Sunday, July 19, 2015

Americans (I)

These photographs represent what are apparently fragments of a single African-American family album or family collection that was recently broken up and sold at auction. The photographs, which date from c. 1880 to at least 1933, offer only a few clues to the sitters' identities and histories, but if they do represent the members of a single, much-extended family (which is not quite certain), then through them we can trace a rough network of family connections and spanning at least four states and roughly fifty years of American history.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Darryl Pinckney wrote "In the US, white people are able to conceive of black people who are better than they are or worse than they are, superior or inferior, but they seem to have a hard time imagining black people who are just like them." The most striking thing about most of the photographs presented here, and in the posts that will come, the thing that shouldn't be striking at all, is how ordinary they are. What they reflect is the bedrock of experience: ties of kinship and friendship, rites of passage, memory across generations — the very things, that is, whose existence among black people has often been denied or downplayed. In their fragmentary way, these images remind us that, whatever our histories or notions of identity may be, most of us want basically the same things and will vigorously pursue them — if the doors aren't shut in our faces.

Future posts will examine these and additional photographs from the collection in greater detail.

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