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Beyond Black Icons
Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

Beyond Black Icons

One of the reasons it is important to highlight everyday black lives is that while black subjects are visible across many forms of media, certain articulations of blackness and forms of cultural production are favored over others.  “Iconic blackness as larger-than-life image (Rosa Parks, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King Jr., to name just a few) and spectacular blackness—from criminal deviance to excessive bodily enactments—are the dominant visual modes for representing black subjects and black lived experience,” Nicole Fleetwood writes.  “The reliance on images of iconic blackness and spectacular blackness is wedded to binary modes of rendering black subjects through narratives of exceptionalism or deviance.”3  Fleetwood is particularly interested in the ways photography can be used to reveal or obscure aspects of African-American history.  “The camera loves the black subject whose struggles for equality represent the possibilities of American democracy,” she writes.  “Twentieth-century American visual archives abound with iconic images of larger-than-life and fixed black subjects in duress and achieving remarkable feats…While civil rights photography provides an invaluable resource of documenting the era, many of the images have become incorporated into the national imaginary to manage the history of racial subjugation.”4

Kevin Quashie raises a similar concern from a different angle.  Quashie examines the concept of “quiet” in black culture as a way of calling into question the “equivalence between resistance and blackness.”  Focusing on iconic and spectacular representations of African Americans in literature, images, and museum exhibits, Quashie suggests, “blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race or racism, or about America, or violence and struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness.”  In this configuration, “black subjectivity exists for its social and political meaningfulness rather than as a marker of the human individuality of the person who is black.”  To move beyond resistance as a framework for understanding black culture and history, Quashie calls for new approaches to “people in the everyday.”  “An aesthetic of quiet is not incompatible with black culture,” he writes, “but to notice and understand it requires a shift in how we read, what we look for, and what we expect, even what we remain open to.  It requires paying attention in a different way.”5

Seeing black life in the ways that Fleetwood and Quashie suggest is difficult because it runs counter to dominant models for depicting black people in American media and popular culture.  Rembert Browne makes this point in a New York Times essay (with accompanying photographs by Andre Wagner of ordinary black New Yorkers).  Browne argues that featuring traditional icons in Black History Month “supports the misleading narrative that a few exceptional people and their acts are the de facto history of black America, rendering the stories of the ordinary as invisible.”  In this case, the visibility of black icons is coupled with an erasure of everyday stories of black people.  “Our country knows how to concern itself with these huge figures in black America — people who are long gone, or alive but well out of reach,” Browne argues.  “This same America, however, has no idea what to do with the average, ordinary black American.”6

The illegibility of ordinary black Americans is a part of a larger racial system that denies the humanity of black people and deems their lives to be of less value than their white peers.  In her overview of the field of black digital humanities, Kim Gallon argues that efforts to reclaim black humanity should be foundational.  Black digital humanities “is a deeply political enterprise that seeks not simply to transform literary canons and historiography by incorporating black voices and centering an African American and African diasporic experience; through it certainly does that,” Gallon writes, “black digital humanities troubles the very core of what we have come to know as the humanities by recovering alternate constructions of humanity that have been historically excluded from that concept.”  During the digital era, social media has been an important place to assert the humanity of average black people.  “Movements that protest the ongoing police brutality of black women and men, which began on ‘Black Twitter’ and Facebook with hashtags such as #SayHerName, #BlackLivesMatter, and #ICantBreathe, continue black people's centuries-old endeavor to make their collective humanity apparent to the world,” Gallon writes.7  Similarly, in their introduction to the “Black Code” special issue of The Black Scholar, Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal argue that “Black Code Studies...centers black thought and cultural production across a range of digital platforms, but especially social media, where black freedom struggles intersect with black play and death in polymorphic and polyphonic intimacy.”8  This is also an apt description of the production, circulation, and reception of analog black newspapers.  Black newspapers were an important precedent for Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other forms of social media because the black press carried the full panoply of news related to politics, law, arts, sports, and social life, mixing stories of black life and black death.

Before the digital era, black newspapers elevated ordinary black residents from big cities like Chicago and New York, to small towns such as Guthrie (Oklahoma) and Evansville (Indiana).  Not coincidentally, the figure Fleetwood points to in order to illustrate the practice of “non-iconicity” is photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier for over four decades. 

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Harris was a prolific photographer who trained his lens on church services, political rallies, birthday parties, sporting events, marriages, and other gatherings in Pittsburgh’s African-American neighborhoods.  Harris left an unparalleled visual archive (over 80,000 negatives) that documents daily life in black Pittsburgh.  While Harris photographed prominent black celebrities and civil rights leaders, Fleetwood sees his work as a model for looking beyond icons to capture the more quotidian aspects of African-American history.  “Harris captured a myriad of small acts,” Fleetwood writes.  “Harris’s archive provides an important visual narrative of local community practices and experiences in black American life.  Harris’s archive displaces spectacular and iconic blackness with images of localized, temporal everyday that are unfamiliar to canonical history of black American experience.”9  Importantly, many of Harris’s photographs were published in the Pittsburgh Courier, where they offered readers a different view of black people than white newspapers, which either ignored black communities or focused on crime stories.  Teenie Harris’s eldest son, Charles A. Harris, described these positive representations as his father's “hidden agenda.”  “He was disturbed by the negative manner in which African-Americans were depicted in Hollywood movies and the white press,” Charles A. Harris recalled.  “He wanted to see a more evenhanded approach by all of the media.  The Pittsburgh Courier, with its international circulation, proved to be the perfect vehicle to show all aspects of the black community.  He gave the community pride and dignity through his photographs of children’s birthday parties, sororities, fraternities, churchgoers, successful businessmen, and many other positive images.  This side of black life was seldom seen in the mainstream media.”10  Deborah Willis describes Harris’s work as portraying “the normalcy of black life.”11  “Images by photographers like Harris functioned as a visual testimony for their subjects,” Willis argues, “reflecting the explosion of creative endeavors that gave national prominence to everyday people.”12

This struggle over representation required daily work, and this everyday labor ultimately produced a different model for representing black life.  Harris’s “image base does not create blackness as a singular totalizing narrative but entertains the notion of play, incompleteness, and resistance to the archive primary source for tapping into historical evidence of black everyday experience,” Fleetwood argues.13  More broadly, Fleetwood uses Harris's work to theorize a non-iconic aesthetic “that resists singularity and completeness in narrative, one that exposes the limitations of its framing and the temporality and specificity of the moment document.”  Black Quotidian operates in this vein. Through this accumulation of the daily posts and associated media, the project presents visitors with an overwhelming array of material in the hope that this feeling of “too-muchness” conveys a sense of the breadth of African-American history. Black Quotidian’s structure is also meant to gesture towards the project’s limitations. Even with over 365 posts and over 1,000 media objects, there are hundreds of thousands of other historical articles from black newspapers that could be included. The July 30 post, for example, is a 1955 “Heroes in Blue” profile of black police officers in the Pittsburgh Courier, but there are dozens of other articles from that issue of the Courier and thousands of articles from other black newspapers published on July 30 that are worthy of attention and analysis.  Akin to Harris’s work, in which, as Fleetwood describes, “the icon is replaced by a repetitive representational strategy of documenting fleeting, seemingly ordinary moments and happening,” every page in Black Quotidian highlights a specific moment in black history, while also suggesting an array of other everyday lives and moments on the horizon.14

The cover image of Black Quotidian, for example, is from the Chicago Defender on September 7, 1967.  The photograph, taken by an uncredited photographer, shows nine young women who are serving as volunteer waitresses for the Cabrini-Green softball and basketball awards banquet.  The nine teenagers (Gwendolyn McGee, Earnestine Burke, Edna McGee, Vanessa MacHorn, Linda Dillard, Sharon Haynes, Carolyn McAdory, Barbara Louis, and Cora Williams) were among more than 500 young people who participated in the summer sports leagues.  The image and article highlight a fleeting moment in the history of Cabrini-Green, the iconic housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side that came to symbolize urban poverty and the failures of public housing policies.  While violence, drugs, and crime are certainly part of the history of Cabrini-Green, the housing project was also a home for generations of Chicagoans, who carved out spaces for play and joy, such as this sports league and banquet.  By foregrounding moments like this, Black Quotidian aims to move beyond black icons and the accompanying pressure to represent blackness as exceptional or deviant.  

The next section describes how, methodologically, Black Quotidian models a research process that prioritizes exploration and curiosity, and offers new angles of inquiry into digital databases.