Picturing Families in Black and White

By Gabrielle Moser

Family photographs originate and often circulate in the private sphere of the home, but what kinds of political work do they do when they enter the public space of the newspaper? This question preoccupies me whenever I look at the ways photographs functioned in The Clarion, a monthly newspaper founded in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946 and edited by Dr. Carrie M. Best. The Clarion aimed to address racial discrimination across the province, announcing in its first issue that it would “tell... readers how much their help is needed in our Community, and from time to time inform you of the progress we are making.” The first African-Canadian–owned publication in Nova Scotia, The Clarion focused on local issues—such as the hiring of a new pastor at the local church “of our own race,” announcements about moves of local residents, high school graduations, marriages, and even the sharing of recipes from readers—but consistently linked them to political events happening nationally and internationally, weaving together everyday Black life in Canada and early-twentieth century struggles for civil rights.

The Clarion's cover story of Viola Desmond.

The Clarion's cover story of Viola Desmond.

This meshing of home life and public life is evident the first time photographs appear in The Clarion, in December 1946. In this issue, a story about Viola Desmond appears on the front page, detailing her arrest, accompanied by a bust-length studio portrait of the Halifax beautician at the top of the page. Under the title “Takes Action,” the story tells readers a now-familiar story: that Desmond was arrested and fined $20 for sitting in the downstairs area of the Roseland Theatre cinema in New Glasgow while holding a ticket for the balcony, a space implicitly segregated and reserved for “colored people.” The Clarion’s coverage of the event ends with a biography of Desmond, outlining her education and family members, and includes an appeal for readers to donate to her legal defense fund through the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NSAACP). Although her family does not appear in the photograph illustrating the story, the inclusion of information about Desmond’s relatives in the text uses familial affiliation to make a claim for the community’s collective action, a gesture that recurs throughout the 10-year lifecycle of The Clarion.

The Prevoe Family.

The Prevoe Family.

In 1947, when The Clarion moved to a bi-monthly publishing schedule, the link between family belonging and community belonging became explicit. The February issue introduced a series of portraits on the front cover, starting with the Prevoe family of Halifax. Mr. William Prevoe, an employee of the Canadian National Railway, sits with his arm around his wife, Evelyn, while their daughter, Brenda Carol, perches on the arm of the couch, positioning her slightly above her two parents, one arm casually draped on her mother’s shoulder. Like the Desmond portrait, the caption for the image describes the various family members relationally, making connections to other individuals in the New Glasgow and Halifax black communities and to local and state institutions. Subsequent issues, featuring group portraits of the Phyllis Wheatley Business Girls Club and the Criterion Club, follow the same format. The reproductions of the photographs in the newspaper, available to us in the present only in the streaky gradation captured by microfilm, are often grainy and soft focused, hinting at the snapshot quality of the events at which these groups were captured. But the poses of the sitters are uniformly formal, with subjects facing the camera, usually at an oblique angle, and almost always dressed in the formal attire of suits, ties and, for women, dresses and even sometimes corsages.

Group portrait in The Clarion.

Group portrait in The Clarion.

Unlike the story on Viola Desmond, the rest of the family and group portraits featured on The Clarion’s covers are not illustrations of an urgent story of civil rights violations, but are offered without explanation. Clearly the need for readers and viewers to see and to share these portraits was obvious to everyone, and needed no further justification. As Tina M. Campt writes, these photographs demonstrate the medium’s role in producing “subjects in becoming,” articulating “forms of identification and subjectivity that perhaps, at the time, had yet to be articulated.” As part of my broader study of how citizenship was pictured in Canada before it was legally codified in 1947, I am interested in how The Clarion’s use of photography--especially its use of portraiture and family photographs--enabled its readers to claim rights to national belonging and political equality in a moment when Canadian laws offered no such protections, particularly for diasporic groups, immigrants, and indigenous peoples.

One obvious reference point for The Clarion’s framing of family photographs as representations of belonging was the use of images in The Crisis, the official magazine for the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1910 by W.E.B. DuBois and still in publication today. The Crisis employed photography in its pages and on its cover as early as 1919, and consistently used portraits of African American youth, in particular, to signal the importance of education and the arts in developing what DuBois called the “Talented Tenth”: the group of exceptional intellectual and political leaders who would help to steer the development of African Americans across the country, if given the right educational and professional opportunities. Their annual education issue, for instance, featured high school graduation portraits prominently on their front cover. These positive representations of blackness served as an important counterarchive to the images of racial inferiority circulating at the time, and to the spectacle of black death constructed by lynching postcards, as Shawn Michelle Smith has argued, “offering a place from which a counter-history can be imagined and narrated, and... underscoring the ways in which both identities and history are founded, at least partially, through representation.” Importantly, this counterarchive would have also permeated the space of the home, as copies of The Crisis arrived on newsstands and to subscribers, changing hands and entering the same living rooms and studies where family photo albums were also stored and displayed.

The publication of family photographs and studio portraiture on The Clarion’s front page was an effort to imagine another counter-history and, much like The Crisis, promoted the successes of black Nova Scotians to readers. But by placing these images alongside stories of racial discrimination, segregation and even violence, The Clarion went even further, suggesting that domestic life and political life are not discontinuous with one another. The political work that family photographs perform in the pages of The Clarion is subtle, but it insists that the forms of exclusion and erasure that black Canadians experienced were not exceptional, but in fact written into the logic of belonging in the country at this time, seeping into visual representations of even the most banal events. It is telling that, after Canada’s first citizenship laws were enacted in 1947, the paper changed its name to The Negro Citizen in 1949, and expanded its circulation nationally, but its content remained the same, demonstrating that the universal promise of equal rights offered by citizenship was unevenly applied, and continued to be determined by racial differences.