Struggling up out of the darkness

An apparently simple photograph by Roy DeCarava carries the weight of history, of perseverance

Object Lesson


To "go underground," in modern parlance, is to enter a kind of exile, to become an outcast, to embark upon a fugitive journey menaced by unknown threats.

In modern literature, the descent into the underground described in such works as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground (1864) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) is both a physical and moral journey. The theme also recalls the epic journeys of Orpheus and Odysseus, Dante and Virgil.

In all cases, it entails a confrontation with the violent, primal forces of death, darkness and the irrational. If the fugitive manages to surmount them, he may emerge a sadder but wiser individual; if not, they will destroy him.

Photographer Roy DeCarava, who is the subject of a major retrospective at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York through March 11, gave his 1952 image of a Harlem resident returning from work the unassuming title Man Coming Up Subway Stairs.

But the picture is really about much more than that. It is about the eternal struggle of the downtrodden against the implacable forces of a hostile world and capricious fate.

DeCarava undoubtedly was familiar with the tragic heroes of Dostoyevsky and Conrad's novels, as well as with author Richard Wright's 1947 short story The Man Who Lived Underground, a tale of a black man forced to flee below ground into the sewer system after being falsely accused of heinous crimes. (The image also echoes the central metaphor of Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man, published the same year the photograph was made.)

DeCarava's weary workman, with his battered fedora, worn shirt and jacket balled up under his arm, doesn't look like a criminal. Yet we know from the picture's date that American society of that era was accustomed to treat him as an outcast because of the color of his skin.

What the picture also shows, however, is the determination with which he makes his ascent from fugitive status toward the light. He's moving on up, despite all the obstacles that life has strewn in his path.

He recalls the woman in Langston Hughes' poem Mother to Son -- "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair ... But I'se still climbin' " -- or the perpetually rising melody of the Negro spiritual Jacob's Ladder.

The grim set of his mouth shows that he, too, is still climbing, like Sisyphus, despite his heavy burden of cares. And in his ascent into visibility, he embodied the hopes of a generation of African-Americans for a more just society.

What DeCarava's photograph finally reveals is the stubborn human refusal to accept exile as a permanent condition, not just for black people at the dawn of the modern Civil Rights Movement, when the picture was made, but for the millions of people around the globe today who seek to lead lives of human dignity and self-determination. They all are that man, doggedly climbing the steps into the light again.

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