Southern Rites at the Jewish Museum

Photographer Gillian Laub's deeply documented show on the persistence of racial attitudes in the South is visual activism at its best

What do I want? Why do I want it? And how do I get it?
– Stacey Abrams, in a TED talk shortly after she lost her bid to be elected governor of Georgia in the 2018 midterm elections.

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AS SHOULD BE OBVIOUS by now, I rarely review exhibitions that I don’t like. The world doesn’t need more negativity, and I don’t need the emotional aggravation. It is therefore with some trepidation that I accept invitations to review something I have not yet had a chance to see. I will only do so if I am deeply committed to an institution and usually trust its choices, as is the case with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE.)

Felicia after the Black Prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009. Photographed by Gillian Laub. Photo: Friderike Heuer

No need to fret: OJMCHE’s newest exhibition, Southern Ritesis one of its strongest yet, a moving and thought-provoking tour de force about race relations and racism in contemporary America. Organized by the International Center for Photography and judiciously curated by Maya Benton, the exhibition of photographs by Gillian Laub is visual activism at its best: perceptive, engaged, critical photography of human beings in a context that defines them. Did I mention beautiful? Beautiful!

Artist Talk at OJMCHE before the official opening of the exhibition. Photo: Friderike Heuer

It is not the beauty that matters here, though. It is the package of three elements that make this not just an artful, but an important exhibition: a longitudinal project executed with skill and courage in the light of tremendous obstacles, for one. Secondly, a slew of smart curatorial decisions on how to present that project, equally important for creating a narrative. And finally, the flexibility of a Jewish museum bent on going beyond the traditional role of keeper of memory, whether Holocaust-related or preserving the history of the local community.

Museum Director Judy Margles welcomes the artist. Photo: Friderike Heuer
Bruce Guenther, frequent guest curator at OJMCHE, attends the opening. Photo: Friderike Heuer

OJMCHE’s invitation to have difficult conversations about racism and relations between African Americans and whites — at a time when Portland is, again, in the midst of a murder trial for someone accused of hate crimes, and where the weekend brings marches by the KKK and their allies in close vicinity of the museum — provides the very model of inclusivity that is a prerequisite for change. To hark back to Stacey Abram’s questions (and potential answers): If it is change that we want, and if it is justice that demands it, then to get there we are helped by the kind of art Gillian Laub creates and museums like OJMCHE that channel it.

Qu’an and Brooke, Mt. Vernon, Georgia, 2012. Photographed by Gillian Laub.

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“I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Ralph Ellison (1952)

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GILLIAN LAUB IS A STORYTELLER. I cannot tell whether the New York-based photographer and filmmaker intuitively grasps the effectiveness of a human interest narrative, or if her projects are the results of intellectual decisions to employ a certain method – probably both, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Her work delivers a comprehensive view into the lives of other human beings, the way that they are shaped by their environments. Her interactions with her subjects elicit an openness and willingness to communicate that are rare for documentary photographers. The fact that she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in comparative literature before studying photography at the International Center of Photography, clearly exerts an influence. At her best, she makes the invisible visible.

Gillian Laub, photographer and film maker. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The images that you encounter at the museum depict the African-American and white high school seniors of small towns in Montgomery County, Georgia. The towns had segregated Proms way into the 21st Century. Laub visited, on assignment for the New York Times, after a high-schooler had sent a cry for help to Spin Magazine in the early 2000s. Not only was she escorted out of the white Prom, chased out of town, car tires slashed, but repeatedly so, across the several years that she returned, even when the Prom was officially integrated some time later.

Yearbook of Segregated Prom. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The topic of Prom politics – and the eventual accumulation of Prom photographs – was soon superseded by a tragic death in the community: In 2011 Justin Patterson, one of the young men associated with all the teens she had been photographing, was slain by the father of a girl who had invited Patterson and friends to come at night to her house. He shot at several of them several times. Originally charged with seven offenses, among them murder and false imprisonment, the man was offered a plea deal and spent a year in a state detention center and some years probation. The victim’s parents’ claim that the shooting was racially motivated went unheard. In later interviews, once freed, the shooter showed no remorse. In addition to portraits of the involved people, the exhibition shows a tape of the 911 call that is hair-raising in its lack of humanity.

Curator Maya Benton in front of a photograph of the shooter and audio tape of the 911 call. Photo: Friderike Heuer

A detailed HBO documentary of the Patterson killing, filmed by Laub, can be seen at the museum every Wednesday at 2 p.m. and on demand on the weekend.

Documentation of the Town’s Coping. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The third part of the show consists of a large amount of B-roll footage: glimpses of workers in the onion fields of Georgia, the town, the churches, and, fascinatingly, the many church signs and billboards that display evangelical messages. Most of the churches are still segregated by choice. Yet you cannot tell by eyeballing which constituency posted the religious slogans. A shared appeal to fear of Divine punishment for your aberrations, however, does not translate into anything much else that’s shared, it seems.

Noted.

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MAYA BENTON, EDUCATED AT BROWN, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Cour­tauld Insti­tute of Art in London, was faced with a tough choice for this exhibition. Many of the questions and subject matters raised by the extensive body of images and their implications had to be sifted through to cull a manageable display. More importantly, how do you tell a story that is not entirely your own? How do you document reality without appropriating someone else’s history? I have previously asked these questions here for other visual artists.

Maya Benton, Curator, Lecturer and Writer. Photo: Friderike Heuer

In the current exhibition the decision was made – successfully – to let the subjects of the portraits speak for themselves, with transcriptions next to the images. It is then equally important to look at the photographs AND read the accompanying texts, particularly in instances where Laub had repeated contact with individual students across time, allowing us to be witness to changes in perspective caused by concurrent events. Believe me, it does not feel like the usual chore of digesting endless artist statements. These are living testimonials of voices that we rarely get to hear, and help to do both for us: to acknowledge stereotypes and perhaps to combat them.

A substantial amount of general information about the history and politics of segregation in our public school systems is displayed in additional showcases. Getting a refresher about the path from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education doesn’t hurt. What does hurt is reading the evidence of communal complicity in maintaining segregative practices even during the years of the Obama Administration: teachers’ comments on students’ essays bemoaning the divided Proms, classmates’ notes decrying calls for change as in the face of Southern tradition, and so on. The displays are superbly assembled.

Note from classmate. Photo: Friderike Heuer

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“One wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”
Theodor W. Adorno (1959)

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WHEN ADORNO WROTE in 1959 about the (refusal of) working through the past, he had fascism and in particular the guilty German people foremost in mind. The Jewish museum is on target when it allows us to see how some of this can be translated to the memory culture of slavery and racism in this country as well. What is striking, though, and what this exhibition certainly has made me think about, is how much those who used to enjoy the advantages of segregation and relative power in society want return to the past, rather than forget it, never mind come to terms with it.

Public Shaming, Vidalia, Georgia, 2013. This Country. This Century. Photographed by Gillian Laub.

For large groups of whites, power is perceived to be a birthright, and resentment surges when one sees one’s own displacement or descent as directly caused by the ascent of specific others – women who work, migrants who come into the country, African Americans who take over the Prom. Unfortunately, these emotions are often stirred by easily manipulated beliefs rather than facts: If your job is gone, it is easier to blame the women who you see working all around you for displacing you, than questioning an economic system that relies on automation and outsourcing to continue to reap profits. If you believe that South American migrants will deprive you of your share of limited resources you don’t even look at the facts that show this to be untrue.

Those emotions mobilize: You see yourself attacked as a class, no longer as a failing individual, and that unites you with the many who share your view. Rather than apportioning blame to yourself as not being competitive, you can blame a shared out-group enemy – making for these dangerous movements that are now sprouting across the United States, movements that are willing to consider even violence to defend what they believe is ripped from them.

Scientific studies have shown this to be true nowhere more so than in the American South. In their book Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics Avidit Acharya, a political scientist at Stanford; Matt Blackwell, a professor of government at Harvard; and Maya Sen, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, link current conservative attitudes toward gun rights, the death penalty and racial resentment in parts of the South directly to a slave-holding history.

In a nutshell: Southern cotton and tobacco industries thrived on chattel slavery, since those crops were extremely labor-intense. After the Civil War, those regions’ economic survival depended on finding ways to continue to exploit Black labor. Anti-Black laws and practices, from Jim Crow to the undermining of education and participation in the political sphere, served that purpose. But there is another important mechanism at work, called behavioral path dependence by the authorsGeneration after generation passes down and reinforces beliefs about racial inequality and the need to impede progress of those deemed inferior. Children learn from their parents and teach their own children, all the while being backed up by local institutions that echo the value judgments and create spaces for segregation. After slavery was abolished and with it antebellum laws, the subjugation of Blacks now relies increasingly on cultural mechanisms:

“…things like racialized rhetoric from the top down can have really, really damaging and long-term impacts. So things like talking about people in dehumanizing language, institutionalizing policies that treat people as less than human. Those things can really create attitudes that then persist for a long time.

.. to be able to kind of preserve the same structure, economic structure that we had  with slavery it required a lot more kind of local vigilance to kind of enact these policies. So you had a kind of creation of a culture, a maintenance of a culture that required things like extrajudicial violence, it required basically training and indoctrinating young children into thinking about the world in certain ways.

Shelby on her grandmother’s car. Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2008. Photographed by Gillian Laub.

This culture is incredibly resistant to change, proceeding at a glacial pace. In other words, federal interventions like the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act (or what’s left of it) can address behavioral discrimination, but they do nothing with regard to attitudes. Children who are indoctrinated from an early age will carry their parents’ attitudes to the next generation.

For change to happen, we must pursue the one public cultural mechanism at our own disposal: education. This is what Southern Rites does on so many levels, and so successfully.

Gillian Laub, artist, and Maya Benton, curator. Photo: Friderike Heuer

In the true tradition of concerned photography, the early documentary approach to describing the injustice of the world, Southern Rites educates through imagery, through text, through augmenting materials. It does so effectively because it taps into something beyond our thoughts. Show me one person who is not going to leave that exhibition emotionally riled, to varying degrees. It elicits empathy, pure and simple, an opening to relating in new ways. I just hope every high schooler in town has a chance to visit.

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Southern Rites
From the International Center of Photography 
Photographs by Gillian Laub

Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education
724 N.W. Davis St., Portland 
February 5-May 24, 2020

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  • Friderike Heuer’s photo essay was originally published on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, on her site YDP – Your Daily Picture,  under the headline Southern Rites. It is republished here with permission.

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