“The Baltimore Collection” has much to offer both the casual browser and scholars searching for images for their next book. The research opportunities led me to want to consider who these sitters are in the portraits. The driving question I have about digitizing objects is, “how can this benefit those outside of higher education?” As we researched to learn information about the sitters and portraits for the database Artstor, we were also tasked with designating their race, ethnicity, and nationality. One of the shared shelf data fields for Artstor is “Culture” which is defined as Name of the culture, people, or nationality from which the work originated.
As noted in the title of the collection “Baltimore” is meant Baltimore, Maryland geographically. The collection derives its name from the many Baltimore photography studios represented therein. However, as we have discovered through research over the semester, there are as many “unidentified” studio location as ones located in Baltimore. There is the assumption that our sitters are African American has been the majority consensus due to their location.
However, I would like to consider that not all those sitters are indeed African American. What if some of the sitters in “The Baltimore Collection” from the Parlor Gallery in Philadelphia or the ones in Baltimore are in fact second-generation Haitians, whose parents were brought from Haiti during the Haitian Revolution? Research on the Haitian Revolution has shown that in 1793, the United States of America was on the receiving end of French slave masters and enslaved Haitians fleeing the island of Haiti. Many of them settled in port cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. We have identified the Parlor Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as a studio in a predominantly black neighborhood many years later. Pennsylvania is critical as they had already signed Act for Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which allowed for slaveholders from other states to reside within the state with their slaves for up to six months. If they stayed longer, enslaved people could be legally free. Keeping this in mind, who is to say those sitters may consider themselves to be second generation Haitian-Americans? For more information about the Act for Gradual Abolition of Slavery, view the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission: http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/documents/1776-1865/abolition-slavery.html .
Unfortunately, we have yet to identify how these sitters identified themselves and thus every description is already removed, and subjective, albeit informed by historical research. However, I want to make space for these sitters to have identities that we may never know and be open the ambiguity that this presents. As we discussed as a class the identities of the sitters, I initially proposed that we consider them as Africana and not African American as default. My reasoning for this alternative was that just because we don’t know we should not only rely on the default of American as their nationality. However, as a class, we came to the consensus to use Black instead of Africana due to very few digital collections, and repositories use this word. Also, we found that more people are familiar with the combination of “African American/Black.” In my search to find one, I came across the Library of Congress “Africana Historic Postcard Collection,” created as a way to perpetuate Europe’s colonization of the African continent. The majority of internet searches will connect to Africana Studies department at universities and colleges.
I ground my views in the essay by P. Gabrielle Foreman “Who’s Your Mama? “White ” Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing Narratives of Slavery and Freedom” which reconsiders the notion of white passing as passing through whiteness. Foreman repurposes the work of David Waldstreicher to think through passing through whiteness. “Examining eighteenth-century runaway advertisements, David Waldstreicher
posits that “to get slaves or servants back into the role…owners had to describe what…attributes they possessed that might or might not help him or her pretend to be free.” Foreman offers alternative, “if we exchange the phrase “back into the role” of a slave with “back into the role of black” and describe the attributes that these women possessed that might help them ‘pretend to be” white, we underscore the concept of passing through whiteness rather than passing over and out of race.” Perhaps there is another application for “The Baltimore Collection.” I propose that some, not all of the sitters maybe passing through Americanness and their portrait is part this. Much like tourist conscious of their foreignness while traveling, attempt to adopt clothing and behavior of their host country, this is how one could think about passing through Americanness in “The Baltimore Collection.”
Should this be the case, how does the portrait studio and ultimately the final product, the portrait help with passing through? Historian Alan Trachtenberg in Reading American Photographs says “not a museum of natural history, however, but a theatre of desire, the gallery had become a new kind of city place devoted to performance: the making of oneself over into a social image.” Although Trachtenberg was speaking of parlors for daguerreotypes, the same can be applied to some of the photographic processes in “The Baltimore Collection.”
Perhaps as you look at the other blog posts on this site and look at the photographs, that we have identified as African American, consider defining the sitters as something else. I would like to borrow from the definition of the academic field of Africana Studies which looks at the histories, politics, and cultures of people from the African continent and the African Diaspora. While this title is rarely if ever applied to people, think using it to define a people could be helpful until their identities reconnect. I On a more personal note in my family, my great-great-grandfather immigrated from what was then British Guiana by way of London to the United States around 1900. Until his death, he referred to himself as a British citizen, even though British Guiana gained its independence in 1966.