Take a look
10th September 2012 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
One of my favorite pastimes is surfing the Internet to view images of people of African descent. I have noticed that it is both relaxing and empowering to look into the eyes of Black people whose images tell fascinating stories of days gone by but somehow still have relevance for the things people of color face today.
It started out a few years ago during Black History Month as simply a way to find inspiration during my spare time but has evolved into something much deeper for me. And the older the images, the better.
I might grab a cup of herbal tea, put on a Roy Hargrove CD and dive into these images. I often lose track of time when perusing these images, so much so that I have to force myself to look at the clock routinely.
There is something that is educational and uplifting about looking into the eyes of a woman, man or child who has known rivers, someone whose eyes convey the depth and profundity of the things he or she has experienced.
When I was growing up, there was a photo in my home of a soldier of color whose piercing eyes haunt me to this very day. Every time I passed by this photo I was compelled to look into the soldier’s eyes and wonder what he was experiencing when the photo was taken. Was he having a good day? Did the brother have any doubts about his decision to join the armed forces? Was he thinking about his loved ones back home?
My pops, the late Dr. Lancelot S. Lewis Sr., also had some photos of his days serving in the army during the Korean War. I was moved by the camaraderie he shared with the other soldiers and the connection they seemed to have with the people of Korea. There were more than a few photos of them hanging out with Koreans, a far cry from the images of U.S. soldiers being distrusted and shunned by the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries today.
On different days I might tackle a variety of subjects. I might spend time, for example, visiting images of Black schoolchildren one day, taking time to compare the things I see in these photos with memories of my own formative years in school. Some of these photos are amazing and could potentially serve to make today’s young people gain a greater appreciation of the things they have in public schools. There are photos of students learning in bare-walled and barely standing wooden buildings with no heaters, air-conditioning, lighting or indoor plumbing. They are, nevertheless, happy to be sitting in these classrooms and eager to learn.
On another day I might visit images of Black women in all their natural splendor. College women, church folk, women in hair salons, female sharecroppers, runway models, the whole nine. Their beauty always shines through.
As I’ve shared my thoughts about these images and their tremendous power to inspire me and raise my consciousness, some of my friends and colleagues have forwarded original images of Black people to me. At some point, I plan to use these images to decorate the walls of my home. I am working on a collection of photos that I have decided to call “The Souls of Black Folks,” keeping in mind that the eyes have long been believed to be the windows to the soul.
I’m actually still waiting on a few images from Washington, D.C. photographer Steve Cummings, one of my fraternity brothers from college whose amazing photos of Black people have graced the walls of homes, galleries and museums and left me gasping in incredulity when I saw a couple of them. One of his images, a black and white photo of one of our college classmates and his son, will definitely make the wall of fame. He gave me that one when we were still in college and I have held onto it as one of my prized possessions.
A few years back, Steve put together a collection of his photos that captured the quiet strength and dignity of elderly Black men in hats that is timeless. Although these photos were taken recently, they could easily have been taken in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s. He also shot an image of a Black kid in a suit headed to church on a sunny Sunday morning that no words can describe. Although this youngster is clearly in elementary school, the wisdom and fire in his eyes belie his youth.
In my mind’s eye, this is high art.
Like all of Her/His creations, the Most High used master craftsmanship and ingenuity to make us beautiful and visually striking human beings. I think all of our lives are enriched when we come to understand that every human being on the planet is a reflection of God’s love for us and a testament to Her/His awe-inspiring benevolence and grace.
Whether you’re looking at an image of an African child playing in the South African township of Soweto, an immaculately dressed Black businesswoman in Chicago or a dirt-poor kid sitting on a porch in the Mississippi Delta, the beauty shines through. It is a light that connects us with one another and leads us to a greater understanding of and appreciation for the Creator and Her/His bountiful blessings.
Keep the Pablo Picasso, Van Gogh and Michelangelo masterpieces. I’ll trade them in in a heartbeat for images of Black children playing on the streets of New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians, second-lines, family portraits from the early days of the 20th century, sisters in their Sunday best and old folks watching over the village from the vantage point of their raised porches.
I strongly encourage everyone who reads this to devote a little time to look into the eyes of those who came before us. Celebrate yourself by celebrating the beauty and rhythm and sass of others who look like you. Help your children and children’s children to gain a deeper understanding of who they are by sharing with them images that tell their story.
These images have the power to ennoble, empower and transform lives by making all of us acutely aware of the greatness that lies within every man, woman and child on the planet.
These images are so much more than old pictures from a time long gone. They are a connection with previous generations and a way to commune with the ancestors and get a better idea of from whence we have come and the troubles we’ve seen. They are also a link to our past and a way to observe, celebrate and tap into the beauty, strength, power, dignity, grace, humanity and resilience of Black people.
This article was originally published in the September 10, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper