Over the past few years, the young researchers of The Will to Adorn have been engaged in a project of community autobiography. These photographic and written portraits of each other and skilled artists and craftsmen within African American communities tell stories that provide an important counterpoint to the optics of racism: negative images of African American boys and men projected on screens large and small that feed the kind of fear (sometimes internalized) that has ended in lives cut violently short. These portraits affirm what many outsiders do not notice in the barrage of stereotypes and distorted mass-media images.
A recurring theme of our discussions about dress and personal adornment as expressions of African American cultural identities as part of the Will to Adorn project has been the differences between how people choose to portray themselves and how people are perceived (or misperceived) by others. Self-portraiture, or sartorial autobiography as we have called it in this project, is one way that we have attempted to address this issue.
Michael Morris, a fourteen-year-old Will to Adorn researcher, writes in an autobiographical statement:
“I am a proud, big, relatively smart African American male. I am strong willed and tough skinned. I make my own path for myself unless I am following God…. Most people have a stereotype of a young Black man who sags his pants. They think he is stupid and has nothing to do with his life…. I wear business casual because it doesn’t make me look like a statistic…. I usually wear a polo shirt with khaki pants to school and to church.”
However, dressing well may not offer protection against insult. Peers may push one standard for commanding respect, parents another. Prescriptions for dress that command respect, esteem, protection, and admiration are only a part of the equation. On a trip to historical Harpers Ferry as part of his Will to Adorn research, Michael recounts:
“Harpers Ferry became a beacon for civil rights leaders during the twentieth century. People such as W.E.B. DuBois held meetings for civil rights at Storer College, one of the first colleges to admit African Americans. When I entered [a store in an historical building], I was constantly bombarded with checkups by one of the cashiers who seemed to worry about me being unable to browse a store without stealing something. If I am correct we live during 2014. Jim Crow was abolished decades ago, schools have been integrated, and we have a Black president. Why is it so hard for me to be able to enjoy myself in a nice place? Why must I be treated as if I don’t belong?”
Curator and cultural historian Maurice Berger wrote about how important photographer Gordon Parks’ tender portraits of the Thortons, an impoverished African American family in the rural south of the 1950s, were to the civil rights struggle:
“[M]ost of the images are optimistic and affirmative…. They focus on the family’s everyday activities, and their resolve to get on with their lives as normally as possible, in spite of an environment that restricts and intimidates.
“Throughout a century of oppression, photography served as a ray of light for black Americans, illuminating the humanity, beauty and achievements long hidden in the culture at large. By allowing a people to record and celebrate the affirmative aspects of their lives, the camera helped to countermand the toxic effects of stereotypes on their self-esteem.”
Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, a powerful film recently released by Don Perry, looks at images of African American photography from the points of view of photographers of African descent. According to the film, activists Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois all regarded photography as a significant tool in fighting racism through the projection of humanizing and affirmative images of themselves and the people they represent.
The video of a small minority of unruly men looting and damaging a police vehicle in Ferguson was repeated over and over on the news, in lieu of the majority of peaceful demonstrators. Using the Twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite, white individuals tell stories of their encounters with law enforcement officers that including stealing, drunk driving, and even assaulting a police officer and not being arrested. However, the extent to which males of African descent are stopped and arrested on suspicion of criminal activity is disproportionally large.
More African American men are in college than in prisons. African American contributions in every area of American life are there for all to see. But through the optics of racism, sensationalist images of African Americans engaged in negative activity get more media time than the positive.
In recent years, books like Reinventing the Museum have asked what it means to be a museum and how to be responsive to our publics: What can we do as cultural heritage museum professionals? We can help to change the optics of racism. We must continue to collaborate with communities to collect and circulate widely autobiographical images and stories by African Americans and other citizens of our diverse nation—including policemen—as statements of affirmation, agency, and legacy. We can show films, create exhibitions of work by African American photographers, and convene discussions at museums around the country that include both members of local communities and the law officers responsible for protecting them. We can offer training in the tools of image making and writing as media for self-definition and communication.
Some of my favorite images grace the hallways of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and never fail to make me smile. They are a series of portraits of African American Philadelphians at work and at home taken by cultural documentary photographer Roland Freeman for the book and exhibition Stand by Me.
Another favorite is an image from the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives taken by Diana Davies in 1961, part of a series documenting protests during the civil rights movements. The young man is not identified, but his upright active stance and the forceful statement across his shirt project to me his strong sense of purpose. He is among a cadre of young adults whose personal engagement and efforts took “Freedom Now” from dream to law. He has the will to adorn. He is using the communicative agency of personal attire in the fight for social change.
We live in a visual age where we can—and do—document every aspect of our lives , from birth to death. This has made it possible to bring to the world’s attention realities both bitter—like the on-camera murder of Eric Garner—and sweet, through intimate moments of everyday lives. These tools have sparked a movement and borne witness to the protests and statements in the past few weeks, but where do we go from here?
In a world where selfies are everywhere, projects that document random occurrences of kindness and good behavior could be a basis for changing attitudes, encouraging policemen to see themselves not as an occupying force but as integral members of the communities they are sworn to protect. There have been proposals to equip policemen with cameras in their vests, dissuading them from resorting to brutal violence. But what if policemen were instructed to take photographs of people in everyday positive actions: a young father in locs out for a walk with his baby son, a group of youngsters playing on the basketball court, a shopkeeper, a teacher, a family waiting for the bus.
The goal is not to turn cops into professional photographers or distract them from their duties, but through these visual acts of witness to change the optics of racism to the optics of compassion.
Diana N’Diaye is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the director of the Will to Adorn program.