REFLECTING ON A PHOTOGRAPH WITH EMORY UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT JAMES WAGNER

Carlton Mackey and Emory President James Wagner.

Carlton Mackey and Emory President James Wagner.

How do I express in words the multiple layers that this photo represents?

I’ve been staring at this photo all morning long trying to make sense of its multiple levels of meaning.  I remember so clearly the afternoon it was taken.  You couldn’t have asked for a better day.  I was buzzing along with excitement at the opportunity to not only be photographed by the renowned photographer Dawoud Bey, but to be chosen to sit with the president of the university for what would mark the end of a five year university wide project called Transforming Community Project (TCP).  TCP, as the website suggests, was born out of racial conflict among faculty but led to an effort to have the entire institution rethink and confront its own race history.  The project began in 2005 as a five-year project and was actually funded by the President’s Office as a Strategic Initiative.

I can recall with vivid detail sharing a small bench with President Wagner just outside of his office.  I can remember being as enthralled in our conversation as I was fixated on every move that Dawoud made.  As a photographer myself, I was admiring Dawoud’s deliberate movements…his conscious tactics to make President Wagner and I forget about his presence and focus on the moment that we were having with each other.  President Wagner and I did share a great moment that day.  It was one of many encounters that I’ve had with him over the course of a decade at this university –both as a graduate student at Candler School of Theology and now at the Center for Ethics.

Dawoud Bey shows film drafts of photo from Emory Project. Photo by Travis Levius.

Dawoud Bey shows film drafts of photo from Emory Project. Photo by Travis Levius.

When I stare at this photo today, I am dizzied by the complexity it presents to me.  All at once I am struck by the irony of the occasion that brought us together –the “culmination” of a campus wide conversation about race.  I am struck by the intensity in both of our eyes.  I am struck by the text that accompanies both of our images.  I am struck by the power of hearing both of our voices read the text aloud.

In re-reading that text today I can’t help but to hear even more loudly my own voice as well as the resonating voices of those who in some ways are at the heart of today’s debate.  I hear the voices of “those who came before me” whose spirits escaped their bludgeoned bodies before they were swallowed by the sea.  I hear the voices of the “mighty cloudy of witnesses” they form as they watch over and create a “hedge of protection” around me.  I hear the voices of those who survived the passage who ultimately became my grandmother, father, mother, me.

I hear the voice of President Wagner as he repeatedly references me by name in his statements.  I hear his final sentence in ways that I never did out of all the times I’ve previously read it:

It is owing more fundamentally to who I am, and the deliberate effort not to lose who I am in what I do, that I find motivation and satisfaction in service to Emory, to people like Carlton.

As much as I try, I can’t escape my own final words either.  My ultimate statement to the President, to you, to anyone reading and looking at my face in this photograph was/is:

I am you

…and I am coming to understand the infinite possibilities of what it means to accept the fact that you too are a part of me.

With these words, President Wagner and I marked the end of TCP.  I think about the fact that nearly three years after TCP closed shop, we may have all witnessed the moment that leads to its grand reopening.

----- (From http://transform.emory.edu/)

I am Carlton Mackey. I am Pearl Taylor’s grandbaby. I am Carl and Burnell Mackey’s son.I am Kari Mackey’s husband. I am the ancestor’s breath. I am the living expression of all those who came before me; and, one day, I’ll join them on the shore by the sea. I am being watched over by a mighty cloud of witnesses. I am on a journey. I am on a quest to discover parts of me that I never knew existed.I am an artist. I believe in the power of art to transform the world.I am broken but am being made whole. I am intricately linked to the earth. I am part of God’s creation. I am you. I am coming to understand the infinite possibilities of what it means to accept the fact that you too are a part of me.  -Carlton Mackey, 2010

Who am I? We are seldom asked that question but are frequently in situations where we are expected to answer it. In social introductions, we are asked, “What do you do?” In my case, I am expected to answer, “I am (AM!) the president of Emory University.” (Indeed, it is because of the expected answer to that question that I was even offered the privilege to share this frame with Carlton.) Perhaps the difference in answering “I am president” instead of answering “I do president” may seem to be a semantic issue to many. But to me it matters. In my career position, serving Emory by doing the president’s job, the challenges and opportunities are numerous and at times even dangerously seductive. It is possible to fill nearly every waking moment with thoughts and activities guided only by the demands and desires of the institution—a situation that is potentially intoxicating sometimes in the most toxic sense of the word. Who I am is much more personal—husband, father, brother, son, citizen, struggling child of God. . . . It is owing more fundamentally to who I am, and the deliberate effort not to lose who I am in what I do, that I find motivation and satisfaction in service to Emory, to people like Carlton. -James Wagner, 2010

See more photos and hear President Wagner and me in our own voices HERE

--- 50 SHADES OF BLACK is about celebrating beauty and exploring sexuality & the complexity of skin tone in the formation of identity.  It is a collection of personal stories from around the world that will culminate in an accompanying book, art exhibit, and educational materials.  Created by Carlton Mackey.