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Michael D. Regan
Michael D. Regan
In ‘We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture of Slavery,’ artist Keris Salmon examines the lives of enslaved people and the places they lived in the American South. Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino introduces us to the artist and her new work now on display in New York City, where viewers see the horror and heartbreak of America's slave economy.
Income inequality and criminal justice reform are often in the news these days, and a new exhibit in New York City argues that those issues are linked to our history by what the artist calls the "Architecture of Slavery."
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent, Duarte Geraldino has the story.
Artist Keris Salmon is intrigued by the story of an infant named Alexandre. He was the son, it would appear, of enslaved parents. likely born on the plantation where Salmon took this photo.
She imagines he lived in this former slave cabin, which is still standing today.
She took the photo on a recent visit to the Destrehan plantation, just outside of New Orleans.
It's outlining the journey of Alexandre. He came with his mother and he was nursing.
By pairing a photo of the cabin with the text from a database of slave records from the 1700s, Keris Salmon recreates this historical moment. One detail stands out to her.
They're calling Alexandre — his race is "mulatto rouge". If the father is black and the mother is black –how is this child mulatto rouge?
Oh I see what you're saying –.
It's a lie.
This was the child of a potential slave owner and his slave.
We have a child that's 0 years old who is mulatto as you say, a father who is black and a mother who's black. There's a secret somewhere there–.
There is a secret there.
At the heart of that secret are the differences between what is known and what is shown about life during America's Age of Slavery.
The words are simply: " here I lives. Here I dies" and these are words that were spoken by Sibby Kelly who was a black slave midwife.
We spoke with Keris Salmon at the International Print Center in New York City, where her work is on display through mid-June.
In a collection of 18 prints, Salmon juxtaposes words from historical records, letters, bills of sale and other archival texts with photos she took at more than a dozen plantations over the past three years across seven southern states. She calls the series "We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture Of Slavery."
The title comes from an encounter just after emancipation between a group of blacks and a group of whites in North Carolina and the blacks seem to be running back to their former places of enslavement–
Running back to where they were enslaved?
Exactly. And the white people incredulously asked. "What the heck are you doing? Why why are you running back to the place where you were imprisoned?" And they answered almost in unison. "We have made these lands what they are." And that is true.
Salmon's art and photography compels us to zoom-in to the "everydayness of slave life." It makes us wonder what's gone and –critically– what's still around us.
It's not the chains. It's not the whips. It's not these sort of icons of slavery that so many of us are used to. You focus on things that are fairly pedestrian. Why?
Well, life then was fairly pedestrian. I mean yes there were whips, chains, manacles, leg irons, neck irons. But this is the kind of thing that people encountered every day, black and white. You know the sweep of a banister, the geometry of a fence, the– uh, a bird about to take off in flight in the presence of people who were imprisoned there.
Salmon works with Brooklyn-based printmakers Peter Kruty and Sayre Gaydos. Together, they set the look of the series. They designed the typeface so that it resembled the one used on 19th century posters that announced slave runaways and auctions.
One of the things that Keris and I talked about when we first started working on the text of these projects is to try to focus on the type, the phrasing without hitting you over the head with what it's about. So it's kind of –
almost like a hidden message or something.
The words are not literal to the image – it allows the viewer to use one's own imagination.
For Keris Salmon, That shift in perspective is subtle but powerful . She spent 25 years as television journalist for NBC, ABC, and PBS, where she enabled millions of people to see news events, but now — as a print artist — she is asking you to look through the eyes of a slave…with all the pain, complexity and stolen moments of joy that come with that particular American view.
You're doing very well.
She began her series five years ago when she visited a plantation … with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Frank Williams.
We went together. It came about because a man named John Baker who had was descended from one of the slaves at Wessyngton plantation had spent about 15 years writing the history of that plantation. We went out to visit the current owner of the plantation who acquired it from my family in the 1980s.
So hold on one second: This is not just any plantation. You said your family, your family owned the plantation?
For how many years?
They had owned it since 1790.
You walking at a plantation where your family owned– not only the plantation but hundreds of slaves– with your black wife.
You, there, many years later with your white husband.
— whose family owned the plantation. That's a lot.
It was life altering for me. I felt like if this had been more 150- 200 years ago the circumstances would have been quite different. And I think that's true. We would have been playing very different roles.
When I arrived there I was a journalist. And when I left on that very same day I became an artist. I couldn't leave without making something out of it. Or or or — trying to understand it in a way that that I can live with.
Her way of understanding America's history and present was to pair a photograph of Wessyngton plantation large stately house with an excerpt from Baker's book: "With the other slaves, Sarah went to the banks of Caleb's Creek to collect clay. They carried the clay up the hill where the mansion now stands. They built that Big House brick by brick."
What I want to point out here is that the institution of slavery is the foundation — the architectural foundation for our current American situation.
It just set the set the ground for it. I mean separating children from their– from their parents in the 18th century. I don't know what it was probably thought of as barbaric then, but who cared. We're still doing it now.
What do you think is still here today based on your art? What kind of systems? Economic, social systems?
Unequal Education. Redlining in housing. Mass incarceration. I could go on and on. I mean the things that we talk about on a daily basis today have their roots in the American slave economy.
Watch the Full Episode
Duarte Geraldino is a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour.
He is currently working on a book about people left behind in the USA after their loved-ones have been deported.
For much of 2016 he was traveling around the United States reporting on the race for the White House. He has extensively covered the Black Lives Matter movement, the banking crisis, and the impact of changing demographics on America’s culture & economy.
Most recently he was a correspondent for Al Jazeera America, where he traveled the country documenting how economics, business, technology and public policy change lives.
He has contributed reports to Bloomberg TV, the CBS Affiliate News Service and guest anchored the CBS Morning News. Duarte’s research interests include how finance, technology, and immigration issues impact American culture.
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
Michael D. Regan is a Digital Editor for PBS NewsHour.
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