“America, Again” is a year-long project by the photographers of VII, an exploration of some of the most important issues facing American voters as they head to the polls on November 3rd. This is Chapter 3: American Dreams, which includes an essay by author John Edwin Mason.
This chapter includes six photo stories by VII’s Ed Kashi, Christopher Lee, Maggie Steber, and guest photographers Endia Beal, Zun Lee, and Griselda San Martin.
Introduction by John Edwin Mason, Professor of African History and the History of Photography at the University of Virginia.
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet…
— Langston Hughes
Photographs are demanding little critters. They are, that is, if you spend more time with them than it takes to scroll past a few on social media. Photographs ask us — usually futilely — to slow down, even stop. To do the unaccustomed thing and look at them as carefully as we read a magazine article. Or, better yet, a poem.
Photographs ask us to bring our entire selves to the act of looking. To feel and wonder and even dream about what we see — and to do it, initially, without words. Then, inevitably, we begin to think, to bring what we know and what we have experienced to the act of looking. We become articulate, using words in our attempt to impose order and meaning on the unruly creatures.
Photographers, too, try to discipline the photographs that they make. If they’re photojournalists or documentary photographers, it’s their professional obligation. It matters, after all, who did what and to whom. Captions tell us. Editors will also try to corral photographs, using words, sequencing, and juxtapositions as their tools.
None of this is to suggest that the meaning of a photograph is arbitrary or that seeking common understandings of them is futile. We trust, for instance, that the snapshot we’ve studied does indeed show us a family in a particularly joyous moment or that the profound love and sorrow we sense when looking at images of a family that’s caring for a dying elder are real.
But photographs remain elusive. If I bring my entire self to looking at, say, the photographs in “American Dreams” — the third chapter of “America, Again” — I will bring my experiences as a black man and my learning as a historian, along with my hopes, fears, and dreams. What I see and what you see might be very different things. This is especially the case with photographs of America, where conflicting visions of the nation are always in tension.
“America, Again” comes along at a difficult moment in our history. The essential divide is between those who desire a more open and expansive American democracy and those who defend an older, narrower vision. It’s a story that goes back a long way. Perhaps it starts with Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner who proclaimed, in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal… [and] from that equal creation they derive rights… among which are the preservation of life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” He didn’t want to be taken literally. Rights, liberty, and equality were not for the enslaved people to whom he owed his wealth and status. Nor were they for Native Americans, on whose land he built his plantation, or for women of any color. They were not even for poor white men. Jefferson’s Virginia, like the new nation as a whole, was largely the preserve of a white male elite.
Many people, however, did take Jefferson literally. They came from among the marginalized and the oppressed, from the people that his vision of America would have excluded from the enjoyment of democratic rights and liberties. Their fight for freedom and democracy had already begun when Jefferson wrote his famous words. And it’s precisely the centuries-long struggles of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, women, and working people that have deepened American democracy and partially fulfilled its promise.
Like me, the people in these photographs are the beneficiaries of the battles that have been fought to expand the meaning of American democracy. This is the subsurface of every image, the foundation on which the people in them have built their lives. No doubt being a historian who teaches at the university that Jefferson founded predisposes me to see this chapter of “America, Again” through the lens of the Jeffersonian dilemma — a democracy built on slavery and settler colonialism — and the struggles that have aimed to resolve it.
Being a black man encourages me to see that almost no one has ever been defined solely by their oppression. The human spirit is astonishingly resilient, even in the worst of circumstances. The people of “American Dreams” are the inheritors of cultural traditions that have made it possible for their communities and the individuals within them to flourish in the face of often unspeakable hardship. If anything at all is visible in these photographs, it is the deep bonds of compassion, joy, and love that bind people together and allow them to live their fullest imaginable lives.
None of the people in these photos are famous, and few are political activists. Yet all are contributing to the creation of an America that I want to live in. I hope you do, too.
Photographs from the collection of, and text by, Zun Lee
Polaroid snapshots of African-American family life. Of small and big moments. Of lives that weren’t easy, yet worth celebrating. I first stumbled on these orphaned ghosts at yard sales, on eBay, and other places. I don’t know any of the individuals depicted, but their energy seemed immediately familiar to me. Years after scanning and archiving them, I’m still haunted by their intimacy and vibrancy.
I imagine these photos to have been precious keepsakes, at least to the people they belonged to. Long before it became fashionable to tweet, instagram or snap our own carefully staged reality with selfie-sticks and flattering filters, these families empowered themselves with Polaroids to curate their own lives.
The ability to make instant hard copy snapshots was alluring. Everyday life moments could be captured, viewed, and shared without delay or interference. Even though there was often a performance aspect to making Polaroids, the daily life scenes reveal a richness and complexity, reflecting the way Black people saw themselves on their terms and in ways not intended to be seen, or judged, by others.
The images highlight the importance of “seeing ourselves as we are.” Recent events from Ferguson to Cleveland to Baltimore reveal that stereotypical media depictions of African Americans continue unabated. These Polaroids remind us that there is a vivid history of Black visual self-representation that offers an eerily contemporary counter-narrative to mainstream distortion and erasure.
This narrative was not about how we would like to be validated by the public, but about who we are to us: Black people worthy of respect simply because we are human, not because there is an expectation to be respectable for the white gaze. These families were themselves in these photos. That was more than enough for them. It ought to be more than enough for us.
The fact that these images are now separated from the erstwhile owners makes one speculate about their potential fate. We don’t know what happened to the individuals but the power of their stories lives on. I’m publishing this collection from my archives to help preserve these stories. We may never fully grasp what these Polaroids originally meant. We can, however, feel inspired to reimagine what it means to see ourselves as we are. And what it means to be “enough.”
INDIAN COUNTRY, USA
Photographs and text by Maggie Steber
My grandfather was a full blood Cherokee. His parents were full bloods.
My mother was half Cherokee. I am one-quarter Cherokee. Despite this heritage, I never felt I could claim to be Native American. We were not tribal members and there was no allotted land in our family because my great grandparents had never registered themselves on tribal rolls requested by the U.S. government. I wasn’t raised in any traditional way by my mother except in the beliefs that the ancestors watched over us.
Over the years during which I photographed Native people, I never introduced myself as being Cherokee. It felt disingenuous. But sometimes when I was photographing, someone would say, “You are an Indian. I can see it in your face.” Only then would I tell them that indeed I had Indian blood.
Native people don’t trust the government because of hundreds of broken treaties. Non-Indian people have little idea of how many promises were broken and instead have a view that Indians are lazy and drunk, and live in dirty trailers with broken down cars in the front yard. This is an image non-Indians have seen for far too long, a view put forth in sensational stories, motion pictures, the media, and by hundreds of years of racism.
In photographing Native people, I have tried to show something outsiders don’t often see: the pride and achievements and the belief that traditional ideas are powerful and describe who they are as a people.
For many years, the only thing that was recognized in a respectful way was when Native people donned feathers and wore traditional clothes as seen in the photographs of Edward Curtis, or when they danced at powwows. Powwows are thought to be performance, but in fact, they are religious ceremonies held in a sacred circle. You cannot enter the circle if you are not Indian. The beat of the drums, which is critical at powwows, represents the beating of the heart of every Indian. Native people are the only ones who have legal right to own eagle feathers. Every time an eagle feather falls to the ground, it means a warrior has died.
Indians are referred to as Native Americans, as though we are all the same and maybe we are because of the similar history we share. Native people have been moved off their land and often put onto land that had little to offer. They were made to assimilate in Indian boarding schools where horrible things happened to them and scarred them for life. They were vilified as savages and killed as the white man moved across their land.
I never suffered discrimination or racism like that. Maybe this is why I couldn’t allow myself to say what I am, because I didn’t suffer as my ancestors had.
Recently, in looking back through these photographs, something in me changed. Maybe it’s because I’m older and I want to belong to something which is, indeed, part of me. Now I look at the photographs as a family album and feel that these are my family and ancestors, no matter which tribe. For the first time, I feel like I can claim to be Native. I feel connected in a way I had never allowed myself to be.
Long ago, because my mother told me this was important, I formed an image of myself. In this image, I am standing atop a high outcropping, like the ones you see in Monument Valley or Arches National Park, with the wind blowing in my hair as I watch the eagles flying overhead. The eagles are our ancestors and they guide us and protect us. We talk to them. I always felt that is who I am.
This isn’t something you can share with people because they don’t always understand the deep connection to nature as our mother or how your heart soars at the song of the bird or the breath of the wind. This image of myself is powerful and has made me embrace the blood that flows through my veins.
This image that I have long held in my mind and heart is — I can finally say out loud — who I am, a descendant of magnificent warrior ancestors.
These are my people. I am Indian.
BEYOND THE WALL: LIFE IN EL NORTE
Photographs and text by Griselda San Martin
Migration, often driven by quantifiable economic factors, has a profound impact on the individual identities of migrants and their U.S.-born children. While the migrant generations try to safeguard their heritage, the younger ones have to navigate their multiple cultures and social realities.
Beyond the physical barriers, and despite the starkly xenophobic rhetoric that criminalizes them, immigrants are creating spaces of belonging across national boundaries that supersede citizenship status, showing strength and resilience and resisting dominant discourses of difference and exclusion.
Through my work, I intend to challenge disempowering narratives and simplified stories that emphasize vulnerability, by acknowledging and addressing the themes of diversity and hybridity in today’s American culture. My goal is to evidence and celebrate America’s complex identity as a plural multi-ethnic society.
AM I WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?
Photographs and text by Endia Beal
The photographic series, Am I What You’re Looking For? focuses on young African-American women based in North Carolina who are transitioning from the academic world to the corporate setting. Many of the women who participated in the project were my students at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, N.C. My students would disclose their personal difficulties and frustrations in securing employment after graduation. Employers would tell them that their natural hair was unprofessional or their name was too difficult to pronounce and would suggest they alter themselves for the job. These stories were all too familiar to my struggles as a woman of color in the corporate space, but rarely are these stories shared to colleagues or management in fear of rejection or lack of opportunities. This project provides an in-depth investigation into the experiences and fears of being a woman of color in Corporate America. The photographs allow the young women to express their own style of professionalism and their deepest concerns as they transition outside of college.
“BOXING IS BADASS…AND IT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE”
Photographs and text by Ed Kashi
Mike Steadman, originally from Texas, founded IRONBOUND Boxing in Newark, New Jersey in 2016. Steadman is a former Marine Corps Infantry Officer, with deployments to Afghanistan, Japan, and the Philippines. An impressive boxer, he is a three-time National Collegiate Boxing Champion from the United States Naval Academy.
When he opened IRONBOUND Boxing, the intention was to bring much-needed support to local inner-city youth, specifically in Newark, New Jersey. His vision expands beyond the physical practice of boxing, working with both male and female youth, which in Newark means African Americans, LatinX and a large immigrant population. The Academy harnesses real-life discipline and communication skills, building a community of individuals with confidence in their own unique strengths. Steadman’s mission for the Academy is to spread love, passion, and appreciation for boxing within both larger companies and organizations as well as low-income communities. The humble beginnings of the Academy began with original boxing equipment donated by fellow veterans and Naval Academy classmates.
His introduction to boxing began in Annapolis after his mother suffered a stroke, offering him a way to channel his emotions and find his sense of purpose after serving in the Marines. Steadman is inspired to flip the script on the commonly held veteran narrative emphasizing PTSD in those who have returned from serving. This informs his desire to challenge the belittlingly low expectations he sees towards young men of color from Newark. Steadman believes in the power of community and unwavering support, which translates to the ethos of his academy and is embodied in his approach to his students. Inside the facility, the wall graffiti features inspiring quotes from Toni Morrison and Mark Twain.
Steadman became involved with St. Benedict’s Prep, where many of his boxing students attend, as the overseer of a residence hall. The renowned Newark high school has a 91% nonwhite student body with nearly 100% graduation rates, surpassing the citywide rate of 73.5%. In 2018, he left that position to start his own company and is now traversing the stressful and new reality of being a young entrepreneur in the New York, New Jersey area. Steadman now coaches some of his academy youth to work as personal trainers in his growing business of corporate and small business boxing and physical fitness training.
IRONBOUND Boxing Academy is free, funded by the for-profit arm and donations raised from veterans and other donors all across the United States. Today, Steadman’s coaching clients include WeWork, Spotify, and Next Jump, taking him around New York City and Newark. Steadman’s remarkable drive propels the mission forward, widening the scope of boxing and in turn, supporting the original facility in Newark, NJ, where he still coaches dozens of youth two full days a week.
Lessons on Living from My Grandmother
Photographs and text by Christopher Lee
One of my earliest memories of my grandmother is of her bouncing my brother and me on her knee singing a nursery rhyme in Korean that roughly translated to “Joon Yong and Joon Hyun let’s come out and play together.” Those were our Korean names, sandwiched in between our American names “Christopher” and “Alexander” on our birth certificates at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where we were born.
My brother and I were the first ones in our family born in America. At the time, my father was serving in the US Air Force while my mother worked in the backroom of a discount men’s suit shop as a seamstress. As per cultural tradition, Lee Soon Ja, my grandmother, immigrated to America to live with us.
It’s become increasingly difficult for immigrant families to care for their elderly in America, forcing many to abandon their cultural norms and expectations as they turn to the more Western norm of nursing homes. It can also be difficult to afford care tailored to specific immigrant communities, especially those facing language barriers. My grandmother relocated to Southern California when members of my family, who were undocumented, fell terminally ill. She would remain there for the rest of her life, spending the last two years of her life in a hospice for elderly Korean immigrants.
My grandmother was born in Korea that was under Japanese occupation but hadn’t yet been divided by war. She would recall being reprimanded at school for even uttering words in her native tongue and was forced to make rough translations for Japanese soldiers wanting to communicate with the local population. Years later, during the Korean War and pregnant with her first child, she fled the northern regions of the country. To avoid sexual violence, Soon Ja tried to make herself unattractive by dressing in men’s clothing and smearing dirt on her face as she worked her way south. She told us harrowing stories of how she almost drowned while making a water crossing during the dead of night with others seeking refuge.
It wasn’t until much later in my life that I would have a better understanding of what my grandmother had gone through. While photographing fleeing Syrian refugees in 2015 on Turkish shores, her stories replayed in my mind. “This is what she must have gone through,” I would think to myself as I sat in an olive grove with others fleeing war in their country.
My grandmother was not always a gracious person. In fact, while photographing her, I found myself struggling to reconcile what I wanted others to see and how I actually saw her. She was often stubborn and temperamental as she aged, adhering to an almost uncompromising stance on what she believed to be true in the world. But that steadfast worldview came out of a love for her family.
She worked tirelessly and selflessly so as to not squander the multitude of opportunities she felt she was given by life. I hope that my life and my work can reflect the uncompromising integrity with which she lived hers.
About “America, Again”
Exactly one year before voters go to the polls on November 3, 2020 — and three months before Iowans gather for their caucuses — VII launched the first chapter of our year-long collective election coverage, “America, Again.”
This project emerged among a few of the VII photographers with the intention of focusing attention on the issues that will dominate the U.S. election. The VII Foundation and VII Academy have stepped in to support the project in recognition of the importance of critical and independent storytelling in civic discourse. We will produce stories on material issues that people worldwide are wrangling with, not only Americans. We’ll cover issues that are used to divide us, and that allow populist politicians to undermine the values that are foundational to our societies.
Introduction by JOHN EDWIN MASON who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. He has written extensively on South African social and cultural history, as well as on jazz and photography in the United States. He is now working on a book about the American photographer, writer, and filmmaker Gordon Parks.
ENDIA BEAL is a North Carolina-based artist and educator. She is internationally known for her photographic narratives and video testimonies that examine the personal, yet contemporary, stories of women of color working within the corporate space. Beal’s work merges fine arts with social injustice. She uses photography to reveal the often overlooked and unappreciated experiences unique to people of color. Beal graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History and Studio Art and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in 2013.
Beal is featured in several online editorials including The New York Times, NBC, BET, the Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, and National Geographic. She also appeared in Essence Magazine, Marie Claire Magazine South Africa, Newsweek Japan, and Photo District News. Her work was exhibited in several institutions such as Amerikahaus, in Munich, Germany, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture based in Charlotte, NC and the Aperture Foundation of New York.
ZUN LEE is a visual artist, physician, and educator who investigates Black family spaces as sites of intimacy and belonging, and quotidian Black social life as resistive strategy to cultural erasure and appropriation. Lee has exhibited and spoken at numerous institutions in North America and Europe. His works are widely published and represented in public and private collections around the world. He is a 2019 Mellon Foundation Practitioner in Residence, 2018 Knight Foundation Grantee, 2017 Art Gallery of Ontario Artist in Residence, and a 2015 Magnum Foundation Fellow.
GRISELDA SAN MARTIN is a documentary photographer currently based in New York City. She is a graduate of the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) and holds a masters in Journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.
San Martin has documented the U.S.-Mexico border, focusing on the issues of immigration, deportation, inequality and human rights abuses through an optic of identity and belonging.
Her current focus is on the growing Hispanic community in the United States and the sociopolitical implications of reactionary narratives depicting immigrants and ethnic minorities. Her work explores the transnational life and practices that link individuals, families, and social networks across political boundaries.
San Martin’s work challenges popular assumptions about immigrants and offers an alternative perspective―a marginalized community demonstrating resilience and resourcefulness amidst trying situations.
Her photography and video projects have been exhibited internationally and featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, and California Sunday Magazine as well as other publications.
Photo editing by SARAH LEEN, former Director of Photography National Geographic Partners and founder of the Visual Thinking Collective for independent women editors, teachers, and curators.
Layout by GIANA CHOROSZEWSKI, VII Operations Director.