Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, two scholars of African American history, have written a book that shows what contemplating history is good for: It simultaneously illuminates the past and provokes questions that may help those of us living today find our future.
Their book, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, presents more evidence, in the form of nearly 150 photographs, that many Black Americans of the decades from the 1850s to the 1930s (when the promise of the American ideal flared brightly for an instant and then was nearly extinguished in a deluge of bigotry) lived rich, complex lives and never psychologically surrendered to the White majority’s demand that they feel inferior.
For me, their analyses of these pictures of the well-known (such as abolitionists Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman) the little-known, and the unknown underscored a lesson I learned in the early 1970s when, just out of college and, so I thought, steeped in Black American history, culture and pride, I began to notice something peculiar about my reaction to many of the photographs I would come across of Black Americans taken before the 1940s.
It didn’t matter whether the photographs were of urban, well-dressed, middle-class northern Blacks, or of the largely illiterate survivors of slavery still residing in the rural South and clad in threadbare clothes, my reaction was always the same: How handsome (or beautiful) they look, I would think to myself. Look at their dignity, their poise, their fearlessness, and their determination to persevere.
After a while, I began to ponder a question that shook me to the core: Why am I surprised?
It was then I began to fully understand the power of the visual in contemplating Black Americans’ history. I realized that I was, subconsciously, still being influenced by the racist images of Black Americans that dominated American popular culture until the early 1960s.
I began to correct myself. I began to fully accept that Black Americans then were just like Black Americans today: The photographs were proof that Black Americans of that era were fully capable of fighting back against the brutal hypocrisy of ‘the land of the free’ that had marooned them in a vast sea of cruelty—and that they had been equally relentless in trying to hew a place of comfort and opportunity out of their difficult predicament.
Willis, chair and professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, help us to understand that assertiveness in many of the photographs they present here and that it was widespread among southern as well as northern Blacks of all classes.
One of my favorite examples comes from the 1857 correspondence between Sojourner Truth, and Josephine Franklin, a young Black Brooklyn, N.Y. resident.
Franklin had bought several photographs of Truth for herself and the women in her family and had written to say she was proud to have done so.
Truth’s reply to Franklin brought this response: “You asked me if I was of your race. I am proud to say I am of the same race that you are. I am colored. Thank God for that.”
The Truth-Franklin correspondence, of course, came in the very year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott that Black Americans (not just slaves, which is what the case was specifically concerned with, but by implication, so-called free Blacks as well) had no rights the American legal system need respect. And as Willis and Krauthamer point out, the ‘black-friendly’ photographs of these 80 years ran counter to and were meant to counter the floodtide of racist images of Blacks in White literature and art, scholarship, American commerce, and, eventually, the film industry, too.
Black Americans never surrendered. They understood their own worth, and the power of the visual proof of their own worth, their own past and their ties to one another that photographs offered.
“These images testify,” the authors write, “to Black Americans’ survival and resiliency in the wake of slavery and in the face of late-19th and early 20th-century segregation and violence. They offer powerful evidence of how Black women, men and children saw themselves and each other: as dignified, beautiful, creative, intellectual, energetic, diligent, steadfast, powerful and free.”
One question Envisioning Emancipation demands that the Black Americans living today contemplate: In this era of great symbolic and substantive progress, and yet, simultaneously, daunting challenges that both reflect the present and echo the past, do we understand that we, too, have to strive for our own emancipation? What is it we’re envisioning?
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist. His book, Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America was published in 2008.