'Songs of My People' 150 photos are a self-portrait of African Americans

December 18, 1991|By Wiley Hall | Wiley Hall,Evening Sun Staff

THE EDITORS titled their newly published photographic self-portrait of black America "Songs of My People." But it is more like a symphony, a symphony of faces, expressions and even body language, a symphony that tugs and pulls and resonates until it creates a powerful, unforgettable emotional crescendo.

There is the 97-year-old Washington, D.C., grandmother, her expression perplexed, wiggling her hips and flapping her arms as she tries to master the hula hoop.

There is the young Los Angeles gang member, his eyes masked by dark glasses, staring intently into the camera as he demonstrates his gang symbol.

And there are the sad, haunted eyes of the 9-year-old Miami, Fla., schoolgirl who dreams of becoming a doctor.

There are accountants and bandits in this collection, young urban professionals and elderly rural laborers, there are pictures of the rich and famous and successful and pictures of everyday, hard-working people.

There is joy and tragedy and all of the subtle shadings of life that fall in between.

"The whole point was not just to have a photography project," said Eric Easter, one of the book's three editors.

"Photography was just the medium we used. The point was to turn around years of negative images of blacks and to give an accurate picture of the whole range of our lives, the good along with the bad."

And so they have. "Songs of My People" is a photographic essay of black America in all of its complexities -- akin to Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era mission to the nation's photographers to produce a photographic day in the life of America.

But Easter said there is one big difference. Roosevelt wanted to document, as dramatically as possible, the nation's misery. The goal of "Songs of My People" is to document black America's normalcy.

"While we were working on this project, we had all of the photos spread out on the floor in our attorney's office -- you know, just going through them -- and one of his partners came in and said, 'Hey! None of these are uniquely African American'.

"Well", continued Easter, "he was right. That's the whole point. We may put our own little spin on things, but basically, African Americans work, live and play just like everybody else."

"Songs of My People" was the brainchild of three young men who created a company, New African Visions, to promote this new image of black America.

The group has a strong Baltimore connection.

Easter, 30, attended Baltimore Polytechnic High School and Howard University. A writer, producer and media consultant, Easter served as press secretary for Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign and currently works in Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder's press office.

Another editor, Dudley M. Brooks, 34, graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School and Morgan State University with a degree in fine arts before becoming an award-winning photographer with the Washington Post.

D. Michael Cheers, 38, grew up in St. Louis, Mo., majored in photojournalism at the University of Missouri and currently is working on a Ph.D. in African Studies at Howard University. Cheers, his wife and three children live in Mitchellville.

In addition, Harriett Cole and Deirdre Wilson, both graduates from Western High School, served on the project staff. Brooks' father, retired Brig. Gen. George M. Brooks, served on the advisory board.

The three men had been nurturing the idea of a photographic self-portrait since 1988.

"I was with Ebony and Jet magazines for 13 years, and their philosophy was to focus on the brighter side of black life, which is cool, but that is not all there is," said Cheers. "Meanwhile, Dudley was with the Post and he would complain about their focus on negativity. What about all of the stories that fell in between, that weren't being told? So we got together, the three of us, and adopted Fanny Lou Hammer's philosophy, 'sick and tired of being sick and tired'. We put together this project and we made it happen."

Last summer, armed with an advance from their publisher, Little, Brown in New York, and several small grants, the three invited some 50 African American photographers to Washington for planning sessions. They handed out assignments, and the photographers went to all corners of the country.

The photographers were given flexibility, but the editors also identified certain themes they wanted explored: pictures of black fathers caring for their children, for instance, images of black family life, as well as black people hard at work in various occupations. They wanted to cover the gamut from blacks on welfare to upper middle class blacks washing their Mercedes automobiles.

The end result has been tremendously successful.

The 150 black and white photographs in the collection also have been organized in a traveling exhibit, which will tour art galleries in 24 cities, beginning with the Corcoran Art Gallery on Feb. 15, 1992. HBO will also feature a documentary on the project in September, narrated by Quincy Jones.

Brooks said he also made a special effort to shoot Baltimore scenes.

"I had never covered Baltimore, and this was a chance to, in a sense, tell the story of my home town," he said.

Baltimore area scenes include two young men waiting for a bus at Pratt and Light streets, a shot of City High's 20th anniversary reunion party at the 32nd Street Plaza nightclub, and a photo essay of Dr. Walker Robinson, chief of neurosurgery and pediatrics at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Unit. There is also a sequence of photographs of the Oblate Sisters in Catonsville.

Meanwhile, the trio who make up New African Visions have begun to plan for their next project: a photo essay of the African continent, using both African American and African photographers. Following that, they plan a project of Africans in Europe, South and Central America, and the Caribbean.

By the year 2000, they said, they hope to have a photographic record of the African diaspora.

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