NMAAHC Curator Dr. Rhea L. Combs Discusses Her 'Everyday Beauty' Exhibit
It is hard to describe the emotions that take hold when visiting the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum itself is a testament to the amazing will and resilience of people of color in the face of daily opposition. The museum is a testament to telling our own stories. It is a testament to the complicated lives and stories of people of color that have long been written into history as two-dimensional sidekicks, if written about at all. As you descend the elevator in the museum, you watch through the glass wall as the years of history—1967, 1925, 1863, painted in black letters go down—all the way down to the 1400s.
The historical representation is vast.
The imagery is alternately inspiring and agonizing. For a race of people denied the right to celebrate our culture, speak our language and document even the birth of our children for years following emancipation—the imagery, photos, films, certificates—are proof that we were here. Like graffiti tags running through subway trains—that we created by the way—we created art from the mundane and the extraordinary. With that said, we spoke to Dr. Rhea L. Combs, curator of photography, film and Head of Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts, about how she put together the exhibit and what the museum means to her.
Okayplayer: Tell us about the NMAAHC exhibit, Everyday Beauty, Dr. Combs?
Dr. Rhea L. Combs: Commercial photography really took a hold [of the public's imagination] around 1840, but by the 1870s, [which was] several years after emancipation, there was still this perception about African Americans that was still very negative and denigrating. Post-emancipation African Americans have a chance and opportunity to create and craft images of themselves. They are basically challenging and countering this perception of African Americans as sub-human or whatever all these mainstream white perceptions of them were used essentially to justify and perpetuate the system of slavery and rationalize racism.
During this time, you find African Americans being completely invested in image in this new art form, saying [that] we can create our own image. I took that moment in the 1870s and charted it for 100 years to the 1970s—again a powerful moment after the turmoil of the '60s—and tried to use that as a bookmark to determine the various ways in which black people have been creating images for themselves, by themselves, or about ourselves. That is the concept of the show.
OKP: What about the five themes that represent the exhibit: self-presentation, courtship and family, faith and activism, education and uplift, and work and play?
RLC: In the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, you would have African Americans and if they were being photographed, they were sitting with a white child or there was a white family and a black enslaved person next to them. We have pictures where there's an African American woman looking directly at the camera with a straight gaze, nicely dressed. They're challenging these perceptions, these perspectives that people have or had of the black presence. We were either invisible or not worthy of some kind of dignity or respect. The photos show that even in spite of those kind of perspectives that people have or had of the black presence. This was self-presentation. There was still a sense of agency, dignity and self-belief that many of us evoke and likely held within ourselves.
In a variety of earlier photographs, there were people looking directly into the camera or straight ahead or they are holding books. I suspect they are countering these ides of black people being perceived as illiterate or unable to learn. You have people dressed to the nines with fur coats on. It's truly beautiful. In terms of faith and activism, well, throughout time African Americans have had to use faith and their abilities of working with communities to be a part of the fight for the rights of their fellow human beings. There is a very harrowing, but beautiful picture of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till. It's a rarely seen photograph. The picture was taken as they were lowering the casket. It looks like a Greek tragedy. You can see the tear coming from her eye. The photographer captured the grief and sadness of that moment.
That picture is poignant and it does speak to the power of photography being able to capture these kind of moments. The picture itself compositionally is beautiful and it is amazing because of the way the angle is shot—at a low angle, up toward the mother, grandmother and family members—you see the skyline in the back and the minister to the side. It is so riveting. That is the faith that she needed through this tragic moment. You see that through the picture. When it came to courtship and family, you think about the history of African Americans in this country and the family has been the bedrock of the way we have been able to sustain ourselves. It gives us strength and encouragement to move forward. If you're looking at the history of black people through images, courtship is critical. [At the NMAAHC] there is this beautiful photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with one of his children as a baby. He's holding the baby and you're in their home. This is not a picture you normally see associated with MLK. You normally see him out in the community, away from his family. Part of the every day beauty is being able to have these quiet reflective times with people we revere as spokespersons for our community.
For education and uplift, there have been people fighting for decades for us to have an education. There is this beautiful Carl Iwasaki photograph of the Brown girls (as in Brown v. Board of Education) walking on the train tracks going to school, which is absolutely gorgeous. We have beautiful photographs from the Scurlock Collection. His name was Addison Scurlock and he was a wonderful photographer from the D.C. area. He was born in North Carolina and migrated to the D.C. area on U Street. He had one of the longest running photo studios in the country. His photo studio started here in 1911 and it closed its doors in 1994. His children ended up continuing the family business. He was the preeminent photographer for the burgeoning black middle class in the D.C. area just like James Van Der Zee was for New York. I have pictures of Charles "Teenie" Harris, another amazing photographer based out of Pittsburgh who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier. When you talk about community and the ability to revel in the every day person, Charles Teenie was prolific in capturing African American communities.
When it was all said and done, work and play was necessary. It was not just all struggle. There needs to be a time for levity, a time to smile and a time to laugh. In the midst of all this, the muck and mire, people still had the desire to be lighthearted. Lloyd Yearwood was an amazing photographer based out of New York who passed in 2010. I was struck by his work on the black Jewish community and the Muslim community. He was also Malcolm X's personal photographer. We have some works from him that he took around Harlem. The picture I have of Malcolm X in the NMAAHC exhibition is actually from Gordon Parks. It is a beautiful stolen moment on a plane. Gordon Parks stuck the camera between the seats and Malcolm is either praying or resting his eyes. He is holding a newspaper talking about the police killing a black man.
Frank Dandridge is another great photographer in the exhibition. He has photos of Sammy Davis, Jr. and one of his early wives. Dandridge was a civil rights photographer and ended up doing a lot of work for Life Magazine.
OKP: Can you tell us about the film by S.S. Jones, which was taken several years after 1921 Tulsa riots?
RC: Yes, yes, it is incredible. This man was born into slavery, Solomon Sir Jones, and he ended up being the head of the Boyd Faction of Negro Baptist in America. He was also an entrepreneur and burgeoning filmmaker. So, in the 1920s, he ends up with the latest camera available at the time and he went around filming black life in Oklahoma. We have nine reels of film footage that was donated to us by a descendant of one fellow clergy member. At the time we got it, we didn't know what the state of it would be, but it was in really good condition. In the film, you see African Americans being baptized in a river. They were finely dressed, going to different stores [in the area]. Military men were marching during parades. You also see wonderful stories that are clips. One story, Jones follows this family—they were called the Browns—and they are at work. He's on a horse and he's plowing the land. The second clip, they're at a second farm.
Then it pans to this open field and you see this oil rig. There were over 50 black towns in Oklahoma and you see black people like this with two farms, two oil wells and a farm with a school on it. It begins to explain why they bombed us. That is what this footage shows: grocery stores with their names on it, gorgeous craftsman homes and when you see it, it is so profound.
OKP: We also noticed a common theme within the exhibit that explores both the mundanity and the brilliance of African American life. Not positive, not negative — just being.
RC: It was important to tell the known and lesser known stories and it was to let people know that it was through the ordinary that extraordinary things occurred. People didn't realize they were making history they were just doing what they felt was needed. You're not trying to create a hall of fame kind of museum. It is something that tells America's story through the lens of African Americans and those people consist of grandmas and aunties and not just one particular region or socioeconomic class. And again, sometimes you're making history without knowing you're making history, as you're just living your life. It is important that people see that for themselves to feel empowered.
One of the things I love that we showcase in the museum is the story of midwives. We feature one particular family based in Farmville, Virginia as a case study. This woman comes from three generations of midwives. They were critical to the community. They were the conduit between the doctor in some of these rural communities and the ways in which midwifery was a counterbalance to segregation and institutional racism that wouldn't allow people proper medical care. The midwife was the linchpin that allowed people to come into this world. It was an organized group of highly dedicated women that would traipse through rural communities to be there for these women. To give that honor and reverence to this occupation was an example of recognizing and honoring from a conscious perspective the ability to lesser known people. You can rattle off the names of heroes but can you rattle off the name of a midwife?
OKP: The NMAAHC museum itself is a testament to this kind of resilience by people of color. Did you want to comment on the making of the museum, particularly since you were a part of it?
RC: All of the difficulties that took place over the years, for various reasons, all feel kind of rectified when we have President Barack Obama's help to break ground on the museum's foundation. Now, eight years later, he is the one that is ringing the bell to dedicate it. There is a poetry in this. This place is destined. The last available space on the mall, which is located across the street from the Washington Monument and is diagonal to the White House, is so symbolic in the ways in which African Americans are integral to the fabric of this country. Across the street is the American History Museum... the undeniable ways [that] African Americans have been essential to the making of this country are all wrapped up in the location, in the timing and in the design of this museum.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.