Excerpts from an intergenerational dialogue held at the South Side Community Art Center on October 23, 2008 between father and daughter Robert (Bob) Crawford and Margo Natalie Crawford. Photographer Bob Crawford defies the boundaries between documentary-style photography and art photography. As a photographer of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements in the 1960s and ’70s, he captured Black urban style and the extraordinary scenes in the midst of the ordinary, notably many photographs of the Wall of Respect created by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) at 43rd and Langley in Chicago. His work has been widely exhibited and collected in museums and galleries in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. Professor Margo Natalie Crawford studies the visual and written poetics of social movements. She is the co-editor, with Lisa Gail Collins, of New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement (2006), which has been widely cited in the current explosion of Black Arts scholarship. She is the author of Dilution Anxiety and the Black Phallus (2008). Margo Crawford is Associate Professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
AREA gives special thanks to Faheem Majeed, Curator and Acting Executive Director of the Center, for hosting the event.
Margo Crawford (MC) The first question I want to ask you is about the role of photography in the Black Arts Movement. How did it feel to be a photographer, to be someone recording this movement, were you aware, were you—Bobby Sengstacke, Fundy [Billy] Abernathy, Roy Lewis—consciously attempting to create this photo-documentary of a movement?
Bob Crawford (BC) Yeah, it was very conscious. I mean that was our sole purpose, to document the life on the south and west sides of Chicago, especially in the ’60s—the late ’60s, there was just so much excitement going on in the community, so much change, it was very conscious. Yeah, that’s what we were doing.
MC I’m so struck that Robert Sengstacke, recently—when he’s asked about the relation between documentary photography and more “artistic” photography he insisted that in the Black Arts Movement no one saw that divide, and he insists that (his language) “there was no question about it.” Implying, or insisting. that by all means, during the movement photographers clearly understand that you could record a movement and see your photography as being … documentary and also fully understand it as art. Could you tell us about that?
BC Well yeah, that depended on the photographer, as we became interested in photography. But there were influences. Billy Abernathy did things that were beyond documentary. I don’t know if you’re all familiar with his work but it was, just, the artistic thing just blew my mind when I first saw it. All of us were influenced by him. It all depends —all of us worked differently. Some of them were strict documentary and some were more into a “fine arts” type of depiction.
MC I’m sure you remember the exhibit, Two Schools, New York and Chicago, situating the work within this tension between a New York scene and a Chicago scene. And I wondered, as we think about the specificity of the Chicago Black Arts Movement, what happens when you then remember some of your images of the Wall of Respect, as we think about what made the Chicago Black Arts Movement (of course not entirely) different from what was happening in other Black Arts Movements across the country?
BC To go back to the Two Schools, I was in New York maybe three weeks ago and a number of people were asking me about this exhibit, the Two Schools exhibit. …But, people are still asking about this exhibit, and what was the difference between the two schools. But basically the difference was that, being Chicago, the Chicago photographers’ work was usually more political. And the New York photographers’ work was a little more “art,” narrowly.
MC I’m struck when you tell us that part of what you remember in terms of the Chicago Black Arts visual artists scene was a focus on something that was more “political” as opposed to something that seemed more “artistic” in the New York scene, because I wonder as you think about some of your own images of the Wall of Respect, as we appreciate what was done in the Wall of Respect, do you think—as we think about what is “more artistic” and of course surely also political—was the Wall of Respect a move to something that was more artistic …?
BC At the time, the Wall of Respect was totally political. Completely, the politics, I think, someone included a picture, a photograph, I believe, of Elijah Muhammad, and the Muslims wanted it removed. And it was removed. There was a painter, Norman Parrish, one of the original painters (I went to high school with him)—he painted a panel there, but it was not political, it was deemed not political. They made him remove it; he had to remove it. I just saw him in New York a couple weeks ago, he was commenting on that. There was so much, so much politics around the Wall, what was going on there, some people said, you know and the whole neighborhood, the community there, it was totally political.
MC Can you tell us more about what happened at the Wall as poets connected with photographers, with other visual artists?
BC And the people on that block in that community. That was probably the most important thing—that it was not defaced in any way. No one defaced the Wall. The community people guarded the Wall. And they said there were provocateurs sent around at the Wall at the time, through, you know, the police, or whatever, and then some people didn’t want certain people included, depicted, on the Wall, there were arguments about that, conversations I heard.
MC When you think about photographing people in these everyday poses, everyday life, you and others who were recording this movement, did you think about people being aware that their photographs were being taken, was that ever something as a photographer that you felt uneasy about or thought about as you took some of these pictures?
BC No, no, we didn’t, because we became known and were part of the community. We were part of that thing that was centered around the Wall, but it was really interesting that none of the artists lived in this community—they all lived in Hyde Park or somewhere. You know. That was another thing, you know, that these people accepted these artists and musicians and things, whatever, that crossed over Cottage Grove and into their community, and they were accepted with very little friction. Because at this time, those were very tense times.
I remember one incident, I was standing on the corner there, 43rd and Langley, several of us, with the poet, Amus Mor, he’s a well known poet, I think he’s disappeared now, no one has seen him in a few years, that’s the last time I saw him. Some young gang members over on the other side of the street there, yelled over to him. This was Celebration Day, there were musicians there—I think some AACM musicians rode up on motorcycles, with instruments and everything, there were artists, you know. These gang members on the other side of the street, 43rd, yelled over. ’Cause they were laughing at the musicians, with the motorcycles and stuff. So Amus yelled over to these gang members, “why don’t you all go get some guns,” so they yelled back to Amus, “why don’t you all buy us some?” So that was the whole, you know, tenor of things.
MC And in the full spirit of the anecdote you just shared, I want to also remind you of a similar story that Jeff Donaldson told me when I interviewed him in 2002, and he was also thinking about the Wall of Respect and thinking about how in some of the current scholarship people like myself trying to study this movement, how we’re really not able to capture some of the nuances. And I think of some of the nuances that you’re helping us with today, as you tell us these anecdotes. And this is what Jeff Donaldson says in reference to his own work, painting one panel in the jazz category of the Wall of Respect: “I was painting Nina Simone when this old lady who lived across the street asked me to come over. She said ‘I gotta look at that ugly motherfucker you just painted every day.’ So I changed it. She had all kinds of collages and doilies that she starched so that they took on sculptural forms. Art was all around her house. And the walls were painted different colors.” And I wonder as you think about that story, this memory that Jeff Donaldson has of the woman in the community telling him what she didn’t like and his decision to revise it. Is that part of what you’re getting at?
BC Yeah, true, true.
[Bob looks at the slideshow of his photographs -ed]
BC These are the panels being painted by Bill Walker. Bill Walker was really the backbone behind the whole Wall. Sylvia Abernathy, Billy Abernathy’s wife, she designed the basic layout, but Bill Walker, Edward Christmas, Barbara Jones of course were the primary painters.
MC Can you tell us more about Sylvia Abernathy?
BC She was a graphic designer, and she did the basic layout and the design of the Wall.
MC And she also designed In Our Terribleness.
BC Yeah, right, she did, designed the layout of In Our Terribleness.
MC So as we think of the Wall of Respect possibly being different from some of the other murals, it could be that then we might want to think about Sylvia Abernathy as also being someone who really represents that connection between the photographers and the writers. Because In Our Terribleness once again brings together Baraka’s words and the photography.
MC Many of the poets, when we think about what happened in the OBAC poetry workshops, many of the poets as they were influenced by each other and working together they began to think about what made a poem black, what was this black aesthetic in terms of photography?
BC I think that was what was so important, I remember I went to an AFRICOBRA meeting once, and I didn’t realize that there was so many poets working together or writers working together or artists working together like this…I mean a whole room full of them, you know, that knew each other and were working together and, you know, it was great…
MC Did the photographers also have—
BC We did, similar, but probably weren’t as organized as the poets and writers, for some reason or other, you know.
MC The symbol of AFRICOBRA, the mask with the sunglasses, I wonder, does that become a way of remembering some of the eclectic moves that happen in the Black Arts Movement, because some of the current scholarship right now, people sometimes look at the ’60s, and it’s not always the case but sometimes looking at the 1960s Black Arts Movement as not being this experimental art movement, but rather being this art movement that’s a prelude to the more experimental work. So I wanted to remind you of something like this (the African mask with the sunglasses). Do you remember this movement as being experimental? eclectic? creating these strange mixtures like a mask with sunglasses? Does that seem to you to be part of what the Black Arts Movement was about?
BC Right, right, true, to some extent but I think most of the writers and the visual artists were following a tradition before them, you know. The photographers were following Roy DeCarava and people before him, and of course the writers were following works of James Baldwin, so…
MC [In some of your work] you’re doing so much with foreground and background. I want to ask you about that. As you record a movement it seems that very often you’re drawn to this foreground and background and even more tellingly people’s individual bodies, their relation to a particular scene…
BC To their community and their environment, yeah. Well, in those days it was just, communities were much more colorful and interesting, you know, there were painted storefronts on every street, so it was a much more colorful environment.
MC [In] this intergenerational dialogue, part of what I’m supposed to share—as opposed to simply having all of the questions—is to then tell you a bit about what’s being said now about the Black Arts Movement. Earlier I already gave you a glimpse of that, this idea that sometimes people are suggesting that the Black Arts Movement is not experimental. When we think about the visual art, that claim becomes really troubling, hard to fully substantiate…. Some of these images are really forcing us to think about what we mean when we use a term like experimental art. But it’s not just a matter of wanting to think about the experimental moves in visual culture, but also to understand how Black Arts literature becomes much more—if not experimental—much more open than we may think.
So often we have some of the most famous Black Arts poems making it so that we don’t appreciate some of the nuances of the other literature. I want to see what you think about when you listen to a play that I’m sure you might remember: It’s Ed Bullins and it’s a very very short play, the only type of play that I can quickly, fully present: because there are only two lines in this play. And it’s entitled The Theme is Blackness, and it has a subtitle: A One-Act Play to be given before predominantly white audiences. And what happens in this play? A speaker appears, and the speaker says, “The theme of our drama tonight will be blackness. Within blackness one may discover all the self-illuminating universes in creation. And now Blackness.” Then the lights go out for 20 minutes and when the lights come up, and this is the end of this play: the speaker says, “will Blackness please step up and take a curtain call.” Lights out. Blackness. That’s the entire play.
BC When was that written?
MC This was 1966. And so I wondered, you know as we think about everything we see in your art, and everything we might begin to think about as we remember a play such as The Theme is Blackness, it seems the Black Arts Movement is so much more complicated than we may have acknowledged as we think about this questioning of blackness. The theme is blackness but we’re never told what blackness is. It seems that the very point of the play is to stage that inability to know, or even that refusal to perform blackness, refusal to present the performance or what might become the spectacle of it. But I wanted to share that with you and see what you think. Because of course, it’s so easy, as we, people like myself studying the Movement, it’s a little too easy for us to arrive at a particular read of this. But I want to see what you think when you remember that language, how you think it connects or doesn’t connect to what you lived during this period?
BC Well, the Wall was, like I said, there was nothing experimental about the Wall. The Wall was reality. I mean, it was harsh reality on the South Side of Chicago. That’s what we were dealing with then. And of course around the corner you know, on 35th St….The way it impacted on those people, in that community, on that block. I mean they were they were dealing with the police, the gangs, the different factions, I mean it was just tearing the community apart. And it seemed like the Wall was something that these people who lived in the community had to hang onto for that short space of time.
MC And in terms of performance, could you tell us about the performances at the Wall?
BC It was Val Gray, yeah.
MC Performances and poetry readings?
BC Yeah, Val Gray, the poets. They would have celebrations there occasionally, and all the poets and writers would come and perform. It was like an outdoor community center.