Civil Rights and Black Panthers 2012

Visual Insurgence and Graphic Agitation: the Black Panther Party’s Threat to Security

The Cooper Union Draft only, not for citation or publication In received wisdom, the mid century civil rights struggle often takes on the contours of a declension narrative: The beloved community transcended racism, sat in, marched, endured attack, registered voters, and filled the Capitol mall as television beamed the news of this city on a hill to millions of approving viewers. But the exemplary group soon lost its leader, Dr. King, and became corrupted by pointless violence and bullied into mystified and mystifying racist separatism. Riots broke out, incomprehensibly to white (and some black) observers, even as voting rights and civil rights acts were passed. Notions of black power, black consciousness, black arts, and black studies became commonplace, and integration, which had once seemed a universal goal, is a term now scarcely heard.

More recent paradigms have attempted to minimize the Manichean violence/non-violence and integration/separatism divides; historians conceptualize a “long” civil rights struggle, commencing at Emancipation; and a black liberation struggle, beginning even earlier, encompassing many ideologies and forms of resistance, and still carried on.i Such open and flexible perspectives usefully allow for focus both on specific aspects within the history of the mid century movement, and on related, contingent processes and forces of change outside the campaigns’ immediate purviews; these viewpoints encourage historical, rather than moral, explanations.

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Carrie Mae Weems

Transnationalism in Contemporary African American Photography

Memory, History and ‘Universal’ Narrative in the Work of Carrie Mae Weems

The work of contemporary photographer and image maker Carrie Mae Weems has always invoked history, not only tracing the material markers of its processes, but also preserving and commemorating its discursive forms. Over two decades, Weems has moved from documentary-style, captioned, black and white prints to elaborately deployed installations involving complex assemblages of visual and audio elements. In these pieces, images may appear on gauzy banners that surround the viewer, or in poster form, accompanied by text passages or audio elements, and objects. She is currently working in film. Just as Weems’s pieces have been linked by repeated formal elements, they have thematized recurrent issues concerning identity and the presence of the author in her work. The increasingly diffuse and inter-textual forms of her most recent work underscore a wider range of historical concerns. Foregrounding new elements of specific narratives we might think we know, ‘Leading us to new ways of thinking about history’, as one critic says (McInnes 1999: 20), this work engages as well the possibilities of a universal referent. 1 Weems herself is among those author Richard Wright called ‘first born of the city tenements’ (Wright 1988: 142). As Wright’s family had done in the 1920s, Weems’s parents and other family members left Mississippi sharecropping, moving to Portland, Oregon in the 1950s, where Weems grew up. Wright’s 1941 image and text narrative of African American migration, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, amalgamated his own experiences with those of ‘the collective humanity’ of ‘we millions of black folk who live in this land’, creating what he called a ‘folk history’ (ibid.: 5-6, 12). Trained in folklore as well as art, Weems found a model in Wright; her 1991 installation ‘And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People’ links her work explicitly to 12 Million Black Voices, and, as we shall see, other work echoes, transmutes, and explicates for a new generation -and different gender -Wright’s assertion (in the language of his time) that ‘theme for Negro writers will rise from understanding the meaning of their being transplanted from a “savage” to a “civilized” culture in ail of its social, political, economic, and emotional implications’ (Wright 1994: 104).

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Richard Wright’s African Photographs

“Wright’s Intellectual legacy is especially interesting because it has been so routinely misunderstood.” 1
Paul Gilroy

6. Richard Wright [Kumasi Market], the Gold Coast, 1953, 5 /8 x 7 in. (13 x 17.7 cm) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
In 1953, the year that Richard Wright visited and photographed in Africa, readers and gallery goers in Europe, America, and Africa were unlikely to encounter photographs made by men or women of color. Although, exceptionally, Gordon Parks had been working at Life magazine since 1948, Roy DeCarava was just beginning to make the Harlem photographs that would appear later in Sweet Flypaper of Life and South Africa’s Drum magazine would not employ its star photojournalist Peter Magubane as such until 1955. 2 As well, many histories attest, images in general representing Africans in Africa and diaspora were scarce in mainstream media and carefully managed. Roland Barhtes encountered his now infamous photographic signifier—a Paris Match magazine cover conveying the myth “that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors”—in June 1955; 3 later that summer, Wright’s Dutch friend and translator Margrit de Sabloniére wrote to him of her discovery that, even at a leading anthropology museum, there were “no Ashanti photographs in Holland, not a single one,” a significant circumstance in light of the Netherlands’ centuries-long colonial history in West Africa. 4

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Table of Contents and Chapter Summaries

Maren Stange *Please note that I am in the process of updating these essays and reconciling the small amount of material – primarily concerning the lack of African American representation in visual expression – that is repeated in more than one essay.

1. Introduction

2. 12 Million Black Voices and the FSA Chicago coverage of 1941-42

This chapter combines and reworks material from “Not What We Seem” and “Bronzeville.”It discusses Wright and Rosskam’s 1941 book, an early and prescient “migration narrative,” which traced the population shift and urbanization that presaged the postwar “racial break.” The chapter also studies the 1500-image, two-week photographic coverage of Chicago’s South Side made by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers under Richard Wright’s direction (and sociologist Horace Cayton’s guidance) in order to provide urban images for the book, which thus conjoined the work of government employees with that of an acknowledged Communist Party member. Upon publication the book was featured in Book-of-the Month Club literature, offered free with a subscription to the Communist Party periodical New Masses, respectfully reviewed in mainstream periodicals, and investigated for seditious statements by the FBI. The carefully-detailed, fully-captioned Chicago coverage, including images of home life, work, worship, and recreation at varied economic levels, was the first extensive study of an urban black community over which blacks themselves had significant control. Bronzeville, as black residents called their expanse of South Side neighborhoods, was at once the product of a brutal, confining racism, and, increasingly, “the capital of black America,” showcasing a new, soon to be national, black identity. Still riveting after seventy years, the extraordinary range and detail of the images, especially those in Russell Lee’s masterfully information-laden style, shows a vibrant community that “…not many white men had the opportunity to see …the way we saw it …, ,” in photographer Edwin Rosskam’s words, because “Dick Wright knew everybody in the Negro world of Chicago.”

3. Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks is best known for an acclaimed career at Life magazine (by Life’s 1972 demise he was its highest paid contract photographer) and for the films Shaft (1971) and Shaft’s Big Score (1972), accomplishments establishing him as not only the first African American photojournalist hired by a major mass circulation magazine, but also the first to direct films for major Hollywood studios. Parks began his career as a portrait and fashion photographer in Chicago (the FSA file includes a photograph of a young Parks –unidentified –in a community center art class). Parks found his career among what Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson called “a new Black consumer class,”watching as notables and celebrities crafted an urban culture which Chicago-based publishers, record producers, and radio stations would soon distribute to African Americans nationwide. Arriving at Life in 1948 largely on the strength of his fashion work, Parks produced extensive fashion spreads throughout the 1960s, although he was by then prepared to photograph all kinds of stories and crafting appealing images in Life’s generally clear, well-lit, and legible photographic style. Described as “corporate modernism,” and imbued with a “mass-appeal aesthetic,”Life’s compelling, straightforward images and narratives served to emphasize what was reassuringly self-evident about America rather than to reveal the unexpected.Equally important to Parks’s success there, his worldview, and his work, confirmed the magazine’s central tenets. Despite – or because of – the magazine’s racist history, Parks was able to use his position to craft for himself a particular black male subjectivity that, as he often and publicly reworked it, helped both the magazine and Parks himself to affirm crucial qualities of journalistic objectivity and also to assign larger meaning to Parks’s resonant, often-told life story. That the fulfillment of both these needs could coincide may have been as significant in midcentury “race relations” as were the nominal contents of his stories.

4. Ebony’s First Ten Years

Though Ebony featured Parks in 1946 as one of its frequent “first and only” success stories, the Chicago magazine did not figure in his career plans. A large-format, pictorial “consumer magazine” that depended on advertising revenue and courted a wide circle of readers, John H. Johnson’s monthly was an instant success at its 1945 debut, and it has outlasted Life as well as countless other long- and short-lived rivals. The protocol at Lifeand other postwar mainstream media allowed only middle class white subjects to represent pleasant and/or typically American experience; others -foreigners and people of color – appeared only as designated victims who were “photographed and packaged as ‘sensations,'” writes James Guimond, or as “representatives of social issues or political problems,” notes Wendy Kozol. Ebony contested such hegemonic racial and social “truths.” Its determination to show “positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood” and to “mirror the happier side of Negro life” intervened against the exclusion of blacks and other persons of color from media constructions of a national, consensual discourse of progress and prosperity. However, like earlier re-formers of popular visual discourse, Ebony relied heavily on the presumed “transparency” and immediacy of photography’s indexical representation of its “real life” referents – the medium’s “privileged relation to the real” – to uphold its interventions. In its early years, its editors deployed photography that would not only uphold familiar codes of journalistic objectivity, but also, simultaneously, detach images of blacks from their pervasive association with equally familiar cultural representations as spectacular and/or degraded other and victim. Thus, the magazine’s images rarely deployed the photographic medium’s full range of stylistic and expressive possibility, and photographers eschewed techniques – such as dramatic lighting and camera angles, severe cropping, or soft focus, all readily found in mainstream mass circulation magazines – that invited viewers to emotional response.

5. Roy DeCarava

Coming of age in the 1940s, photographer Roy DeCarava saw that “black people in America were not viewed as worthy subject matter” for art but rather were usually “portrayed either in a superficial or a caricatured way or as a problem.” Undertaking a representation that was “serious,” “artistic,” and universally “human,” he wrote in regard to his first extended project, on the people of Harlem, that he wanted to achieve “a creative expression,” not a “documentary or sociological statement.”DeCarava won a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete that project, contributed images to the Family of Man exhibition, exhibited widely, and founded the Kamoinge Workshop of black photographers. Honing his style in the 1950s, however, DeCarava struggled to transcend not only prescribed subject matter but also stylistic prescriptions constraining both photography and “Negro art.” Social realism was “de rigueur for representation of and by Negro Americans” at midcentury, notes art historian Ann Gibson; art historian David Driskell complained that “no viable aesthetic was developed among black artists between 1930 and 1950,” because art was treated as if it must be “a lesson in social history or an instrument of social change.” DeCarava appears nothing short of iconoclastic in both his approach to photography, a medium strenuously identified with evidentiary truth, and in his esthetic ambitions to, as he said, “break through a kind of literalness,” and “express some things I felt.” Maintaining his quest to create a visually autonomous photographic subject of color, DeCarava endured decades of embittering misunderstanding. He has pointed out over and over that despite his “reputation as a documentar[y] photographer, … I really never was,” and reiterated his steadfastly modernist concern to achieve “a creative expression,” rather than a “documentary or sociological statement.”

6. Richard Wright’s African Photographs

Richard Wright left the United States in 1946, choosing self-exile in Paris and self-designation as a “Western man of color.” Maintaining longstanding political commitments, at the end of his life Wright had concluded, writes a biographer, that “the salvation of humanity could only come from the Third World.”An accomplished amateur photographer and, as we have seen, familiar with photo-text books, he made hundreds of photographs in the British colony Gold Coast during a ten-week visit in 1953 on the eve of its transition to the nation of Ghana, publishing his observations as Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. The book was intended to “suggest . . . the necessity of a collective coming to terms with the extraordinary historical circumstances of forced migration and modernity,” in order to “overcome the racism and parochialism that denied self-knowledge and freedom to both Africans and people of African descent in the West,” writes Kevin Gaines. More specifically, the book supported Ghana’s ongoing efforts to recruit black Americans with much-needed skills. Wright’s photographs, displaying the inclusive, informative style of FSA documentary as well as the tilted compositions and foreshortened perspectives of then-current street photography, included studies of family life, city and market scenes, men’s and women’s work, ritual, and industry. Frequently-repeated geometrical motifs – rooftops, drying fish, structural elements, even juxtapositions of passers-by – suggest Wright’s concern to offer viewers recognizable signs of order within exotic African scenes, even as he shows one-dimensional linear patterning to be an element of West African esthetics. Though Wright prepared and hoped to publish a large selection of captioned prints, the American edition had no photographs, and only a few appeared in other editions. These were always uncredited, so that, as unsituated, neutral, and objective observations, they are dissociated from Wright’s deeply felt text, despite several textual accounts of making them. His often humorous and widely contextual captions add much to the images, often addressing the visible or implied presence of imported goods in the photographs, instead of those that, ideally, an independent Ghana will produce for itself. Certainly Wright was unrealistic to imagine that on his own he could produce a 12 Million-like photo-text, and Black Power can be considered in some ways a failure. However, the images, driven by politics and yet inexpressibly personal, express both his “provisional” and ”limited” understanding of the Gold Coast, and his vision of the new nation as a comprehensible, attractive cultural and social space. The pictures at once account soberly for Africa’s lived experience and dream recklessly of (in Wright’s words) its “unprecedented,”“astonishing,” and “unheard of” future. 7. Civil Rights and Black Panthers: The Burden of Liveness and Visual Insurgency If television had not shown Bull Connor, his dogs, and the march on Selma, there would not have been momentum to push the civil rights acts through Congress, so that, in that regard, television “performed a magnificent service by showing violence,” claims a former television news editor. So key and central was media coverage to the Southern Civil Rights movement that campaigns not only made the provocation, even purposeful production, of spectacular racist violence against nonviolent black demonstrators a key movement tactic, but also demonstration participants, timing, and logistics were decided so that dramatic footage could reach New York in time for the evening news. Both Birmingham and Selma were chosen for major campaigns with such access in mind.In effect, such demonstrations imposed a “burden of liveness” upon demonstrating African Americans – an imperative to perform their own authenticity, whatever it might entail. Tracing the trope of liveness throughout African American televisual representation, Sasha Torres sees the 1960s as a moment that “coimplicates” developing network news programs and the Civil Rights Movement itself: to take on the required burden of liveness – to produce “televisual immediacy via black performances of physical suffering and political demand”– was seen as a necessary movement focus, crucial to immediate success irrespective of contingent effects. A few years later, the Black Panther Party, often assumed to have “conspicuously” created a “bold, brash” image that was “symbiotic” with mainstream media’s expectations, in fact developed quite different communicative tactics. Initially giving little thought to their mass mediated representation, they were intent on gathering and reaching a local (later national and international) counterpublic. Like civil rights organizers, the Panthers depended on the visual image and on the hypervisuality of the black body to attract support, but it was not the burden of liveness they conveyed and needed to dramatize, but rather, more difficult and threatening, what Nikhal Pal Singh has named their “insurgent visibility.” Concerned to negate imagery which connected the black body to comic stereotype or concretized it as abject, Panther-generated imagery did not ground its authority in a documentary truth claim, and it discouraged the kinds of realist or documentary readings that saw its spectacle as one-dimensionally revelatory. Emory Douglas’s “revolutionary art” for the Black Panther newspaper carefully complicated graphic representation, and Douglas’s racial representation, often of poverty and oppression, was de-coupled from verist visual claims in order to encourage critical viewing. The Panthers’“formidable” visual legacy, Amy Abugo Ongiri suggests, shows that its creators understood, in advance of postmodernism’s revaluation of popular and high art, and practiced its complication of “notions such as realism, authenticitiy, experience, and commercially driven expression.”

8. Carrie Mae Weems Throughout her career, Carrie Mae Weems has thematized questions of biography as form andcontent, intersections of history and memory, and elisions of author, authority, and authenticity. She has created increasingly diffuse and intertextual forms in recent work and photographed in many countries, engaging the possibilities of a “universal” referent figured as a person of color, even as, she notes, in the West the “black body presence articulates, by its very nature … a resistance. Whether that is my intention or not doesn’t matter, but my presence is a disruption and a reminder of something that has happened in …American culture.”Weems explicitly acknowledges photographic forebearers Richard Wright and Roy DeCarava, titling one work “And 22 Million Very Tired and Angry People,” and gesturing in her early “Family Pictures and Stories” to DeCarava and Langston Hughes’ seminal The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 photo-text focused on family that intentionally subverted familiar, objectifying documentary forms. Weems likewise distances her work from claims to documentary authenticity, using studio and lighting techniques familiar in commercial imagery, and, in pieces such as “Kitchen Table Series,” providing lengthy accompanying texts that are a tissue of clichés. Although one of the posed figures who “speaks” these time-worn phrases in that piece is Weems herself, she and her male counterpart ultimately enact above all an insistence on gender and race as cultural constructions. Her “Ain’t Joking” series required viewers to slide a panel open to read the punch lines of racist jokes, overcoming traditional prohibitions against touching displayed works of art and providing no grounds for disengagement from the exhibition’s disturbing content. Weems’s art constructs temporary unities resonant with many cultures and histories; and like the American culture and American black photography that are its touchstones, her work proposes universality as a desire among many.


The essays in this book concern photographs made and viewed from the 1940s to the present, a time that transformed race relations globally and in the United States and that radically changed the meaning and practice of photography. Each essay here probes a moment when photography – as documentary, photojournalism, or art – intervened decisively on behalf of people of color. My intention has been selective rather than comprehensive; I view the work discussed here as innovative in not only acknowledging but also challenging formations of racism in its time, and distinguished in its enduring influence and its presence in visual discourse today. My method has been to define and distinguish these instances of immediate challenge and eventual transcendence by situating the work deeply in its historical circumstances.

The works discussed here are intentionally public images, their interventions different from the many photographs that did not “resemble or please white folks’ ideas about us” which bell hooks memorably encountered among the “walls of [informal] images” in southern black homes.1 The ambitious, professional photography that is my subject emerged in print and on gallery walls as an element of the “racial break,” as sociologist Howard Winant has called the midcentury aggregation of world-historical events that weakened racist laws, governments, and customs at the same time that visual mass communication and consumer culture expanded.2 The pressure of the “break,” persisting throughout the twentieth century, opened cultural space for Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam’s 12 Million Black Voices, Ebony magazine, Roy DeCarava’s art photography, televised Civil Rights Movement coverage, and other representations of modern black subjectivity. They are now well established in the global discourses constituted by art, photojournalism, and documentary. Continue reading “Introduction”

12 Million Black Voices and FSA Chicago

Chapter One

Part 1: Creating 12 Million Black Voices

In Chicago’s Bronzeville, the 1940s was an unsettled time. As the United States emerged from the Great Depression and entered the Second World War, African Americans wondered whether this “crisis period in the history of Western Civilization” might bring a “flowering” in black communities or merely more of the same, wrote sociologists Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake.[i] Bronzeville’s sense of life “in flux,” its certainty of impending change both threatening and empowering, were widely shared.  Black Americans increasingly saw their liberation struggle in a global perspective, a view enabled by the cosmopolitanism of urban life, by military experience abroad, and by the implacable advance of global anti-colonial movements that coalesced in  pan-Africanism. Among domestic levers of change were the New Deal’s liberal consensus and its social welfare measures, including not only the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Civilian Conservation Corps, but also arts projects that supported and made visible a newly socially-conscious generation of black artists and writers.[ii]  Most significant, however, was the Great Migration, the decades-long move from country to city that peaked during the war years, swelling and even doubling Northern cities’ black populations by 1945. Life in Northern ghettos was often wretched – it was “our prison, our death sentence without a trial,” wrote Richard Wright – but it was also the portal to a new and irrevocable black “worldliness,” a modernity that would prove to be global, autonomous, and activist.[iii]

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Gordan Parks: A World of Possibility

From our twenty-first-century perspective, it is clearer than ever that Gordon Parks’s work and life tell compelling stories that must be attended to, even as their contingent events recede into an ail but irretrievable pasto Parks died only in 2006, but the forces-both benign and malevolent-that shaped his work and life seem, in our new and differently configured century, increasingly Foreign, distant, and hard to imagine. We have lost the man, but we are fortunate to have his powerful images and evocative prose.

Whether we consider his photographs individually, or in the context of the news stories and collective initiatives that prompted them, Parks’s work resonates with crucial events of his century, recording the vast social changes that occurred in the United States as the Great Depression ended, as the nation was swept up in war, and as Americans experienced the domestic pros perit y and defining social upheavals of the post-World War Il period Parks himself wrote several memoirs that monumentallze his life.’ His work-in ail its phases-can be seen as not only emblematic but also productive of a national narrative of the American twentieth century. It is certainly time to reread that story in words and pictures.

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Black Chicago in Pictures
photograph 121

Chicago’s “Bronzeville” was a “city within a city,” the “second
largest Negro city in the world” in the 1940s, St. Clair Drake
and Horace Cayton wrote in Black Metropolis. The South Side,
seven miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide, stretched from
22nd to 63rd Streets between Wentworth and Cottage Grove,
its boundaries resolutely fixed by whites’ intimidation and
restrictive covenants. Supporting five hundred churches and
three hundred doctors, it was the “capital of black America” in
the 1940s, supplanting Harlem as the center of black culture
and nationalist sentiment, home to such notables as Joe Louis,
Mahalia Jackson, Congressman William Dawson, Defender
newspaper editor John Sengstacke, Ebony magazine publisher
John H. Johnson, and Nation of Islam leader Elijah
Muhammad. Its flourishing literary and artistic circles constituted
a “Chicago Renaissance” comparable to Harlem’s earlier
flowering. 1

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Bronzville Photo Gallery

This gallery contains the referenced images from publication
Black Chicago in Pictures. Hover over image to get description or click on any image to view the slide show.
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