No One Knows The Trouble He's Seen

”Very often they do not even suspect that they too are niggers, slaves, ”white niggers”, while racism hides the reality from them by giving them the opportunity to despise an inferior, to crush him mentally or to pity him. But the poor whites who despise the black man are doubly niggers, for they are victims of one more form of alienation-racism- which far from liberating them, imprisons them in a net of hate, paralyzing them in fear of one day having to confront the black man in a civil war”( Pierre Vallieres )

Roy DeCarava

Roy DeCarava


It had been intended to follow up his great success of 1955, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, in which his photographs of daily life above 110th Street ran alongside a matching narrative created by Langston Hughes in the voice of a fictitious black woman, Sister Mary Bradley. Already celebrated as the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes had chosen DeCarava as his collaborator when he was a young man working as an illustrator in an advertising agency. DeCarava’s black-and-white photographs made an immediate impact. Roy DeCarava ( 1919-2009 ) was a photographer who captured the daily struggles of the black experience in Harlem as well as famous Jazz musicians and entertainers. The ghetto was a prison and the arts was one way to breach the wall, for himself and  in the main, Jazz and popular musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Roy DeCarava, Duke Ellington

Roy DeCarava, Duke Ellington


DeCarava’s narrative is on the hypocrisy of the northern liberal to whom integration is but a distant rumour.A great difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. His great talent  was to make the ugly observations of Black urban life easier to swallow; To capture the shame, guilt and denial with a dignified serenity before the cauldron boiled over. The prophesy before the rage. Great photographs , because he struggled to articulate more than he knew how to say and  then struggled to say more than he knew. There is an underlying tension, as with the jewish immigrants,of vulnerability, that the white  man, the great emancipators, could turn on them at any moment.The white man’s burden was the black man’s responsibility to do the heavy lifting.

He was a photographer interested in his country but not feeling part of it, a perennial outsider and alien. Where the jewish entertainer could act black, the back was defined as ”typecasted” within a narrow role. DeCarava captures this world weariness and sense of futility to find meaning within limited opportunities. Perhaps at best, to be parodies, stock off the shelf, unthreatening stereotypes of themselves as  famous and dandy as Amos and Andy.

”Black became a mask of jewish expressiveness, with one woe speaking through the woe of another. … moreover that music provided the perfect common ground between blacks and jews , because essentially it allowed jews to be both black and white without losing their jewishness. Jews in the music business, in part drew connections between themselves and African Americans in order to create a narrative about the ethnic origins of the music which then became operational as a national mythology. Africa Americans hoped their cultural contributions would convince white America that they were people who entertained, while jews hoped their contributions would remind white America that they were entertaining people.”

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