Capturing Color on Film: Photography’s Identity Crisis and the Legacy of Slavery

By Ramona Simmons

A woman walks reminiscing through the halls of her home, stopping at a particular picture that the sun seemed to focus on. Beneath the touch of the sun’s rays glows a pale white face, artfully applied with the paints of womanhood: mascara, eyeshadow, gloss, and the list goes on. In stark contrast, a darker warm mixture of mochas swirl to create the face beside hers. Family members doubling as amateur photographers have no idea the discovery they will make days later when looking through the newlyweds’ snapshots. Ultimately, they will find that the sun favored the lighter bride over the dark shadow of the African-American groom. The camera’s struggle to balance two ends of the pigment spectrum is a direct result of a mindset about photography that arose from the time of slavery, that has focused on denying nonwhites an identity, and that has persisted since the Civil War. Through a misconstrued representation of African Americans’ pigments and personalities on film, the photographic industry deprived non-whites of an authentic photographic existence (a presence in photographs), furthering their lack of social identity.

Image Source

Image Source

Since their debut, cameras have been thought by society to provide the best way of preserving meaningful points in time. Consumers’ utilization of cameras came at a time when white individuals were the predominant consumers of photographs, which was a result of the fact that whites had access to and could afford such technology. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of 1964, Polaroid cameras cost $119.95; meanwhile a less advanced Kodak camera could be purchased for $36.75 (Pearson). Affording a camera for many African Americans was difficult at this time, as many were barely making the minimum wage, which would have allotted them $52 per week (Pearson). In this instance, cameras were considered a luxury and would take up a large amount of the weekly income, which did not make the purchase impossible, but much less achievable. Due to this, marketers predetermined consumers’ identities in the realm of developing pictures and favored fair-skinned complexions, discriminating against non-whites. Catering to the demographics of the consumers, the science of photography based its film development on a white model. In her article “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin,” Syreeta McFadden explains, “Unless you were doing your own [photo] processing, you took your roll of film to a lab where the technician worked off a reference card with a perfectly balanced portrait of a pale-skinned woman.” Due to her personal dissatisfaction with the way her skin tone was being captured (in one photograph, she would be depicted with a dark charcoal pigment, but in the next, she would appear having a creamy coffee color), she became a photographer herself to better understand the imaging disparity. This discrepancy can be attributed to the standard image for developing, referred to as “Shirley cards,” as Shirley was the woman pictured posing. McFadden goes on to prove that having “a white body as a light meter” leaves “all other skin tones [to] become deviations from the norm” (McFadden). Since African Americans were nearly the complete opposite of the standard, the exposures always came out coloring them darker than their true hue. This presented a problem for events such as an interracial wedding, as I demonstrate in my opening example. The photographer would struggle with providing the appropriate lighting so as to avoid washing out the white person without making the non-white person a dark shadow.

In fact, McFadden shows that the white standard was not lifted until the mid-1990s, where “models fully shifted away from Shirley to be inclusive of [a] full range of skin tones” (McFadden). When we look back at what was happening in history with the struggle of the Civil Rights movement, long after the conclusion of the Civil War, it becomes clear that although slavery may have been abolished, black Americans still faced many of the challenges to establishing a social identity that they encountered during slavery. For photography scientists, it had never been important to create cameras and developing techniques for members of society that did not matter. Although the act of slavery has been abolished for a century and a half, people continue to carry on racial biases by denying equal life-like replication abilities of non-whites’ images in photographs.  In realizing the equipment’s discreet racism, McFadden powerfully remarks, “If we are invisible, we are unvalued and inhuman. Beasts. Black bodies accepted as menacing, lit in ways that cloak our features in shadows” (McFadden).

The camera, an inanimate object itself, cannot consciously spread prejudice and discrimination. However, the minds that manufacture it and develop its stills should be advised to its position as a vessel for undermining non-whites’ social identities, inhibiting their interaction and association with society. After knowing this, the question remains: how do we fight against subtle forms of slavery’s legacy of racism ingrained in our world? For McFadden, she takes the power of the shutter in her own hands. By learning about how photography works, she has been able to manipulate different settings, such as exposure speed, to better accommodate what the lens finds to be a “deviant” from the norm. This does not erase the uneasiness at taking a photograph and hoping to be able to see herself, but it gives her the liberty to give herself an identity, something so many before her had been deprived of.


Works Cited

McFadden, Syreeta. “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, Inc., 2 Apr. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Pearson, Stephen. “The Year 1964.” The People History.The People History Where People Memories and History Join, 2004-2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

“Breaking the Framework of the Class”: Reflections on Testimonial Teaching and Taking a Class on Slavery in the Time of Ferguson

By Esther Wolfe

In her book Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, author Shoshana Felman describes the experience of teaching a class on Holocaust testimony. In the chapter, “Education and Crisis,” Felman details a key point of crisis that developed over the course of the class. As part of the class, students watched tapes from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. The tapes, which featured survivors of the Holocaust narrating their stories, illustrated both the profound need for testimony and its simultaneous impossibility, showing “the endeavor of creating an address, specifically for a historical experience which annihilated the very possibility of address” (41). In this way, according to Felman, the tapes showed “the necessity of this impossibility of narration” (41).

Felman notes that upon viewing the first tape of Holocaust testimony, something strange started happening in the class. Initially after the viewing, the students were silent and dissociated, breaking from their prior expressiveness and engagement. However, the student’s silence soon transformed: “What was unusual was that the experience did not end in silence, but instead, fermented into endless, relentless talking in the days and weeks to come; a talking which could not take place, however, within the confines of the classroom, but which somehow had to break the very framework of the class…” (48). This “breaking of the framework of the class” through speech, described both how the student’s speech moved beyond the setting of the classroom, as well as the way this speech often ruptured the boundaries of language itself. Felman’s colleagues disclosed that the students spoke obsessively of her class sessions in other classes; at the same time, in their “manifest wish to talk about the session….they did not quite know what to say” (48). In addition, as one student describes, “this speaking was at best fragmentary, dissolving into silence: at moments, lapsing into long, obsessive monologues. It was absolutely necessary to speak of it, however incoherently” (59). Felman quickly realized that the class was experiencing a crisis, and that this crisis implicitly performed the crisis of bearing witness that the entire curriculum explored. The “breaking of the framework of the class” reflected the way testimonial speech exceeds its framing, with the student’s need to speak and the inherent impossibility and unsayability of this speech performing the paradox of testimony itself.

This year, in our DLR class, we focused on historical and contemporary representations of slavery. Much of the theoretical work of the class revolved around studying what could be understood as the testimonial literature of slavery, including slave narratives, as well as visual representations of slavery (including image and film), that could be understood as a kind of visual testimony. As a result, a key part of our study and discourse as a class centered around the inherent problem of testimony; the unspeakable irrecoverability of the memory of slavery and the impossibility of bearing witness to it. At the same time, the summer before the semester began, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was murdered by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As more black men and women were killed by police, and a political protest movement emerged, we referred to the movement often in an effort to understand and connect the historical atrocity and trauma of slavery to contemporary systems of white supremacist, anti-black state violence.

As we grappled with the testimonial literature and images of slavery, the problem of its representation, and the events in Ferguson, we experienced a “breaking of the framing of the class” almost identical to Felman’s description. Many of us, after reading certain texts, watching particular films, or receiving news about the protest movement, felt unable to engage in discussion of what we had just read and seen, and became interiorized and withdrawn. This, however, alternated with an obsessive need to speak endlessly about the work of the class with virtually anyone who would listen- it often seemed to be all we could think of or talk about. Many of us, in private communications with one another, relayed stories of how the work of the class bled into other class discussions and papers, and ruptured into the personal dimensions of our lives. At the same time, this constant conversation was also born out of our inability to represent the experiences of the class and our own understanding of it- we often disclosed to each other our frustration at not being able to adequately express, to make others understand, what we were experiencing and how it made us feel. In this way, by studying the atrocity of slavery and the problem of witnessing and representation, we also inevitably performed the paradox of testimony itself. In this sense, our class became its own form of testimony.

Our profound experiences as a class studying slavery in the wake of Ferguson also did the work of thinking toward the teaching of testimony and the larger need for pedagogy constructed out of an understanding of trauma and violence. If the memory of slavery is irrecoverable and unrepresentable, how do we teach its testimony? How can we construct pedagogy that simultaneously teaches trauma and responds to its lived experience and felt impact? As a class, we worked to answer these questions together. The “crisis” of the class became a method, a critical framework for teaching testimony. It became clear that the teaching of testimony could only be delivered through this crisis, through the way the “breaking of the framing of the class” inevitably performed the paradox of testimony itself. The result was not a loss of language, but a class that had to, in the words of Felman, do the important work of “passing through its own answerlessness.” (50).


Works Cited

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Soccer and Slavery at the 2022 World Cup

By: Alex Selvey

As I write this blog post, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is being planned. Upon selection by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in December 2010, Qatar has been gearing up to host the event.  Nearly a decade before a single goal has been scored, the event has been littered with scandal after scandal. Allegations of bribery, poor infrastructure, and human rights issues have led many to be critical of the event. However, one issue that has been largely ignored is the source of labor that Qatar is using to make the tournament happen. It is coming to national attention that much of the labor being used by the government of Qatar to rapidly develop infrastructure in preparation of the event is being done by modern day slaves.

The majority of the workforce in Qatar is comprised of migrant workers. This is true for many countries in the Middle East. Many come to countries in this region in search of money and opportunity, but they rarely find either. This is because of the kafala system. Under the kafala system, migrant workers become dependent upon the employer for their work permit. This description may sound rather innocuous, but it is frequently abused and exploited. Workers often have their passports confiscated and are subject to periods of no pay, long hours, and high rates of injury. In addition, workers often suffer trauma from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Because Qatar has a preexisting record of slave labor, many were suspicious of the source of labor that Qatar would use to create World Cup facilities by 2022. It was not long after Qatar was announced as the host of the 2022 World Cup that investigations began revealing that the labor being used was far from ethical. The country has been importing workers from North Korea, Nepal, and other countries in order to ready their country for the large crowds associated with the World Cup. These workers are forced to work against their will and have no choice but to stay in labor camps that have deplorable conditions. Hundreds of workers have died since the World Cup construction frenzy has begun, with an estimated 4000 deaths expected before the tournament begins.

The government of Qatar and FIFA have been slow to offer any solution to this problem, even with groups like Amnesty International putting pressure on FIFA to ensure that this is stopped. FIFA has acknowledged that the problem certainly does exist, but their response has been lackluster. As one executive, Theo Zwanzinger, has stated “This feudal system existed [in Qatar] before the World Cup. What do you expect of a football organization? FIFA is not the lawmaker in Qatar.” Additionally, he went on to say that the organization has vowed not to revoke their selection of Qatar.

The use of slave labor in the modern world is far from unfamiliar, especially in the Middle East. What makes this instance unique, however, is the amount of attention that the World Cup receives internationally. With the eyes of the world on the World Cup, in addition to the amount of time until it begins, there is a chance to make this a rallying point for combatting modern slavery. The injustices of the kafala system are no longer hidden from international attention. If FIFA addresses these concerns, then a serious blow can be struck against this horrible, systematic destruction of human rights. Already, there are petitions online working to halt the use of slaves on development of the World Cup in Qatar. FIFA must hear that their inaction in addressing the subject is unacceptable. If you believe, as I believe, that the entertainment for the elite shouldn’t be made possible by the labor of those working against their will in dangerous and deplorable conditions, I would encourage you to sign one of the many petitions (such as this one or this one), which intends to pressure FIFA into ensuring that all labor is slave-free. The more people who know about this issue and express their outrage, the more likely that FIFA and the government of Qatar will be pressured into rectifying the human rights problems they are currently propagating.


Works Cited

Booth, Robert. “Qatar World Cup Construction ‘will Leave 4,000 Migrant Workers Dead'” The Guardian. 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2014

Gibson, Owen. “Qatar World Cup ‘slaves’: Fifa’s UK Representative ‘appalled and Disturbed'” The Guardian. 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Gibson, Owen. “UN Calls on Qatar to Abolish Kafala Migrant Worker System.”The Guardian. 25 Apr. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Fulford, Robert. “Slavery’s Modern Face in the Middle East.” National Post Full Comment. National Post, 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

“Qatar: Migrant Construction Workers Face Abuse.” Human Rights Watch, 12 June 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

“Slavery and the Qatar 2022 World Cup.”YouTube. Walk Free, 28 July 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014

Traynor, Ian. “Fifa Says There Is Little It Can Do about Labour Conditions in Qatar.”The Guardian. 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

The Defaming of Marie Laveau: An American Horror Story

By: Jillian Simmons

Marie Laveau was one of the few free black people and a powerful woman of high status in New Orleans during the nineteenth century when slavery was still legal. She holds a legacy that is still strong in today’s society for being the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans and also for the contributions she made to society, especially to those people of color who were enslaved. During the third season of American Horror Story: Coven, Angela Bassett portrayed Marie Laveau as a merciless villain who uses her power of immortality, which she gained from a demonic force by the name of Papa Legba, to kill innocent beings and to seek revenge on those who have wronged her. The show also depicts the true historical character Marie Delphine LaLaurie (portrayed by Kathy Bates) who, like Laveau, is a historically well-known woman of high status. However, she is famous for the “brutally cruel” treatment of her slaves (“The LaLaurie House”). The LaLaurie House is still a famous building in Louisiana due to her hideous actions against the slaves she owned.

The show accurately depicts the murderous LaLaurie conducting her actions of ripping slaves apart and keeping their bodies in cages in her attic. By contrast, the show inaccurately depicts Marie Laveau as an evil witch with the same murderous behaviors and horrendous intentions as LaLaurie. It is hard to understand why the show chooses to draw an equivalency between the black woman who was actually a heroic figure for people of color during the nineteenth century with the white woman who is responsible for not only owning slaves, but murdering slaves as well. Viewers deserve to know the truth about the magnificent Marie Laveau; not the lies told by American Horror Story.

The show portrays Marie Laveau with a purpose to only prove this powerful woman as the evil antagonist. The show contains a scene where Laveau steals a baby from the hospital to sacrifice to Papa Legba in order to pay him for giving her the power of immortality. In another scene when she first makes the deal with Papa Legba, she sacrifices her first-born child, a daughter. It is horrendous for the show to depict Laveau sacrificing her own child. We hardly know anything about Laveau as a mother, only the fact that she had two children (Long 272). The only records that are recorded of the children are their births and baptisms. However, there are also records that “she raised and sheltered fifteen children in her home” (Long 272) out of the kindness of her heart. The type of person who raises fifteen children would not have sacrificed her own.

The show also portrays Marie Laveau as a woman who used the magic of voodoo to kill innocent people and seek revenge against those who wronged her. This is only partially true. Marie Laveau did use voodoo, but not to kill people. As a matter-of-fact, there is no evidence at all that Laveau ever murdered anyone. Marie Laveau used voodoo for “ritual performances that served to unite a black community around common goals, like healing and gaining independence” (Long 4). Many people in New Orleans consider Laveau to be a saint, not a villain. One of Laveau’s contemporaries described an encounter with her in the following way:

It was her all right…She came walkin’ into Congo Square wit’ her head up in the air like a queen. Her skirts swished when she walked and everybody step back and let her pass. All the people – white and colored—start sayin’ that’s the most powerful woman there is. They say, ‘There goes Marie Laveau!’ and me, I was little and I got kind of scared. You know they used to scare little children then by tellin’ ‘em they was gonna give ‘em to Marie Laveau. Now let me tell you this. She was a great person. I don’t care what nobody says. (Kein 159)

Her contemporary’s account may be misleading as she states that “they used to scare little children” by threatening to send them to Laveau. The reason some people during that time found Laveau to be “scary” was because she used voodoo. Many people think of voodoo as an evil force, which is understandable since popular culture only depicts voodoo in an evil light with voodoo dolls and witches casting voodoo spells to raise the dead. As Sybil Kein has demonstrated, Laveau used her voodoo for beauty, healing, and spiritual purposes. She did not use voodoo as a scare tactic or for evil. As the contemporary said, “she was a great person.”

Those who knew Madame LaLaurie have memorable accounts of her as well. Her neighbor “Was climbing her own stairs when she heard a scream and saw Madame LaLaurie chasing a little girl, the Madame’s personal servant, with a whip. She pursued the girl onto the roof of the house, where the child jumped to her death. The neighbor later saw the small slave girl buried in a shallow grave beneath the cypress trees in the yard”(“The LaLaurie House”). At a later date, one of LaLaurie’s slaves, whom she kept “chained to the stove,” started a fire in the house. When firefighters arrived, they “found more than a dozen slaves here, chained to the wall in a horrible state. They were both male and female…some were strapped to makeshift operating tables…some were confined in cages made for dogs…human body parts were scattered around and heads and human organs were placed haphazardly in buckets…grisly souvenirs were stacked on shelves and next to them a collection of whips and paddles.” (“The LaLaurie House”).

These hideous actions described were also portrayed in the show, which leads me to believe that the writers of American Horror Story knew what a terrible woman LaLaurie was. Laveau and LaLaurie were in no way equal. However, American Horror Story portrays these women as being equally evil, and, in the last episode of the show, Laveau and LaLaurie receive the same fate of being taken down into the depths of hell by Papa Legba.

It seems that American Horror Story could care less about Laveau’s positive influence on the lives of slaves and the black community in New Orleans or the hideous actions that LaLaurie committed against many slaves. I highly doubt those slaves would approve of the show’s depictions of LaLaurie or Laveau. The show completely distorts the image of slavery by justifying a slave murderer and her actions. The show actually made the portrayal of LaLaurie look better than Laveau’s by releasing LaLaurie from the grave that Laveau (according to the depiction of the show) buried her alive in, depicting her as befriending Queenie, a black character in the show, who is a relative of the Black voodoo slave, Tituba (Salem Witch Trials), and by depicting her crying while watching a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and actually apologizing for some of her actions.

As if being sold into slavery, having your identity stripped away, and being forced to work without pay night and day wasn’t bad enough, LaLaurie took slavery to a higher level of cruel and unusual punishment. Why would anyone with morals put her on the same level as Laveau? There is no excuse or explanation for why American Horror Story would take the subject of slavery this lightly. Not only have they slandered the name of Laveau, but the name of every slave who was murdered, mutilated, and beaten by Madame LaLaurie.


Work Cited

Kein, Sybil. “Marie Laveau: The Voodoo Queen Repossessed.” Creole The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. 157-178. Print.

“The LaLaurie House.” THE LALAURIE HOUSE. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. (Link)

Long, Carolyn Morrow. “Marie Laveau: A Nineteenth-Century Voudou Priestess.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 46.3 (2005): 262-92. Print.