The Uses of Visual Images as Envisioned by Douglass: The Necessity of Art (Part VII)

 

Art is a visionary’s tool (among others). For a long time artists have used the medium of photography to foretell, criticize and reimagine the way we see, what we see, but also why we see. Take the great reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in moving from images of Black poverty and nakedness to dignified and well-dressed statesman, understood and recognized that art could liberate Black men and women in the consciousness of the viewer. Douglass embraced photography in the form of Daguerreotype and used his own image to bombard the social media of the era. What had easily become a keepsake token of affluence, the portrait became a force for transforming consciousness in the hands of a powerful Black American, who used it to define himself and a people. With his actions as a writer and a subject of the gaze, Douglass used art to change America.

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Today selfies are a widespread phenomenon misused by young people all over the world. The intoxicating image of the self has us giddy with self-absorption (you can even by a stick for this). For his part, Frederick Douglass employed the power of the portrait that few of us seem to value or recognize today because of the proliferation of cameras. Yesteryear, however, Frederick Douglass, the original selfie King, sat for numerous portraits as an act of liberation, intending to shatter static notions of Black identity using his own changing image. Given that he did so well before the advent of cell-phone cameras, the selfie king had to make deliberate efforts to make his image available to a 19th-century populace, many of whom eroticized the African body as a side-show attraction, or relegated them to an exotic sub-human status unworthy of the lens. It was under these circumstances that Douglass envisioned a narrative that could only be told through the camera’s eye—a story he would repeat dozens of times to become the most photographed figure of his epoch.

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Pillar in Print

For Douglass, art in the early manifestation of the selfie, the portrait, was a vehicle used to normalize Blackness. By sitting for portraits wherever he went, Douglass realized that the image of a free Black American would provoke the viewer to consider his personhood and, thereby, challenge the perceptions of White Americans that he used to gain a kind of social currency, an invented algorithm inserted into the mainstream dialogue. Douglass did so in the struggle to abolish slavery; Douglass knew art had power, whether by creating it, starring on the canvas or generating a frequency of sound; art’s power was undeniable.

Frederick Douglass was able to harness the power of art and use it to reframe an entire narrative about Black identity. Later artists of the Harlem of Renaissance—writer, painters, poets, dancers and sculptors—would continue his legacy, crafting a movement of empowered self-expression that would begin to heal a people from a history as a formerly enslaved people. Art and change are not separate. One births the other and the other fathers the revolution—more on that later.

 

Historical Repetitions: (Just Waiting to See What Will Be Considered Next) d

Charity begins at home. Sometimes Trump seems to be saying just that. Perhaps freedom from hunger is the freedom we all need. When our people are starving, roving the streets looking for shelter, chronically unemployed, then it is at last time for a movement. It’s what prompted the revolutions of the 19th century and it’s what drove the 1960s Civil Rights activism. We are no more impervious to ills of imposed poverty than to the desire to feed and shelter our families. The people have spoken, and beneath the rhetoric of hate, misogyny and bigotry, are the very real concerns of people who have witnessed a steady decline in resources, opportunities and wages, as well as the intangibles: loss of pride, purpose and dignity. Unlike the bulk of Trump’s electorate, I don’t draw the boundary along a color line. I see that in San Francisco, the disenfranchised, displaced and working poor are blacks, averaging salaries of $24,000 a year. These communities, long-time residents of this thriving metropolis, are in need of jobs, resources, supermarkets and hope. Maybe we will see change.

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What’s Happening Here?

 

That said, this is not the time to go to sleep. We need to remain watchful, vigilant and engaged. Trump’s policies need to provide for all of us, not just White Americans, who are feeling the pain that historically, only Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans and countless other minority groups have experienced. It’s the same pain. The pain is momentarily evenly distributed among those of the working class and working poor: groups, which are increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Let us look upon the lessons of history and see that we are our brother’s keeper. We’re in it together. Four years, or less: Who knows? But if we get more jobs, better paying jobs, I’m okay with prosperity. img_1896

In the meantime, let’s practice agape, friends. I’m talking about love. Kindness is contagious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teens, Too: A Voice for Young People at Big Idea Fest 2016

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One part of growing up poor in an urban environment, from my experience in New York City, is that you get stuck in a bubble, a sphere that is reinforced by socio-economic forces. For me that meant tenement houses in the Lower East Side, and later, the projects across from the notorious Ave D Housing projects. In that microcosm, my mom tried to keep me safe from violence by immersing us in the church, isolating us from the “world”. That probably didn’t work as she intended, but it prevented the opportunity to get involved with the community, gangs and the scene on the street. I never had the opportunity to go to summer or science camp or mix with people from different walks of life. It also meant moving around in a network of other working poor, isolated families. In that situation, it’s difficult to imagine another scenario or way of life. For sure books can reveal other worlds, opening the readers’ imagination and introducing possibilities, but nothing is more powerful than a high-context, lived experience. In my opinion, it is personal encounter that shapes aspirations and expands horizons. Perhaps my experiences are unique, but if the general happiness of the participants at this year’s Big Idea Fest is any indication, it’s an amazing place to be, no matter how old you are. img_1815

Big Ideas Fest might be the first time a teenager from an urban school gets to stay in fancy, four- and five-star hotel—with a pool, hot tub and all the other perks. This adds up in assets of navigational capitol that can be transferred into other areas of their lives. These young people will have the advantage of knowing how to navigate their discomfort in new spaces with new people, and also feel a sense of belonging in professional and recreational settings with mixed age groups, genders and vocations, which can have lasting impact on a student’s wellbeing and outcomes, not the least of which might be interview and social skills. At Big Ideas Fest, teen participants get treated like the thoughtful human beings they are, and if they don’t, they learn how to speak up and assert themselves by tapping into their personal power with tools taught to them at the conference. img_1820

My observation is that the student participants don’t always start out being confident and outgoing, but with the investment in them by staff and teachers, and quality interactions with other participants, many will flourish and find their places in the broader circle of the community. For these students, their Venn diagrams are suddenly overlapping with directors from international companies like Airbnb or with non-profit and grassroots founders, organizers and reformers from all over the country, people who seem more like themselves than distant success stories on the Internet. Big Ideas Fest does all of this youth from urban schools by providing them with scholarships to attend and take leadership roles.

Plus, these teens gain other forms of currency that may fall under the radar: They get to enjoy posh places in California, like the Ritz Carlton and Hayes Mansion, fairly exclusive places by most standards. Not only are these young people learning how to be another world, they’re also experiencing that world as an expert, contributing high value to the outcomes of their Action Collab groups. They speak up, step up and handle a microphone to share their insights about the things they really care about. There’s no doubt that we have no idea what these teenagers are bringing to the conference until we step back and let them have their say. These may seem like trivial things, but the truth is, Big Ideas Fest helps young people to see outside of the scope of class confines, and expands and inspires possibilities, opportunities and aspirations. That’s just one of the great ideas that comes out of the annual conference.