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When Cotton Was King

Memory32

Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments

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… the more things stay the same.

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Of all of the hundreds of photographs of the protests and violence and destruction to come out of Ferguson, MO in the past week it was this image that stung me the most. A lone black man squatting amidst a raging cauldron of hate and fear and frustration, he bears the simple message “Black Lives Matter.” The flames that surround him cast him in a shadow of backlight but illuminate both his sign and the graffiti behind him that implores whoever encounters it to “Kill Cops.” Each message is equally outrageous and absurd however meaningful it might be under the current circumstances. Of course black lives matter; that the claim even has to be made—and there is no question from this quarter that it does—is a national shame. To incite the killing of police—the avatars of preserving “the peace” and maintaining “order” —is a call to barbarism that beckons to a world governed by the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In short, the photograph is an allegory for how tenuous the fabric of our contemporary society has become.

What made the photograph most striking for me, however, was not the way in which it cautions us against the current tragedy of Ferguson, MO, but how it stands as a notice that the problem of black-white relations is the true American tragedy, a problem that never seems to go away, but recurs in cyclical fashion for every generation. And so I could not help but remember another photograph, equally absurd—and equally meaningful in its context—from my youth.

Mourner at Martin Luther King's memorial

1968 seems so incredibly long ago—a lifetime for those in my generation—that it is hard to think of this photograph as anything but an aide memoire from the era of the civil rights movement. And yet for all the progress we presume to have made in the intervening decades, for all the talk of being in a “post-civil rights” era or a world of “hope,” there is no getting around the fact that the claim to manhood in the older photograph is a precursor to the precarity of black life marked in the contemporary photograph.

 The more things change …

Credit: Stephen Lam/Reuters; Bob Adelman/Corbis.

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes.

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Seeing the Past Through the Present (and Visa Versa)

march-on-washington-august-28-1963

I was about to turn eleven when the black and white photograph above was taken.  My family lived in East Orange, NJ, a half-step up the socio-economic ladder from Newark, where I was born and my father worked.  My best friend was Maurice and my parents referred to him as “your little colored friend.”  My grandparents had another name for him.  I wasn’t very interested in political matters at the time, my passions extending to baseball and the space program, but I sensed that something important was happening when Maurice’s grandparents loaded him and his sister on a church bus to take them to what they called “the march for freedom” in Washington, D.C..  When Maurice returned home it was all he could talk about for a week, but then our attention turned to other matters, like the hapless New York Mets.  Just before school started we agreed to become “blood brothers,” using a penknife to knick our thumbs and then let our blood mix.  Both our parents were livid.  The following year my parents moved our family to a distant suburb.  I remember hearing my father tell my grandparents that he wanted to get us “away from the wrong element.”

I had forgotten about all of this until it came back in a rush of memories after stumbling across the above photograph, part of Joseph Powell’s “Looking into the Past” project.    It is a testament, of course, to the function of photographs as aide memoire, but there is something else going on with this image as well.  Powell’s photograph relies on a visual trope we might call “then and now” as it calls attention to temporal differences and in my case the photograph not only invoked a racist tinged, nostalgic trip down memory’s lane, but it also made me think about how different (and similar) I am now from who I was in 1963.

More important than my personal memories, of course, is how we as a “people” remember and experience the relationship between now and then; after all, the photograph features the Mall in Washington, D.C., and if there is a visual marker for a national meeting place this surely has a pretty strong claim on it.  The most obvious tension in the photograph comes from the difference between black and white (then) and, so called, “living color (now).   But perhaps a more subtle and important tension is animated by the relationship of the container (the present) and the thing contained (the past). Differences in color tell us that one is past and the other more recent, but it doesn’t tell us how to read that relationship; locating the former picture within the frame of the later, however, suggests movement.  And more, it implies that the past should be read through the lens of the present.  To get the point, imagine the photograph as if the images were reversed, and the present was located within the larger landscape of the past.

Metaphors are important, and the key question here is not just what do we see when we look to the past through the lens of the present, but what does the lens invite or enable us to see in the present—or as with any optic, what does it restrict from vision?  In this photograph the black and white past (which references a society divided into black and white) is miniaturized by the expansive magnification of the landscape of a multicolored present (which references a multicolored society).  The implication is a somewhat liberal narrative of racial and national progress, perhaps even gesturing to that world where, in Dr. King’s terms, one is measured by the “content of their character” and not “the color of their skin.”  But there is more, for then race relations were the occasion of a national “moral crisis” and those populating the Mall were citizens demanding justice; but notice that in the contemporary, multicolored landscape there is not even the hint of political activity as the active citizens in the earlier photograph morph into passive and leisurely tourists.  Perhaps that is the world that Dr. King had in mind when he imagined his version of the American dream, but somehow I doubt it.

What is to be made of all of this?  That, of course, is where things get tricky, for the past is not necessarily a prelude to the present (or for that matter the future), nor is the present the only lens through which to imagine the past.  As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington there is an impulse to read the relationship between then and now as one of racial progress that remembers the past all too simply in terms of the present.  And that is a compelling narrative that has some merit, even as we acknowledge that we have miles to go before we might achieve anything like a truly post-racial, egalitarian future. But reversing the lens reminds us that any progress that was made was hard fought, achieved by the blood and sweat of the active citizens willing to take on significant individual and collective risk to serve a public good.  It asks us to consider the difference between then and now in terms of a much wider array of factors and outcomes.  And when we see the photograph this way it has to give us pause to wonder if the public that represented such important civic activity then has now gone into eclipse.  It is only a question, but it is one we ignore at some peril.

Photo Credit:  Joseph Powell

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Those Who Forget the Past …

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The above photograph pictures a sluice of life in Mobile, Alabama in 1954. I don’t know who saw the photograph in 1954 or how they might have interpreted it, but it is hard to imagine that one would not have been affected by the ironic tension between the image of an elegantly dressed African-American woman and her niece, shot in “living color”—a  rarity in 1954—and the neon sign to a movie house marking the “colored entrance” and designating a stark difference between black and white.  However one might have received and engaged the photograph when it was first produced there can be no questioning the fact that the scene that it depicts serves as an aide-mémoire to a critical moment in the American experience to which we are all heirs, a collective past that we ignore or repress only at our national peril.

Of course, Jim Crow segregation was not only a southern phenomenon—I remember seeing “colored only” beaches at Asbury Park, New Jersey when I was growing up in the 1950s—but it certainly had a home in Dixie where it was aggressively defended in the name of “states rights.”  And from this perspective the photograph is a vivid and eloquent reminder that there are times when “home rule” and a parochial localism need to be governed by a more capacious moral compass, not least when human and civil rights are at stake.

It is this last point that bears special attention today as the photograph was recently printed in the NYT along with the reprise of a series of similar images shot by Gordon Parks for an issue of Life magazine originally published in 1956.  What makes it especially pertinent is that the Supreme Court is about to rule on a number of cases concerning the constitutionality of gay and lesbian marriages and legal unions. Many are arguing that such decisions should driven by local interests under the rationale of states rights.  Of course, it was not so long ago that the cultural logic that warranted the “colored entrance” sign in the photograph above also proscribed interracial marriage as an unnatural act of miscegenation in many states.  That changed in 1967 with the Courts decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia.  One needs only to ponder the photograph above and the legacy that it gestures to, both past and present, in order to understand why the Court needs to guarantee the civil right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and join in legal union.

Photo Credit:  Gordon Parks/Gordon Parks Foundation

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The Art of Defiance

Guest Correspondent: Bryan Thomas Walsh

It is campaign season again, that phase in the cycle of American political culture when candidates from both political parties stage over-the-top displays of patriotic grandeur: they salute flags, attend baseball games, eat hotdogs at state fairs or in corner diners, shake hands with the masses, and enact an array of additional public performances that are believed to enhance one’s public image.  We are, in other words, moving from the circus of the Republican primaries to the carnival of the American presidential campaign.

 Given the ubiquity of hyperbolic theatrics that are so conventional to presidential campaigns, one might be taken aback by the above image.  Taken just two weeks ago in Dearborn, Michigan by White House photographer, Pete Souza, the image captures President Barack Obama sitting solemnly inside of an empty, old-fashioned bus, looking intently out of the window and beyond the frame.  At a glance, this is a puzzling image.  Removed from the typical whirlwind of photographers, news reporters, and law enforcement, the President is seen here in a rare moment of solitude and private reflection.  In many ways, the scene is neither spectacular nor conventional.  It is only after reading the caption that we discover that the President is sitting in the very same bus where, almost 60 years prior, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, thereby igniting the Montgomery Bus Boycott and reenergizing the Civil Rights Movement.

Of course, given the superficiality that characterizes contemporary campaign spectacles, it is not hard for viewers to read this image as a  mere “photo-op.”  Accordingly, viewers are invited to read the reference to Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement as an example of the President pandering to his liberal constituency and black voters in particular.  Alternately, viewers can read this image as an attempt to frame the “first among equals”  as an ordinary guy on his way to work, an image that Republican candidate Mitt Romney persistently fails to achieve.  Michael Shaw at the BagNews argues that the image is an example of political “muscle-flexing,” where a crafty campaign strategy aimed at renewing the public’s opinions about the President parades around as a “candid photo involving a moment of deep reflection.”

While it is understandable for viewers to interpret this image within a cynical register, there remains something incredibly evocative and moving about the image.  Indeed, the image emits an aura of authenticity – that is, it seems to capture a sincere and poignant moment where the President feels the gravity of the past and its bearing on the present or, more specifically, the role of Rosa Parks’ resistance to segregation and its relationship to the reality of Obama’s presidency.  Rather than repeating the cliché and empty theatrics that saturate the campaign season, this image captures the President coming to terms with the fundamental fact that his presidency was made possible by those “second-class citizens” who defied a racist political system and executed acts of civil disobedience in hopes of realizing a more fair and equitable future for people of color.  In short, the photograph serves as a history lesson insofar as it calls on viewers to recognize the role of civil rights struggles in having real effects (however oblique) on the vitality of present-day progressive politics.

But it is not only a history lesson; it is also lesson about social change.  Seen here a year after the Montgomery Boycotts and the subsequent reintegration of the transportation system, Rosa Parks sits earnestly at the front of the bus alongside a visibly white passenger.  The parallels between the image of Rosa Parks and the image of President Obama are striking: not only do both Parks and Obama occupy a space that was historically closed-off to blacks, but Obama unwittingly imitates the firm resolve suggested by Parks’ gaze.  While the apparition of Rosa Parks reminds viewers that the Civil Rights Movement paved the way for a black man to serve as the President of the United States, she also reminds us that the vitality of contemporary democratic culture depends on the public dissent and civil disobedience of individuals and communities.  One can only hope that Obama will take a hint from Rosa Parks – namely, that democratic promises are not always realized through compromises and civility; they emerge in the wake of overt and orchestrated political defiance.

Photo Credit: Pete Souza/White House; UPI/Library of Congress

Bryan Thomas Walsh is a Ph.d student of rhetoric and public culture in the Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University. Correspondence should be sent to btwalsh@umail.iu.edu.

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How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?

The above photograph was taken while we were on a brief hiatus but I figured there would be plenty of time to write about it once we returned after the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Little did I imagine that it would go viral, become a meme, and basically disappear from attention in a period of ten days.

One of the things that we’ve learned in writing this blog for the past three years is that the news cycle can be brutal.  Blink and it has moved on to something more immediately interesting, as if our attention span is incapable of pondering the rightness and wrongness of human behavior for more than the time it takes to click through a slideshow.  But one would hope that genuine acts of unrepentant moral turpitude would not be cast aside so easily or so quickly.  Maybe it is because the image of Mary Anne Vecchio wailing in distress at the murder of Jeffrey Miller at a different student protest in the 1970s is so seared in my consciousness that I find the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students who are the very image of nonviolent rectitude to be so appalling. I taste bile in my mouth every time I look at the image, even now, ten days after first seeing it.

Others have commented on how casual Office Pike appears as he sprays the students, and the point is all the more pronounced in the various U-tube videos that provide live documentation of the event.  Indeed, he looks rather like the weekend gardener in ads I’ve seen selling weed spray, killing the chickweed that has infested his otherwise perfectly green lawn as if it doing so makes him a good neighbor by maintaining property values.  It is no doubt in large measure that sense of nonchalance that has animated the “Officer Pike” meme that became the basis for literally hundreds of appropriations that show the pepper spraying of everything from cuddly kittens to the founding fathers, as well as inserting him into virtually everyone of the major iconic photographs of 20th century U.S. public culture, such as the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, accidental napalm, the Tiananmen Square tank man, and the photograph of Mary Anne Vecchio at Kent State.

One could go on at some length to analyze these many appropriations, though their production in such a compressed time period, coupled with how quickly they seem to have become irrelevant, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of it all.  There is outrage being expressed at Officer Pike’s nonchalance, to be sure, but also equally heavy doses of adolescent irreverence and cynicism that might lead one to think that the response in general is as much a conditioned, knee jerk reaction as anything at all.

But there is an additional point to be made and one that seems to have been missed by the many commentators and appropriators of the Officer Pike meme.  What makes the scene captured here so morally outrageous is not just that the behavior of the police officer is casual, but that it lacks any moral concern at all, despite the fact that it is being witnessed by hundreds of photographers and videographers.  It is one think to behave casually in ways that might be morally questionable, it is something altogether different to do so in the full light of day and with the knowledge that the world is watching.  Indeed, if anything Officer Pike’s behavior is marked by a conceit that reminds me of the photograph of a lynching that took place in Marian, Indiana in the 1930s where the townspeople are smiling for the camera as they direct attention to the hanging black bodies in the background.  Lacking any sense of shame for the scene in which they found themselves, they pointed with pride to what their community had “accomplished.” The officers in the photograph above—and here I mean to call attention to all of the officers—know that they are being photographed and yet they proceed as if there could be no question but that it is appropriate to shoot pepper spray into the faces of citizens sitting on the ground and posing a threat to no one.  It is, in short, an image of moral hubris that should be anathema to a liberal-democratic public culture that relies for its life blood on civil (and civilized) dissent.

And yet for all that, we seem to have moved on, the viral video little more than one of the millions of u–tube videos that seem to serve the contemporary role of bread and circuses, the Officer Pike meme  an online joke that is on the verge of becoming a trivia question.  And the moral outrage that should haunt us all is lost to the news cycle.

Photo Credit: Louise Macabitis

 

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Santa and the Problem of Public Safety

Santa and the TSA.2010-12-14 at 9.29.53 PM

I remember as a child watching over and again the post-World War II movie Miracle on 34th St. (1947), a story about a man who looks rather like the elfish chap above and is institutionalized as insane when he declares himself to be Kris Kringle—the real Santa Claus.  Claiming to be Santa Claus, it seems, can be something of a threat to public safety, and it is only with the help of a lawyer who persuades the local post office to deliver thousands of children’s letters addressed to “Santa Claus” to his client that he is able to get the state to acknowledge his true identity and thus establish his sanity.  And the moral of the story was that sometimes it isn’t such a bad idea to believe in fantasies—or miracles—at least a little bit.

Of course, that was then and this is now.  The late 1940s were something of an age of anxiety, to be sure, but now we live in the so-called age of terror.  And today, not even an army of ACLU lawyers can save Santa  Claus from the indignities of being patted and probed by the woman in uniform wearing the rubber blue glove.  After all, in an age of terror anyone can be hiding a bomb inside his or her clothing: pilots, grandmothers, and even babies in blankets.  Why should Old St. Nick be any different?  And really, what is the loss of a “little” dignity—in some ways just another fantasy of public decorum—in the interest of maintaining national security and public safety?  Or so we are told.

My initial impulse upon seeing the photograph above was to smile at the incongruity of a fantasy figure being treated by the apparatus of a national security state as if he were real and wondering who the sane and the insane might be.  But then it struck me that there was nothing amusing here at all.  That indeed, what we are looking at is a very real and tragic sluice of contemporary life, a world in which even our most hopeful fantasies have been taken away and no one seems to notice … or maybe even care. Notice the man on the left who doesn’t appear to be paying any attention whatsoever—or for that matter to even see—what is going on before him.  Perhaps he is absorbed by the task of preparing himself for the blue glove, or maybe he just doesn’t want to get involved.  But in any case, he remains passive and compliant—rather like Santa himself—and that might be the most troubling point of all as it suggests that just maybe the terrorists have already won.

Credit:  AP Photo/The Repository, Scott Heckel

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Photographer's Showcase: A (Southern) Civil Rights Memorial

Till, Store

We are pleased to introduce NCN readers to Jessica Ingram‘s “A Civil Rights Memorial,” a photographic exploration of the ways in which important moments in the struggle for civil rights in the American south are remembered—or perhaps more to the point, the ways in which such events risk being  forgotten as they fade into the landscape of time or are otherwise awkwardly remembered as part of the local context in which they occurred.  The above photograph  is the contemporary, unmarked site of of the store in Money, Mississippi where in 1955  Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was accused of whistling at a white woman, an event that led to him being beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. To see the exhibit click here.

We first encountered Ingram’s work at the Visura Magazine Spotlight—a site designed to support emerging artists and students. It is a web resource that we strongly encourage NCN readers to visit.

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