Photoshopping History

With today’s photography tools, my face can be replaced with yours. If a blemish appears, it can be retouched. If the flowers look bedraggled, I can renew them with digital fresh flowers.

Recently after the hanging of an exhibit of historical church photos, my friends and I saw that blackface masks were decorating the back wall in one picture. The 1960’s photograph is of a band called the Pantomime Band or PB. Two men are in drag, with faces painted like mimes. Musicians and singers are wearing red stripped blouses and shirts. They have skimmers on their heads. The PB Band possibly didn’t actually play their instruments but pretended, or mimed, using recorded music.

The purpose of the band was playful, innocuous, designed as a fun way to kick off a church campaign for annual pledges. They only “played” for two nights.

“Is that Lenny in drag?” Asked my friend. Eighty-eight years old, she remembers people who have long since departed. ‘

“Look, there’s Joe!” Said someone.

“No, that can’t be Joe. That’s Joe’s dad.”

The band’s photograph, resized and enhanced, had been touched many times, framed by the members of the church art board, and hung. No one had said anything about the five small masks in the picture—until after every photo had been hung and workers were cleaning up.

“That’s black face! You can’t hang this! You’ve got to take it down!”

I backed up. I think I said, “Noooo” as in “We can’t remove this photo; it’s necessary” mixed with “Oh no, how did I miss that. Let’s photoshop it.”

I don’t think he heard me. “Look, we have to take this one down. It’s black face,” he called out.

“What is it?” Asked my venerable friend, followed by a cacophony of five voices in unison.

“Oh no! It has to come down/Photoshop it out/It will have to come down/I didn’t see it/You can’t have this up/People will be upset/What will we do?/Take it down!”

“I’ll do it,” said a photographer.

“What?”

“Photoshop it, erase them.”

And so, it was done. The digital photo with its masks on the wall was “shopped” and reprinted and placed over the original photo in its frame on the wall.

What are the philosophical implications of erasing historical documentation, even in a local photo?

In the 1960s’s in the United States, Martin Luther King and others were insisting on equal protection under the law, an end to separate but equal. An awakening of sensitivity to racism was on the rise, but probably not to the level to cause a small group at a Kentucky church to realize that black face as a stage decoration would offend viewers forty years later.

My husband joked, “I’m bothered by men in drag. I want those two queens erased.” We laughed. But men dressed in drag, pretending to be queens, could offend a transgender person, as in They were making fun of me and my people—Even if dressing in drag was considered comical at the time in the 60’s when transgender people were usually hidden and commonly ridiculed, before the rainbow movement arose, before people understood being gay or transgender to be a biological, natural fact of life.

Our collective memory of making fun of queer people cannot be erased, anymore than our memory of symbols of latent racial insensitivity like black face masks, separate water fountains, and the back of the bus.

A divorcee, resenting the over-large family portrait above her mantle, glued Abraham Lincoln’s face over her ex-husband’s face. We are amused by her act of defiance. She knows she had children with the man, ate breakfast with him, argued over the thermostat, put away his shoes. Covering his face emphasizes the irony of her situation.

It is impossible to know the inside story behind the masks in the Pantomime Band photograph since the only record we have is the original photograph of friends having a jolly good time pretending to be a band for a Christian fundraiser. They might have looked for mime masks but instead found black face ones. Hanging them was an Oh well what the heck choice.

History can be redacted, rewritten, omitted from new editions. Would an erasure be misunderstood, over time? Our photoshopped photo, with its masks removed sits on top of the original. It will be discovered someday. Someone might notice and be puzzled. Would the truth matter?

Maybe in 2019 the church didn’t want to advertise its 1960’s insensitivities. Or maybe someone objected to the black face masks. Either option could be true. Would one option be more acceptable than the other? Imagine someone thinking, They were ashamed of their racism, when in actuality five people feared black face masks in the original photograph would disturb a parishioner or visitor. To erase was a politically correct move, which might be interpreted as morally objectionable by a historian. The erasure choice is sensible within one context, but possibly disturbing and misunderstood in another situation and time.

If the image erased had been two water fountains side by side, one labeled “White” and the other “Colored” as if to erase our shame for waiting so long to come to our senses, someone would have said, “You can’t do that!”

Irony in history is like oxygen—everywhere.

A Nutty Season

Beginning in late autumn, walnuts blanket our lawns and flower beds with rotting black mushy balls the size of lemons. In June the nuts sprout under shrubs and in the grass like sneaky aliens. That is, IF the nuts are left undisturbed.

At our place, a mature black walnut tree spreads high and wide just off our deck along a fence line; another marks the front edge of our property and the entrance to our driveway. In the hot summer the trees give welcome shade. They also infect our soil with juglone, a chemical poisonous to most flowers, vegetables, and shrubs, even pine trees.

Sitting on our deck in June, a friend praised the back yard’s black walnut. “That is a gorgeous tree!” Graceful, extravagant, enormous, the tree survived a property line clean-out 30 years ago. When we couldn’t grow tomatoes within 50 feet of it, we moved the tomatoes. When a pine shrub died, we replaced it with a juniper. Zinnias instead of petunias. Hydrangeas instead of azaleas. We have definitely accommodated the tree.

In early November when we walk across the lawn and our feet roll and twist on freshly fallen nuts, we begin their removal. After filling a wheelbarrow with nuts, we cart them 200 yards to the back tree line where squirrels dine. We have been doing this for years, even though as we age and lose cells, the trees grow and gain cells, thus producing ever more nuts.

Two days ago, we finally finished tossing nuts into trash barrels, carting off nuts to squirrel piles, rolling up nuts, raking nuts, digging out nuts, driving over nuts.

We could hire someone to pick up the nuts or even to cut down the trees. So why are we still doing our own nut removal? Because we can is the simplest answer, but there is more to the story.

It’s about respect. The trees are prolific, provident.

It’s about cooperation, with each other and the trees. After all, walnuts fall only for two weeks while we have enough energy and will to rid ourselves of them, over time, an hour here, an hour there.

It’s about responsibility and reciprocity. The trees shade us, cool our yard, clean our air. In the deep woods, the walnuts could remain in place on the ground, but we have an artfully landscaped yard which requires consideration.

It’s about participation and attention. The trees participate in growing and giving naturally, without debate or analysis. They nourish and replenish. Tending to them and their fruit engages us.

This extended metaphor about black walnuts is intended to remind us how best to honor life, celebrate faith, practice peace, and acknowledge each other and our natural world with respect and kindness.

Seasons Greetings, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukkah, Blessings and Peace—Within these phrases are foundations of respect, cooperation, responsibility, reciprocity, and participation; repetitive allusions to deliverance and salvation; reminders of celebratory events, generosity, and renewal. Even if used carelessly, the phrases maintain their foundational intention.

There is a natural order to trees, life, and meaning, which begs our attention and care, even when we are distracted by disruptions and challenges. We respond, perhaps not joyfully, but tenderly, deliberately, faithfully, gratefully, patiently, because we can, because we must. We are more than ourselves. We all are.

New Mercies I See

You, God, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, and my foot from stumbling, so I’ll walk before the Lord in the land of the living. —Psalm 116:8-9

I’m surprised to find myself living still. When I was forty, I wondered how long I would have and how I would use that time. Circumstances had alerted me. I had been delivered from death, tears, and stumbling. Now what? I can’t say that I actually made a conscious list of goals, but I certainly was choosing a deliberate direction to walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

I learned to recognize God at work in my life—everyday—in communion with others. In my home love bloomed; with friends laughter and work flourished; in teaching love soothed adolescent behavior; reminders of god’s covenant spread like water.

Life was simpler than I had believed, made simpler by God’s presence in my beginning thoughts, my daily choices, my reactions.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve made mistakes, ridiculous ones. I have had my share of shameful moments. Intemperate outbursts. Painful and confusing sidetracks. Oops, try not to do that again! What is wrong with you, woman?! Get a grip!

Recently, one afternoon I was loading a cart of groceries into the trunk of my car. I was bone tired, overheated, thirsty. I needed to return my cart. Which way was faster, the front door of Kroger’s or the cart return in the parking lot?

A woman with two grandchildren was approaching. The children, dressed in school clothes, playfully pushed their grocery cart. The grandmother must have noticed my fatigue.

“Verona, take this woman’s cart back to the store for her.”

The sweet child, her hair in plaits, smiled and said, “Yes ma’am.”

“Watch the cars, now.” The cart was almost as tall as the child. A truck waited.

It was an ordinary act, simple, gracious, kind. God in the living.

I’m grateful to be among the living, to have witnessed love enacted in a Kroger parking lot. It reminded me again how our job as Christians is to see God at work in the world here and now and to join in that work. I like walking with the Lord here – in the land of the living.

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

Maya

I’m wondering what Maya thinks of Ayanna Presley’s win in Massachusetts with the propelling message, “Change can’t wait.”

Maya sat in a front row seat in my junior English class. She carried herself gracefully, artfully downplaying her natural beauty with jeans and tee shirts, her colorful bracelets hinting at the sparkle behind her conservative front.

Maya wasn’t a girl to be ignored. If she did poorly on an assignment, she’d stay after class with questions. Could she do another assignment to practice what she had missed? She was determined to improve.

Her reading journal hinted of deep fears, trouble at home, barriers of poverty and insecurity. She wrote that the only way to improve one’s situation was through education and association with good people. However normal that sounds, for her it was an imperative that couldn’t wait.

One day she asked if she could meet with me privately. Apparently something I had written in her journal had caused her to trust me. “I have to barricade my sister and myself in my room at home. My mom’s cousin won’t leave us alone.”

Imagine delaying going home by participating in after school sports and tutoring, taking the bus home, grabbing something to eat and using the bathroom before “he” shows up, and then pushing furniture against the bedroom door. Those were the circumstances under which Maya had done homework and slept ever since she had entered puberty, three years earlier. Now she felt she had to protect her sister as well.

Near the end of the school year when counselors came to our classrooms to enroll students in classes for the next school year, Maya asked me to recommend her for AP English, a demanding course of literature taught by an exceptional teacher, Anne Padilla. Maya was underprepared for AP English. I tried to dissuade her.

“Was AP English the best course in the department?”

“Yes, but…”

“Then that’s where I need to be.”

I spoke to Mrs. Padilla. “She’s not prepared but she wants the challenge. It will mean extra work for her and you. She might fail.”

My colleague was known for her compassion and her high standards. I was prepared to disappoint Maya, but instead, after Mrs. Padilla agreed to take her, I returned with “You’re in. She will accept you based on your willingness to do your best.”

Which is exactly what happened. Maya entered with a deficit in composition skills and passed the class, graduating with the kind of personal achievement not measured by standardized testing.

Maya went to our local university. Beyond that, she faded into the community. Like almost all my students, she exists in my memory as an adolescent. I would like to think that when she heard about Ms. Presley’s winning the democratic nomination in Massachusetts, she nodded and thought, “Yes, ma’am. Change can’t wait.”