A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
In my fifteen years participating in the selection of the Center for Documentary Studies’ Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize winner, no year was more provocative or satisfying than 2016. On the selection committee with me for our oldest award—a $10,000 prize given to artists whose ongoing documentary fieldwork projects rely on the interplay of words and images—were four people of African descent and more than twice as many white people. CDS is a predominantly white institution, though over the past four years, we have been hard at work to change this.
Among the submitted works for the Lange–Taylor Prize was a series of drawings of people of African descent, on brown paper bags, including fragments of text from their conversations with the artist, Steven M. Cozart. He interviewed family and friends from multiple generations, different genders, and life experiences. The sitters are animated, caught in conversation, in a basic palette of black, white, and shades of gray, with the brown of the bag bleeding through to skin tones. Text appears in a throwback typewriter font that adds graphic impact. We’d never chosen a non-photo winner before, but Steve’s work really pulled at me. The Durham, North Carolina native’s drawings for The Pass/Fail Series explored classism and stereotyping within the African-American community, primarily around the issue of colorism.
The drawings were a strong favorite and then the question came up, “Why are the drawings on brown paper bags?” The people of color, myself among them, exchanged looks. Only two of my white colleagues knew about the “paper bag test.”
It’s pretty common knowledge, though, that when chattel slavery was being practiced in the United States, light-skinned people—often the offspring of land owning men and the women they held enslaved—were more likely to work in the house or have some other form of privileged status, while those with darker skin labored outside, doing demanding physical work in the fields. This caste system is one of the many ways that white supremacy rooted itself in American culture at large; colorism persisted well into the twentieth century, and a residue lingers even today. Prior to the Black Power movement, American (perhaps even world) standards of beauty and, relatedly, intellect—even morality—were based on proximity to whiteness.
Steve says that his “ultimate goal for the work is to simply spark conversation among those both in and outside of the African-American community as a means to create understanding and to either minimize or eradicate these fallacies and preconceptions.” I celebrate this work and am also fearful of the ways in which sharing it with those outside of African-American communities might be used to perpetuate the white supremacist ideas that created colorism.
The drawings I have selected below will be among those included in Steve’s exhibition at CDS. Pass/Fail Test: Drawings by Steven M. Cozart will be open to the public November 27, 2017–February 10, 2018.
This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website.