FREEDOM: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE AFRICAN AMERICAN STRUGGLE
Edited by Sophie Spencer-Wood
Text by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings
Phaidon, $60, 512 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY J. ROSS BAUGHMAN
In 1915, many living veterans from the North and South still had nightmares about the Civil War. When D.W. Griffith released his landmark silent film “Birth of a Nation,” he reflected and projected those lingering fears with hundreds of vivid scenes strung together.
Now from the opposite point of view, and using canvas in the form of a book, “Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle” stands as an equal, but belated landmark. The work by Sophie Spencer-Wood also tells its story with pictures, employing the same scale and an equal gravity. Instead of fabricating images the way Griffith did, Ms. Spencer-Wood restricted herself to the much more difficult harvest of buried memories.
Great debts are owed to the editors, curators or historians who bring new found love to the long overlooked. What struck other eyes as dust can become so much more when salvaged, cared for, put into order, shaped into a story. Such were the photographs scattered 50 or 100 years ago that had made so many folks uncomfortable. When such reminders were saved at all, the reason to pull them out again was probably to start or stop an argument, or to proudly drape them like bandages over an old wound.
Some of the prints seem so dry, browned and flaking from age that they might have been saved only minutes before the image vanished forever. Luckily, there were enough of these rare old pictures to bind together into a lovely, heavy volume, a 162-year-long walk from slavery, through struggle towards a better life.
The thoroughness here includes a march of sharecroppers, shopkeepers, Tuskegee graduates, police dogs, genteel ladies, a Mardi Gras king, an astronaut and veterans from every American war since. With so much to show, the pace of each month, each year and each decade turns into an exhausting one-step-forward and two-steps-back.
Richard Schlagmann, the owner of Phaidon Press, first imagined this project as a record of the civil rights battles in the 1950s and 1960s. Before long, Ms. Spencer-Wood convinced him that a little known struggle from earlier decades could make a far more compelling background, and would elevate this project into a history far richer. The pictures are of such a high aesthetic quality, and have such a strong and clear voice that they challenge viewers to forget anything on the subject of race that they’ve ever heard. Study these old pictures and learn again from scratch. Every viewer is turned into an original witness.
In 1862, a long stream of slaves walks along the narrow rows of a plantation field, with unwieldy, drooping bales of cotton balanced on their heads. From a purely visual standpoint, not all that much had changed by 1884, when a pole vendor totters from door to door, making his shoulders sore with a heavy bundle of crudely whittled, 12-foot trees.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, dead or wounded blacks are scooped up like prisoners of war after the race riot in 1921. Outside a diner in Birmingham, Ala. a squad of white policemen arrest a petite, middle-aged black woman in a dress; and every warning, every sad headline she has ever read is written on her look of dread. Next come four deadly serious white men atop a horse-drawn wagon who pose with their very alert prisoner “on the way to a lynching.”
Much can be learned about hatred from carefully inspecting a single photograph taken of Garfield Burley and Curtis Brown in Tennessee on Oct. 8, 1902: These two doomed men had their wrists tied together, standing face-to-face, looking each other in the eye while one rope hoisted them up by the neck. It happened right down town in Newbern, with a new electricity pole as their scaffold. One wore shoes, while the other did not. Perhaps the captors of the second man wouldn’t allow him to reach for shoes when they grabbed him from the front porch. Maybe he actually had been wearing shoes, but in the throws of death, kicked his feet hard enough to knock them off. The sight of such things triggers plenty to contemplate.
Much of the other visual testimony in this beautifully printed volume is not so grim. Students of history may be thrilled to see a rare moment of Frederick A. Douglass as a young man in 1850, or Malcolm X joking around at a lunch counter with Cassius Clay before he became Muhammed Ali. Entertainers abound, and plenty of black Olympians rejoice with their gold medallions. To give this book its full, archival resonance, these pictures, too, are welcome.
The true power of the book, however, does not come from flirting with famous faces. It is not necessary to know all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s history or even recognize him to understand what is going on. The young man stares back in a steely, dignified determination at the Montgomery, Ala. policeman who takes his mug shot in 1956. Some of the most interesting pictures show unknown African Americans who happened to get into the pictures by accident or get pushed into the frame as an afterthought.
In the long, deliberate time-exposure required for a Civil War group portrait, the black quartermaster crouches at the feet of a Yankee to fix his spats. During a photo opportunity in the Oval Office in 1946, one black gets squeezed into the frame with a room-full of visiting white advisors.
Phaidon Press realized that such a once-in-a-lifetime publishing effort also deserved a compelling text, and so authorized noted scholars Manning Marable and Leith Mullings to craft a parallel 85,000-word history. The authors also made sure to include Pulitzer Prize winning moments, such as the scene when an agonized James Meredith tried to crawl away from his shooter, or when the Black Panthers walked out of a standoff at Cornell University, or when Boston whites turned the American flag into an angry spear.
When future generations wonder about race, and think about filling the shoes of their grandparents, this one book could prepare them well.
J. Ross Baughman is photo editor of The Washington Times.