A#22

Kamoinge

Words by Greg Tate

Barboza, Anthony. (1982) 4th Annual Black Photographers Dinner Honoring Smith Bros. & Richard Saunders #1 [Photograph]. New York.

In memory of Greg Tate (1957-2021), an excerpt from ‘Kamoinge’ written by the late author for
A#22 CURATED BY GRACE WALES BONNER

 

RHYTHMS OF VISION:
The Antiphonal Transblucency of Black Poets and Photographers

You see Black people. We see hella Black people too, up and down the avenue. Coming to you live from Uptown, Harlem Sugar Hill, where we’ve resided for four decades; we’ve no got choice. Same as in the Chocolate City, Washington D.C., where we occupied the Blackground for a dozen cycles around the sun before that. And the 14 years before that in the epicentre of The Funk, Dayton, Ohio.

For 64 years, this reporter has only lived in majority-Black cities and villages, so we’ve been seeing a lot of Black people on a daily basis. Yet by the same token, without the pungent and canonical words and images of certain Black writers and photographers, we can’t say we’ve seen anything at all.

Blackfolk in urban motion move too fast for your basic retinal scan, no matter how bedazzled, and defy any meaningful description in basic prosaic language. The culture’s vernacular has its own clipped, colloquial powers of conjure to fill the gap between frames, of course. Can tell you what one Negus has seen in another Negus was ‘sharp’, ‘fly’, ‘sweet’, ‘like butter’, ‘finer than wine in the summertime’, ‘faster than greased lightning’, ‘possessed soul’ (as a noun) and was ‘superbad’ (as an adjective and an action word). And in that cinematic shorthand, the lingo and the slanguage provided a sensation of motion capture. But we’ve always needed photographs by dedicated Black shutterbugs to render us in every era since the end of the Civil War with the love and aesthetic/technological precision, our flyness and superbadness and unruly symphonic warp-speed optical Blackness demands. Because the streets wait for no one and The Black Interior projecting maroon fugitivity upon them carries its own hidden secrets and charms, Black writers and photographers have become essential to Us truly seeing and envisioning Us.

Barboza, Anthony. (1970) Harlem [Photograph]. New York.

In 1952, young emergent photographic artist Roy DeCarava received a Guggenheim Fellowship, first Black artist to do so, and took over 20,000 pictures in Harlem. In 1954, DeCarava showed a fraction of the work to Langston Hughes who near instantly promised to assist in getting it published. Hughes’ publisher Simon & Schuster outright rejected their collaboration as ‘unpublishable’ at first, and then finally agreed to only print the book on two conditions: that Hughes write an accompanying story and that the book be ‘small’ — so small that DeCarava would snap that it was a ‘puny little book that you actually could put into your back pocket’. Nevertheless, the following year an initial run of 5,000 quickly sold out; 10,000 more were immediately printed, and The Sweet Flypaper of Life found immediate gobsmacked reception from major press. The New York Times reviewer praised the book’s union of photography and text, writing: ‘Chances are it could accomplish a lot more about race relations than many pounds of committee reports*.’ He further wrote that ‘a book like The Sweet Flypaper of Life should be bought by a great many people and read by a good many more’.

DeCarava’s impact on a generation of Black photographers forged in the heat of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements led to the formation of the now legendary Kamoinge Workshop — a collective of Black photographers who first came together in 1963, of which DeCarava was the first director.

The group was recently honoured by the Whitney Museum of American Art with an exhibition of the members’ stellar continuum of work. The contemporary group’s 14 grandmasters are Anthony Barboza, Adger Cowans, Daniel Dawson, Louis Draper, Albert Fennar, Ray Francis, Herman Howard, James M. Mannas, Herbert Randall, Herb Robinson, Beuford Smith, Ming Smith, Shawn Walker and Calvin Wilson. Of the group’s ethos and impact on his very successful career and practice, Barboza says, ‘Kamoinge was how I grew up and how I woke up. I am a graduate of Kamoinge.’

* Millstein, Gilbert. (1955) ‘While Sister Mary Sticks Around’. The New York Times Book Review, 27 November. p. 5.

Barboza, Anthony. (1970) Fur Coat Couple NYC [Photograph]. New York.

In 2004, Kamoinge published its first book, The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family, a collaboration with the late author Ntozake Shange, iconic playwright of the groundbreaking 1970s choreopoem — and Broadway hit — For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf (1976); several poetry collections including Nappy Edges (1979); and the novels, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), Betsey Brown (1985) and Liliane (1994).

Kamoinge’s stellar members all pick up the baton from DeCarava with images that à la their maestro, represent Gotham’s Black communities’ supercharged self-possession with consummate grace, elegance, wit, drama and love. Shange’s interpretive prosaic fandangos with the Kamoinge’s hypnotic images are aglow with cinematic snap, crackle and lustre.

The torrential tsunami of linguistic witchcraft Amiri Baraka throws down in the pages of In Our Terribleness (Some Elements and Meaning in Black Style) (1970) — his joint volume of gripping expression with Chicago-based photographer Billy ‘Fundi’ Abernathy — dares us to blink, let alone look away. Empowered by Abernathy’s portraiture of (predominantly) Black masculinity’s hardened glamour in 1960s Chicago, Baraka delivers a manifesto extolling the embodied weaponry of self-styled Black physicality back in that day: brothers (mostly) captured in a self-ennobled world reckoning and world-threatening display of artful swagger and (per Shange) ‘relaxed virility’. Baraka, titular ‘Father of the Black Arts Movement’ is, at his most rhetorically incendiary, drawing fire from Abernathy’s urban guerrilla pantheon:

Our terribleness is our survival as beautiful beings, any where. Who can dig that? Any where, even flying through space like we all doing, even faced with the iceman, the abominable snowman, the beast for whom there is no answer, but change in fire light and heat for the world

To be bad is one level

But to be terrible, is to be 

badder dan nat*

* Baraka, Amiri. (1970) In Our Terribleness (Some Elements and Meaning in Black Style) [Poem, excerpt]. The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., New York.

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