"The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell."

An Interview with Kimberly Henderson, Curator of Emalineandthem

Share

(c. 1900 portrait of a young women, source: Harvard University, from the Instagram account emalineandthem)

We are living through history, everyone tells us. These are historic times. I lived and worked in public history for years so I am always skeptical when people use that cliche—all times are historic, by definition. But I cannot deny that this time feels pregnant, feels full—of what, yet, we don’t know.

What distinguishes this time from other historic instances, I think, is how many people are connecting their struggles today explicitly to the past. And in sophisticated ways. Last night, NBA commentators explained what was happening in the historic context of redlining. Our remaining national newspapers are increasingly using the historic record to set stories in context. So much is coming up, is being brought up from the depths of the archives. I don’t think it’s an accident that social media—Instagram, Twitter, (RIP) Tumblr, etc—are now home to archival accounts that uncover often stunning images and stories of resistance from marginalized communities. I know accounts like these are the main reason I stay on social media.

So, with that in mind, I always wanted this newsletter to be a space to ask some of these curators about their work. This is my first interview, with Kimberly Henderson, curator and founder of the stunning Instagram account of Black archival images Emalineandthem. Please enjoy! Kimberly gave such beautiful, generous answers.

Kaitlyn Greenidge: You've stated that your family history is a big reason why you began doing this archival project. Can you talk about how you became interested in your family's genealogy and how you first started researching?

Kimberly Henderson: Yes, my archival work is a direct result of an obsession I have with my paternal ancestors that seemingly disappear into the anonymity of American enslavement.

I was inspired to begin researching my family’s history because of my mother. From an early age, I was curious about her racially ambiguous appearance, and the struggles of her youth (that led to an estrangement from her biological family). When I told her I wanted to learn more about her family history, she knew very little about her relatives; and I only had the following items to start: her mother’s maiden name, her grandfather’s name, and the location of their hometown.

After a few years of researching, I found a wealth of information about my maternal ancestors who were members of a racially mixed community in North Carolina known as Little Texas. They are featured in textbooks, newspaper articles, and scholarly archives. The origins of their community are detailed on the website of the Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation.

In stark contrast, my father’s family line seems to disappear from formal record around the 1860s. And while I’ve linked their location and surname to a prominent plantation owner in South Carolina at the time, I have yet to find any specific information beyond that point in history. This narrative is true for many Black Americans whose ancestors met the same fate. Feeling this type of identity void, I became obsessed with the idea that maybe I’d get lucky and find an old photo of an ancestor in one of these digital collections. Really, I feel lucky to just be able to see people from the late 19th, early 20th century that look like me. People from all walks of life, like I’ve never seen before or ever imagined. It’s helping me reconcile with the facts of my paternal lineage...

KG: Which archives have surprised you, in terms of containing information about Black life? Which archives have been easier to access?

KB: Honestly, every single image I’ve found has surprised me in some way. I just love being able to see images of Black life from this particular era in our history; beyond the narrative of enslavement. Which makes up most of the historical referencing we see in archival materials. The collections that I access are all digital, and most are collegiate or government archive collections.

KG: What do you look for when deciding which images to post on Instagram? Is there a certain quality/composition/story that you find more compelling?

KB: I usually like to feature the clearest, vivid images (tintypes); mostly portraiture and scenes of everyday American life around the turn of the century. I love sharing images that feel new or unfamiliar in some way. To me, it’s about the story of that moment in time. I look, and listen. Each photograph tells a very unique story and sharing that is my purpose for this project.

KG: How did you decide to start using instagram in this way? What are the rewards? What are the limits?

KB: I decided to bring this work to Instagram as a way to normalize this version of history. I wanted to promote the beauty of a people’s journey in a way that is easily accessible and tangible (as social media has become so integrated in our daily lives). Storytelling comes easy on Instagram, but one limitation has been the viewer's perception of certain images. Reading some of the comments, I’ve noticed a tendency to victimize the image subjects for their stoic facial expressions (based on the photo process of that era) or assumed tragic life circumstances. This was surprising to me because I don’t always approach these photographs through the context of race relations, if that makes sense. Call me idealistic, but because we don’t have details for most of the subjects and their lives, I appreciate them in that exact moment in time itself. Rather than having pity for what they may or may not have gone through. Especially considering the fact that we {Black Americans} are still experiencing racial atrocities, just as they did back then (lynchings, voter suppression, terror, harassment etc.).

But that immediate viewer feedback and interaction adds layers to this type of work that I welcome. We can all learn from different perspectives and the variety of knowledge converging in discussions under each post. Dialogue is so important and I just hope to expose people (myself included) to a different image of Black America --different from what we’re so used to seeing. I also hope to influence the way we see ourselves (again, me included) for the better

KG: Do you have a favorite archival image so far? If so, what is it?

KB: This gentleman’s name is Daniel Hoskins, of Longview Texas. The context of this image is a gun deposit for local residents during the “Red Summer” of 1919 (violence erupted over the mistreatment of Black soldiers who were returning home from war). Everything about him is so precious. He is a gem, and I can feel so much love from that sweet smile on his face. He gives me grandfather energy that I wish I was familiar with; it’s just so stunning.

KG: Recently, you posted an image of Black women sex workers at the turn of the 20th century. The discussion sparked on your page was predictable--some followers decrying the image because they did not approve of the women's work. You handled it very diplomatically--pointing out that we could not know how the women felt about their work themselves and the placement of sex work in Black lower classes' understanding of power and agency. Can you talk a little bit about navigating that discussion? There's a tendency sometimes in Black history work that ties Black history to respectability politics. I'm wondering if you can talk a bit about your relationship to that.

KB: First off, thank you! Engaging in the comments section about this topic was an act of patience, for sure. And I totally agree: there is a tendency to view Black history through a lens of respectability, and I’m not sure if I can articulate why that is...I’ll say that a part of my mission with this project is to share the truth. And sometimes the truth hurts, or is difficult to accept. And that’s ok. These were real people, with full lives. While we may not have all the details, we have their image; and that’s enough to appreciate their story. It’s important to view these archival images respectfully, and within historical context. But they were also lives lived. And by that I mean, they were human. Maybe that’s the disconnect that often leads to many people favoring “respectable” Black images. Or perhaps the pressures of racial stereotyping are at play as well. But, I am keen to maintain my role as the “messenger” in this regard. I present images with commentary that is often vague, yet personable enough to add an element of relatability. Especially since these images aren’t widely shared and/or popular in the context of social media. I welcome dialogue, but my ultimate goal is to bring their stories to life and let the images do much of the talking.

KG: Why do you think archival images of Black history are so popular at this moment?

KB: The archival Black image is so important right now because we’re seeing a resurgence of collective pride and strength in our abilities; and our continued efforts to create change for a better world. I view it as a revival. Whether that’s an archive of early 00’s Black sitcom characters, or the portraits and narratives of the formerly enslaved. The younger generations are promoting images of self in a way that uplifts and brings awareness to our history. We are telling our own stories, the way we see ourselves. It’s imperative to tell your own story. This current moment feels like a change-of-command in that way. We are taking charge of our image and likeness in order to define who we are. Gone are the days of being told...

Leave a comment