America’s history of racial segregation is a perplexing thing to sort out. It has come and gone and come again, and in so many shapes and shades, that putting the pieces together as a whole to reckon with at once seems an impossible task.
The two-artist exhibit “Segregated Influences” at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center doesn’t build a complete picture, but it does help us to discern the edges of segregation, to see its blatant sides and its subtle margins, to consider both its pure harm and its subversive influences.
Both Wendel White, with his photos of historic schools for African-American children, and Tya Alisa Anthony’s vintage images taken from the pages of magazines marketed to black readers play freely with the material at hand. But each provides evidence of discrimination in its many forms, and offers us a new way to see it.
Perhaps the most startling, and troubling, thing about White’s photographs in “Schools for the Colored” is their geography. His documentary images of segregated schools past are set not in the deep South, as those familiar with U.S. history might imagine, but farther north, in New Jersey and Illinois.
Those regions sided with the anti-slavery north in the Civil War but, simultaneously and for years after, practiced their own way of treating blacks as lesser citizens by prohibiting black children to learn alongside white children.
White’s black-and-white photos demonstrate how widespread this practice was. His buildings range from wooden, one-room schoolhouses in South Jersey farm country to multistory, brick academies in the suburbs of St. Louis. These weren’t anomalies hugging the Mason Dixon line. As White shows us, they went as far north as the Bellevue School for the Colored in Trenton and the Ambidexter Institute in Springfield — and there were scores of them.
But with “Schools for the Colored,” White aims to give us more than the facts. He wants viewers to understand the deeper impact of isolation — so he isolates the buildings themselves, reducing the backgrounds to shading and allowing the structures to stand out as solitary symbols of separation. They take on a lonely, haunted feel.
It’s an allusion, as he says in his artist’s statement, to author and activist W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of “the veil,” a metaphor for the divide that separates the lives of black and white Americans.
White has been traveling and photographing these buildings, along with other landmarks of the African-American experience, for more than 20 years, and his research is keen. In some places, where he arrived to find the school building missing, he simply shaded in the shape of it on the existing scene. And so we have just the imagined silhouettes of schools in overgrown, wooded lots or super-imposed on a photo of new construction. They look like ghosts whose physical being has departed but whose souls hang around.
Tya Alisa Anthony’s magazine images broaden the scope of separation and, indeed, make it more complicated. Her cutouts of female faces and torsos are taken from the pages of Jet magazine during its 1950s heyday.
Jet was founded by publishing entrepreneur John H. Johnson in 1951 and quickly became one of the most influential forces in black life, gaining a reputation for both its hard-hitting coverage of the civil rights movement and for chronicling the social lives of African-Americans post World War II.
But Anthony’s set of images, titled “Complexion,” asks us to question who was included in its coverage and who was missing. Her photos of black females are notably light-skinned. These women — models and movie stars, one assumes — also tend to have hair that is straightened and coifed into European-Inspired styles. One is costumed as Marilyn Monroe in that famous movie scene where her white dress billows up from a wind gust on the street.
It adds up to a standard of blackness that ignored the multitudes of females with darker complexions or those who preferred to keep their hair in its natural form, setting up a contradiction between idealized beauty and the real lives of many women in that era.
It is not lost in Anthony’s exploration of the subject that the separating was done by a black magazine and accepted by black readers. Would that happen in 2018? Anthony does note that today’s Jet is full of more diverse skin tones, though it is distributed digitally, creating another separation between those who have access to technology and those who don’t.
The final product, digital prints on paper, are murky and dream-like, evidence of what was — but certainly not clear evidence. Anthony is giving us facts, but making us work for conclusions.
That’s fair. Like White, she won’t let us see things too simply. Instead, we have to decipher them in layers, taking on this perplexing thing frame by frame. Both artists give us the photographic details, but they leave us room to decode their real complications. These are rich and necessary tools that help us to assess blame, add up injuries, and move forward.
“Segregated Influences” continues through June 2 at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1070 Bannock St. It’s free. Info at 303-837-1341 or cpacphoto.org.