This essay is the second in our series, ‘Literature, Visual Imagery and Material Culture in American Studies’. The series seeks to situate literature, visual imagery and material culture at the heart of American studies, and will explore the varying ways in which written and non-written sources have been created, politicised, exploited, and celebrated by the diverse peoples of the United States and beyond. You can find out more information here.
In her essay, ‘Looking Pleasant, Feeling White: The Social Politics of the Photographic Smile’, Tanya Sheehan traces how the history of photography in the United States has fostered an intimate connection between ‘black’ expressions of happiness and ‘white’ feelings. The exaggeration of ‘black’ affect served as a staple of American commercial visual culture in the antebellum period and continued through to the first decades of the twentieth century. In these images, the black boy’s face is brutalised into a ‘watermelon smile’, a caricature which then allows blackface performers to imitate this supposedly natural affect. The smile for the camera contains within it, in these decades, a whole host of racialised signifiers by which white subjects are shielded from their own unruly emotions. The desire to situate the ‘black body as a sentimental resource and/or locus of excess enjoyment’, as Saidiya Hartman writes, becomes intrinsic to commercial portraiture, an ironic gesture which serves to alleviate, through parody, deep seated raced and gendered anxieties. In seeking to historicise these photographs, Sheehan proposes that we acknowledge the ambiguities of the sitter’s smiles – to think about what the expressive faces do not tell us about the photographed subjects who have no option but to smile – and how the toothy grin that the black child is forced to perform conceals the history of how they think and feel.
Images of black children have been central to the co-optation of this performed affect – and also to its resistance. Something of the affective power of this resistance seems discernible in Lee Friedlander’s photographic series ‘Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957’, a sequence of snapshots of some of the 25,000 men, women and children who congregated to give expression to the ideas embattled by the Civil Rights movement in Washington, D.C. The photographs that seem most striking – and which thus seem most important – are those of the children participating in the demonstration – a place where we do not always expect to find them. A revolutionary affect is embodied, in particular, in an image of two children placing a wreath on Lincoln’s memorial (the end image in the collection). Rather than a standard text-image narrative, Friedlander’s images are arranged like a long cinematic take whereby each frame folds into the next one. To quote Friedlander, ‘the material is generous’ and it results in visually sophisticated, humane and psychologically complex portraits of a collective, of which these children play a central part. The other is of a boy, in a scout’s uniform, with a sheath-like stare, an expression of such defiance that it proves hard to look away.
This boy seems to capture something of the political agency of children in this space of demonstration and political protest – of what emerges when we bring a child into the political frame. His fierce, confrontational look at Friedlander, who was given full access to photograph the demonstrators gathered at the memorial, does not let us forget the politics of a white man entering African American space at the same time that it embodies the complexity of black visuality whereby, as Jasmine Cobb writes, ‘the sociality of the visual draws in issues of vision but traffics in so much more than the fickle thing of sight[…] because the articulation of race compounds the significance of the visual’. The social politics of this image might be tritely captured as not looking pleasant, as refusing white feeling, and as embodying a fugitive subjectivity that refuses to allow its body to be read as a site of aesthetic production. The boy makes himself the author of this untitled image – it is his rather than Friedlander’s – and as such it seems to contain the kernel of a revolutionary idea that percolates between childhood publics and revolutionary politics during these years.
African American writers and activists have long seen the potential in foregrounding the image of the child to communicate revolutionary ideas and to imagine what a black futurity might look like. Childhood was at the centre of W. B. DuBois’s project for emancipatory politics. Sometimes these images come in the form of a Trojan horse, as in the red star that shines triumphantly in the boy’s hands in Langston Hughes’ and Arna Bontemps’ children’s book Popo and Fifina (1932). As the boy battles an aggressor ‘hawk’ kite and swiftly defeats it, it is hard not to read too much into the image. At other times, no such paranoid reading is required. The emergence of photo-texts and photographic-literary productions in the 1950s and 1960s, combined with photographs of children in the Civil Rights movements, held enormous power. Many of the most famous photographs of the era represent the threat that the continuation of Jim Crow laws posed to black childhood. We witness what we never should have witnessed (a photograph that defies anyone to claim it for their own): of the post-mortem images of Emmett Till there is nothing that can be said. When Tina M. Campt writes that ‘Do faceless images emit sound? And what ‘can we apprehend in and through their muteness?’, this mode of listening to the frequency of images gives us a vocabulary to listen without reading – without seeking to reproduce its violence or claim it for our own. It is not surprising that questions about representation and abstraction keep circling back to this image. For it says that certain things are off-limits, a knowledge that is not often to be borne, and it proves that even the disfigured corpse of a black child is not enough to move the white gaze from its proprietary calculations.
Looking through photo-texts of these decades, we see children attacked by fire hoses and raging dogs as they take part in the ‘Children’s Crusade’ of 1963; girls imprisoned after the Birmingham Protest; and we witness the Little Rock Nine enter Central High School in 1957, battling their way against the ghost of white rage that howls at their back. It was the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, which outlawed segregation in public schools, and which sparked waves of protest across the south. In Hannah Arendt’s controversial response, ‘Reflections on Little Rock’, she criticises these children’s parents for subjecting them to such violence. For the face of one of the girls ‘bore eloquent witness’, she writes, ‘to the fact that she was not precisely happy’. The girl’s precise unhappiness is an understatement, to say the least, though, it might be more accurate to say that it is a precise misreading of the image’s affective power (for the troubling presence of blackness allows us to read the violence of whiteness unambiguously). What Arendt reads into this ambiguous negative affect might be instead the affective power that emerges when black subjects are depicted entering white space. Revealingly, the critique stems from a position of identification – ‘what would I do if I were a negro mother in this situation?’, she asks.
It is the most revealing of moments in Arendt’s work insofar as her conviction that the political aim of representation is founded on ‘being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not’ – hits up against the complexity of black motherhood and the role of the child in African American politics (the black child is never afforded the innocence that is the white child’s birth right) – and reveals the sharp division between the framework of human rights discourse and Civil Rights America. What Arendt perhaps most overlooked was the central place of photography as a technology of self in establishing an economy of black visuality that short-circuits the way we read an image. The image that seems to speak most powerfully to this predicament – and also to the political valence of childhood publics at mid-century – is Friedlander’s image of the recalcitrant boy – or rather the recalcitrance of the image that the boy allows Friedlander to take of him – his gaze challenging ours, his positioning perpendicular to the seated congregation around him. If the mood of the collection of images is egalitarian, this image of the boy shows what that egalitarian structure looks like – one that does not see the child as belonging to anyone in particular – he is his own person and his own futurity. Friedlander’s lens notes, too, the mother, sitting slightly to the rear and to the right of the boy, next to her two children; her look just as confrontational, her refusal to be solemnly contained in the image as palpable as the boy’s own.
Tanya Sheehan, ‘Looking Pleasant, Feeling White: The Social Politics of the Photographic Smile’ in Feeling Photography eds. Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014), 128.
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century American (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21.
Sheehan, ‘Looking Pleasant, Feeling White’, 147.
Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 6.
Quoted in Maurice Berger, ‘Lee Friedlander’s Overlooked Civil Rights Photos’, The New York Times, February 22 2016.
Jasmine Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York: NYU Press, 2015).
Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, Popo and Fifina(New York: Oxford University Press, 1932), 59.
Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 23.
Hannah Arendt, ‘A reply to critics’, Dissent, 6. 2 (1959), 179.
Hannah Arendt,Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought(London: Penguin, 1961/2006), 257.