The Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow (DDFR) at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) was a bit like a homecoming as I was working with my former colleagues from University of California San Diego – Jane Rhodes, Chair of African Studies and Professor Roderick Ferguson invited me to present on campus as well as reconnecting with the UIC Gallery 400 Director, Lorelei Stewart. Lorelei worked on the Alchemy Installation, a 1997 collaboration with my brother Lyle Ashton Harris and myself that was commissioned by New Langton Arts in San Francisco and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC.
The day began with a lecture entitled Book of the Family Tree, which included screening selects from the Through A Lens Darkly documentary. The second event of the day was a discussion with Jennifer Brier, Chair of Gender and Sexuality, as part of her class on collecting LGBT Oral Histories. During this class, I shared some of our DDFR strategies with her LGBT Oral Histories class and fielded questions around interview techniques and uncovering hidden stories within our communities.
The visit concluded with an awesome Digital Diaspora Roadshow where people from the previous lectures returned to share their family photos and stories. The first person to share was undergrad Travell Williams, who showed images of his family growing up in public housing – his brothers, mom and step dad. He mentioned that his family was one of the few that had two parents in the home and how his mother who was the family photographer pushed for her sons to invest in their education which resulted in his winning a science fair contest. Other images were of the family’s move to their very first house, Travell’s graduation and leaving for college. He concluded his presentation with photographs of visiting his grandparents down south where his grandmother and grandfather lived together despite their divorce, and his love for each of their respective horses – named Brownie and Whitey respectively. He moved the audience with his humor of his storytelling and the family’s idiosyncrasies and inspired the next person, our resident VJ Anthony to share:
“I was hoping to hear from a lot of people in the audience, but I could tell that not many people had physical photos. Like me, I’m sure many folks in the audience are living in cities or homes away from those that they grew up in. I quickly sent a text to my mom who loves sending me pictures on my phone while I’m working, so I knew she wouldn’t mind taking a picture of the photo she keeps on a dresser at her house. The picture is of my dad outside his house when he was really young. A traveling photographer had come by with a small horse and for a fee, my grandparents were given a picture of my dad dressed as a cowboy, sitting on the horse. I was assisting with the display of the photos, but after the first presenter spent so much time talking about his family’s experiences going north and south and visiting a horse farm, I thought it made perfect sense to share the photo and story of my dad, in the middle of Lansing, Michigan, posing with a horse for the camera.” – Anthony Stepter
Teresa Moreno, an administrator and teacher, spoke about her feelings of being bi-cultural – on her Dad’s side she was third generation Mexican American while on her mom’s side she was first generation. This photo of her mom got lots of people guessing as to the era it was taken – judging by her knitted vest.
Undergrad Hanna Lakew shared how her Mom would ritually dress her and her sister up in fancy dresses such as the ones she presented here – funny thing is that they usually didn’t leave the house to go anywhere. There was no other destination other than to sit in front of mom’s camera! So Hanna has all these beautiful photos all dressed up and all taken at home.
“The experience was unanticipated and interesting. I’m not a wallflower, but I’m certainly not a charismatic participator in most situations. I was very content just listening to everyone’s stories. However, I related very quickly to many of the narratives being shared and felt the need to contribute mine.”
Cynthia Blair, a Professor in African American Studies, shared an image of her Dad and her daughter’s first trip to Jamaica together and reflected on the freedom she felt there.
Professor Jane Rhodes (r.) showed an image of herself as a toddler in front of the family’s first house in Brooklyn, commenting that the family thought that things would be easier for African Americans in the North. However, after unsuccessfully searching for a house, it took her fair skinned Dad’s passing for white to be able to secure the purchase before he brought his darker skinned wife to the house.
Professor Jennifer Brier (below) shared one of her favorite photos from the time she came out in college along with her best friend, Bob Alotta, the present Executive of Astraer Foundation. For her, the photo symbolizes a moment of ‘Lesbian Happiness.’
Visit our Filckr album to see more photos!