“Alls my life I has to fight”

A photo exhibition at London’s Atlas Gallery shows poignant images of the struggle against racist policies and ideologies, thus echoing Armet Francis’ idea of a black triangle that unifies communities across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Africa. The exhibition looks at key events, portraits, protests, tragedies, struggles, and crimes. After a thorough selection of images, here are three black-and-white photos depicting the treatment difference between white and black people in the 1960s.

We see no face, so no facial expression. We see nobody; therefore, no analysis of the body language. We only see hands. The hands of two black men are handcuffed together in a black-and-white picture. The image is simple, yet it raises several questions: who are these men, and why are they handcuffed? Did they commit a crime? These men committed the crime of being in a white area in South Africa in the 1960s. This photo was taken by Ernest Cole during the Apartheid era in South Africa, a time when apartheid laws meant black people could only be employed for labor. Taking pictures of people being handcuffed by police was forbidden. A photo without a face but which gives off so much emotion. 

©Bob Adelman/c/o Atlas Gallery

The photo represents a protest movement against this division between colored people area and white people area. The color white predominates even if black tones contrast it. It is a photo that shows the corner of a staircase with two toilet doors. No men’s/women’s toilets, as one would expect. The inscriptions on the doors indicate that it is about the two toilets are for « color only » people and « white men only. » Once we have this information, the image becomes more assertive as we see a black man coming out of the « white men’s only » bathroom in a courthouse in Louisiana, a segregated Southern state. He transgresses a law that could lead to his arrest and imprisonment. Nevertheless, this man does not seem concerned about the charges against him through his relaxed walk. With his cigarette and hat, he leaves the bathroom and resumes his day as if nothing had happened. The significant evidence of unequal treatment in segregated Southern states that do not bother to distinguish black women’s and black men’s restrooms, not just « colored only. »

©Ernest Withers/c/o Atlas Gallery

We have seen men being arrested for going into a white area. We have seen a man break through this « white people only » and « colored people only » barrier in a solid but peaceful way (maybe it was not even an act of rebellion, just a man using the toilet). We understood the inequality of treatment between white people and black people during the 1960s. Here we see black men demonstrating for their rights in the street of Memphis, Tennessee. This photo taken by Ernest Withers is perhaps not of good quality; one does not manage to distinguish these men so much that the mass is immense. However, we understand their message thanks to the signs they hold up. « I am a Man » is the sentence marked on their signs. A simple sentence that hits hard and captures our soul. A sentence aims to humanize the black sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. In 1968, they went on strike to fight the inequalities in pay, work, and opportunities that ran along racial lines. It all started because two black men died on the job, and their families received only $500 in funeral expenses. The message is striking; these men only want to see them as human beings and not just as « black men. » They want the chance to be treated the same as white men. An image does not produce sound, but in this one, one can hear the cries of his men for justice.

Precillia Ngoumela Djenabou

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