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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Repetitions (Considering Past Forms): b

This painful truth has always been true and has also always been ignored. In History and fiction, the mythical truth/fabled realities of White people has been heavily documented in books like Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath and The Sound and Fury. When we examine these texts with our eyes toward the realities excluded and unnamed, the whites people who thrive and prosper are far removed from the poor whites whose only privilege was their status as free people, a situation that has not entirely changed in the century and a half since Emancipation.

 

I’m reminded of Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto, which 150 years ago cut through the collective conscience of people in various states of revolution with an ideology that spoke of liberty, a human ‘worth’ beyond economic measure; our election is an apparent resurgence of a similar hopelessness and the need for change. It was a referendum on the standards of living, which if we look around leave too many of us destitute, homeless and disenfranchised. What I don’t understand is why the lines are drawn across color lines. These conditions have only ever improved with a unified front, as indicated in the numerous measures implemented during the 1970s.

 

 

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Things to Ponder

 

What has changed?

Historical Repetitions (and Other Forms of Seeing for Consideration): a

 

I refuse to live in fear. I’m told about the many frightening things ahead for us because of Trump’s status as president elect. A woman stopped me on the street to give me a stack of her fliers about the new face of fascism. (Until recently the same fliers had Obama’s face on them.) Everywhere I hear alarming news—increased suicides, hate crimes, bigotry. To all of these worries and stresses I say, “I refuse to live in fear.” Elections, public and free, are not worth dying for.

Unfortunately, bigotry has been a very common circumstance throughout my life and professional career. The bigots emboldened to come out of the closet were never invisible to me. And, the problems we face are bigger than openly racist leaders—for many people that has been the reality all along.

Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable to imagine hope packaged in the incendiary language with which Trump ran his campaign. Perhaps it makes us angry to be ruled by people with less education, less polish and less manners than ourselves. On the surface, this seems to be true. We want to ask ourselves how much could we have in common with rural Virginians and Appalachian Whites whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy and have never yet ceased to fly the losing flag. Upon a closer more careful examination, we see the same conditions exist for them today as they did nearly 200 years ago when they lost the Civil War in part because they were starving then too. I often wonder whether their ancestors, many of whom did not hold a single bonded man, woman or child, ate any better than their predecessors do today. Given the evidence that African Americans, who ate poorly, died young and served as free labor in the South embodied the wealth of their slavers, it’s clear that jobs for poor, White Americans have always been scarce.

Nothing has changed.

(Solutions forthcoming.)

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As Seen on TV

The NRA’s Convenient Gun-Reform Policy

 

Let us recall the words of abolitionist Lloyd Garrison in this process of truth telling: “ I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.”

I just learned that the NRA’s current stance on gun reform is political far beyond the degree of merely upholding the Constitutional rights of Americans. In a landmark decision, led and advocated for by Ronald Regan, Don Mulford and the NRA, California changed the open carry gun law that had been in place under the Mulford Act in 1967. They did this only after the Black Panther Party started carrying guns in self-defense. By changing the law, the NRA worked strategically with state officials to limit the group’s ability to defend themselves. The Mulford Act changed the laws in order to directly disenfranchise Black American Activists, who were being lynched with impunity in the United States. In many ways, the Black Lives Matter Movement is a continuation of the work they started. (No guns, however.)

Read the history that the NRA has obfuscated from the public for the past five decades in The Atlantic’s “The Secret History of Guns.”

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Plus, here’s a photo of the only confiscated gun returned to the Black Panther Party by the Oakland Police. From the current OMCA Exhibit All the Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50

Well, why not regulate and uphold gun laws in this country so that we are all safer?

 

 

Registries and Other Post-Modern Curiosities

I’m curious what would happen if we create a registry for Muslims we also create a registry for all White Supremacists involved with terrorist organizations like the historic Klu Klux Klan, an organization that has terrorized Black Americans for centuries, and, not just in the South.

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Ancestral Observers: A Tableau

(Ancestors include Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass)

Here’s a photograph of the hooded Klu Klux Klan marching down a main boulevard in Oakland, California circa 1950 from the current OMCA All the Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 Exhibit:

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