Liberty Theatre by Rosalind Fox Solomon

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Presented square, shot in black and white, the physicality of the photographs engender a sense of the past. Although most of the photographs are from the 1970s, 80s, 90s, they have a feel from 1960’s; a sense of that period’s naïveté, but also the presumption, entitlement, and hope are seen in the eyes some; resignation, despair and fear in others. Symbols of times gone by: an old indian head coin, a KKK pin, a confederate uniform, suggest causes.

This photographic essay conveys contrasts that existed in our society 30 to 50 years ago: rich and poor; gay and straight; powerful and weak; blacks and whites. These were the many different realities present in our society. Many of these groups were marginalized. Publishing these photographs today returns these stories into the present. They remind us of the segregations in its different forms. It informs us that the divisions and tensions we witness today have been around a long time.

The images had me recall the those from “Gone with the Wind”.  An 80-year-old film presenting events from 150 years ago. A plantation-owner’s view of the time, and what was lost, the culture and privilege that was ‘gone’. A departure often leaves a sense of sadness, but for whom? Not those who were marginalized.  Afro-Americans departed or were forcibly removed from their positions of slavery and servitude to one of freedom, but were they any better off? With freedom comes opportunity, position, independence.   Yet, a 150 years later the master-slave relationship lingers evidenced by police shootings of young black men, and their higher incarceration rates.  

As a metaphor, Solomon’s photograph of the broken gate of a driveway that leads through an unkempt garden towards a well-kept plantation mansion, suggests that the master-slave relationship might be less visible than it once was, but the attitudes remains in good order. The plantation home, as a representation of white supremacy over black slavery, suggests the strength and resilience of that culture.

The photographic essay is followed by one of words, written by photographer and writer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. It was only after reading these words that I came to fully appreciate the narrative of Solomon’s photography. “So I am bound up in a movement between the grand obsolescence of the antebellum slave plantation, and an amnesiac’s escape to freedom …” While there may have been improvement in the lot of the former slaves, the end of the path is still not reached. But the quote refers to amnesia, forgetting those horrors of the past, suggesting forgetting offers a path to free our conscience.

The question, the problem in fact, is how to draw a line that encompasses both ourselves and these histories [slavery, brutality, lynchings, commercialism…] and yet seeks to claim them in the morbid light that they cast on us all in this place, as inheritors of a dream whose radiance is buttressed by so much blood that the telling of it sickens, withers flesh, prompts an instinctual aversion of the eyes? What is it to want this, if this is America?

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“This is not my America” was said by one critic of Frank’s The Americans. The same has been said more recently by many political leaders and movie stars in response to racially motivated actions, such as Charlottesville. This is the third book I have read in recent months touching on the underprivileged, the left behind, marginalised, the racialised. Repeating narratives that bring into focus the decline of some class of people.  I have wondered why this subject is the focus of so much attention? I wonder if it is being diluted and becoming a meaningless trope. I have come to consider these as individual responses to a national problem; to a trauma being experienced by a nation. The memories need to be churned to make sense, to find a way of dealing with them, accepting them, and then resolving them.  These three stories, each a different story but carrying the same meaning, are a form of acting out in an effort to deal with the trauma.

Regardless of all the denials, the fact is, these are a part of America. It is part of the American body, the American mind. It is embedded in the culture. That it is suppressed marks an unwilling to accept the truth. To ignore, then to forget, to make it go away.

This book presents us with the ultimatum: how do we deal with an uncomfortable past.  The United States is not the only country to have a past containing regrettable events. Most, probably all, countries have something.  

The first step is to see the event.  It is incumbent on us to remember, to learn, to avoid, to prevent. Remembering is not simply desirable, it is the only ethical response, because to willingly forget is to accept its return.

The combination of images and text is stunning; the images add dimension to the text; emotion, feel, it is guttural, visceral. 


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