William Earle Williams’ show, “A Stirring Song Sung Heroic,” is currently on display at the Davison Art Center and features a historical documentation of African Americans in the United States, beginning with the first shipment of slaves to the new world and ending with emancipation. Because of Williams’ artistic background, photography is the primary medium of the show but certainly not the only one. Williams uses several newspaper clippings from various periods, passages from works of literature, and drawings, which arguably define the show’s resonance just as much as the photos. The exhibition blurs the lines between political art and art for art’s sake by maintaining an objective distance from a subjective matter that historically has been so politically charged. However, the fact that the show exists is a political stance in itself and proves the power of photography to memorialize events in our history that sometimes have been blocked out, bringing them back to our collective consciousness.
Williams currently teaches at Haverford College and has focused most of his work on restorations of African-American history through photography. He has done several concentrations on the life of Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe that raise questions about how they went about their daily lives. The understanding of the details and daily lives of historical figures is a fascination of Williams’ and carries much of his work.
The photography begins with the origins of slavery in America and presents images of the first living conditions for slaves on plantations in the South. All the photos are in black and white, even though Williams took them all in the 1990s or early 2000s. Instead of showing them in color, which would ground the photos in a modern context, the effect of black and white asserts the work’s historical intent and forces the viewer to treat the images as records of history. More obviously, the choice to use black and white may also be to imply quite literally the segregation of white people and black people during the time. Several newspaper articles hang on the walls in this section, mostly in the form of rewards for runaway slaves, giving testament to the widespread acceptance of slaves as property. Through the newspaper articles, Williams enshrines an important aspect of the show as a whole; the newspapers don’t offer any dramatic new re-interpretation of history but instead present the small parts of daily life in the South that have mostly been overshadowed by the greater injustices of the time. By presenting this period of history in a physical form that makes the viewer acknowledge the sense of normalcy that slavery possessed in America, Williams challenges that history is often taught abstractly instead of in a way that allows it to be conceptualized.
Williams then moves on to the Underground Railroad and its expansion following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The abandoned railroads and stations along the way emanate an eerie sense of desperation, reflecting the position of most slaves that caused the Underground Railroad to come into existence. However, the roads also stand as a testimony to the resilience of slaves, symbolizing one of the central themes of the show. Williams refutes the argument that slaves were complicit in their subjugation and remained idle.
The final section covers the Civil War and Emancipation Period, depicting war sites, as well as drawings of particular battles. Williams focuses specifically on the Battle of Fort Pillow in 1864, which featured the massacre of Union troops, mostly African Americans. As depicted in all the drawings of the event, the battle shows mostly African Americans being slaughtered, which demonstrates the sacrifices and devastation they faced in the war. Williams chooses this event to dispel the myth that white Northerners fought the war for African Americans.
Most of the photos in the show document the physical structures still standing as remnants of this period in our history. These images institute a recurrent idea that carries throughout the show: confronting the viewer’s presumptions about history. The experience of these photos are met almost with a sense of shock and embarrassment that these locations still stand today because they seem, to an extent, so far removed from modern society. However, Williams uses this feeling to comment that we need to record these sites so that we never forget our history and that these events occurred.
One image of a row of pillars that used to be part of a slave owner’s house captures this sentiment. Even though they have withered and crumbled over time, the pillars, built by slaves for their masters, still stand, symbolizing the state of racism in America today.
“A Stirring Song Sung Heroic” remains open to the public until Sunday, Dec. 11.