On October 19, 1915, Woodrow Wilson traveled to his political base in Princeton to cast his vote on the historical record for the Woman Suffrage Amendment, and a photographer for the Bain News Service was present as the president boarded his train for the return trip to Washington. The leather carrying case that held the photographer’s glass negatives remains visible to history, hanging by its strap from a spike on a telegraph pole. For aesthetic reasons, however, I’ve edited it and the pole out of the version of the photographer’s record that you see here. What I desired was this ascending diagonal with a possibly triumphant smile toward the apex. That allegorical moment, I decided, would be more fun to see than any ill-comprehended antique.
Wilson had begun his political career there in Princeton: first as a professor of history at the university, then as its president, then as governor of New Jersey. But (as history in the twenty-first century is now re-reminding us) as president of the United States he was a Southerner presiding over a cabinet full of Southerners, and on February 18, 1915, he was in the audience when, for the first time in history, a movie was shown in the White House: David Wark Griffith’s history-hymn to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation. Earlier, at Princeton, he had presided over an erasure from the historical record of evidence that the university had once had black students.
On the visual record, a century later, you see the faces of two black men in servants’ white jackets. One of them, the one on your right, may or may not be about to start or finish smiling. Princeton University was to admit and acknowledge black men before it admitted or acknowledged women.
On its online Library of Congress page, this photograph is dated July 1939, titled “Negro drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma,” and indexed under “segregation.”
If you’re less than 30 years old, the time may have come for you to learn formally that the frieze at the top and bottom of this print is the pattern of sprocket holes along the edges of a roll of 35-millimeter film. The negatives produced by that phototechnology were tiny, just 24 millimeters in one dimension and ordinarily 36 mm in the other, and in the absence of any electronics their resolution couldn’t be high. So the sense communicated most immediately by this photograph is something not visual (say, its composition of forms) but historiographic — that is, the word “Colored.” That word evokes emotion, but the emotion is word-based and its word-based non-visual origins are multiple and incompatible. Depending on who you are and how your politics are oriented, what you see in this picture of a word may evoke either anger or nostalgia. In 1939 Russell Lee took the picture on assignment for a New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, but if he were a Fox News cameraman in 2020 his product would be seen under a different regime of intention.
But in 2020, electronics can be brought to bear. In Photoshop I open the Nik filter called Dark Contrasts, and it darkens the word’s context and fades its ambiguities to black.
Now I can see the clean shirt and the rest of the clothing layer. As of 1939 the baggy pin-striped pants with high waist and narrow white belt were flashy-fashionable, as was the hat with its low crown, big ribbon, and dramatic curves. “I display,” they say. “Consider loving me.” But all around the clothing layer, now, is a grime. In 1939, when the word “Colored” was simply an aspect of the environment, the grime was latent and unseen. In 2020, the phrase “dark contrasts” helps us see it. The control reveals the grime to be not just a layer of visual effects like the clothes but a corpus of blackened qualities pervading both the image and its historical contexts, from the negative’s photosensitive surface to the darkness inside the camera and from the grime on the walls to the statute that erected them. From the dark image that then results we can learn that it isn’t the clothing that is to be loved; it is the colored man.
About him we can ask the dark: what was it to have been that thirsting body within its layer of clean clothes? And if the visual regime of Fox News prevails, what will it be again?
For Justice Ginsburg, who seems distressed that the Supreme Court’s decision to rule on the issue of abortion in Roe v. Wade has led to social turmoil,
and for Justice Kagan, who I hope was expressing disapproval of the prolongation of evil when she said, “We let issues percolate, and so we let racial segregation percolate for 50 years from 1898 to 1954,”
It comes from a letter from John W. Wilson of Leesburg, Florida, to the editor of a liberal magazine, The Nation, where it was published on p. 75 of the issue of January 17, 1934. The topic was the then socially acceptable practice of lynching, and about that Mr. Wilson took a long, judicious view, this way.
Perhaps it may be necessary to spell out that if lynching had been put to a popular vote in 1934, or if segregation had been put to a popular vote in 1954, strange fruit would still be hanging from the trees.