In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote pointedly of the need to study the past to give meaning to the present. He also wrote in his book that “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America—or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans.”
This Discovery Kit looks at the past experience of African Americans in America through the photographic record that remains. It is based on a past George Eastman House exhibition: Blacks in America: A Photographic Record. The photographs in the exhibition are drawn solely from the Eastman House collection; consequently, this photographic record is not complete. It does not detail the full spectrum of the history of African Americans in America, nor does it portray all of the leaders who made that historical record so rich and meaningful. Yet, it presents a moving story.
In speaking of “the story of the Negro in America,” James Baldwin also wrote that “it is not a very pretty story.” There are instances in this catalogue when the photographic record supports that assessment in a vivid way. However, more of the photographs illustrate a positive “story of Americans“ — portraits of important figures who helped forge American history, as well as many other African Americans, whose names we do not know, as they lived through their experiences from the mid-1800s to the early 1980s.
Nowhere is the story of African Americans in America told more movingly than in the books, poems or speeches of African Americans themselves. The tragedy of slavery, for example, can best be felt through the “narratives” of ex-slaves, such as in Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, or in poetry, such as Frances E. W. Harper’s “The Slave Auction.” The meaning of the demonstrations of the 1960s comes most clear through Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “The Negroes of America... shook off three hundred years of psychological slavery and said: ‘We can make ourselves free’.”