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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

This is billed as “the first documentary to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity aspirations and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present.” And that’s what director Thomas Allen Harris does. His film features photos of normal African-American families from their own photo albums. Photographers, historians, and journalists talk about the history of America’s black population. They mention the cartoon-like imagines furthered by Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Uncle Ben’s rice, Nigger Head golf tees and stove polish. There were 86,000 black soldiers in the U.S. Civil War and thousands in the Vietnam war. The World’s Fair in 1900 in Paris featured A Small Nation of People, an exhibit of American Negroes. There are photos of lynching and blacks on display like animals in a zoo (think Hagenbeck’s Tierpark here in Hamburg in the 1870s).
Harris takes us through the film like turning the pages in a photo album. He studied African-American history in Harvard (after his high school counselor advised him to go into music or sports, “the only two fields open to Negroes”).  He began collecting photos of his own family: mother, siblings, his father who abandoned the family, the aunt who passed as white. He realized that his own family was just a teeny part of the big picture, with few photographs collected before 1960, and soon collected 15,000 photographs from the U.S. and Europe; he chose 900 for the film. The film refers to at least 50 people (mostly black, some white), who were, or are, somehow influential in the emergence of the African-American, often through journalism, from James Baldwin to D.W. Griffith to George Eastmann (of Eastmann camera) to W.B. DuBois to Spike Lee. Sometimes there are too many talking heads, but that’s just a small complaint.
Harris has established a Digital Diaspora Family Reunion L.L.C., First World Family in an effort to encourage many more people to submit photos. See www.DDRF.tv or www.DigitalDiaspora.com to see many photos and to sign up to send your own treasures. At the Berlinale Mr. Harris distributed small photo albums among the guests so that they could begin to collect photos. His film showed at the Sundance film festival, which also supported his idea from the beginning.
I was especially interested in the film because, although not black myself, I have noticed a sudden surge of interesting films about Africa-Americans, e.g., The Help or The Butler. Perhaps these lightly portrayed black lives. But then came Twelve Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station and I could see a pattern. Black people were finally beginning to use film as a way to tell their important stories and draw attention to their plight. Why did it take so long? Why did it take more than 200 years before they began to emerge? This was my question for Mr. Harris. After all, the Jewish people began writing and filming about their suffering during World War II and this was just a small part of their recorded history over hundreds of years. Mr. Harris said that the difference between reporting on the African-American diaspora versus the Jewish diaspora was first of all: money. It takes money to publish a book or make a film. He said that the Jewish people enjoyed a firm relationship within the extended group. Due to institutionalized racism, blacks did not have access to openings in society upon which to build and upon which they could communicate and support one another. Now perhaps many barriers have fallen and we can only hope that the trend to present the fate of African-Americans will continue. And Mr. Harris will collect many more photographs. (Becky Tan)

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