Black history is for sale in Chicago. Whoever owns the culture, controls the narrative
Black history is for sale in Chicago. Monday, the highest bidder walks away with the largest photographic chronicle of the black American experience: the Ebony archives.
Seven decades and over 4 million images and thousands of hours of footage could go to a private collector. Anything could happen.
Since 1945, Ebony magazine has been the keeper of black truths in a world bent on telling black lies. Like Frederick Douglass knew well before us, there was power in pictures, how we looked, and who was telling our stories.
But with the downfall of Johnson Publishing Co., former owner of both Ebony and Jet, the archives, appraised at $46 million in 2015, are up for grabs.
The point of black media is to own our narrative, to offer a safe and honest place in the face of media that has demonized black people and people of color. The way Malcolm X and Josephine Baker and Muhammad Ali might be photographed by an Ebony photographer holds space in ways that reflect rapport and resistance.
Yes, we saw the suffering. Even now, you can see the loss and tenderness in Moneta Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ebony photo of a grieving Coretta Scott King and daughter Bernice.
But we also saw joy, beauty, and the ability to delight in our blackness. The storytelling was for a black audience who knew we were more than Jim Crow-era stereotypes.
“I think the different relationship has to do with the nature of the role of the African American press in the African American community — because it reported what was missing in mainstream media,” says Makeda Best, curator of photography for Harvard Art Museums.
Whoever buys the archives wields the power to control — or exploit — the narrative. It’s a dangerous auction block to have our history rest upon.
Black people and people of color are often erased from the history books, reduced to a few tropes and tokens.
A Knight Foundation report released this month found only 45 percent of black people and 40 percent of Latinx people say their most-liked news source very accurately portrays them.
The void is undeniable. We need control of our stories and images.
When photojournalist Gordon Parks shot “The Doll Test” for Ebony magazine in 1947, the series told more than one story.
The test, conducted by psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark, used dolls to study the effect of segregation on children. The Clarks asked black kids which doll was good, which doll they wanted to play with, which doll looked like them. The majority of black children preferred white dolls.
The images show both the vulnerability and the adultification of black children. They are not just little kids playing with dolls. They are forced to consider the politics of their skin.
Decades later, black children are still grappling with the ways in which America views them.
That image, commissioned by Ebony, is part of the Dean Collection, the largest private collection of photographs by Gordon Parks. Owned by Kasseem Dean, better known as rapper-producer Swizz Beatz, and his wife, singer Alicia Keys, selections from the collection were recently on display at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard.
It’s one of the rare moments when we can say the gallery was designed by a black architect, David Adjaye, the photographer was black, the collectors were black, and the black museum exists because of black funding.
“If we are not part of the conversation, other people are controlling the narrative and rearranging the parts,” Swizz Beatz says. “A lot of people who say they love the culture don’t own any of the culture and wonder why it gets stripped down and taken advantage of. We are not sitting at the table.”
Part of owning the culture is not just ensuring we have spaces of our own or pieces of our own.
It’s also claiming public space and ensuring when those spaces tell the American story, black people and people of color are included to tell it accurately.
We need museums like the Institute of Contemporary Art to tell our story and to welcome us to the table. And we need our own places like the Museum of African American History, too.
“In terms of representation and volume, we have to work on both fronts,” says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and board member of the Whitney Museum of Art. “The Whitney is never going to have only black art in it or the Met. For American culture to be represented, it must be integrated.
“With dedicated black space, every work on the wall is of African descent. On any given day, we are controlling the discourse in a space like the Studio Museum of Harlem, Cooper or the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In a truly multicultural society, it’s important both things are happening at the same time.”
Je’Lesia Jones believes we have to show up at places like the Museum of Fine Arts to ensure we are represented and hold them accountable. For five years, the Wellesley retiree and her friends have organized regular gallery and museum outings.
“We all sort of feel like we have an obligation to encourage children, particularly children of color, that they can be here and fill this space,” Jones says. “They can be a Basquiat, a Jacob Lawrence, a Gordon Parks. There are black artists. You can be a black artist and you can own black art. Art tells the story of a time and place and when all else is said and done, what we have that remains is the art.”
Ebony magazine may be closed for good. What is left is the archives — our history, black history, American history.
Who buys it means something to our understanding of the black American experience.
“Serious collectors take on an important responsibility when they own a work of art because they are critical to determining how that work is presented to the world in the future,” says Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation.
“They are part of building museum collections, supporting public exhibitions, and providing other platforms to not only share the works with the public, but to ensure they are represented in the narrative of art history.”
The Ebony photo archives could go to finance guru Mellody Hobson and her husband, “Star Wars” mastermind George Lucas. Johnson Publishing owed them money. Perhaps it goes to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Maybe the National Museum of African-American History and Culture or the Studio Museum in Harlem could house it. Could the Dean Collection be involved?
The possibilities are endless — but the public needs access. It will take time and resources to properly prepare the collection for sharing. As a historian of photography, Makeda Best says the archives are vital to both black history and the craft of photography.
“Knowing more and seeing more of these photos really has the potential to alter what we think we know about African American culture, history, and representation,” says Best. “This is also about the history of this medium - it is not just a repository of black life, but black photographic practitioners - their aesthetic styles and pictorial interests.”
Whether this work goes to a black collector or a major institution, black voices must be involved in unpacking and preserving the legacy.
“We have to be aware of our power and culture,” Swizz Beatz says. “The reason why we are under attack is because we are powerful. If we understand our power and reinforce that and make it something you can’t take away, we are unstoppable.”
These pictures are our power. They are our stories. They are our celebration.
If black America has a collective family photo album, the Ebony archive is ours to keep alive.