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Early Photography and African-American Identity
When photography burst onto the scene in the 19th century, it held out the promise of changing American culture. Nowhere did the possibilities stand out as strongly as for African-Americans, where Frederick Douglass and other leaders believed photography could undermine stereotypes or uneducated opinions concerning how black people lived.
"Fredrick Douglass was very hopeful and optimistic about photography," said Maurice Wallace, Duke associate professor of English and African and African American Studies. "He thought it would change everything as far as black life in the United States. He imagined that pictures would yield a social, political, and cultural progress, not just for African-Americans but for the nation as a whole."
Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith have co-edited "Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity," a collection of essays and photographs that explore how Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence Dunbar, W. E. B. Du Bois and others used photography to counter prejudice and stereotypes. Smith is associate professor of visual and critical studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The book also highlights the work of four early African-American photographers and presents more than 70 vintage African-American photos ranging from lynching, family portraits, employees at work and group pictures during special occasions.
"It seems that early photography helped the U.S. visualize the possibility of African-Americans as proper and fully engaged citizens in our democracy; a representation that was every bit as dignified and deserving as any White American family portrait." Wallace said.
There is an ugly side to photography's history, as explored in the book by the study of photos of lynchings and the scientific misuse of photos to portray African-Americans as inferior. "There is a number of accounts, other histories that show that photography also had the capacity to be oppressive to African-Americans," Wallace said.
Writing in "Pictures and Progress," co-editor Smith said photographs of lynchings were purposefully and widely circulated to keep African-Americans subservient. "The images served, perhaps, as the 'substitute' for slavery that white supremacists hoped would ensure the "discipline" of African-Americans in post-slavery America."
To combat this, Smith said, individuals like Ida B. Wells presented a fuller picture of what was at stake in the fight against lynching by augmenting literature with photographs of lynching and the victim's loved ones left behind. Wells wanted to show how it affected black womanhood, the sanctity of the black family, and the credibility of American civilization as a whole.
Wallace said he was inspired to put this book together by his long interest in early photography and scholarship on African-American identity. He is author of "Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775-1995" and is currently working on study on photography, masculinity and the African American Civil War soldier.
(Video by Thomas Leak. Story by Gabriel Aikens. Both are students at N.C. Central University who are working this summer as interns with Duke's Office of News and Communications.)
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