Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

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Transcript: Damarius Johnson, a Picturing Black History Interview

Damarius Johnson

My name is Damarius Johnson. I’m a third year PhD student in the Department of History at Ohio State University. I primarily study African history, but I also study African American History and museum histories, both in the United States among African American history museums, and also in Senegal. I’m also an associate editor on the Picturing Black History team where my primary function is to identify and recruit authors who want to contribute to the project, both who have a passion for communicating African American history to the public, so that they can teach us as the editorial team and also our readership. Why these lesser known histories are important to remember, and why these images are iconic representations of these lesser-known histories. So history is part of that backstory of understanding what came before, as we try to imagine how the future could be we look at how past people found themselves in similar circumstances. So I think that it’s very important to focus on lesser-known stories of African American history because it reveals actors which aren’t typical, prominent or primary figures in the African American history curriculum and in the American history curriculum broadly. One of my contributions as a writer for the Picturing Black History project was to write an article, “International Networks”, which really is a chronicle of the ways in which African Americans had been involved in African independence struggles in the 1960s, and the ways in which the connections between continental Africa and the African Diaspora involve partnerships and collaboration on both sides of the event. So one of the photos that I selected that I found in Getty’s archive that really struck my attention was an image of Jomo Kenyatta, who was the first president of independent Kenya, and Thurgood Marshall, who was the first African American Supreme Court justice. Now, this photo is a representation of the kind of political history that allow for their collaboration, in that Thurgood Marshall would be part of drafting the first constitution of Kenya and of course, Jomo Kenyatta would assume the role as president in independent Kenya. So they had a great deal of conversations as they’re preparing for this very sobering, important political moment. But this image captures them in jest, which for both figures, is an important part of the kind of visual archive that we have, in that Thurgood Marshall is often represented in a very serious and stoic manner as is Jomo Kenyatta. So, to capture these two figures, demonstrates the kind of warm and friendly relationship that existed between the two men. I really want you to think about the long history of police brutality in this country. The Gilligan case is an incident of police murder that happens in Harlem in 1964, in which Thomas Gilligan, an off-duty Lieutenant police officer in Harlem shoots and kills James Powell, who’s a 15-year-old African American teenager. And this essay is a chronicle of the, kind of, local outrage among residents in Bed Stuy in New York, and also the larger response from the African American community during the Civil Rights era across the United States, and some of the calls for police reform and police oversight that we saw in the 1960s, which have continued to the present. One of the important images captures the kind of long history of African American protests in New York, and we see that in a placard held by one of the men that reads, “If we must die, let it be with weapons in our hands”. This image is iconic, because it refers to a previous moment of black protests in New York City. The phrase “if we must die” is an allusion to a 1919 poem published by Harlem Renaissance poet, Claude McKay, which captures the long history of African American protests. McKay’s poem was published in 1919, which is referred to by historians as the “Red Summer”, which is another moment of African American protest and resistance, racial brutality, racial violence. And by capturing this phrase of Claude McKay, what the protester demonstrates, is that African American protest is not only a reaction to the politics of the day, to an immediate circumstance, but as part of a long continuum of African American resistance, and that protesters … link themselves to the past as a response to the present. And one of the ways that we can see this kind of relationship between the past and the present is in this placard. What I want to communicate to our readership is the importance of Carter G. Woodson, who was known as the father of black history. As for me, one of the towering figures that has allowed for the kinds of digital history projects, which would include Picturing Black History. So one of the images that I chose for this essay is an image of Ronald Reagan in 1984, February 1984, unveiling the postage stamps to honor the life and work of Carter G. Woodson. This image represents the kind of mainstream of African American History, but we also should consider that 1984 is an election year. Jesse Jackson is launching his first attempt at the presidency and the surrounding context of African American interests and optimism helps us to understand some of the reasons why Ronald Reagan would have taken this opportunity to unveil the stamp and to honor African American history. Because one of his potential challenges is Jesse Jackson, who had great influence and prominence among African Americans and a diverse community of Americans. The mainstream of African American History can be molded and shaped to serve multiple purposes in different audiences. What struck me about the second image that I chose, which pictures, really, a black community event, what we have as a staple activity during Black History Month that occurred this image in February 1980. What we see here is a black bookseller who was selling his books to a community of black patrons and pictured behind them is a placard that reads “black history and liberation”. And what this placard visualizes is that black history and liberation is the compelling interest that draws together folks across the country to engage in celebrating this holiday and that in Woodson’s life, we see his constant assertion that Black history is at the core of this ability to reimagine how American society can be. And also, African histories that span the globe are relevant to African Americans in the United States. All of these elements are important themes of Carter G. Woodson’s life and work represents, in a protest struggle which is still ongoing.