Category Archives: Arts of Africa and African Diaspora

Final Update: Culture and Resistance: Civil Rights Photography – Memphis 1968

As a conclusion to the three year project researching and exhibiting my photographic essay, the completed exhibition, thesis paper and didactic panels, minus three photographic prints, are now in the permanent collection of the Special Collections at University of Memphis.  One of the two prints not included in the donation is now housed in the Workers Interfaith Network office in Memphis, TN and the other two were given to the family of the now deceased Mr. Lyles Caldwell, a sanitation worker during the 1968 strike.

Additionally, a facsimile of the photographic essay and exhibition has been accepted into the permanent collection of the Human Rights Education Institute in Couer d’Alene, Idaho.

Link to the Special Collections at University of Memphis: http://www.memphis.edu/libraries/special-collections/index.php

Link to the Human Rights Education Institute: http://hrei.org/other-info/event-images/

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Celebrating Black History Month: C. H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa

I am honored and pleased to have exhibited at C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis as part of the 5th annual Black History Month celebration this past February.

For more information see: http://www.memphis.edu/chucalissa/

And to learn more about the African American cultural heritage work of the museum see: http://southwestmemphis.com/

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Matt Herron: Civil Rights Activist and Documentarian 

Matt Herron teared up as I led him on a tour of the National Civil Rights Musuem and of his photographs, which were prominently used throughout the recent 28 million dollar renovation. He was so sincere, kind, humble and moved. True beauty





More information: Matt Herron Take Stock Photos

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Let’s Talk! About Civil Rights

An open community story telling event at Caritas Village in Memphis, TN organized by L. Hamdan

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Commercial Appeal review of the event by Thomas Bailey Jr. Posted January 10, 2015

An open invitation to share civil rights stories not only packed Caritas Village late Saturday afternoon, it drew a who’s who of Memphis dissenters, street protesters and justice seekers.
About 75 people nearly filled the Binghamton restaurant for the “Civil Rights Story Telling’’ event.
The stories and storytellers spanned five decades, encompassing everything from the now-revered 1968 sanitation workers’ strike to the current “We Can’t Breathe” movement for police reform.
Sprinkled among the audience were T-shirts like “#Film The Police” and “Free The Jena 6.’’
The audience represented an array of causes: the Memphis Bus Riders Union, the Memphis Center for Independent Living, rights for the homeless, raising the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, racial justice, race issues at Rhodes College and more.
Leila Hamdan, who recently earned a master’s at the University of Memphis by “reinvestigating” the story of the civil rights movement surrounding the sanitation strike, said she organized Saturday’s event.
She wanted to add a community discussion to the more formal parts of her thesis work that have included a photo exhibition, paper and formal presentations.
“This was something I really wanted to have,” she said. “Not me talking, but to hear about other people.”
Some of the people Hamdan and others heard were the children of a 1968 sanitation worker who did not strike, but who suffered just the same.
In her research of old Memphis Press Scimitar photographs from the era, Hamdan found a photo of the late sanitation worker Lyles Caldwell. The image shows him holding a rock that someone had thrown threw a window of his home.
“I happened to be home that afternoon,” Caldwell’s daughter, Annie Cast, told the crowd. She was 17 in 1968. “My father had already said, ‘It’s getting kind of dangerous out here … But you know I need to work’.’’
“A big ‘ol rock came through the window. It broke the whole window.’’
Other speakers included a current Rhodes College student, Schaeffer Mallory, who told of problems on campus with students voicing “homophobic, misogynist, (classism) and some particularly racist things” through an anonymous social media app called Yik Yak.
Mallory sat across the table from Coby Smith. He was one of the first black students to attend Rhodes College and one of the founders of the civil rights-era, black-power group called The Memphis Invaders.
Smith expressed pride in Mallory and other young activists in the room.
“These are the new Invaders, these are our kids,” Smith said. “And they give me a lot of satisfaction … I didn’t think about it at the time, but we sowed a lot of seeds.”
Paul Garner, a full-time organizer with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, said he was honored to be in the company of fellow activists, organizers and community members.
Hamdan’s photo exhibit at Caritas Village, “Culture and Resistance: Civil Rights Photography, Memphis 1968,” is scheduled to close after Sunday.

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Images of Culture Pt. 2

A mural tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the University of Memphis Tigers on south Third Street in Memphis, TN.

The face of King is distorted with very simple lettering “Dr. King” on the side. Starting with the back of his head, the severe melting and feathering patterns helps to reason why the face is so distorted. Perhaps this image is of the moment the bullet struck Dr. King’s head. 

The white color that encircles and invades the space of the portrait can be seen as a representation of his legacy partially consumed by whiteness and whitewashed.

Although, the style and composition could just be a product of an untrained artist, a person who felt inspired to paint a visual reminder of one of the world’s most profound leaders.

The strong, contrasted black on white image pulled me in to the parking lot, empty except for all the loose relics and refuse of life.

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Ferguson

Memphis, TN November 25, 2014 – One day after the Grand Jury decision not to indict Officer Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen who was shot multiple times with his hands in the air.

#blacklivesmatter   #shutitdown  #nojusticenopeace  #ferguson  #michaelbrown

Black lives matter, All lives matter in Memphis

Black lives matter, All lives matter in Memphis

Augustus Washington and John Brown - Hand in Hand

Augustus Washington and John Brown – Hand in Hand

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Preserving Family History: Photography

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 from 1 – 3PM

Presentation by Leila Hamdan at the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on preserving family history with photographs and accompanying documentation, as well as, investigating how these family archives can aid historians, scholars, and artists with interpreting history and challenging dominant narratives and collective memories.

Elmyra Williams born in Memphis, TN 1909

Elmyra Williams born in Memphis, TN 1909

Elmyra Williams with young female students of South Jackson High School in Memphis, TN.  Graduation 1922

Elmyra Williams with young female students of South Jackson High School in Memphis, TN. Graduation 1922

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Images of Culture

I drive by these two buildings every day – cemented and bricked on Vance Avenue in Memphis, TN, between R. S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first memorial service was held, April 5, 1968.  The combined images visually represent the transformative and flexible nature of culture and history in Memphis – temporary and adaptable over time.

Images of Culture

Images of Culture

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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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