Creating Ancestors: Photography, Memory and the Black Creative Tradition
This paper presents the work of two early, twentieth-century southern African American photographers to examine how photography functioned as a counter-hegemonic means of cultural (re)production that operated within the black expressive tradition. The work of Richard S. Roberts (1880-1936) and Opal Childs Glover (1912) exists as an example of the ways in which southern African Americans transformed hegemonic constructions of blackness by using photography to reflect the realities, hopes, and aspirations within their daily lives by creating visual memories. The constructions of blackness seen within Roberts' and Glovers' work do not conform to the ways that African Americans, who lived within Jim Crow culture, are remembered and recollected within American popular culture. Photographs of blacks as labor, as the depraved poor, as objects of southern mythology, and as the black exceptional shape the contours of popular memory and influence how photographs of African Americans are perceived and interpreted. Images that do not portray black oppression are dismissed as positive propaganda and reactive self-imaging. Rather than being a reactionary form of cultural expression, this paper argues that photography played a centralizing and regenerative role for southern black folk. Drawing upon a number of works including Pierre Bourdieu's Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Stuart Hall's Culture, Media and Language, Allan Sekula's "On the Invention of Photographic Meaning," bell hook's "In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life," and Lawerence Levine's Black Culture, Black Consciousness, this paper creates a model for interpreting early twentieth-century black photographic practices from an Afrocentric perspective.
Keywords: Photography, Cultural Politics of Memory, Cultural Reproduction Theory, African American Expression, History
Dr. Tonnia L. Anderson
Assistant Professor, African and African American Studies Program, University of Oklahoma