How do photographs tell the story of citizenship in the United States?
Paul Fusco, Women in mourning were joined by their husband in protesting against police brutality, NYC, 2000
Sarah Lewis, guest editor of Aperture magazine’s summer 2016 issue, “Vision & Justice,” recently asked this question to her class at Harvard University. Here are five reflections from participating students.
The Racial Assimilation of America’s “First Korean War Bride”
By Nathan Cummings
On November 5, 1951, Life magazine published an article that claimed to profile “the first Korean war bride to arrive in America” along with her new American GI husband. Although the woman’s real name was Lee Yong Soon, the article referred to her as “Blue,” a nickname she had been given by American soldiers in Korea during her work there as a telephone operator.
Life’s breathless coverage of Lee’s arrival in Seattle reflects an imminent shift in American attitudes and policy toward Asian immigrants. Only thirty years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had explicitly excluded foreign-born Asians from the category of “free white persons” in a series of cases including Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), making them ineligible for citizenship. A year after Lee’s arrival, however, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act) repealed this category and allowed certain categories of Asian immigrants—in particular, the wives of American soldiers—to become naturalized. As “America’s first Korean war bride,” Lee represented this future prospect. Even so, the Life article reflected the paternalism and ethnocentrism that defined white Americans’ apparent embrace of Lee and her fellow “war brides.”
In the article, photographer Wayne Miller captures Lee’s arrival in Seattle as she and her husband, Sgt. Johnie Morgan, are warmly welcomed by Morgan’s parents. One full-page photograph is captioned: “Homecoming kiss squeezes Blue between Johnie and his mother.” The image embodies the simultaneous assimilative pressure and cultural isolation experienced by Korean military spouses. Sgt. Morgan and his mother flank a smiling Lee, symbolically adopting her into their domestic unit; yet the photograph’s vertical hierarchy—along with the oddly romantic aura of the sergeant kissing his mother—casts Lee as a juvenile member of this unit, subordinated beneath parental control. The intimacy of the Morgans’ kiss further suggests a level of cultural connection that Lee is unable to access, leaving her paradoxically marginalized, even though she’s “squeezed” at the center. Moreover, the tight, symmetrical framing furthers this narrative: with her body obscured by a Western military coat, Lee is reduced to an isolated Asian face swaddled within the fabric of her new country. Her forward gaze reflects the implicit burden of this position—she must choose between isolation and assimilation, as the article’s use of Lee’s American nickname suggests.
In Miller’s other photographs, Lee is shown performing a vision of domestic life in the United States: eating dinner with the Morgans and cooking her husband’s favorite “Carolina-style” gravy. Published in the pages of Life, these images would have helped create what historian Grace M. Cho calls a “fantasy of honorary whiteness,” which acted to erase Korean military spouses’ cultural heritage in the eyes of the American public. In her 2008 book Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy and the Forgotten War, Cho argues that Korean spouses were expected to accept and participate in this “willful forgetting of . . . the violent and intimate history shared by Korea and the United States.” Even though the category of “free white persons” was no longer a prerequisite for foreign-born Asian citizenship, whiteness remained an aspirational ideal that Asian immigrants like Lee were expected to pursue.
Nathan Cummings studies American history and literature at Harvard University.
In Birmingham, Enduring Emblems of Authority and Violence
By Josiah Corbus
The German shepherd lunges, teeth bared. The black adolescent grimaces, midriff exposed. The white policeman clenches both fists: one wielding his predator, the other clutching his prey.
Bill Hudson’s May 3, 1963, photograph tells a story that arrays white authority and its attendant violence, emblematized by the police dog, against an unarmed black teenager. As the policeman yanks the boy, Walter Gadsden, a seventeen-year-old student at Birmingham’s Parker High School, to the right, the dog lunges to the left, creating a diagonal line that bolts across the frame. Hudson, an Associated Press photographer who was in Alabama to cover the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, captures the instant before the spearhead of this diagonal—the dog’s open maw—pierces the boy’s stomach, thereby leaving viewers to imagine the impending tear of flesh.
The next day, Hudson’s photograph ran on the Saturday front cover of nearly every major newspaper in the country. The New York Times printed it above the fold and across three columns, below the headline, “Violence Explodes at Racial Protests in Alabama.” Upon seeing the photograph, President John F. Kennedy said he felt “sick” and dismayed.
James Bevel, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders had come to Birmingham hoping to expose the violence of Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor’s racist regime. Hudson’s photograph and others depicting the May 3 police crackdown achieved this objective and forced viewers across the country to confront the harm that violent policing had inflicted on young African Americans engaged in nonviolent resistance. These images mobilized public opinion. As Diane McWhorter, a scholar of the Birmingham campaign, has argued, they “shifted international opinion to the side of the civil rights revolution.” This shift contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other legislative achievements.
The broad resonance and persuasive power of Hudson’s photograph stems from the ways its visual story connects to longstanding experiences of authority and violence in the United States. Historian Walter Johnson has explored how the structure and perpetuation of slavery depended on violence, including the use of hunting dogs to track down so-called fugitives. In the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, African Americans continually faced the threat of violence. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, public lynchings and their visual reproductions enforced white racial hegemony. Hudson’s image highlights how state-sanctioned violence against African Americans persisted into the mid-twentieth century. In today’s world, where images and videos of struggles between police and African Americans have proliferated, Hudson’s depiction of white authority wielding violence on black bodies feels all too familiar.
Josiah Corbus is a senior at Harvard College, where he studies American history and literature, and directs an educational enrichment program for underserved local youth.
“Aliens” in America
By Ted Waechter
John Elk was an alien. Likely a survivor of repeated forced removals, Elk renounced the Winnebago tribe, to which he was born, about a year before trying to vote in Omaha, Nebraska. But in Elk v. Wilkins (1884), the Supreme Court ruled that he was not a U.S. citizen because, like other “Indians,” he “owed immediate allegiance” to his tribe, an “alien” nation.
Though at the time naturalization laws varied by state, they often required indigenous people to reject their tribes and prove they had “adopted” the habits of “civilized life.” In citizenship ceremonies, men were directed to trade their bow and arrow for a plow, symbolically abandoning the “life of an Indian,” as Frank Pommersheim writes in Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution (2009), for the “life of the white man—and the white man lives by work.” Naturalization thus entailed reconstituting oneself racially through rules and rituals that discursively linked citizenship, civilized-ness, and whiteness. The indigenous person thereby embodied the dual definition of an alien given by Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, and Graeme Stout in Alien Imaginations: Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism: both a noncitizen foreigner and something inhuman, removed from civilization.
This dual meaning of “alien” is at work in Edward S. Curtis’s Maricopa women gathering fruit from Saguaro cacti (1907). Taken near Arizona’s Gila River, home to the Maricopa since the sixteenth-century, the photograph foregrounds three women and a towering saguaro. Curtis exaggerates the saguaro’s height by severing it at the top of the frame, making it appear so tall that it dwarfs the women by comparison. Land domination is central to notions of civilization and humanity in Judeo-Christian theology, but nature dominates the Maricopa in Curtis’s composition. Because these tiny-looking women are nameless racial types, their faces obscured by shadow, they stand in for all members of an “uncivilized” race.
In Maricopa women Curtis rhymes the women’s bodies with the saguaros behind them, and both the human figures and cacti are rendered in similar shades of gray. Their shadows are identical. And the saguaros’ grooves and ridges find both formal and textural equivalents in stripes and folds in the women’s dresses, patterns on their baskets, and streaks in their hair. By likening the Maricopa women to cacti, Curtis makes indigenous bodies appear as inhuman features of the landscape. But how can natives be foreign? Believing Native Americans to be a “vanishing race,” Curtis makes them foreigners from a distant time. He deliberately hides evidence of missionary contact, which had begun years prior, and as Brenda McLain and Tobi Taylor explain in a 2006 issue of American Indian Art Magazine, he uses the tropes of Pictorialism—a nostalgic, soft-focus style of photography—to portray “Indians as ancient relics fixed in a permanent, ahistorical past.”
Turn-of-the-century discourse linked citizenship, civilized-ness, and whiteness through narratives of the land: whites claimed it for the mission of manifest destiny, dominated it as an index of humanity, and even incorporated plows in citizenship ceremonies. Whites justified the disenfranchisement of indigenous people by representing them as aliens, inhuman foreigners—yet their age-old relationship to the land undercut assertions of their foreignness. By portraying Maricopa women and thousands of other indigenous subjects as extratemporal relics of the past, Curtis subverts indigenous people’s history and casts them as foreigners from a distant time, alien invaders of the present.
Ted Waechter is a senior at Harvard College.
Home Field Disadvantage
By Christopher Chow
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the eviction of Japanese Americans to U.S. concentration camps for the “protection against espionage and sabotage.” Several months later, on Memorial Day 1942, Fred Korematsu was arrested in San Leandro, California, for evading eviction. Yet Korematsu, who had previously attempted to alter his appearance with plastic surgery, resisted again. In federal court, he argued that the executive order violated the Fourteenth Amendment. But the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the order in the 1944 case Korematsu v. United States. This ruling legitimized the cultural hysteria that discounted the citizenship of Japanese Americans for racist fears linking their biological ancestry to treachery.
During the same cultural moment, the photographer Dorothea Lange sought to dignify Japanese Americans living in internment. In one photograph from Manzanar, California, she depicted a group of eight boys holding each other closely. The extended caption reads: “Baseball players in a huddle. This game is very popular with 80 teams having been formed to date. Most of the playing is done in the wide firebreak between blocks of barracks.” Lange’s description preserves the anonymity of the boys: with turned backs and hidden faces, they might be any baseball players in a huddle. The absence of social markers in the photograph foregrounds the boys’ national belonging. No matter their ethnicity, they participate in American culture by playing the nation’s favorite pastime.
But internment policies displaced Japanese American families from their homes to concentration camps without regard for their belonging. In the photograph, shacks and telephone poles form a repetitive middle ground before the backdrop of the mountains. The built elements of the landscape mark Manzanar as the site of a concentration camp, and accordingly, the boys as Japanese American interns therein. Lange both documents the emotional emptiness of their displacement and appears to sympathize with them; she centers their bodies within the barren camp at eye level. This framing underscores the open bleakness of internment life, but it also directs focus to the contrasting intimacy of the boys’ huddle. The boys stand anchored here, contained within the camp, but convivial in their spirit nonetheless.
Outside the boys’ circle, Lange observes the tragic irony of Japanese displacement. The conspiracy of their enclosed formation and anonymity touches on the fears of spying that justified the decision of Korematsu v. United States. And like Fred Korematsu, who tried to hide his identity, the boys here are concealed, too. But while they cover their faces and themselves with each other’s bodies, they huddle neither to evade eviction nor hide from American troops. The boys are merely strategizing for their next home run: they are players of the national sport, yet victims of a national suspicion they did nothing to deserve.
Christopher Chow studies history and literature at Harvard University.
The Veiled Truth
By Larisa Owusu
On February 4, 1999, four undercover NYPD officers in the Bronx mistook Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, for a serial rapist. By the end of the confrontation, Diallo fell victim to forty-one shots, nineteen of the bullets piercing through his body, obliterating his spleen, kidney, liver, aorta, intestine, and spinal cord. The reason for this use of excessive force? The officers assumed that Diallo was reaching for a gun. In fact, he was searching desperately for his wallet to prove his identity.
Over a year later, at a protest against police brutality outside the United Nations, a protester held up a sign that read: “Go ahead and shoot. I’m black so it must be justified.”
One of the most striking details of this photograph by Paul Fusco, who covered the demonstration, is a veiled woman. The woman’s obscured face mirrors how every facet of Diallo’s encounter with the police officers was veiled, unclear: Diallo’s mistaken identity as a rapist; the undercover police officers; Diallo’s desperate last attempt to reveal who he really was. The contrast between the darkness of the veil, and the light that strikes the photograph she holds of Diallo’s face, serves as a stark reminder of the official portrait Diallo urgently tried to reach for in order to bring light to his identity. The black hands caressing his image seem to suggest a silent understanding: “I see you. I acknowledge you. I stand for you.” Unlike in his fateful encounter with the officers, Diallo, in Fusco’s photograph, is finally visible.
Ten years before Diallo died at the hands of NYPD officers, the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor (1989) created a set of standards that determines when an officer can use excessive force. In 1984, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dethorne Graham, a diabetic, was falsely accused of theft after leaving a convenience store where he was trying to buy some juice. A Charlotte officer, M.S. Connor, stopped Graham’s friend’s car, and in the ensuing altercation, Graham was injured. Following District and Appeals Courts rulings in favor of the police, the Supreme Court argued for the concept of “objective reasonableness,” a test based on the Fourth Amendment’s standards against unwarranted search or seizure. The court officially stated that the decision to use force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
But, how effective is “objective reasonableness”? The court’s decision itself serves as a veiled conclusion. It is yet another way to conceal the injustice of unwarranted excessive force. The solution to police violence is not to put more power in the hands of aggressors. Amadou Diallo is proof of that. The 282 black individuals who lost their lives to police in 2017 are proof of that. Instead, the solution is, finally, to see past the veil, and to acknowledge black bodies as worth saving.
Larisa Owusu is a Ghanaian American first year student at Harvard University.