While I was a professor with the Lansing Community College writing program, part of my job was to help grade students’ writing. Their writing was keyed to class assignments. The one I hated was the one where students were assigned to write about a photograph. The students submitted the photo with their writing, but unfortunately (in my view) did not describe the photo, assuming that the reader could look at the image for themselves. We could, and did, and do.
Images often stand alone. In a sight-dominated world, photographs capture attention. They create first impressions and can elicit gut-wrenching reactions. Optics represent snapshots of mountaintop moments.
Consider the group photo appearing here with my column: The shot was taken at a church on August 20, 2023, a Sunday morning, the so-called most segregated hour in America. The smiling Black and white people represent the Justice League of Greater Lansing, and All Saints Episcopal Church of East Lansing. It shows the type of moment most Americans wish to be in on: getting a big check. The check for $130,470.62 is to atone for injustices done to African Americans by the church. It goes into the Justice League of Lansing’s reparations endowment fund.
The Justice League of Greater Lansing seeks to repair the breach caused by slavery and its aftermath by increasing wealth equity for African Americans in the Greater Lansing area. A faith-based organization, its members are churches.
The check-passing photograph came as the result of two years of “learning” of its part in injustice, All Saints Pastor Katherine Carlson said. This study also included making known the acts the church participated in to secure its privilege. One example was in the early 1950s, when Michigan State University faculty member Dave Dickson wanted to buy a house in East Lansing. All Saints did not support him in fear that “stepping out” for Dixon, an African American, might have hurt its campaign to build their new church.
The injustice was clear, Carlson said, when All Saints recently sold a house it owned in East Lansing for $260K. A similar house in south Lansing is valued at about $70K. The vast dollar gap arises from white people being able to buy a house anywhere, while Black people cannot. All Saints decided to give the Justice League half of its house sale proceeds. The money will help fund scholarships, businesses and home ownership in Lansing’s African American community. Carlson said the congregation should not be proud of this moment — it was long overdue. But as an African American member of All Saints, I am proud.
Historically, Americans have refused to see their nation’s history for the mixed bag it is. Some people want a uniform image of America favoring whites. But that limits Black people, as photography did for many years. Until very recently, camera lens settings focused on a person. Anyone not near that person’s shade risked being blacked out. Persons of dark skin risked having their features wiped out. No smile, no cheekbones, no lips, just gleaming teeth and the whites of their eyes. Many dark Black people would rather not be in the photo than suffer that indignity.
But America needs the energy of those people who are hidden from view, often working behind the scenes to affect great change. Groundbreaking efforts like reparations represent a panoramic view of history. Slavery is over, but it’s not done. Its effects become clear when individuals work to achieve justice.
The history of reparations goes back to Reconstruction. Forty acres and a mule was the post-Civil War promise the U.S. government made to emancipated Black people so as to give them a new start in the newly United States. It never happened. The promise was a snapshot that faded with time, taking hope and faith with it. Black farmers are still trying to get justice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The issue of reparations next came in front of Congress in 1989. The late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit, introduced H.R. 40. It called for investigating slavery and remedies for its damage. That went nowhere, except to the next session — where Conyers kept introducing the bill until his retirement from Congress in 2017. Conyers died in 2019. H.R. 40 failed during his lifetime, but now his idea is becoming a shared American vision.
No one photo captures that journey. To try is to risk caricatures such as Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima.
Families, including mine, dealt with unpopular relatives by cutting them out of photos (yes, there would be an actual hole in the print). Or the photo would be weirdly cut down to half its size. It was a denial of reality, a rolling back of history, a creation of mystery. Titillating, yes; but violent as well, in trying to unsee the person.
As digital technology increases use of images, people can falsify history by cutting out Black Americans. We must continue to challenge their actions.
Florida and other states edit Black Americans out of history textbooks or stop offering Black History AP courses. They color our experience as one-dimensional, as in the notion that slavery benefited Black people because while enslaved, they learned skills that could be used to earn money. Slavery did not benefited Black people! Slavery benefitted those who enslaved Black people: generally, and overwhelmingly white people.
But this photograph of “superheroes” — the Justice League of Greater Lansing and All Saints Episcopal Church — shows a moment of encouragement, honesty and fairness, and a righting of a wrong. It’s the continuation of a crusade.
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