Friday, March 22, 2013

Visualizing Emancipation

I forgot I had written this so I'm posting it now:

I teach near New York City.  So that means I have access to a vast array of cultural riches.  Of course I rarely get out of my sauna-like office and on the Metro North to do anything in the city.  So one of my New Year's resolutions was to do things.  I had an event at Columbia scheduled for this past Thursday so I decided that would be the day.  Of course it was 15 degrees. I went anyway. It was awful cold and out of respect for my partner's reputation I couldn't wear my father's old gray fuzzy fleece ice fishing pants to Columbia.  But my first destination was Harlem and no one was stylin'.  I scurried as fast as my frozen knees would take me to the Schomburg for the Visualizing Emancipation exhibit.

From Visualizing Emancipation
Deborah Willis, the brilliant photographer, scholar and curator, has brought together 171 images of enslaved and free black people, with emancipation as a key event.  We are in a long remembrance of the Civil War, 150 years ago, foreshadowed by the South's secession, beginning with its first battle at Fort Sumter in 1861 and continuing on for deadly years, ending in victory by Union forces.  Central to this victory was Emancipation.  It depleted the South of laborers and allowing black men to bear arms on the Federal side. Visualizing Emancipation depicts slavery and freedom, the pride of bearing arms and the hope of the contraband Negroes escaping into the Union camps.  It shows colored folk as both ordinary and courageous, it shows a people longing for citizenship and then struggling to keep it. 

Did you know that smiling is a learned response?  Before photography we didn't do it as much as we do today.  Most of the subjects of this early photography don't smile.  One couldn't move, lest the exposure get ruined,  but neither does anyone look away from the camera.  There are images of newly freed men and women in the rucksack and rags of their enslavement and an emerging middle class carefully quaffed with the children in matching coats.

 Much has been made this year of the tradition of Watch Night, the New Year's Eve vigil kept in many African-American churches which was popularized the year black folks stayed up waiting for word that Lincoln had actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  And it is a wonderful tradition but Willis's exhibit has several photos of Emancipation Day celebrations across the decades.  On June 19th black people by the hundreds would come out,  listening to speakers, marching with banners, claiming their place anew in the nation they had helped build. Those celebrations continue today.  Now everyone calls it Juneteenth, specifically remembering the day the last slaves were freed, June 19, 1865, in Galveston Texas. 

The exhibit ended March 1, but Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer have put together a "pioneering" volume, including some never before published photos.  Today, we are inundated with images, most of us possessing photographic technology that no one would have imagined possible in the late 19th and early 20th century.  We forget there was a time when a family portrait might be a once in a life time event, to be shared with loved ones on the equivalent of little calling cards called cartes de visite.  When freedom, once so elusive, had to be celebrated and documented in the lives of ordinary people who had struggled to win and later, might die to protect.

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