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Civil Rights Childhood

Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks

Katharine Capshaw
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 384
  • Book Info
    Civil Rights Childhood
    Book Description:

    Childhood joy, pleasure, and creativity are not often associated with the civil rights movement. Their ties to the movement may have faded from historical memory, but these qualities received considerable photographic attention in that tumultuous era. Katharine Capshaw'sCivil Rights Childhoodreveals how the black child has been-and continues to be-a social agent that demands change.

    Because children carry a compelling aura of human value and potential, images of African American children in the wake ofBrown v. Board of Educationhad a powerful effect on the fight for civil rights. In the iconography of Emmett Till and the girls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham church bombings, Capshaw explores the function of children's photographic books and the image of the black child in social justice campaigns for school integration and the civil rights movement. Drawing on works ranging from documentary photography, coffee-table and art books, and popular historical narratives and photographic picture books for the very young,Civil Rights Childhoodsheds new light on images of the child and family that portrayed liberatory models of blackness, but it also considers the role photographs played in the desire for consensus and closure with the rise of multiculturalism.

    Offering rich analysis, Capshaw recovers many obscure texts and photographs while at the same time placing major names like Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and Toni Morrison in dialogue with lesser-known writers. An important addition to thinking about representation and politics,Civil Rights Childhoodultimately shows how the photobook-and the aspirations of childhood itself-encourage cultural transformation.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4369-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxv)

    Toward the end of Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer’sA Pictorial History of the Negro in America(1956), within a section titled “Trouble in the Deep South,” a small photograph of a smiling boy appears (Figure I.1). African American readers of Hughes and Meltzer’s text would recognize the face of this boy even without the caption, which reads, “Emmett Till, fourteen, whose vacation ended at the bottom of a river ‘to teach him a lesson.’”¹ Identifying Till initially with youth and leisure, the caption plummets readers into the horror of the event and the hatefulness of the murderers’ motivation. Early...

  3. 1 Friendship, Sympathy, Social Change
    (pp. 1-63)

    At a 1945 book signing, a nine-year-old white boy pleads with his mother to purchase a photographic picture book depicting an African American family. The boy wants the book because it contains pictures of a child he actually knows in life, his friend Rex. Both the black boy in the book and the white boy outside the book live in the same town, Terre Haute, Indiana, the home of Jane Dabney Shackelford, the author. The white boy insists that his mother recognize a relationship that crosses racial lines, one that would seem aberrant to the adult but that emerges from...

  4. 2 Pictures and Nonfiction Conduct and Coffee Tables
    (pp. 65-119)

    For Roland Barthes in the first epigraph to this chapter, photographs incarnate history, become material evidence of events that one can grasp with one’s hands and hold on to as proof of the past. Although we recognize that all images are manipulated, subjective, selected versions of a viewer’s perspective on a subject, there remains an ineffable attraction to the idea of the photo as truth, as documentation of moments that have faded into the past, and as evidence of a history that no longer exists in materiality. African American writers at midcentury were drawn to the idea that “what we...

  5. 3 Today Framing Freedom in Mississippi
    (pp. 121-153)

    A sequence in the documentary filmChance for Change,directed by Adam Giffard, shows a preschool teacher in the summer of 1965 leading her children on a walk across the Mississippi countryside. In the opening shot of the sequence, we view the scene at a distance, and the teacher seems to carry a banner or a flag over her shoulder. She opens barbed-wire fences so that the children can climb through, one by one, as they cross fields and pathways. Together as they march, they sing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement. Although the sequence evokes...

  6. 4 The Black Arts Movement Childhood as Liberatory Process
    (pp. 155-211)

    In Our Terribleness(1970), a landmark photographic book for adults by Imamu Amiri Baraka and Fundi (Billy Abernathy), contains many images of young people as members of a new nation forged by the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Describing the need for a transformative love of blackness, an early section culminates in an image of a boy emerging from the doors of a building (Figure 4.1). Facing slightly left, the child looks into the high distance with seriousness. His right arm pushes and his left hand lightly grasps his hip; by the stance of his...

  7. 5 Blurring the Childhood Image Representations of the Civil Rights Narrative
    (pp. 213-268)

    Audre Lorde’s 1981 poem on Emmett Till explores the effects of experiencing violence through the visual. Lorde implies that the medium of newspaper photographs contributes to Till’s violation, for even as the visual details of the boy’s brutalization stick with Lorde, she recognizes that the ephemeral and public quality of newspaper publication destabilizes the tragedy of his loss. Lorde sees that such images untethered in the public press could be used to confirm racist power, inspiring in white viewers the “secret relish / of a black child’s mutilated body / fingered by street-corner eyes.” The newspaper’s transient quality promises a...

  8. CONCLUSION A Text for Trayvon
    (pp. 269-274)

    As the Introduction to this book noted, Emmett Till became a child with two photographic identities, one as a dressed-up schoolboy and another as a mutilated body. These paired images echo each other both in print, where they were often coupled, and in memory. Till as schoolboy has been incorporated into children’s photographic picture books as a reminder of the “real” child, one associated with innocence and respectability, a characterization that insists on the outrage of the violence committed against him. In the contemporary moment, the death of Trayvon Martin, in February 2012, at the hands of George Zimmerman has...

    (pp. 275-278)
    (pp. 317-334)