A new biannual journal, MFON, features 100 women photographers from across the African diaspora. The journal is important and the photography is varied and stunning. These women should be far better known.
In 1986, history was made when Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe published Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers (Dodd Mead), the first book to showcase the history of African-American women behind the camera dating back dating back to 1866. It spanned more than a century of work, showcasing the work of artists whose work had gone largely unrecognised in photography, which the author described to the Chicago Tribune as a traditionally racist and sexist industry.
The book spoke to Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, a young photographer from Brooklyn, who wanted to see more. As years passed, nothing occurred – so Barrayn took it upon herself to be the change she wanted to see in the world. In 2006, she and photographer Adama Delphine Fawundu put together a prototype for the project that would become MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora.
MFON is a biannual journal that [has] launched a book of the same name featuring work of 100 women from across the diaspora, including Ming Smith, Delphine Diallo, Émilie Régnier, Lauri Lyons, Noelle Théard, and Dr. Deborah Willis, who wrote the introduction. MFON is named for Mmekutmfon “Mfon” Essien (1967 – 2001) a visionary Nigerian-American photographer who died from breast cancer the day before her photographs from The Amazon’s New Clothes, opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the acclaimed exhibition Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers…
“MFON is a historical document on the history of photography. It also serves as a global contemporary voice of women of different generations and genres. Since the publication of Viewfinders, there hasn’t been much of an update. Several generations of these photographers have passed and it was time to create a document around their works.”
– Laylah Amatullah Barrayn & Adama Delphine Fawundu
The work is remarkable. It is worth seeing all of it.
She became in 1967 the first (and sadly so far) only Black woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first Black Texan to be elected to the Texas Legislature since Reconstruction.
She then made history again by getting elected to the US House of Representatives in the newly created 18th Congressional District in 1972. She … made two historic keynote speeches to Democratic national conventions in 1976 and 1992 and was the ethics advisor for Gov Ann Richards.
She made history even when she died in 1996. She became the first Black Texan to be interred in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
A staunch warrior for civil rights throughout her lifetime, Jordan spoke in favor of impeaching Richard Nixon.
Far too few people remember Barbara Jordan at all, or could tell you anything specific she did or said. Even fewer people remember–or ever knew–that she was a Lesbian, though she chose to keep that fairly quiet. Here’s Corinne Werder, writing about Jordan as a queer woman history forgot:
Though Jordan wasn’t out as a lesbian, she made no secret of her life companion Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist. The couple met in the most lesbian of ways: on a camping trip in the late 60s. According to the Jordan Rustin Coalition, “Jordan never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation, but in her obituary, the Houston Chronicle mentioned her longtime relationship with Earl. After Jordan’s initial unsuccessful statewide races, advisers warned her to become more discreet and not bring any female companions on the campaign trail.”
The “Jordan Rustin Coalition” also honors Bayard Rustin, who deserves a whole post (and a lot of statues) of his own.
(The University of Texas does have a statue of Barbara Jordan, which they’ve displayed since 2009. However, universities are very different from public squares, and the woman certainly deserves more than one statue.)
In this week’s reading, we came across another woman whose statue we’d like to see. We don’t know if Portland has any “racist hero” statues it needs to take down, but in the unlikely event that it doesn’t, the city can still put up a memorial to Marie Equi.
She carried a banner. “Prepare to die, workingmen,” it warned. “J.P. Morgan & Co. want preparedness for profit. Thou shalt not kill.” It was June of 1916, and the country was headed for war. The town of Portland, Oregon, was holding a preparedness parade, a show of patriotic unity and an effort to drum up support. Then Marie Equi, a lesbian anarchist and abortionist, showed up with her banner.
“The lawyers attacked me first, then the Knights of Columbus,” she recounted later that night at the police station. A group of men marching in the parade approached her car and tore the sign to pieces. One struck her with a staff and a scuffle ensued. Equi was bruised and her hand bloodied. Then another man offered her an American flag. “I was perfectly calm. I said, ‘Very well, brave American gentlemen, your flag is no protection to me,’” and she tore it up.
Equi got her medical degree around the turn of the last century. She was an open Lesbian, in a relationship with a brewing heiress whose family kept trying to disinherit her. Around 1915, the couple adopted a daughter (that must be an interesting story in itself!).
In 1913, she attended a Portland cannery strike where female laborers (and some of her patients) argued for better wages, with some making only five cents per hour. Especially during summer, conditions in the factory were dangerous: Despite the heat, floor bosses locked the doors to keep workers productive and union organizers outside.
One day, the strike turned violent and Equi clashed with counter-protesters. Then she watched as a police officer struck and forcibly dragged a pregnant woman to jail. It was the last straw. She declared herself an anarchist and a socialist, and publicly supported the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World. Days after the strike, she climbed onto a chair in the middle of Portland’s city hall and threatened to “shed blood” if anyone stood in the way of the cause. Her weapon, she snarled, would be a poisoned hat pin to cause a “slow and lingering death.”
She was friends (and perhaps lovers) with Margaret Sanger, and also a close ally of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. And yet, her name is even further from being a household word than Jordan’s is. Between us, we know a lot of women’s history — and queer women’s history — and neither of us had heard of Equi until we found Buck’s article.
Lesbian photographer and activist Tee Corinne always spoke up for Lesbian history, and for remembering the sexual orientation of both women who had to keep their choices quiet to survive or thrive, and women who lived openly in dangerous times and places.
We’re rooting for a statue of Jordan in Houston and a statue of Equi in Portland. And we’re also imagining a whole sculpture garden of women who changed the world for the better–we know many more we can write about in future blogs. Let’s put up the statues where lots of people can come and appreciate the amazing things these women have done and, for a change, remember them.