A bare tree stands alone in a field — a black silhouette against a clear blue sky. The sun sets just behind the tree, casting a long vertical shadow of the tree’s trunk down the middle of patchy grass. The shadow looks like a road narrowing into the horizon— in this case, a bleak urban stripe skewered by power lines — and the dim lane ends at the foot of a stately tree. Is this a visual commentary on the resilience of nature in a post-industrial society?
The caption reveals that it’s actually a photo of a mass grave — one of many images captured by photojournalist and co-author Richard Frishman in his cross-country travels in the United States, and gathered in “Ghosts of Segregation: American Racism Hidden in Plain Sight.”
In the photo, the field betrays stark, perpendicular lines where the sod abruptly ends and weed-spattered dirt begins. This mass grave, discovered in the summer of 2021 in a pauper’s field of a cemetery, is the site of the infamous race massacre that took place a century prior in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma referred to as “Black Wall Street.” Although as many as three hundred Black residents are believed to have been killed amid violent riots sparked by a young Black man riding in the same elevator as a white woman, “[u]ntil this discovery,” as written in “Ghosts,” “only two victims were known to be buried in the city’s cemetery.” The photo is a testament, Frishman writes, to “vestiges of racism, oppression, and segregation in America’s built environment, hidden in plain sight behind a veil of banality.”
The key strength of “Ghosts” is how the juxtaposition of seemingly inoffensive images with disturbing and often brutal captions continuously illustrates this thesis. Errant marks indented into a brick are in fact three fingerprints of an enslaved laborer imprinted into the wall of an institute at the University of Mississippi. The façade of a charming building, with a white brick front and red-painted door and window panes, turns out to be the spot in Pulaski, Tennessee where the first Ku Klux Klan was born.The inside of an old wooden shed spotlighting a clutter of outdoor hardware and kindling is described as the murder site of Emmett Till in Drew, Mississippi.
The recent kerfuffle over the propriety of Confederate-era monuments notwithstanding, much of the physical evidence of slavery and Jim Crow eras within our modern topography is hardly bold, barely eye-catching. Many of these markers would be nondescript but for the history that contextualizes them. The dissonance between the photos and the captions, in “Ghosts,” recalls that of the famous painting by Belgian artist René Magritte, which clearly depicts a pipe above the text “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). The description mystifies the image, drawing the viewer’s gaze back to the photograph to search for what was not seen upon first glance.
Once paired with their descriptions, some of the most arresting images are the various “colored” entrances of public establishments. A back-alley brick façade with various utility pipes affixed to its exterior is the wall of a movie theater in Tylertown, Mississippi, which, upon second look, features a door-sized “scar” of distinct bricks where the entrance to the segregated balcony used to be.As referenced in this caption, such paved-over entrances represent a palimpsest where traces of the past, while formally erased, remain nonetheless present.
Renovation hasn’t obscured all the vestiges of slavery and segregation captured in “Ghosts.” A building in downtown Macon, Georgia was remodeled in 2014, but maintained the large inscription in its limestone front first erected in 1916, which still reads “Colored Waiting Room” to “serve as a cautionary reminder that past is prologue.” One would probably gloss over the faded lettering that reads “change” above a door on Chartes Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, until we learn that this is the remnant signage from the St. Louis Hotel’s Slave Exchange.
Frishman’s photos are interspersed with essays by University of Virginia sociology professor B. Brian Foster, who offers meditations on the series of images in the book — two-part historical and intellectual commentary and one-part personal narrative ruminating on Foster’s upbringing in Mississippi. Foster’s interludes are more atmospheric than instructive, asking more questions than providing answers. In “Ghosts,” Foster is a lenient tour guide who offers just enough background before allowing his tourists to wander the grounds to see for themselves.
One of Foster’s essays emphasizes that it’s not just the United States’ violent, racist history, but also “Black placemaking” — which he defines as “practices that Black Americans employ to make the places where they are feel safe, affirming, connected, joyful, and equitable” — that leaves traces in our physical environment. In discussing how the Great Migration was not simply a matter of leaving the South behind but also bringing its food and culture up North, he recognizes how agency, in the context of oppressive systems, does not only work in one direction.
A number of the images that follow this essay are a refreshing departure from the banal evil that preceded them. Among the most beautiful are those featuring the lodgings of homesteaders who migrated out West to escape sharecropping and farm their own land. As in the initial image of the tree above the mass grave, wide horizontal strips of grass and sky overtake these photos of homesteads. But in contrast to the tree picture, they show no dead ends — only wide-open possibility.
GHOSTS OF SEGREGATION: American Racism, Hidden in Plain Sight
By Richard Frishman, B. Brian Foster, and Imani Perry
Celadon, 288 pp., $50
Hawa Allan writes cultural criticism, fiction, and poetry. She is the author of “Insurrection: Rebellion, Civil Rights, and the Paradoxical State of Black Citizenship.”