One of the world's great photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, once said, "Life is once, forever." He was speaking about his uncanny ability to capture a quintessential moment on film — the fleeting instant when a soldier loses his battle to conquer fear, or a when a child is won over by the joy of a passing parade. Humans are captured forever in photographs, and so, too, is a piece of their humanity.
I think of that as I linger over the collection of family photos I've amassed. It's a frequent pastime of mine these days. I find myself leafing through photos that have long been stashed in shoeboxes and yellowing albums. I can't leave them alone. And though I have seen all of them before, I look at the pictures searching for something new. Something I missed the last time I nursed a minor obsession with family photos — when I was a teenager and was fascinated more by fashions of the era than the people who wore the clothes.
My father was always a stylish man, finding some way to elevate his postal uniform to high style with the lift of his collar or the blinding shine of his shoes. So you can imagine how he turned out when he reached into his closet for civilian wear. But his Sunday morning, middle-age chic was a far cry from the "glad rags" he sported as a young man. I was captivated by the knife-pleat trousers, the white bucks, and newsboy caps. The skinny ties and silk pocket squares. The pencil-thin mustache trimmed with a surgeon's precision. I was also floored by my mother's youthful insouciance. That attitude. That décolletage! Who knew my mother once sported off-the-shoulder lace? This was a somewhat alarming discovery because Mom took pride in telling her daughters that she married my father wearing a simple suit. It was a story meant to underscore her fidelity to frugality over fashion. Belvin and Betty Norris were saving for a house. A gown, she said, was an unnecessary extravagance.
I pore over old family photos at this point in my life with only passing interest in the clothes. Instead, I hunger to understand the expressions my elders are wearing. I want to know what they were thinking. How did they see themselves? What did they want the world to see in them? Who were they? Is that smile a bit forced?
You see, I thought I knew my parents so well. I thought I understood who they were, what they wanted in life, and where they came from. But so many of my assumptions were shaken to the core when I wound up writing an accidental memoir.
Last year I set out to write a book about America's hidden conversation about race. After covering the 2008 campaign and the election of Barack Obama, I was convinced that Americans were spending more time thinking and talking about race. I wanted to put an ear to that conversation. I wasn't interested in the public discourse — the posturing and finger-pointing in front of broadcast microphones. I wanted to listen in on the private conversations that took place at kitchen tables, college dormitories, or in workplace break rooms.
However, it was not long before I uncovered a hidden conversation in my own family. I discovered, quite by accident, that my now-deceased father had been shot in the leg by white police officers in Birmingham, Alabama, not long after he returned from his navy service in World War II. The wound was superficial and the story remained submerged for years. He moved north — first to Boston, then to Chicago, and eventually to Minnesota — and he left the story behind like a forgotten pair of socks. He never even told my mother. I was the one who broke the news last year and I will never forget watching the color drain from my almost 80-year-old mother's face as she slowly realized that her former husband had kept a part of his history walled off from his spouse.
But my mother had her own secrets. She never told her children about the years her mother worked as an itinerant Aunt Jemima, traveling to small towns throughout the Midwest conducting pancake demonstrations at grocery stores and county fairs, dressed up in a hoop skirt with a kerchief on her head.
I stare at my grandmother's photos and notice that she is often wearing a chic silk scarf tied under her chin, protecting the long wavy gray hair that she used to brush 100 times each night before braiding it and then twisting those coils into a bun atop her head. Some version of that silk scarf was always in her purse, carefully selected to match her floral dress or pastel suit. My grandmother died in 1983 and now my mother keeps that look alive. She, too, carries a silk scarf in her purse or trench coat pocket and she ties it under her chin or at the nape of her neck when she's feeling sporty.
But now it's hard to look at pictures of my grandmother and those stylish scarves without thinking of the red bandana she used to tie around her head when she dressed up as Aunt Jemima. What went through her mind as she stood in the mirror hiking up her hoop skirt and adjusting the cotton square meant to look like a slave's head rag? What did she focus on? The painful history attached to the advertising icon or the freedom she would find through gainful employment?
I found a picture of my grandmother, Ione Brown, in her hometown newspaper under the headline "Only Negro Alexandria High Graduate Portrays Version of 'Aunt Jemima': Hundreds of Pancakes Served Here Friday by Former Ione Hopson." She was described as a "charming woman of ample proportions" and she told the reporter that she had been discovered by Quaker Oats while singing at a Baptist church in South Minneapolis. She said she served as a "pinch hitter" for the original Aunt Jemima, singing church hymns during the demonstrations. She explained that she covered a six-state region encompassing Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, the Dakotas, and her home state of Minnesota.
I now know that some of Ione's children were mortified by her choice of work. My mother still finds it painful to discuss and she'll only talk about it if I press gently. But there was no hint of shame in Ione Brown's own description of her duties in the 1950 newspaper article. "I am a public representative of my race," she said. "I get the opportunity to meet little white children in small towns who have never seen a Negro before. I try to leave them with the best impression I can." That is what she told the reporter, but I wonder what she told herself when she suited up for the role, engaging in the hard bargains we make with ourselves to find financial stability, personal fame, or peace of mind. Somehow I think that conversation was not so upbeat. My grandmother traveled at a time when few women, and especially few women of color, took to the open road. She earned money by coaxing it out of the pocketbooks of farm women and she helped my family climb further up the rungs toward a middle class life. Ione Brown went on to found a senior citizens center in Minneapolis and rack up several community service awards. And much like my father's shooting, her stint in a hoop skirt became a discarded memory — a move captured succinctly by one of my mother's stock phrases. "We all do what we have to do."
Our parents tell us only so much because they want us to soar. And to make sure we take flight, they don't want to weigh down our pockets with their own frustrations or tales of woe. In that sense there is sometimes grace in silence. But there is always power in reaching back to reclaim those discarded memories.
So, as I sit with these old photographs sprawled all over the floor, I think about my own family album — photos that are now captured on digital cameras and stored on hard drives or displayed as screen savers. New technology. But years from now my own kids will probably be doing the same thing — staring at those photos and asking that age-old question, How well do I really know the people who raised me? They too will wonder about the emotional current that fuels the expressions captured forever in what will then be considered "vintage" photos of their parents. Shots of my husband smiling proudly at the barbeque grill or perhaps even me sitting at a table signing copies of the accidental memoir I wrote about my parents. I hope my kids have the courage to ask us about our lives... and I hope we as parents find the courage to tell them not just what we want them to know about ourselves, but what they need to know to truly understand their legacy.