When text fails us, the photograph can tell the story

Event Review by Kathryn Lackey

The Civil Rights Movement may conjure names like Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, or Jim Crow. Rarely, when speaking of the movement against second-class citizenship, is this historical era approached from the perspective of children. So when I saw that Dr. Katharine Capshaw, Associate Professor of English at UConn was giving a talk at San Diego State University titled, “Freedom (and Fury) Now: Civil Rights Photographic Picture Books for Children,” I found myself intrigued at the prospects of such an interesting lecture.

Dr. Capshaw was enthusiastic about her topic, with a PowerPoint presentation full of photos to pull our eyes away from the lackluster IMG_1917environment in San Diego’s Love Library. Her lecture was based on her forthcoming book, Civil Rights Childhood: Photo Books and Liberation (Minnesota 2014) connecting photography to the stories of black children. She used photos from the photographic picture book, Today (1965), published by the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), one of the first “Head Start” programs in the United States. Dr Capshaw argued that photography can help us uncover the silenced voices of black youth living in Mississippi in the 1960s. Text, she reminds us, does not always tell the story; we must look to fill in the blanks with photographs as a guide.

Dr. Caphaw moved through her presentation fairly quickly, a seeming mix of both excitement and nerves. Some of the stories pulled from the photos were easier to follow than others, and a few photos required a stretch of the imagination to envision the story. A particularly interesting IMG_1925picture was children playing with blocks. This picture, Dr. Capshaw explained, captured elements of the societal state of Mississippi at that time. The children play in the foreground, but in the background we see rows of chairs, a stage, and a lectern suggesting that this space also served as a meeting place for adults. The picture has a tone of precariousness represented by the block structures. The tension and threat of white violence in their social environment is represented by the instability underlying this image, as we know that these blocks will fall.

Another series of photos contained white doctors working with black children. Regardless of the intentions behind the involvement of these doctors, it provoked anxiety in these children, reflecting their fear of white intervention. In the first picture of the series a doctor’s arm stretches ominously down from the top of the picture frame, “a disembodied white hand,” Dr. Capshaw called it. The hand rests on topIMG_1929 of a black child’s head, seemingly pulling it backwards, while the boy’s mouth opens wide. The children at CDGM captioned the photo, “Look at that boy with his mouth open. The doctor looking for a cold.” Another photo in the sequence is a very upset black child in a white person’s arms. The children’s caption reads, “He’s crying cause he don’t want the doctor to doctor on him.” Medical care was an important component of CDGM and the common expectation is of happy children, finally getting medical attention. Instead of excitement however, these photographs illustrate the children’s sadness and frustration with this experience. Even though medical care was necessary and helped the children, they viewed these doctors as outsiders.

I appreciated Dr. Capshaw’s attempt to show that pictures, like texts, can be manipulated. She explained, “If this were a book aimed at distribution to white philanthropists in the north…the depictions of healthcare would be celebratory.” The unreliability due to bias behind a photo’s creation was an interesting perspective to entertain during this particular lecture. If the pictures are chosen to represent the message that the author wants to present, was Dr. Capshaw suggesting that she too was guilty of manipulating the pictures she chose?

But Dr. Capshaw didn’t tackle this discomfort, instead moving into the portion of her talk that she described excitedly as the “joyful, freedom section.” As we began to approach the end of our time, she worked quickly to connect the children to the Black Arts Movement with both photography and poetry. Children were important to this movement because they represented a revitalization to black culture, rejecting the strictures of conventional white culture. Black arts poetry in particular rejected the white versions of literacy, and reinvented language. Using “Poems by Kali” published in 1970 by an eight-year-old poet, Dr. Capshaw explains that this book “articulates her fury at white oppression” particularly oppressive white children’s culture. Psychological corruption begins in childhood, she adds.

I saw this presentation as a part of a larger movement of relevance. Linking these photos and poetry to the social reality of black children in the South during this time period is important work towards giving space and value to their unique experience. Dr. Katharine Capshaw’s project to explore confusion, anger, and injustice through the children’s eyes is valiant, and seeing these stories in photos expanded my perspective of the Civil Rights to include children.

Photography is not stagnant, Dr. Capshaw explained as the evening presentation came to a conclusion. Photos represent vision, process, and possibility, an important source for those that have been silenced. After all, Dr. Capshaw reminds us, we should work hard to make sure the elite never speak for the downtrodden. She closed by encouraging us look for those voices that have been silenced in our professions. Then, she said, work to make sure those voices are heard.



Katharine Capshaw is Associate Professor of English at UConn and Editor of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Her forthcoming book, Civil Rights Childhood: Photo Books and Liberation (Minnesota 2014), examines texts from the 1940s to the present day. Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana 2004), Smith’s first monograph, won the Children’s Literature Association’s best scholarly book award.


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