Exhibitions: Courageous Women: Images of Struggle
by April Rapier
Women of Courage, photographsby Judith Sedwick. The JuliaIdeson Building,HoustonPubliclibrary. September5 - October 18.
This exhibit of photographs by Judith Sedwick was based on the Black WomenOral History Project of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, and a seriesof public programs was held in conjunction with it. (It opened in New York City and has travelled almost a year thus far.) It was widely and generously sponsored, with a good deal of advance promotion accompanying. Upon entering the ornately beautiful hall where the images were displayed, all sense of hoopla and the attendant painstaking work required to assemble a body of images of this nature subsided; one was left to confront calm, dignity, assuredness. Each photograph was lit by a small brass light attached to the frame, giving the room an intimate, warm feeling. Many of the portraits are executive-style — formal, carefully groomed and posed, impersonal; they honor the sitters well, but don't speak clearly to the viewerbeyond a carefully constructed public image. Others leave theviewerreeling with the power and magnificence of the sitter. In these images, a lifetime of struggle and hope highlight the beauty born of conviction and courage. Each image was accompanied by an encapsulated biography; through reading and viewing, one is struck by the historical impact (and requisite sacrifice) that these women made upon the world.
The portrait of Lucy Rocker Aiken, a granddaughter of Jefferson Long (the first Black Member of Congress from Georgia), is a doozie! Herposture and expression bespeak a marvelous, resolute soul whose wisdom and kindness could penetrate the narrowest mind. The image tells of a woman who knows exactly why she fought. It incidentally provides the most visually interesting setting — an unexpected and inexplicable mixture of glass block, soda fountain spigots, marble, and flowers, bathed in gorgeous muted lights and colors. Kathleen Adams, who graduated from Atlanta University m 1911 (the difficulty implicit, for a Black woman, in obtaining a degree m the early part of the century, seemsin retrospect to be massive and overwhelming, yet many of these women did so, and all went on to be distinguished educators, community leaders, or professionals) was photographed wearing a coat and hat, a touching detail; her entire life isthere to see in her glorious face.
Many of the women honored are "firsts" - in banking, schooling, areas in American history associated with shameful exclusion and subsequent pride; a fewof the gestures and expressions seem to illustrate the point that perhaps the struggle, no matter what the accomplishments, was less meaningful in the face of the tragedies ofinjustice that remain. The portrait of Ozeline Pearson Wise, the first Black woman to be employed in the banking department of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, holds her hands in a manner that seems to bespeak this point. Most portraits are triumphant, however — jubilance sustained by the serenity of having acted in good faith. No one seems to be self-aggrandizing or in need of recognition. In fact, a bemused puzzlement characterizes many of the images. Christina Adair, a Houstonian and longtime community organizer and civic worker (photographed in front of a mural depicting aspects of Black life), gives the impression of eschewing praise for her endeavors, so innocent is her demeanor. No sense of struggle is in evidence; her joy is radiant as she tentatively joins her hands and smiles with the photographer.
Another "first" was Sadie T. M. Alexander, who in 1921 was one of the first three Black women to earn a PhD.
These amazing facts supported by beautifully simple images have great impact. Sedwick deserves enormous credit for not allowing sentimentality to be the guide, (The quiet photograph of Rosa Parks, the courageous woman who tested the practice of Jim Crow in 1955 by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white, triggering a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, has the same kind of escalating momentum.) Perhaps the most poignant example of a private moment between subject and photographer occurs in the photograph of Lena Edwards, a physician who taught at Howard University and worked in a migrant labor camp in Hereford, Texas. Her dress is simple, as is the setting — a wooden house, a stained glass window, blurred greenery in the background — yet a world of compassion shines through, and no words of explanation are necessary.