The images in the photographic archive of Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South, a project of the Center for Documentary Studies, are powerful vehicles for understanding African American identity. The images are copied from family albums and contextualized by oral history interviews and biographical information obtained during the field research phase of Behind The Veil, which began in 1990 under the direction of Duke University historians William Chafe, Raymond Gavins and Robert Korstad, assisted by graduate students in history at Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University.
In this exhibition, we juxtapose formal portraits with informal snapshots to explore the distinctions between public and private representations of the self. By reproducing formal and informal photographs on a single sheet, we hope to create a dialogue between these different presentations of the self as well as explore the creation of images for circulation within the family versus those made for an audience outside African American communities.
The invention of the handheld camera that took pictures at snapshot speed in the late 1870s made it possible for African Americans to create, circulate, and preserve images of themselves and convey their sense of place within their own homes and communities as well as contest the racist portrayals of blacks that appeared in the popular media. For instance, the photograph of bakery owner Elmer Bradshaw with his rolling pin shows his economic independence through entrepreneurial endeavor, but the word "Papa" inscribed over his head marks the picture with a tenderness and intimacy that places it firmly within the realm of family life. The historian Charles B. Rousseve, in his formal and constructed portrait, holds a book, the tool of his trade, as well as a symbol for African Americans' liberation through education.
These photographs allow us an insider's view of the private lives of African Americans in segregated southern communities. Trying Not to Forget challenges us to peer behind the veil of segregation to view African Americans actively engaged in inventing new ways to see and be seen.
Susan Page and Keisha Roberts, curators of Trying Not to Forget, Center for Documentary Studies
Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South is an ambitious documentary project that seeks to correct historical misrepresentations of African American experiences during the period of legal segregation in the United States. Multiracial research teams of history graduate students from universities across the country collected over 1,200 oral history interviews and copied thousands of precious family photographs and documents in their travels across the South, from Enfield, North Carolina to LeFlore County, Mississippi; from New Iberia, Louisiana, to the Arkansas Delta; and seventeen other regions to compile the foundation of this project. These collected materials are rich resources for understanding self-images, racial pride, and African American achievement during Jim Crow.
Behind the Veil is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, and the Lyndhurst Foundation.
Special thanks to Jason Wagner and Dan Partridge for their assistance in producing this exhibition.