Excerpted from the Boston Globe, 10/4/2003

Seeing black culture, moment by stark moment

By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff

CHESTNUT HILL - Thanks to the global impact of jazz, the blues, and hip-hop, the predominant exposure to African-American culture for most people has been aural rather than visual. It remains telling that, despite the many changes in this society during the half-century since the publication of Ralph Ellison's first novel, "Invisible Man" should be the title of what remains the foremost imaginative work about the African-American experience.

Visibility is a relative thing, of course. Who's more visible today than Colin Powell, Shaquille O'Neal, Beyonce? It's contextually that the African-American experience - its folkways, its history, its daily life - remains so little seen in the majority culture.

It's hard to say where the aesthetic ends and the political begins here. The sound of African-American culture conveys a single fundamental message: freedom. It's a message that crosses eras and genres. It's there in a gospel singer's melismas, a jazz soloist's improvisations, a rapper's demon wordplay. And the very abstractness of music gives it a universal quality (think of all those English kids yowling out Muddy Waters imitations 40 years ago).

The sight of African-American culture is nowhere near as marketable. If anything, it bears witness not to the promise of freedom but to its elusiveness. More important, perhaps, there's nothing universal about the image. Its very concreteness bestows a nearly implacable specificity. The back of every photograph bears an implicit declaration: "at that moment, at that place."

That sense of individuated moment and place is at once powerful and engrossing in "Reflections in Black," at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art. The show comprises some 140 images by African-American photographers and was organized by the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution's museum of African-American history and culture.

The images span more than half a century, ranging from 1947 (Griffith Jerome Davis's portrait of Martin Luther King Sr.) to 1999 (Jason Miccolo Johnson's pictures of the Million Man March on Washington). A large share comes from the '60s, that decade that affected African-Americans more than any other group in this country. Yet what's most striking about Ernest C. Withers's 1968 image from Memphis, "Sanitation Workers' Strike," is how timeless it feels. The shutter clicked at that moment, at that place, but what's shown applies to every moment and every place. The stark black letters - "I AM A MAN" - on white signs seem almost to levitate over the protesters, to raise them up. It's an unforgettable visual rendering of the power of ideas.

"Reflections in Black" spans an even greater range in subject matter than in time. Acknowledging that range, the McMullen has divided the photographs into four sections: social justice, culture, community, and faith and devotion.

The divisions are admittedly arbitrary and not a little porous. (If Jack Davis's "Mahalia Jackson singing in the Coliseum, Los Angeles" had shown Jackson performing at the 1963 March on Washington - as she in fact did - it could fall under all four headings.) Yet because "Reflections in Black," like the culture it depicts, is so various, the need for some organizing principles is inescapable.

How various is the show? Even Richard Nixon shows up, chatting with a barber in Watts in 1955. Other famous faces appear (Malcolm X, John Coltrane, James Baldwin, Arthur Ashe), along with many more who are unknown. Sometimes the unknown are also famous: Look closely at Jack T. Franklin's "Martin Luther King, Jr., with C. Delores Tucker in Selma to Montgomery March" and you just might notice that the man squinting on the far left is Tony Bennett.

There are country and city, South and North, and, of course, past and present. In William Earle Williams's mid-'90s series of photographs of sites from African-American history, past and present effectively merge. There's an almost spooky poetic justice in the jaggedness of the trunk of the tree that has grown on the site where African slaves first landed at Jamestown: It's like lightning arrested.

The show includes certain touchstone images that are immediately recognizable, such as Jonathan Eubanks's "Eldridge Cleaver with Black Panther party members, Oakland" or Moneta J. Sleet Jr.'s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Coretta Scott King holding her daughter Bernice at her husband's funeral. Jazz fans will be familiar with many of the photographs by Chuck Stewart and Milt Hinton.

For the most part, though, as befits a show largely concerned with daily life and average people, the images are unfamiliar. Unfamiliar does not necessarily mean exotic. The white-shrouded Muslim woman in Chester Higgins Jr.'s "New York" looks as though she could have lived in the Sahel centuries ago. Instead, it was Brooklyn in 1990.

"Reflections in Black" is almost entirely reflections in black and white. There are only seven color photographs in the show. Perhaps the most striking is Hank Sloane Thomas's "Promise Keepers March," from 1998.

Thomas likes to put a frame inside the photograph, marking off an image within the image. Conceptually reductive, it's nonetheless a highly effective device visually. In this particular case, it's also nicely symbolic. The frame surrounds an African-American man, apparently the only one at an otherwise all-white meeting of the Promise Keepers religious group. Yet is the man singled out because of his skin color? Because he's in a wheelchair? Because he's wearing what appears to be a crown? The point is, the man exceeds the sum of the many differences the photograph records. So does "Reflections in Black."