on the cover of pancake and waffle mix boxes lined up in front of an American flag shows her in action, wielding a spatula. Her breasts are exposed referencing the images of the personification of justice.

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