Picturing Black History

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Transcript: Booker T. Washington Reframed, an Interview with Kwabena Slaughter

Kwabena Slaughter

My article is tied in with the events at Tuskegee that was a celebration of their 25th anniversary. A lot of photographs were taken of the campus, you know, for that event, both as promotional stuff in advance of the event, and then during the event, and then, you know, distributing to journalists and stuff afterward. And when you look at them, you can see all of these things that the photographers were doing to facilitate making the good photo. So in a lot of the spaces on campus, like the indoor spaces on campus, you can tell that the photographer hung drapes or closed curtains in different places to block the natural light coming in, so that the light wouldn’t be shining directly into the camera and messing up the photo exposure. There’s even one photo I saw where it’s like a portrait of some people sitting in a chair with a black backdrop behind them, but it seems like maybe the backdrop hadn’t been fully opened out or the camera got knocked off, so you can kind of see through the side of the drape, and you can see the rest of the room in the campus building on that side of the photo. So that stuff tells you that, like, this wasn’t just a case of somebody coming in with the device and pointing and shooting. This was orchestrated. They had to plan and map out and strategize this act of documenting this moment in time. And it’s those things that I think to start to flesh out, for me, my interpretation of what was going on there. Recently, I was communicating with the archivist at Tuskegee Library. They just shared some documents with me that showed that the school, I think, understands itself. That it was very technologically advanced during that period, in the early 1900s. There was more electricity distributed to the buildings in Tuskegee than there was in the city of Auburn. The scholarly analysis of that speech that Washington gave in 1895, that became like a roadblock for more investigation, you know, more analysis, more engagement with, I think maybe some people just kind of wanted to stay away from the subject because it got such a negative response. But there’s just still so much more there. And I feel like on campus, at Tuskegee, the students knew it, the teachers knew it, and, you know, I think Washington did a lot of efforts to try to get people to come there and see what was going on there. You know, instead of just reading articles and reviews in the newspaper, actually, you know, come over here and see what we got. This was a unique place at that time.