Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Black and White and Read All Over: Photography and the Voices of Richard Wright

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Black and White and Read All Over: Photography and the Voices of Richard Wright

Article excerpt

Richard Wright's 1941 photo-text 12 Million Black Voices reveals a deep conflict between traditional African-American commitments to language and literacy and new possibilities emerging in the medium of photography. Ironically, given its integrationist stance, Black Voices reconstitutes the social separation of races as a separation of media forms.

Immediately after the publication of Native Son in 1940, Richard Wright undertook a commission to write the text for what would prove to be one of the last great Depression-era photo-documentaries, 12 Million Black Voices. The German- born photographer Edwin Rosskam had approached Wright early in 1941 about collaborating on a book that would pair Wright's text with photographs of African-American life drawn from the massive archives of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The project grew larger than either man likely imagined. Wright ended up composing a sprawling 25,000-word portrait of black history and culture, inflected with an incongruous mix of Marxist critique and pulpit oratory. Rosskam, in turn, sifted through thousands of photographs taken during the previous decade and mounted an expedition to Chicago with fellow FSA photographer Russell Lee to produce still more. When Black Voices appeared late in 1941, it contained an impressive body of work by a star-studded lineup of photographers, including Rosskam and Lee, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Marion Post, Walker Evans, and Jack Delano, among others. But it was Wright's name on the cover that helped 12 Million Black Voices sell roughly three times as many copies as James Agee and Walker Evans's Let us Now Praise Famous Men when both books appeared in 1941, an impressive feat given that Black Voices reached shelves just a month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (1)

There are, however, two issues in Black Voices that invite a closer examination of the relationship between its images and its text and, by extension, of the conflicted terrain of black visual culture. The first is so striking that it is surprising critics have not addressed it more directly: with the exception of Wright, who produced a single photograph for Black Voices, all the photographers are white. For an author who had just spoken strongly about segregation in Native Son, it seems surprising that Wright would cede control of the images almost entirely to the white progressives of the FSA. (2) The second issue, which turns out to be related to the first in ways the rest of this essay will explain, involves the peculiar title of Rosskam and Wright's book. While Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White invoked visual witnessing in the title of their Depression photo-documentary You Have Seen Their Faces, Wright named his with a reference to a chorus of voices instead. From its very title, then, Black Voices enforces an entirely traditional separation of words and images along racial lines. Not only did white photographers produce the images while a black writer produced the text, but the very title of the book identifies African-Americans not with images at all, but with the spoken word.

The deepest conflict of Wright's book is thus not represented as a matter of content within the photographs of rural and urban life, but embodied as a matter of form in this fundamental division between black language and white images. Traditional African-American orality, self-consciously translated by Wright into a printed text, proved irreconcilable with the empire of images superintended by white FSA photographers and administrators. Black Voices is not just an ambivalent book, then, but a deeply divided book, one that translates the separate social spheres of blacks and whites into a formal division between words and pictures. Beneath its putative story of migration, segregation, and urbanization, Black Voices is also the story of how the genre of the photo-text could not mix its media any more successfully than American society could mix its racial groups. …

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