Hale County Revisited
In photographs and a new film, RaMell Ross offers a poetic vision of Southern life.
By Salamishah Tillet
“Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding,” lamented journalist James Agee after meeting a young African American couple in Hale County, Alabama, in 1936. “And they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man.”
Appearing quite early on in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the landmark text and photobook that Agee and photographer Walker Evans collaborated on to explore the impact of the Great Depression on Southern sharecroppers, Agee’s account of his encounter with these African American residents of Hale County is one of just a handful of descriptions of black life in their over-four-hundred-page epic work.
Agee leaves that scene with regret for bothering them, and, more importantly, flooded by a distance that he feels is impossible to close. “I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back.” Evans, on the other hand, appears to have been even more alienated. Despite the intense portraits of rural poverty that he produces, there is not one image of an African American in the entire book.
Although photographer and filmmaker RaMell Ross is not directly responding to the absence of Hale County black life in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his series South County, AL (a Hale County) (2012–14) and his corresponding experimental film, Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), provide a poignant and subtle counterpoint to Agee’s and Evans’s willful blindness. Less concerned with maintaining the illusion of objectivity that typifies Evans’s detached, social documentary–style black-and-white photographs of rural tenant farmers and their families, Ross is not encumbered, but rather he dives into the lives of his subjects. His images—both still and moving—travel between the highly intimate and the breathtakingly panoramic in order to offer up an experience as dynamic and sweeping as contemporary Southern life itself.
No longer exclusively shaped by the strident laws of Jim Crow, the New Black Belt of twenty-first-century America through Ross’s eyes is marked by possibility, minor movements, familial ties, and the everyday stillness of a black person, or an African American people, just trying to get by. Though his subjects face adversity—racial, economic, and gendered—he is far more interested in lingering in the quotidian, in those rarely captured moments not of mass resistance, but instead of far more ordinary instances of quiet refusal.
In South County, such occasions are captured through ambiguity. A well-dressed older African American woman wiping her eyes. A tear? A bead of sweat? Her fatigue buttressed and staved off by her sartorial respectability. In Antonio (2012), we witness a young African American man sprawled out on the ground. Exhaustion? Submission? Coercion? His fate somehow both filling in the outline of other black boys and men—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, whose deaths we have mourned collectively—and his ability to get back up, a potential defiance against our recent past. iHome (2012) is both forward-looking and backward-searching; part mediation on slavery as America’s founding sin and part homecoming, Alabama’s prodigal black children return home to reclaim both land and landscape and render them anew.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening pushes against our temporal expectations even more. Shot over five years, the film, in title and method, remaps time as a way of reorienting the viewer’s relationship not just to the South, but to Ross’s black subjects, too. Following the stories of two young African American men, Daniel and Quincy, with whom he became acquainted when he worked as their GED and workforce readiness teacher, Ross consciously tried to re-create the mundane, the banal, or the quiet moments that he experienced working with and learning from his students.
“If you just sit there and watch someone for a very long time, you tend to forget and begin to participate in the person’s life and not judge them,” Ross tells me. “It took three years of me living there to shed all of those platitudinal photographs and all of those empty images of the South and the people there that are ingrained into the ways that people understand that region. I used the camera as an investigation into my way of looking, as opposed to fulfilling these visions of things to which I had previously been introduced.”
“Quiet,” writes literary critic Kevin Quashie in The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (2012), “is a metaphor for the full range of inner life—one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, fears. The inner life is not apolitical or without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness. In fact, the interior—dynamic and ravishing—is a stay against the dominance of the social world; it has its own sovereignty.”
And while Daniel and Quincy do not govern the legal and social apparatus that ultimately limit their life chances in Alabama, Hale County This Morning, This Evening lingers in the spaces of their self-navigation and self-invention. Such stillness has a political power all its own.
Salamishah Tillet is the Henry Rutgers Term Chair Professor of African American Studies and Creative Writing at Rutgers University and a regular contributor to the New York Times.