For her exhibition “Archival Impulse and Poverty Pornography”, artist Ayana V. Jackson reproduced a series of photographs. These photographs re-imagined the still shots of a time long past. The imagery interrogated history in its very re-imaging: the black female body repurposed and re-centered as subject and subjects. Each photo, unique in its creation. Amongst the works, I found myself engaged in one particular photograph of Ayana. Along a hill resided the copied bodies of Ayana herself, peering out towards the audience. At the top of the hill was Ayana herself, dressed in white. The contrast made it so that she appeared as if she was glowing, transcending above the bodies that resided below. I was fascinated by this photo in its detail and in its subtle beauty. In that moment, I could have not imagined the horrors that lie behind its inspiration. Its history is found in a dated photo taken in the Congo; a white female missionary perched on top of a hill, surrounded by local men and women. The distinction between the two is purposefully thick. This woman, a seeming savior of the black bodies that surround her. But what about the lives of the locals in the photograph? Who was it who really needed saving? The people or the woman elevated above them?
The memory of this photograph brings me to the question of the utterance of “I” and “us” in narrative form.
Who gets to tell our stories?
The ones of the breaking, twisting, bending and waving. Who gets to speak of our journeys across the water to take us home? The one among the thorns, aching with every step?
Not too long ago the internet found itself in odds with Louise Linton and her recollection of her “nightmare” year in Africa. Published in the Telegraph, the excerpt from her book told of her so-called perilous journey in the country of Zambia, replete with inaccuracies ranging from misplaced names to out of sequence events. In response, Twitter users created #LintonLies, detailing the frustrations of many who had grown tired of the recycled narratives of a dangerous African continent. Though Linton apologized, it was troubling to witness the willingness to publish untruths, let alone consume them as matter of reality.
Western writers have long imagined a “dark” Africa, an immense nothingness which required a European presence. This process took the vast cultures, histories, languages and traditions and fit them into one singular narrative. One in which Eurocentric morals and aesthetics prevailed. The episode hearkened back to the propensity of slave narratives to be preceded by introductions by white authors, written to verify their truthfulness. Even today, in the age of Black Lives Matter, white authors produce essays and articles detailing the horrors faced by blacks in America, often met with resounding applause. Many of those same stories shared by those experience blackness themselves, only to be sifted through for their truthfulness. There are certainly exceptions to both, but it begs the question, whose words really matter? The answer should be a resounding “those from whose lips they leave”. However, in a white supremacist society, words of the marginalized are replaced by those at the center, a literary representation of the woman in white surrounded by black bodies. The internet has created a medium to sort through the misconceptions about blackness. From writing about our pasts to our futures, blacks always have had the capacity to tell our own stories, share our own lives, picture our own spaces. However, as long as mainstream culture allows skewed representations of blackness to persist, #LintonLies will never be the exception.
I think of the photograph of the woman on the hill often. I think of the stories she told of her experiences. I imagine the stories of those who sit at her feet, watchful of the lens; perhaps yearning for someone to tell their story.