When writing about the making her film Daughters of the Dust (1992), Julie Dash credits the archives for helping shape the historical, ethnographic foundation of her story: a Gullah family at the turn of the century, contemplating northern migration from their Sea Island home to the US mainland.
Turning to the archives myself, I decided to browse the photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “public domain” collection to see what I could find.
One image caught my eye.
It was a photograph by Henry P. Moore of a group of former slaves on a plantation during the American Civil War (1862).
While in residence, [Moore] made some of the earliest and most poignant Civil War photographs of slave life in the Deep South. Moore focused on the changed lives of African Americans in the aftermath of the Union victory (navy and army) at the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.
With the departure of their owners, plantation workers in Union-controlled areas were no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42)
“No longer slaves but not yet free.”
A liminal state.
Caught between a divided nation,
Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?
I think what really caught my attention about this photo was the way in which the plantation workers looked towards the camera. I do not know if this photograph was staged or not, but the fact that the Black workers return the gaze of Moore’s camera really jostles the power dynamics of the photographs. In a way, this gaze seems to acknowledge the tripartite relationship between subject-artist-viewer.
But what does this relationship signify? What power structures exist in this frame, and beyond it?
If we take the title, for example, what can we learn?
After the word “negroes” (a word quite out of date, although only so since about the 1970s) there is the bracketed phrase: “Gwine to de Field.”
Chiefly Southern & South Midland US
A present participle of go1.
[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]
(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)
The inclusion of this in the title makes me wonder if it was Moore’s conscious attempt to more “authentically” (a loaded word, yes) represent his subjects? Does this title allow the subjects to speak, in a way? Or is Moore exoticizing their own language? Are the subjects ‘othered,’ and silenced through the power structures imbued in this photographic (and somewhat ethnographic) pursuit?
We also learn from the title that this image depicts a plantation on Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This is near St. Helena Island, which is the Sea Island in which Daughters of the Dust was set (the focus of my current research).
Julie Dash has said that she wanted to make Daughters of the Dust to tell untold stories, the untold histories.
What stories are held in the frame? What histories are hidden?
I look to the woman on the ride side of the photograph, carrying a child. The skirt of her white dress is blurred, as if caught in the midst of movement. At a glimpse it looks ghostly. Mother and child caught in motion – in a flash of the camera, caught between past and present. They may be caught in between – in the liminal – yet, in their ghostly, blurred visage, they appear to transgress the limits of the photograph.
Moore may have wanted to capture a moment, but what he also captured was (a) movement.
In any case, in that blur, I am reminded of the life behind the image. The stories untold and the histories that still resonate.
Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.
Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.
Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina,” photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42).
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017