SPEAK FOR YOURSELF
University of San Diego, USA
Michael Bilsborough, Parker Bright’s protest at the Whitney Biennale. 2017. Courtesy of Michael Bilsborough.
This is Scott W.H. Young's post on Twitter of Michael Bilsborough's photograph. It depicts Parker Bright's protest in front of Dana Schutz' 2016 painting at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Schutz, a white woman, painted one of David Jackson's 1955 photographs from Jet magazine of Emmet Till. A black 14-year-old boy, Till was murdered by two white men. His mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, invited the press to her son's open-casket funeral.
Most followers of this story focus on the painting, rendering these layers of agency invisible. That kind of viewership abbreviates the politics of dissemination. Focus first instead on Parker Bright’s body, photographed by Bilsborough, by the two people in the foreground of his frame, and probably by many others, whose pictures were not appropriated from Twitter. It’s not Schutz who hijacked contemporary communication for civil rights; it’s Bright.
The internet amplifies protest images even more than Jet Magazine’s circulation numbers in 1955 could, but the precedent of black publishing in the U.S. begins in the 18th century with pamphleteering meant to correct fake news. In 1827, Freedom’s Journal was the first newspaper owned, edited, and published by black Americans. It led to The North Star, The Crisis, and so many others even before World War I. In other countries, of course, liberation journals evolved as well: La Dépêche africaine, La Revue du monde noir and Légitime Défense are only some examples of those which emerged in Paris between the World Wars.
Black publishing is self-representation. Even when it includes white mediators, as in Bilsborough's photograph, it emphasizes the subject position assumed by the black author. Self-representation was a key argument in early photographic philosophy, delivered by Frederick Douglass in the context of the abolitionist movement. He spoke in 1861 about the political and personal power photography bestowed on those without fame or fortune, now in charge of their own images, as he was of his. In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois used photography at the Paris Exposition to visualize the success of black Americans since abolition.
Part of self-representation is also the capacity to speak critically of one’s own conditions, as when Ida B. Wells used photographs of lynchings in 1893 for her pamphlet, “The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Whether with positive or negative depictions, representations within identity networks are what Du Bois sanctioned as propaganda in 1926. He wrote, tellingly, that white artists should be empowered to speak critically of their own conditions, rather than to speak only of the human degradation of black people.
While Alain Locke disagreed with Du Bois about art’s value as propaganda, this very dialectic during the forty years that frame the turn of the 20th century is a foundation for the arguments we have today. The lack of integration of this dialectic into representation’s wider canon adds insult to injury in cases wherein visual literacy fails; this is all of our loss. The consequence of this history goes beyond the question of blackness and can shift our practices concerning the dissemination of all manner of spectacle, let alone that of black death.