Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 25, 2016
Katherine Capshaw Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 384 pp.; 71 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780816694044)

In Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks, Katharine Capshaw writes about the ways in which images enlisted African American children in the Civil Rights Movement. Her subject is photographic books—fiction and nonfiction—by black authors from the 1940s to the 1970s. The books consider, at first implicitly and later explicitly, the possibility of political agency in children (xi). In Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), Laura Wexler examines the “mammy image.” Capshaw addresses the lacuna that Wexler’s analysis produces in its “visual erasure” of black children (xxi–xxii).

Capshaw is refreshingly unapologetic about the instrumentality of photobooks. She writes that “these photographic books . . . [argue] that child readers can fashion knowledge about history, reinvent themselves . . . and work for justice in the world” (xxv). The books serve various ends: changing the perceptions of readers, inspiring anti-racist action, and demonstrating the unfinished nature of the struggle for civil rights so that further chapters of the movement may unfold. Capshaw hails some of the writers of photobooks, such as Jane Dabney Shackelford, for their subversion as they try to build a new reality by envisioning it in the books (12). Here (13, 15) she draws on Shawn Michelle Smith (Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). The authors use various techniques for subverting racism: repurposing the cultural gifts movement, which began in education in the 1920s and focused on the contributions of each culture, as Ellen Tarry and Marie Hall Ets did in My Dog Rinty (New York: Viking, 1946) (44). Another technique for subverting racism was forging counterpublic audiences through forms of address as in Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer’s A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (96; New York: Crown, 1956). But Capshaw is careful not to overlook the tendencies of some of the authors, including Shackleford, toward conservatism (13). For example, Shackelford’s dependence on a patriarchal family structure and strict divisions of activities by gender tempers her anti-racist project.

In chapter 1, Capshaw examines books that play by the rules of the World War II era: expressing racial amity and offering (white) viewers images that enable them to put themselves easily into the shoes of their (ostensibly equal) black counterparts. The books from the 1940s appeal to universal experiences (6). One example is My Happy Days (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1944) by Shackelford, which argues, quietly, for integration. But these early books also offer rare moments in which potentially racist white adult viewers, companions to young white readers, look children of color in the eye, even if only, as Capshaw puts it, through a photograph (2). Other photobooks, such as My Dog Rinty, which addressed housing reform, orchestrate this encounter between white viewers and black living spaces in order to change perceptions (and material conditions) for the better.

Chapter 2 features books that seek to capitalize on the possibility for civil rights that the cold war era generated. But they tread very carefully, using “innocence” and “impartiality . . . to push for reform” (xxiii). During this period, racial liberalism argued that racism was an individual problem rather than a systemic one (5). Capshaw also draws on writers such as bell hooks and Susan Sontag in discussing the work of the images in the photobooks (91–92). She uses Alan Trachtenberg in her discussion of the ways in which authors construct narratives using photographs to appear natural and objective (105–6). Other scholars such as Eduardo Cadava and Walter Benjamin contribute to Capshaw’s reading of the way photographs relate to and exist within history (115). In her readings of the photobooks, Capshaw skillfully negotiates the differences between past and present (9). She describes how the photobooks that might seem conservative today were radical for their time (49).

In chapter 3, Capshaw analyzes the role of the book Today by the Child Development Group of Mississippi (Edwards, MS: Mississippi Action for Community Education, 1965). Capshaw argues that Today is utopian (“both indexical and unreal”), and thus does not leave the story of civil rights open-ended as Capshaw prefers (123). But Today is highly successful at building a (young) black collectivity and at restricting access to the interior world of the book—black children protagonists and their story—to black readers (143–45). As Capshaw explains: “Readers will not get to know a particular child but can witness the group working, eating, and playing together” (143–44). The photographs also do not show the faces of the children: “their backs turned, they move as a group . . . our vision thus conforms to their experience” (144).

In chapter 4, Capshaw focuses on the Black Arts Movement and its use of childhood in photobooks to specific, activist ends. One is building a new epistemology by shaping black thought beginning in childhood (160). Another is fighting racism and racist systems in America starting in childhood. The black child is a site for civil rights, as Capshaw puts it, because “childhood became the epitome of the decolonized mind” (161). Some of the books discussed in this chapter, such as Dry Victories by June Jordan (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), offer pointed critiques. The subtlety or conservatism of the earlier photobooks—depending on how you read them—became overt, radical denunciations of racism and racist systems. Jordan’s innovative form engages readers in “stag[ing] the critique” by requesting their participation in making meaning from her juxtapositions and collages of images (200). The Black Book, edited by Toni Morrison et al. (New York: Random House, 1974), resembles a family album of black history and builds actual collectivity by eliciting storytelling among families of readers (209–10).

In chapter 5, Capshaw turns her attention to the ways in which the photobooks construct a narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. Specifically, Capshaw focuses on the search for representations of the movement as unfinished and exhortations to continued action. She repeatedly argues that the popular version of the civil rights story is a finished one of progress with a happy ending, and that it is “founded on a sentimental vision of childhood” (217–20). Locating civil rights in the past allows conservatives to close down the conversation about change. If the Civil Rights Movement can be sealed off in history, then it is harder for those who fight for civil rights today to build on that movement. But Capshaw and many of the authors she examines fight against this (225), preserving the term “civil rights” for contemporary struggles as well.

As she analyzes four photobooks by Walter Dean Myers, Ruby Bridges, Morrison, and Carole Boston Weatherford, Capshaw discovers that all but Morrison leave civil rights productively unfinished. She comments on how, to what effect, and for what purpose the authors assemble the narratives. In the case of Morrison, though Capshaw readily acknowledges the author’s skill, she criticizes Morrison for her focus on friendship. Like tolerance in Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), friendship in this context is a value that privileges individual responsibility above systemic change and thereby allows racism and bigotry to continue (243). But Capshaw resists an easy resolution to her criticism of Morrison’s Remember: The Journey to School Integration (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), and ends with the possibility that its readers can stage memory in both “generative” and “inhibitive” ways (248). Nor do Capshaw’s readings of the other three books in this chapter simply speak positively on their behalf. Rather, she illuminates the price of each author’s technique. While Myers’s One More River to Cross: An African American Photograph Album (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995) is harsh and frightening with its inclusion of imagery of the KKK and lynching, Bridges’s Through My Eyes (New York: Scholastic, 1999) succeeds at providing an unfinished narrative. Yet Bridges also criticizes children’s forced and uninformed involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, especially her own.

Capshaw concludes with a timely, though slender, discussion of Trayvon Martin, imagining the possibility of a photobook about his story. She uses this moment to make the point, once more, that the goal of these books is and should be to encourage social action.

Though Capshaw’s writing could, at times, be clearer, her book is notable for her skill at reading images from the photobooks. One example is her reading of figure 1.12, wherein David from My Dog Rinty encounters a racially mixed group of medical professionals at Harlem Hospital (43). Their body language and attire offer the possibility that the black man in the group is in a position of authority over the white and non-white medical professionals. Another is her deft treatment of figure 2.1, in which she describes how an image can speak clearly to a black audience while remaining silent to a white one (74–75). Capshaw’s parallel readings of the photobooks are also helpful, as when she discusses how the representation of impoverished urban space in My Dog Rinty avoids a pathological appearance through narrative and through idealized visions of interior domestic spaces (41). But the design of Civil Rights Childhood does not always support Capshaw’s good work. Chapters 1 and 4 both unfortunately begin with a confusing juxtaposition: a full-page image from one book side by side with a close reading of an entirely different image.

Civil Rights Childhood is also notable for its steadfast and vocal commitment to its political project. Capshaw’s continual engagement with the real implications of the work she analyzes and also of her own would make this book a useful one to use in the classroom.

Elena Gonzales
independent scholar and curator