McCabe exhibit proves and takes pride in Black life on campus

Bobby Zipp/The Phoenix
Bobby Zipp/The Phoenix

“It was as if blacks were invisible,” reads a quote from an anonymous Swarthmore alumna, understated and in tiny font on the wall directly across from the entrance to McCabe Library. Referencing the presence of Black students on Swarthmore’s campus and carefully lacking a timestamp — it could have been said yesterday — it is the introduction to an exhibition of Leandre Jackson’s ’75 work, entitled “Proof of Black Life,” which will be on display in the library until mid-March.

The goal of the exhibit is to bear audience witness to the life of Black Swarthmore students past the protests between 1968 and 1972. The images picture Black students playing piano, reading in the library, walking across campus. They are living, visibly, sometimes alone, and sometimes together.

One of the exhibit’s most effective artistic strategies is its combination of obviously deliberate pictures of students posing — on a tree in a composed lean, in front of the then-newly chartered Black Cultural Center — with candid snapshots of eating, reading, simply being. It is a look at a vibrant community that a majority had regarded as “invisible,” a community that is proud enough to pose and be shown in its most mundane, day-to-day proceedings.

“It was not so much that Black students were invisible,” the exhibition’s opening statement continues on to say, “as it was that many others at the college experienced a failure of sight.”

The exhibition powerfully contests the attitude of Black “invisibility” that manifests itself in statements like the one on the wall. They may have been believed invisible by their peers, but as far as the viewership of the images is concerned, the only students on campus were Black students.

The project was headed by Professor of History Allison Dorsey as part of the Black Liberation 1969 project. Dorsey worked in tandem with Cynthia Jetter ’74, the director of community partnerships and planning at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. She was familiar with and recommended Jackson’s work. Jackson is a prominent photographer, and most of his work is currently on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

Jetter and Dorsey then scheduled a meeting for the three of them, after which, Dorsey says, “it was clear that the Black Liberation 1969 project needed access to the images from Mr. Jackson’s collection.” She managed to secure funding from Vice President for College and Community Relations and Executive Assistant to the President Maurice Eldridge ’61 for the exhibition, as well as for hundreds of Jackson’s images for McCabe’s permanent collections.

In tandem with Visual Resources and Initiatives Librarian Susan Dreher and Reference and Instruction Resident Jasmine Woodson, Dorsey began to get a vision of the kind of images that might be best to display and the installation best suited to the photographs.

The specific selection process of images from the expansive collection was incredibly involved. While the artist’s entire official collection of materials is likely as well done as the selections on display, the work in McCabe fits more specifically to Dorsey’s artistic and cultural visions, for the exhibition as well as for the underlying themes of her class’s project.

“I wanted to highlight certain themes in Black student life: academics, sport, creative expression in the form of music and dance,” said Dorsey. “I also wanted to capture images of Black students in moments of relaxation, fun and play, images which reflected the ways students experienced and enjoyed a sense of connection and community.”

These ideas are communicated expertly in the chosen photos. There is none of the upfront power of historical images of protest. It more closely resembles a personal photo album, with a friendly character spoken through the smiles or look of casual concentration on the faces of its subjects.

Sifting through the collection to find the most fitting was likely a daunting task, but Dorsey was not without some help.

“I had the assistance of Nora Kerrich [’16], who was enrolled in Black Liberation 1969 and has a very artistic sensibility,” said Dorsey. With Kerrich’s help, the final photo selections for the exhibition were made and the exhibition was primed.

The photos are undressed, sitting plainly on walls and in display cases with, at most, a brief description of what is pictured. They stand alone well in the absence of flourish or labored description. They may go unnoticed, in some cases, not unlike their subjects must have.


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