The Beam Classroom was overflowing on Tuesday night as students and faculty packed the seats to hear Kimberly Juanita Brown, Ph.D. speak. Brown’s talk, entitled “Afterimages of History: The Poetics of Photography in the Contemporary,” used photography and poetry to discuss the subjectivity of African American experiences over the past 60 years.

Brown featured photographs from black artists like Roy DeCarava and Carrie Mae Weems.

DeCarava captured the lives of African American men and women in the 1950s and 1960s—working, protesting for rights, mourning, enjoying the small moments. Weems’ work is more recent—from the 1990s and early 2000s—and focuses on the recognition of African Americans’ places in Louisiana history.

Brown matched these images with the words of poets of color. She believes the pairing of the words and imagery help to convey historical events and feelings of African Americans.

“Owing to a history of racial subjugation in the United States...the juxtaposition of imagery practiced by black artists in this country is also about the power of photography, whether it is a record of pain, violation, joy, or comfort,” Brown said in her talk on Tuesday evening. “Similarly, African American poetry is a catalogue of historical events.”

Many of DeCarava’s photographs were published in a 1955 book co-authored by Langston Hughes, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life.” This book captivated African Americans and became a “bible” to them, according to Brown.
Brown’s own experience with this book is noteworthy. In her very-hard-to-find copy (originally from a library in Vermont), she noticed the word “discarded” stamped inside the front cover. She could not let that word go.
“I hovered over the idea of this discarding,” she said in her talk. “It somehow brings together a myriad of concerns animating black poetic and photographic representations—remove, reject, toss out, refuse.”

Brown covers this issue as a lecturer in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University, though she will be leaving Harvard for Mount Holyoke College at the end of the academic year. She is also writing a book that will be published this fall.

“[The] book project...explores the cultural facility of dead black bodies [that appeared] on the cover of the New York Times in 1994,” said Brown.

Assistant Professor of Art History Dana Byrd was one of the proponents of bringing Brownto campus, with funding from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and the Blythe Bickel Edwards Fund.

“It seemed nice to have someone who was trained in literature and in African American studies,” said Byrd. “[She] offer[ed] a slightly different method for working on photography and working at the intersection of the visual.”
Byrd was thrilled by the large audience that attended the talk. 

“There was a broad spectrum of students and faculty and people from the community, and that was really heartening,” said Byrd. “It suggested that people in this community and on this campus are really engaged with the arts and thinking deeply about visual things.”

Brown recognizes the less publicized but still incredibly worthy work of African Americans in the past sixty years.

“Poets and photographers mine the vast archive of black subjectivity,” Brown said. “[It] allow[s] the space to pause, to contemplate, to acknowledge and [to] engage in the spectacular presence of African American visual production.”