FRAMING SHADOWS

What historical photos can teach us about the lives of African Americans in domestic service

Emory professor Kimberly Wallace-Sanders stands in front of the Framing Shadows exhibit in Woodruff library. A series of sepia-toned historical photos show African American women holding white children.

Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell will join Kimberly Wallace-Sanders and moderator Rose Scott of WABE Radio for a conversation May 8 titled "Framing Shadows/ Framing Lives."

The evening begins at 6 p.m. with a reception and viewing of the exhibition in Woodruff Library. The conversation begins at 7:30 p.m. in Cannon Chapel.

Learn more and register to attend.

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A new exhibition of historical photographs at Emory University encourages visitors to consider the lives of African American women who spent years raising the children of white families.

“Framing Shadows: Portraits of Nannies from the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection” is on display at Emory’s Woodruff Library. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, associate professor of American studies and African American studies at Emory, curated the exhibition of about 20 photos from the 1840s to the 1920s. The portraits show the caregivers – African American women, girls and sometimes men – posed with the white children of their employers, and were categorized by Langmuir as "nannies" in his photo collection.

"It is impossible to look at these portraits today without wondering what went on in the minds of the African Americans who were asked to sit perfectly still, while lighting and props were arranged for portraits not made for them, but for the white children they held," Wallace-Sanders explains.

"Each image — in the setting, the poses, the facial expressions, and the clothing — captures a microcosm of power dynamics involving race, gender, class, status, age, and domestic labor relations."

"Framing Shadows: Portraits of African American Nannies" is on display through Jan. 5, 2020, on Level 3 of Emory's Woodruff Library.

The images were drawn from the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library. This extensive collection contains more than 12,000 photographs depicting African American life from 1840–1970.

Wallace-Sanders discusses the collection, the images and her research in a series of short videos featured in the exhibition. Also included are rare books from the Rose Library that provide context for the photographs from a variety of perspectives.

“The Rose Library’s extensive African American history collections were built for precisely this kind of exploration and analysis,” says Rose Library director Jennifer Gunter King. “We are so grateful to Kimberly Wallace-Sanders for developing the ‘Framing Shadows’ exhibition from the Langmuir collection, and for helping to recover a fuller understanding of the experience of African American women who were pressed into service as nannies. We hope this exhibition will encourage more projects and collaborations with the Rose Library.”

The title image for the Framing Shadows exhibit shows a photo of an African American woman holding a white baby with a square frame that centers the face of the woman instead of the child.

"Framing Shadows: Portraits of African American Nannies" is on display through Jan. 5, 2020, on Level 3 of Emory's Woodruff Library.

"Framing Shadows: Portraits of African American Nannies" is on display through Jan. 5, 2020, on Level 3 of Emory's Woodruff Library.

Hear Kimberly Wallace-Sanders discuss the meaning of "Framing Shadows" and why it is important to bring these images into public view.

Hear Kimberly Wallace-Sanders discuss the meaning of "Framing Shadows" and why it is important to bring these images into public view.

LOOKING BEYOND STEREOTYPES

Wallace-Sanders, who is working on her second book about African American nannies, has researched this topic since her doctoral studies at Boston University. Through this exhibition, she invites visitors to look beyond stereotypes replicated in books and movies and question common assumptions about the images and the relationships they depict.

The curator encourages visitors to move beyond their initial reactions and think about the nannies’ as individuals as they examine the images – taking cues from body language, facial expressions and clothes.

A young African American girl sits in a chair, holding a baby girl close to her face, in this undated photo. Rees & Minnis Galleries, Petersburg, Virginia. Robert Langmuir Photograph Collection, Rose Library at Emory University.

“Some viewers may project onto these images a level of warmth and affection that isn’t actually evident in the photograph. Other viewers may see pain or humiliation,” Wallace-Sanders says. “I encourage them to look closer. I tell them, ‘The more you look, the more you will see.’

“This is the most complex interracial relationship there is,” she adds. “The stereotypical narrative emphasizes devotion and loyalty. But I want people to look a little deeper and ask some additional questions. Does this woman have children of her own? Who is taking care of her children? Will she even get to see the portrait that was made for her employer’s family?”

Many of the nannies depicted in these images are anonymous; the backs of the photos often bear the child’s name, but not the caregiver’s. Most of the information about the relationship between these nannies and their charges comes from the white family’s perspective, not the African-American nanny, Wallace-Sanders says.

“Biographical information about the women is hard to come by, because this person was focused on her relationship to them, which is not unusual. The narrative that we have heard is, ‘she was like a mother,’ or ‘she was like family,’” she says. “But they don’t know her first or last name, whether she was married or had children, or where she lived.”

In this undated photo, an African American woman is shown with a baby lying on her lap. The woman appears to have fallen asleep while posing for the photo, perhaps exhausted from the demands of her work. Langmuir Photograph Collection, Rose Library at Emory University.

Ideally, Wallace-Sanders hopes that the “Framing Shadows” exhibition will inspire visitors with relatives who served as nannies to come forward with their stories. “For African Americans whose mothers or grandmothers or aunts were in domestic service, what do you remember them saying about the experience?” she says.

“We know so little about these women, aside from what the white children as adults remember about them,” she adds. “I hope by making these images public, more information will come up.”

Story by Maureen McGavin. Historical images courtesy of the Robert Langmuir Photograph Collection. Photos of Kimberly Wallace-Sanders by Stephen Nowland.

An African-American woman sits with her eyes closed and a white baby lying across her lap.

In this undated photo, an African American woman is shown with a baby lying on her lap. The woman appears to have fallen asleep while posing for the photo, perhaps exhausted from the demands of her work. Langmuir Photograph Collection, Rose Library at Emory University.

In this undated photo, an African American woman is shown with a baby lying on her lap. The woman appears to have fallen asleep while posing for the photo, perhaps exhausted from the demands of her work. Langmuir Photograph Collection, Rose Library at Emory University.

An African American woman in a polka-dot dress holds a white baby in a lace dress with their faces close together.

A young African American girl sits in a chair, holding a baby girl close to her face, in this undated photo. Rees & Minnis Galleries, Petersburg, Virginia. Robert Langmuir Photograph Collection, Rose Library at Emory University.

A young African American girl sits in a chair, holding a baby girl close to her face, in this undated photo. Rees & Minnis Galleries, Petersburg, Virginia. Robert Langmuir Photograph Collection, Rose Library at Emory University.

"With these portraits,
the more you look,
the more you see."

— Kimberly Wallace-Sanders

Professor Kimberly Wallace-Sanders stands in the foreground with the Framing Shadows exhibit behind her so the viewer sees a series of photos and text on the wall.

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