January 31, 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America which abolished the forced labor and enslavement of human beings. On June 19, 1865, known as Junteenth the last remaining slaves in America were declared free. It was a day that many enslaved Africans dreamed of, struggled for, and died for in an effort to obtain…but never saw in person.
In 1935 the federal government created a program known as The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). The project employed photographers and writers, who travelled throughout the United States photographing and collecting stories of Americans across a spectrum of society. Among the FWP projects was the Slave Narrative Collection [Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938].
The narratives are a collection of over 2,300 personal accounts of rural, southern African-Americans, the last of a dying generation of Africans born into the horrors of North American enslavement. Though their adult lives were spent in “freedom,” they knew firsthand the limitations of Reconstruction. Many lived under the harsh conditions of segregation and the debt of the vicious system of sharecropping. Though they had been emancipated from the peculiar and brutal system of chattel slavery, they could still only hope and work tirelessly for equality.
It is their sacrifice, resolve, and relentless commitment to resist any system or ideology that saw them as less than a human being that etched the blueprint for generations to follow. This blueprint is their greatest gift. It would serve as the foundation upon which a future they had faith in would come and would be built.
BRINGING THE GIFTS
In 1978 Maya Angelou penned the now famous poem, “Still I Rise.” The poem was initially popularized by its use in a campaign by the United Negro College Fund and the name Maya Angelou itself became ubiquitous for Black Empowerment Poetry after she delivered the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President William Jefferson Clinton in 1993.
The poem “Still I Rise” ends with the refrain: “Bringing the gifts that the ancestors gave… I am the hope and the dream of a slave.” “BRINGING THE GIFTS,” a series of portraits that pairs historic photographs from the Federal Writers’ Project with the photography of contemporary Atlanta artist Carlton Mackey, is a creative re-imagination of that refrain.
At the invitation of Ms. Tiffany Young, descendant of Africans enslaved on Butler Island and creator of the annual Butler Island Plantation Homecoming,Mackey agreed to conduct an Open Photo Shoot of BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE ™, a movement created by Mackey to celebrate and affirm the beauty found in every human being. The Butler Island Plantation Homecoming is an annual event comprised of Butler Island descendants, friends,and supporters who wish to celebrate and remember the ancestors that lived and toiled upon the former rice plantation of Pierce Mease Butler near Darien, Georgia. At its peak more than 500 enslaved Africans worked the plantation. Fanny Kemble, an abolitionist and wife of Pierce Butler, wrote of the life and harsh treatment of those enslaved on the island in “Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839”. Her harsh opposition of Butler’s practices ultimately lead to their divorce. The publication of her journal became an effective tool of the anti-slavery movement and is considered one of the “best primary sources from the point of view of the slave owner of slave life on an early 19th Century plantation” (www.gacivilwar.org/story/butler-island-plantation).
Just days before the event was to take place, Mackey began searching the Internet with the hopes of potentially finding images of Africans who were enslaved in the area of the Homecoming events. Instead, he found several images from the Federal Writers’ Project archive. In the archive he stumbled upon the image of Mr. Henry Brooks. At that verymoment, Mackey claims to have been spoken directly to by the ancestor in the photograph and given instructions for executing a new photo series in lieu of the traditional BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE ™ Open Photo Shoot. Overcome with emotion,Mackey followed instructions and searched for a digital photo of himself taken earlier in the year by Atlanta photographer Bryan Meltz. When he placed his photo next to the photograph of Mr. Brooks, the resemblance was uncanny -both in their physical features and the posing of the two in their respective portraits. The revelation was ultimately clear and the concept for this new series was born.
To create this exhibit, Mackey collected and printed as many photographs taken of Africans formerly enslaved in the state of Georgia as he could from the Federal Writers’ Project and the U.S. Farm Security Administration archives. While at the Butler Island Plantation Homecoming, participants were invited to spend moments in quiet mediation while looking through these photographs.
Each participant was to choose (or be chosen by) one person in the photograph to honor. At various locations on Butler Island itself and throughout the town of Darien, Mackey photographed the participants and invited them to offer written reflections about the process and why they were drawn to a particular image.
The pairing was meant to invoke and awaken the essence of the living participant by creating a direct connection to the ancestor in the photograph. It was meant to foster a heartfelt acknowledgement that through their living, they were the physical embodiment of someone’s “hopes and dreams.”
This series and the process of creating it are also as much about honoring one’s ancestors as it is about reflecting on the nature and meaning of hope. It challenges us to remember the gifts we’ve been given and dares us to ask:
What are the gifts that we bring to the world?
It challenges us to critically reflect on our own hopes for the future and the source of the deep personal longings that reside at the epicenter of these hopes.
What are the responsibilities that we have to make these hopes manifest?
How might our living be a fitting memorial to those who came before us?
BRINGING THE GIFTS was on display at APEX Museum April 25, 2015
Carlton Mackey was the Healthcare Ethics Consortium artist in residence for the 2015 HEC Annual Conference. As part of his residency Mackey presented the inaugural display of BRINGING THE GIFTS at the Emory Conference Center Hotel March 19 & 20.
CONTACT US to inquire about displaying this series