My camera was my passport to gaze at the world in a way that a young smart Black girl growing into womanhood was not allowed to gaze. I/we were not allowed to look, to stare, to question, to participate, to learn, to excel… beyond the constricted rules, and boundaries forced upon us. My camera was my first act of defiance.
It was in the 1970’s New Jersey suburbs that my aesthetic being was awakened. I spent many hours thinking about and making photographs. As a teenager, I fell in love with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s integration of the black frame left by the darkroom negative holder. That black frame encapsulated, in a split second, how I saw the world around me, my decisive moment. Defying the editors “after cut” the black frame forced me to peel back the layers of structural, social, cultural, and aesthetic juxtapositions of people, places, and things in my world. The black frame gave me the discipline to see.
During my youth, my camera was a passport to a world that both excluded and informed my developing sense of self. Through the focal point of marginalization, I vicariously lived the youthful antics of the other Black kids in my neighborhood with whom my only social contact was a daily desegregation bus ride to elementary and junior high school on the south side of town. And I chronicled the youthful antics of the south side white kids who were entitled to learn in racially homogenous college preparatory and honors level classes. Through the power of the photographic gaze, and the magical reveal of a moment frozen in time in my darkroom, I found comfort in framing social situations that informed me of who I was and who I wanted to be. I always had my Konica 35mm camera strapped around my neck. It was an expected signature pendant. One of my school principals took notice of my passion for photography and opened a bottomless account for me at the local photography store to purchase film, darkroom chemicals, and photo paper. I had no idea of the value of my gift.
Just to clarify and challenge the common narrative of the “Black situation”, the Black families in my neighborhood were not poor. We were simply Black and bussed. We were bussed because our town instituted its own flavor of redlining, covenants, and real estate block busting. I did not share classes with other Black kids on my bus as there was an assumption about our neighborhood’s academic potentials. As a matter of fact, my mother a highly regarded elementary school teacher in our town, and father a small businessman, removed me from the public school system when the bussing began and our township tripped over its clumsy racist ideals of change. My parents tried to protect me from the traumas of race politics.
I was sent to an all-girls private school in the nearby Watchung Mountains for second and third grade. Private school introduced its own race issues compounded with classism. But as a child I was taught to love and explore life. My parents enabled and encouraged me to take advantage of all the privileges offered on that private school campus. My memories of that time are fond despite a few incidents with a teacher who hid my oak tag board book reports on famous Black people behind her desk. And yet, I persisted!
In fourth grade, I returned to the public-school system and the bus that split my neighborhood like a knife quartering a side of beef. My parents fought to have me placed in the upper-level college preparatory classes every year until I graduated high school. In a school system with roughly 12% Black students, there was never more than one other Black student in any of my classes. I keep in touch with many of the kids from my childhood, regardless of race, culture, or socio-economic station. Overall, we excelled into our adult lives and we maintain a diverse and inclusive social network. Perhaps one positive outcome from the desegregation efforts that forced the Black neighborhood to be compromised by dissection. But I cannot help but wonder, what if there had been more than one or two Black students in every college preparatory and honors level class that I took? I think about the potentials that were denied and futures shaped by assumptions and constraints of a racists system that defined potential by address.
Oh, “to be young, gifted, and black”!
Next Up: When the Decisive Moment Becomes Imperative