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What If Black Lives Truly Mattered?

In September 1963, six children were killed in racially motivated violence in Alabama. Fifty years later, Dawoud Bey pays tribute to a community’s resilience.

By Leigh Raiford

Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, 2012, from The Birmingham Project, 2012–13
© the artist and courtesy Rena Bransten Projects

Dawoud Bey’s The Birmingham Project memorializes one of the most heartwrenching attacks of the American civil rights movement: the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by four Klansmen on September 15, 1963. The explosion killed four girls preparing for Sunday school: Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14. More than twenty others were injured in the church, and two other black youths lost their lives in the immediate aftermath. Birmingham police shot Johnny Robinson, 16, and white teens murdered Virgil Ware, 13, as he rode his bike through the white side of town. Over the course of fifty years, this attack has been commemorated in fiction and poetry, film and visual arts—works that largely intone “never forget.”

In his series of thirty-two black-and-white photographs, Bey pairs Birmingham black youth and adults. His sitters are the ages of the child victims of the attack and the ages they would have been had they lived to be photographed fifty years later. The Birmingham Project forces us to ask a series of what ifs: What if that bomb hadn’t gone off in the Sunday school basement? What if those children had been allowed to grow to adulthood? What if black lives truly mattered?

Dawoud Bey, Braxton McKinney and Lavone Thomas, 2012, from The Birmingham Project, 2012–13
© the artist and courtesy Rena Bransten Projects

Bey has visually asserted the value of black lives over the course of a career spanning more than forty years. The Birmingham Project brings some of the most compelling features of Bey’s practice—black portraiture, multipaneled formats, community collaboration—into sharp relief. As portraits, the Birmingham images pay careful and thoughtful attention to their subjects, especially black children, who are all too often maligned, criminalized, or simply ignored. As diptychs, the sixteen pairs of 40-by-32-inch prints create a sense of movement and narrative, animating the potentially static form of the photographic portrait and enfolding individuals into a collective story. As a collaboration, The Birmingham Project was seven years in the making as Bey developed a relationship with Birmingham’s black community, facilitated by the Birmingham Museum of Art. Developing trust, Bey asked his sitters to look directly at the camera, and by extension to future audiences, with gazes that indict, invite, and challenge us.

It is perhaps this presence and intersubjectivity that most animates The Birmingham Project, haunted as it is by the tragic events of September 1963. Bey’s diptychs move us beyond viewing these subjects as either the embodiment of youthful innocence or as potential victims of racial violence, beyond the before and after of black martyrdom and photographic memorialization of the dead. Together, the sitters for The Birmingham Project are simultaneously surrogates, mourners, witnesses, community, and agents of their own narratives.

Dawoud Bey, Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell, 2012, from The Birmingham Project, 2012–13
© the artist and courtesy Rena Bransten Projects

These subjects, then, are not symbols but flesh and bone. Bey has said of the children killed in 1963, “Making these photographs, for me, made their lives much more tangible and palpable.” Memory is always about the living, our hopes and our responsibilities. With The Birmingham Project, Bey insists that time does not heal all wounds; it only reminds us of the persistent precarity of black life in the absence of justice.

Leigh Raiford is Associate Professor and H. Michael and Jeanne Williams Chair of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

This essay is from Aperture issue 223, “Vision & Justice.” Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project is on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from September 12, 2018–March 24, 2019.

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