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All I Am Is You: Unveiling Black Women Hidden in Plain Sight

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In the gravid quiet of a library reading room, Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown uncovered hundreds of Black women. Their photographs, dated across the first thirty years of the 20th century, are filed in boxes containing Johns Hopkins University’s substantial collection of African American real photo postcards. In the case of most, the postcard back is left blank—rendering the women’s identities unknown.

They are cataloged according to general details: Rural Life, Woman with Child, Woman on Porch. Yet the faces in the photographs are far from general and they captivated de la Brown. She was struck by the sense of familiarity she felt to some, a connection beyond explanation. With others, it was their beauty that compelled her—how one adorned herself, how another displayed her hair. Each held her own distinct presence, whether posing before stark, studio-like backgrounds, or framed among the landscapes of their homes and communities.

Real photo postcards became a widely popular form of photography following the 1903 invention of The Model 3A Folding Pocket Kodak which produced them. The camera was relatively inexpensive for families to own and so captured intimate and one-of-a-kind glimpses of American life across all social spheres at the turn of the century. More than a hundred years later, the Black women de la Brown found in the archives are vivid within the details of their place and time. Yet they are complete mysteries. “I don’t know their names,” she says. “I don’t know their stories, but I see myself in them.”

 

Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown in the George Peabody Library
I don’t know their names. I don’t know their stories, but I see myself in them.
Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown

De la Brown, an interdisciplinary, experiential artist and chamána (shaman), has spent this year as one of two inaugural Public Humanities Fellows at the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center—part of the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries & University Museums. (Hoesy Corona is the other. Corona will focus on expanding the Latinx collection and “mobilizing and remixing” what queer and Latinx materials currently exist.)

The fellowship, launched by Tabb Center Director Joseph Plaster, invites artists who are not otherwise affiliated with Hopkins into the university’s special collections and archives. Their directive: to creatively reinterpret and add to the collections.

Beyond books and periodicals, the Sheridan Libraries offer a substantial variety of materials. In addition to the real photo postcards, de la Brown explored collections related to jazz singers Billie Holiday and Ethel Ennis, both born and raised in Baltimore. “I could touch objects Billie had touched,” she says. She found a photograph of Holiday at the age of four and a grocery list she had written on a small slip of paper, preparing to entertain friends for a holiday party. “I can identify with that, nourishing people through food. Thinking of Billie not just as an artist but as a woman, moved me.”

Ethel Ennis, who unlike Holiday spent the majority of her life in Baltimore, opened a cabaret and community space with her husband, Earl Arnett—which they called, Ethel’s Place. Just before Ennis passed away in 2019, the Sheridan Libraries acquired the couple’s archives, including VHS tapes of her performances, handwritten sheet music, historic photos, and ephemera from Ethel’s Place, among them a Baltimore Monopoly board game a friend had made for her.

“Ethel teaches me about boundaries,” de la Brown reflects. “She wanted a different path than Billie. After she recorded, she returned to her husband and kids. She came home. Two women chose two different ways to do it. For them it was music. For me, it’s experiential art.”

“Intellectually, artists pull from such a different place than a mathematician or a scientist might pull from. Even a historian,” says Tonika Berkley, Africana Archivist at the Sheridan Libraries. “For example, with the photo of Billie as a child, Nicoletta focused on her affinity to her and that was the connection she was able to establish. She brought in a photo of herself at the same age. And the style of the dress she was wearing was somewhat similar to the one Billie wore… That inspired her.”

In the first phase of de la Brown’s residency, Berkley guided her through the process of being in an archive, showed her how to touch the materials, and, in biweekly debriefings, provided company as de la Brown reflected.

“Tonika took such beautiful care of me as a person, in the same way she cared for the objects,” de la Brown says. “I could talk to her when things got tough, especially about Billie. It was scary working with such a big institution. I wondered, are they going to get it? Do I have to reduce down? But I didn’t. Because I had Tonika guarding the gate. She reminded me I could stay in my Blackness. ‘Stay you. We will adjust.’”

Berkley is also co-director of the Community Archives Program, a partnership between the Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts at Hopkins and the University of Baltimore’s Special Collections and Archives. Her work processing and preserving the university’s Africana collections is supported by Inheritance Baltimore, JHU’s Mellon-funded restorative justice initiative for humanities education and arts-based public engagement with Black Baltimore.

 

Left to right, childhood portraits of Billie Holiday, Ethel Ennis, and Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown in the artist's studio.
Nicoletta’s work with Tonika to interpret new acquisitions centering Black women is so exciting and will present a completely new lens on our collections.
Joseph Plaster

“Nicoletta’s work with Tonika to interpret new acquisitions centering Black women is so exciting and will present a completely new lens on our collections,” says Plaster. The Public Humanities Fellows Program is an extension of Plaster’s wider effort to bridge the divide between JHU and larger Baltimore.

Plaster advocates that opening the collections—inviting artists and historically underrepresented communities to take up space in the Libraries with an intention toward racial, sexual, and gender justice—creates the opportunity to co-produce new forms of knowledge. The Public Humanities Fellows, for example, will ultimately transform and enrich the university’s collections by adding to the archives in addition to interpreting them.

This fall, after working months in her studio, de la Brown is responding to what she uncovered in the archives with a public art installation in the George Peabody Library called Be(longing): Unveiling the Imprint of Black Women Hidden in Plain Sight. Central to this work, which de la Brown periodically “activates” through performance, are two garments she created. The first, made of organza and chiffon, is adorned with the images of several women from the African American real photo postcard collection. It is whimsical, celebratory, and defies invisibility.

“Think of a wedding. Think of a christening. Think of a quinceañera. Think of a debutante…” de la Brown describes. “That’s what the garment embodies. It’s that moment of feeling very special.”

The second garment is sized for a child. De la Brown created it in acknowledgment of the many photographs of Black children she found in the collections. She wondered, “Who was your mom? Who is your auntie? Who is your grandma? Who is your dear? I couldn’t leave them in the archive… The little ones need tender protection. They need to be cared for and loved on.” This is the spirit with which de la Brown brings “the young images of us” as well as Black women out of their boxes. Centering them in the Peabody Library, Be(longing) invites the city to see them, engage with them, and “love on” them too. 

 

Child's garment imprinted with images from the Johns Hopkins University’s collection of African American real photo postcards in de la Brown's studio.
Garment imprinted with images from the Johns Hopkins University’s collection of African American real photo postcards in de la Brown's studio.
Garment imprinted with images from the Johns Hopkins University’s collection of African American real photo postcards in de la Brown's studio.

De la Brown’s installation coincides with the Sheridan Libraries’ retrospective exhibit, Ethel’s Place: Celebrating Ethel Ennis, Baltimore’s First Lady of Jazz, organized in partnership with the Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts. Curated by Raynetta Wiggins-Jackson, Curatorial Fellow for Africana Collections, the exhibition uses Ennis’ own materials to tell her story. On view through March 31 in the Peabody Library’s exhibit gallery, Ethel’s Place brings visibility to the musician’s life, talent, and cultural contributions to Baltimore.

Installation view of Ethel’s Place, curated by Raynetta Wiggins-Jackson

Historically, materials reflecting Black American life and Black Baltimore have been treated with less institutional care, much of it lost before ever reaching an archive or library collection. Just as both of these events at the Peabody bring a broader awareness to the Black women in the Sheridan archives, they should also call our attention to the living Black women, like Tonika Berkley and Raynetta Wiggins-Jackson, who have dedicated themselves to the meticulous work of expanding, protecting, organizing, and sharing the Africana collections at JHU so they can be made increasingly accessible to students, researchers, artists, and Baltimore at large.

As for the future of the Public Humanities Fellows Program, Plaster hopes it can become an ongoing opportunity for artists. This first year was a trial run and, promisingly, its success has led to an extension of de la Brown’s fellowship for a second year. Her work at JHU has relied on, and will continue to evolve through, collaboration—just as sustaining it will require a network of support on the part of the university. Coalescing, even for a common good, is no small task within such far-reaching institutions. But it is because of this reach that the results can be tremendously impactful. The archives at the heart of the Sheridan Libraries remind us that collaboration can, and at its best should, include past and future generations as well. Those who may not share our time, those whose names we may never know, are waiting to be unveiled. 

 

Be(longing): Unveiling the Imprint of Black Women Hidden in Plain Sight is on view through December 1, 2023, days and times vary. Ethel’s Place: Celebrating Ethel Ennis, Baltimore’s First Lady of Jazz is on view  through March 31, 2024. Both exhibitions are free and open to the public at the George Peabody Library, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore. www.library.jhu.edu/exhibitions  

Author’s Note: This essay borrows its title from the Ethel Ennis song, “All I Am Is You,” released in 1958.

Photographs of artwork courtesy of Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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