Redressing the Balance : Photography: ‘Songs of My People’ is designed to contribute toward understanding . . . and healing the city.
Its arrival so soon after the riots may be coincidental, but the local African-American arts community is hoping that a new documentary photography exhibition opening today at the California Afro-American Museum will go a long way toward building self-esteem, understanding and healing in the city.
Called “Songs of My People,” the massive exhibition (and a worthy companion coffee-table book) is considered the broadest photographic depiction of black America mounted to date. A traveling show that premiered in February at Washington’s prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art, it includes 160 photographs taken in the summer and fall of 1990 by 53 of the nation’s top black photojournalists. It depicts African-Americans from throughout the country in all phases of life, from poverty to wealth, birth to death, childhood to old age, and fame and power to homelessness and crack addiction.
“It’s a show that I knew would eventually be done, because it had to be done,” said D Stevens, a Los Angeles photographer who was profiled Tuesday on KCET’s “Life & Times” for his coverage of street gangs, crack babies, and social and economic conditions in African-American communities. “But with its timing here now, it becomes even more important, because through it people can understand diversity and that those hopes and dreams we have are still alive. Anything that can increase understanding can increase humanity within us all and what the theme of the show keeps coming back to, for me, is ‘we are all the same.’ ”
Although the exhibition, which is scheduled for a three-year international tour of more than 20 venues, was completed long before the L.A. riots, organizers have added eight riot-related images by Los Angeles photographers Stevens, Kirk McKoy, Lester Sloan and Bruce Talamon in an effort to complete their picture of the African-American experience.
“When we began ‘Songs of My People,’ we wanted to deal with as many social issues as we could,” said D. Michael Cheers, the project’s co-editor and the Maryland-based photographer behind several of the show’s most prominent images. “Clearly, this shows an element of our rage and frustration.”
Said McKoy, a Los Angeles Times photographer whose other images in the show include a portrait of Atallah Shabazz, the daughter of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X: "(This show) couldn’t come at a better time for L.A. We need to see some images of positive things going on in the black community, not just people out destroying things. In (Washington) D.C., when the show opened, we were really celebrating, but it’s different here. Now it’s about looking back, and seeing a part of yourself, and a part of a community that still is not settled and not quite whole.”
Photographer Sloan, who has covered Los Angeles for Newsweek for 20 years, said he hoped viewers wouldn’t place too much emphasis on the riot photos, but instead look at the whole picture “Songs” presents.
“The reality we see in the media (tends to focus only on elements like) the ‘Cosby Show’ and gangbangers,” Sloan said. “But this is a different picture of black America, a body of images that America seldom gets to see. This shows a middle ground, which we have to have if it’s going to work here . . . and which we have to have to demonstrate that we can get along.”
Sloan added: “It’s frightening that nothing like this, at least on this scale, has ever been done before. But it’s time; it’s in the air. And it’s got to be done over and over again.”
“Songs of My People,” Cheers said, was born in May, 1989, with a singular goal in mind: “To make a statement about the negative portrayal of African-Americans in the media.”
“Basically the media sees African-Americans in what I like to call ‘five deadly ways’: as less intelligent than we are, less hard-working, more violent, less universal and less patriotic,” he said. “We all know the statistic that 25% of young black males are in prisons. But if 25% are there, then that means that 75% are not, and they must be doing something right. . . . That’s what we wanted to show. Ordinary people doing ordinary things, and nothing more.”
So Cheers and co-editors Eric Easter and Dudley M. Brooks signed up the 53 participating photographers and sent them throughout the country to capture as many aspects as possible of the African-American experience. They returned with 65,000 images, from which the exhibition is culled.
Among the images featured: a 10-year-old locked in hard concentration as he blows his horn on a New Orleans street corner, graduates celebrating at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, a Chicago bookstore owner opening his corner shop for the day’s business, and a 97-year-old Washington woman shimmying in a hula hoop.
The exhibition depicts everything from an elderly voodoo priest in New Orleans’ French Quarter to Muhammad Ali and his family praying toward Mecca. It includes a series of photos depicting a Maryland doctor performing brain surgery on a 9-month-old baby, and a touching series of a Washington woman giving birth to a healthy 8-pound baby girl. Neighborhood kids play dodge ball in the street by their Appalachian Mountain homes and a San Francisco investment banker fixes her children breakfast before she heads to work.
The show also offers a history lesson of sorts, including shots of various African-American “firsts,” such as Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice; Willie T. Ribbs, the first black Indy car racer; and Sandra Organ, the first black soloist for the Houston Ballet.
Other role models depicted include White House Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan, music producer Quincy Jones, photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks (who also wrote the book’s introduction), tennis player Zina Garrison, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was captured dancing with First Lady Barbara Bush.
But the painful underside is shown as well: in Stevens’ haunting series depicting the horrors of a crack mother giving birth to a premature son, in Cheers’ series chronicling a homeless family panhandling and scrambling for shelter, in E.A. Kennedy III’s shot of a young bespectacled boy peering through an Alabama voting booth with a caption that reads, “Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Nick would only have been able to dream about exercising his right.”
“These are people’s stories who we don’t hear,” said Stevens, who also captured an angry George Thomas, a resident of the Imperial Courts housing project in South-Central Los Angeles, who the caption quotes as saying: “The projects are like a war zone . . . It’s only a matter of time before you become a victim.”
“We need more chances to show guys like him crying out,” said Stevens. “He’s saying things like, ‘we’ve got to look out for the kids’ and ‘we need jobs.’ People like Mr. Thomas are articulate and we need to start listening to what they say . . . and if we do, we’re going to start solving some of these problems we have.”
James V. (Van) Evers, another Los Angeles photographer included in the show, who is the son of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, agreed: “The show brings up a lot of pride; it shows us that that positive image is out there, and bringing it to view helps black Americans, white Americans, Indian Americans, everybody, because normally, you never see us put up in a frame.
“We need to bring about a positive image of black America through the media. It’s a way to say that, yes, we can do these things, we can vote, we can have our dreams, and this is a part of our life.”