In response to a friend inquiring as to whether the images I mentioned in the last post would be available, and defending the dissemination of the same. Edited for length and confidentiality:
I definitely agree that they should be seen—and in fact that is why they are a part of the special collections in the first place. I can’t think of anyone off of the top of my head who would argue that these items really just should never see the light of day. But I myself have experienced some ambivalence about how to deal with them, and I think others have too. In any case, depending on which proposal for using them goes through, I think they will probably be up in the next six or eight months.
Actually anybody can already make an appointment and go look at them. The question I am bringing up here somewhat obliquely is whether the digitization and online dissemination of these items is qualitatively different from, say, aerial views of Dallas, or pictures of locomotives (I’m speaking here not of copyright or other legal issues, but of moral responsibility).
From this ethical point of view there are a good number of decisions to make. Two important ones are these: first, given the limited resources of digital services and the many images of scholarly interest waiting to be made available, should SMU dedicate time and energy putting these items through the quite elaborate scanning and cataloguing process? Second, what sorts of framing should these pieces receive (typically a digital collection will come with a guide or even a more elaborate online exhibit).
On the first note, for the rather grim reasons I suggest, I think they absolutely should be available for study. They teach us something about the cultural work of white power in this country that should chill us to the bone.
Yet it is important to note that they are intended to be humiliating images. Even more, they trade in tropes and stereotypes that are still vividly, consequentially believed in more or less virulent form in all manner of places. So SMU’s responsibility to place the images in the context of political and social dynamics becomes all the more critical. This contextualizing, this framing involves lots of mundane, nuts and bolts stuff—how the content is categorized, what keywords are used, what the collection guide or digital exhibit contains, how as a whole the collection purports to fit with the broader university mission of expanding knowledge. It’s a lot of work and can be done poorly. But doing the online depiction and framing well is a well-funded, very intentional aspect of SMU’s approach to such sensitive matters, so I look forward to seeing how they are brought into the conversation.
Now, somewhat connected back to the first point, there is also a larger, structural question to consider, which regards items not currently in the archives.
The items I have been looking through here and elsewhere are white people’s depictions of black men and women. But these black men and women also documented their own lives; on Emancipation Day and Juneteenth celebrations, for example. It would not be remiss to wonder how yet more Sambo images expand our understanding, and whether a university’s efforts might be better spent seeking out and making public less derogatory representations—Juneteenth photos; or life in old Deep Ellum, especially blues musicians; or a comprehensive set of influential black preachers from Reconstruction on; or homes in once vibrant black or latino/a sites and neighborhoods later obliterated by highway construction. These are just off the top of my head, I am sure there are other, better examples.
In a sense these photographs above, and others like them, are only representations of black life as it was oppressively imagined by white people. For an understanding of how people of color made lives over and against the pressure of white supremacy, we ought to consider their own depictions, their ways of displaying actual patterns of life and creativity and work.
In other words, I want those photographs public because I am curious about the enduring pathologies of white people, not because I think they tell us all that much about the internal realities of black life. How individuals use or deal with the items is of course something the curators cannot really control. But this sort of framing is, I think, significant in these unusually sensitive cases.