Nine photographs from the world-renowned “Songs of My People” exhibit are on display in Ellis Library in honor of Black History Month.
The exhibit, which includes work by more than 50 black photojournalists from the early 1990s, is the first exhibition in history to feature the lives of African-Americans in photographs.
“No one picture tells the whole story,” the display reads. “Each photograph is a beat in the rhythm of a song yet unfinished.”
Jeff Wilcox, curator of collections and registrar for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, said the collection is not so much an artistic work but a photojournalist’s take on everyday life for African-Americans.
“It captured a moment in time,” Wilcox said. “Now it’s becoming more of a legacy than a current reflection, so it’s sort of a look back at what life was like for African-Americans in America in the 1990s.”
“Songs of My People” was originally a photo book published in 1992 that featured 214 photographs, but only 151 were selected for the original exhibition.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., organized the original exhibition. The exhibit then toured both nationwide and worldwide from 1992 to 1994 with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
The nine photographs selected for the MU 2013 Black History Month display focus on a theme of childhood and family. Three of the nine photos illustrate a sequence of childbirth from just before birth and the first sight of the baby, to the parents holding their child for the first time.
A portrait of a Muslim child and a photo of children living traditionally as the Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria in the village of Oyotunji highlight smaller groups within the black community.
Another features a girl playing softball while two more demonstrate the family life of a young professional couple.
The final photograph, of a black teenager releasing a dove from a rooftop in Harlem, N.Y., completes the display.
The concept for the show was created by black photojournalists Dr. D. Michael Cheers and Dudley M. Brooks and Eric Easter, a black writer and media consultant.
Cheers, an alumnus of the MU School of Journalism, said the three met while working a political campaign in 1988.
“We noticed that white media covering black America tended to focus on the negative aspects of black community, not the wholeness of black community,” Cheers said. “We decided to try to show the complete picture of black America - the good, the bad and the ugly. It signifies that the minority voice is still a strong voice and an important voice. We have something to say and we want to be heard."
Cheers donated the collection of 151 photographs to the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology in 1995.
He said he chose MU to house the exhibit in part because of his wonderful experience at the journalism school and in part because of who would see it.
“It’s doing what we wanted it do," Cheers said. "It’s being exhibited and seen by journalists and students."
Paula Roper, an MU Libraries research guide specializing in Black Studies, ensures selections from the exhibit are displayed in the library every February.
“There are such a wide variety of photographs of people doing all sorts of things,” Roper said. “A lot of people have told me they liked the photos, so we like to have some every year.”
The exhibit was the first large project by New African Visions, Inc., a non-profit organization that Cheers, Brooks and Easter launched to “promote a balanced view of the African-American experience through the visual arts," according to the organization.
The exhibit is one of many events MU is providing to celebrate Black History Month this year. Featured events include a musical performance by Damien Escobar, a poetry performance workshop by DJ Renegade and screenings of “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” and “Soul Food Junkies.”
“Songs of My People” is on display on the first floor of Ellis Library.