Roots, Rebirth, Renaissance: The House’s Black History Month Kickoff Event

by Eleanor Pritchett 

If the House is a home, it’s the perfect place to hold a reunion–and the message set by the Black History Month kickoff on February 6th was that the House is a home. Roots, Rebirth, and Renaissance is the theme of this year’s Black History Month at the Afro-American Cultural Center, and what better way to introduce that theme than a community-wide family dinner and discussion?

With the driving music of a drum ensemble spilling into the street and a homey spread of food of the Black Diaspora crowning the front of an E-room decked out in round tables, it’s hard to see the House as set for anything but a family event.  

When filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris takes the stage at Dean Nelson’s introduction, he asks, “Who still has family albums?” The room raises its hands, of course.  Then fewer, as he asks who has physical books for their photos, then who still updates their albums, until hardly a hand is seen.  

Harris’s work is in the study of how Black people make and participate in history through film and through photography.  His award-winning 2014 documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People places the dark imagery of slavery’s pseudoscience and Jim Crow’s murderous propaganda in conversation with the joyfulness of Black family photos, tracing the history of Black photography from the first daguerreotypes through to the modern day.  The Black family doesn’t appear in museums, but it does appear in family albums, and Harris’s work is in facilitating a rebirth of a more complete American family photo album by illuminating the continuity of Black history.

Through a Lens Darkly’s accompanying project, the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) roadshow, brings that reclamation of history home to people across the country.  DDFR is a traveling project that allows people to have their family photos admired and preserved, and for them to tell and record stories about their families. According to Harris’s website, DDFR “engages audiences to discover connections between their own family archives and the film’s historical narrative,” and to recognize the historical value of their own records.  

 When Harris asked for volunteers at the House’s kickoff event to show family photos, maybe he wasn’t expecting much from the small crowd.  But never underestimate how much people love talking about their roots.

The most enthralling and emotional piece of the program, this hour allowed the audience to enter into and understand the lives of the volunteers and their families; over the course of seven storytellers, the audience saw late beloveds, family reunions, graduations, birthday parties, and wedding photos, accompanied by beautiful and passionate stories told the way people can only talk about their families.

Dean Jonathan Holloway was the first to present a picture.  He handed it to the man at the projector, and we saw a car window, a smiling, just-married couple—Dean Holloway and his new bride.  

In the face of this new semester, where it seems the community of people of color at Yale must find ways to return to a business that is no longer usual, it is eminently important to foster a renaissance of community, a rebuilding of the Yale family.

“The drums beckon us to return home,” Dean Nelson said of the House in her introduction.  Thomas Allen Harris’s reunion underscored that sense of family the House seeks to foster, and the events that will round out Black History Month this year seek to do the same.