July 3, 2013
Chief Memory Officer
I recently spent time with a close friend who told me that when we collect our family stories, photos, and ephemera,we become Chief Memory Officers. In the case of loving aunt ruth, I think I am the Admin to the CMO, Aunt Ruth, whose memory remains tack sharp for all the answers to my myriad of questions. Aunt Ruth kept all of the photos, slides, and albums and has been generous with my need to know, to hear, to listen, and most importantly to learn from all of her lessons.
There is no way for me to express my gratitude to Aunt Ruth for her patience in being endlessly photographed, but I hope she knows that my heart is swollen with the magic she has bestowed. Our elders have so much to teach us, and since I have become a...gulp...gasp...sputter...senior...I find that I want to know how to continue to age from a teacher whose life is lived with fierce passion.
I am not alone in my quest. In the "New York Times", there was a wonderful article which speaks to the importance of archiving our families. Please read it and let me know what you think. It is about the importance of photos and story.
Her memory is creaky, Dwania Kyles insisted, and most of the photographs that help unlock it are stored in her computer. But recently, sitting in a warren of rooms in Harlem as the light outside faded, she had a rush of recollections about her family and the night that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not come to dinner.
Ms. Kyles and Thomas Allen Harris, a documentary filmmaker, had donned white gloves to thumb through photographs of her parents in high school. “My parents left the promised land to jump into the lion’s den,” she said of their move from Chicago to Memphis to join the civil rights movement. On the evening in 1968 that King was expected at their home for soul food, her father, the Rev. Samuel B. Kyles, ended up with him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where King was felled by an assassin.
Mr. Harris and Ms. Kyles, a 55-year-old wellness consultant and songwriter who lives in Harlem, were in his office ferreting out information for the filmmaker’s Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project. Since 2009, Mr. Harris has traveled the country collecting photographs and stories from families, then putting those and filmed interviews onto his Web site.
Now, Mr. Harris is taking his show onto the stage, presenting the stories he’s collected to a live audience using interactive media and old-fashioned storytelling. On Sunday afternoon, after dry runs around the country, the show will have its debut at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. (The event will be streamed live to the Web site.)
At Harlem Stage and in future reunion cities, the enlarged photographs and accompanying stories will be presented to audiences who will be invited to trade family histories, ask questions and even identify people and locations. The project will also work as community history, with its glances at the places and people that define neighborhoods.
“It’s survivors and ‘firsts,’ ” the effervescent Mr. Harris said of the people he is documenting, few of them celebrities. “It’s the stories in history books and films about civil rights.”
As a kind of curator/master of ceremonies, Mr. Harris, who has made two acclaimed documentaries, “The 12 Disciples of Nelson Mandela,” about South African exiles who were part of the African National Congressand the anti-apartheid movement, and “É Minha Cara/That’s My Face,” about spirituality, looks to figure out which stories enlarge and provide context for many aspects of black life, from immigration to education to military service. “We are living with gold — one person in Atlanta came with a truckload of images dating back to the 1850s,” he said.
Photographs and stories can also be directly uploaded to the Web site, which features interviews with scholars, news about family reunions and images by black photographers.
A Harvard graduate who is in his ’40s, grew up in the Bronx and spent time in East Africa, Mr. Harris had long encouraged fans of his work to collect their own family stories, as he has done in his deeply personal films. It struck him that social media could be used to archive and share the results. His younger brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, is a prominent photographer and artist known for work that fuses aesthetic considerations and sociopolitical observation.
“All of my work is about identity, about how we represent ourselves to ourselves,” Thomas Allen Harris said.
“We take grandma for granted.” he said. “We need to understand that instead of looking outside ourselves for value, we can look inside.”
On Wednesday through Friday, Mr. Harris will set up shop at the Gatehouse, at 150 Convent Avenue, so people can bring him their family photographs and other documents (reservations are required, though there is a waiting list: email email@example.com or call 212-281-6002). The photographs Mr. Harris selects will be digitized and put onto a DVD for their owner. All will be shown as part of a slide show at Harlem Stage, and some will be expanded into an interactive film for the Web site.
“The history of African-Americans has been told by so many people other than ourselves, and even in the telling it becomes abstract,” said Pat Cruz, the executive director of Harlem Stage. “With our family photographs, this opens up some doors as well as some eyes into what we are, on an intimate level.”
Recently, Mr. Harris received funding to complete another feature film, “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.” It is an exploration of how black communities and photographers have used the camera as a tool for social change. Mr. Harris planned to show clips from the film at Harlem Stage on Sunday.
Both Digital Diaspora and “Through a Lens” offer visual counterpoint to the stereotypical, caricatured images of African-Americans that still circulate, said Deborah Willis, an art photographer and historian of African-American art and a professor at New York University. For participants, “it creates a reconsideration of what it means to preserve family history,” Professor Willis said. “Their excitement about sharing their history comes from a sense of providing evidence for those who might feel excluded, who feel they are not part of the larger discussion.”
The experience of telling and sharing stories and images can be revelatory and therapeutic, some said.
“You have to tell your story,” Mr. Harris told Ms. Kyles the other day, nudging her to recall that her father had knotted King’s tie an hour before he stepped out on the balcony.
“We were so excited about him coming to the house,” she said. Telling Mr. Harris about her time in Memphis, which included the lonely and humiliating experience of desegregating a school, was “healing,” Ms. Kyles said afterward.
Lana Turner, a 61-year-old real-estate agent who lives in Harlem, brought photographs of her parents to Mr. Harris’s office. Her father worked as a chauffeur, she said. She spread out images of him posed in front of an elegant, vintage car, and a 1952 photo with a group of natty men in suits who belonged to a chauffeurs’ club. Her mother, a chambermaid and a cook, wore a tiara in a photograph in which she and several other women were adorned in elegant white dresses.
“People took off their chauffeur’s uniforms or maid’s hats and they made joy out of a day that might have been drudgery,” Ms. Turner said softly.
The Turners were the kinds of unsung heroes who helped move the country forward, Mr. Harris said. “We need these stories,” he said, “to let the next generation know they come from a people who have made it by their bootstraps and made it for everyone around them, regardless of color and race.”
Aunt Ruth and I hope you are enjoying our collaboration. Here's to "preserving the past before it is lost" and understanding that the time to learn from it is right this minute.
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