As part of our viewing and savoring The Notion of Family Together, several Politics for the People members are selecting a favorite photo and sharing their thoughts about that image. Today we hear from June Hirsh, Rick Robol and Tiani Coleman.
When I first saw the photograph “Mom Holding Mr. Art” I saw sadness, stoicism, hopelessness – defeat. I saw a loss that was palpable to me. Yet I also saw resoluteness and strength. In The Notion Of Family Mr. Art appears more than once. He is part of the fabric of Latoya Ruby Frazier’s life, her mother’s and her family’s life.
Each time I re-visit the photograph, each time I see it, new feelings and thoughts emerge. I see intimacy and love – a strong bond between Mr. Art and Frazier’s mother. Yet this is not an embrace. How “Mom” is holding Mr. Art says to me – I care for you. Somehow I will protect you. We are in this together. There is sustenance here. Frazier’s mother’s expression is sad, it’s resigned; yet it also says to me – we will make it through.
Frazier’s family had migrated from the South and lived in Braddock for 4 generations. They “escaped” along with 6 milion other blacks from the early 1900’s to the early 1960’s from the brutally racist Jim Crow south. They re-settled in Braddock, PA to build a new life. But with the close of the steel mills, life as they knew it – the life that they had built –was ripped away from them.
To quote Frazier,
“Some people remember, Braddock was the place that had all the theaters, had all the bars, had all the shopping centers. That’s why people came here. They came to shop and for entertainment in that period.
The steel mill was the center of the town, and most of its residents worked there and lived in Carnegie-built row homes. That area, the way I see it historically, was the right of passage for black and white steelworkers. At one point we all lived there. But as the steel industry declined in the 1960s and 1970s, the area lost much of its vitality. White residents moved away from Braddock, leaving behind communities of color who were frequently barred from getting loans to buy homes elsewhere.
Through discrimination and racial and systemic oppression, you see how black people were entrapped in that area — through redlining, and not being able to get loans from banks to move to the suburbs, how they were left behind.”
When I see Mr. Art in the photo I chose and in others he is depicted in, I also realize that the look in his eyes and his demeanor bring to my mind and heart my Father, Irving Hirsh. He was a loving man, angry, depressed, sad. He saw himself as a failure because he couldn’t provide more for his family. He had a hidden shame that he shared with me when I was grown about the abuse he experienced from his father, a seemingly pious man, who brutalized him, his mother and his sisters.
Mr. Art and my Father come from very different histories, cultures, races. Yet there are threads – a commonality of
exclusion and persecution and a humanness too – that bind them. My father was a working class Jew, first generation of a family that emigrated from Romania in the early 1900’s to escape the murderous pogroms against Jews. We lived in New York – in Brooklyn. He worked his whole life in the garment district in Manhattan, which produced women’s and men’s blouses and shirts. Long hours – backbreaking work, bending over the massive cutting and pattern making tables in a unionized sweat shop – freezing in the winder – and broiling hot it the summer. One day he brought me to work with him in the factory. We always called it the Place – “Daddy’s at the Place.” He was introducing me to the other workers –some dong similar work, some hauling in fabrics – and women – many women working at the sewing machines. I remember how proud my Father was to introduce all of us to each other. Suddenly his boss plowed into the space and began berating and yelling at him. I have no memory of why or what was said but I knew that my dear Father was so humiliated – devastated. I was frightened and ashamed. We never spoke about it after that. My Father never took me back to the factory.
When my Father was older he studied a lot. He became proud, stronger – less beaten down. He urged me to stand up for what I believe in – to not turn away from injustices. There were times that he talked to me about how blacks and Jews were oppressed people and how both fought back against the terror of oppression. He learned about the great migration of blacks out of the South, how courageously blacks fought and died to abolish slavery – he likened the anti-black murderous acts in the south to pogroms. He showed me how Jews were not cowards who walked meekly into the gas ovens – they were fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and in the face of death fought back in so many other valiant ways – and that blacks and Jews walked and organized side by side during the Civil Rights movement.
I have been an independent political activist, a progressive Jew, for close to 45 years now. I do my best to stand up for what I believe in. Organizing with Cathy Stewart and with many, many others, my commitment is to building community, to creating a more fair and decent world, so that all peoples can live in dignity and to do all that we can to bring an end to poverty. I thank and have a lot of respect for Latoya Ruby Frazier for what she has co-created with her Mother and by using her “camera as a weapon” against injustice. I share a kinship with her, with her family, with her community – with all poor and working people, white and of color who were left behind in Braddock – for people of color, of all nationalities, races, and religions, Jews, Muslims, people who were and are at this very moment being destroyed or left behind in all the Braddock’s in the US and around the world.
June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org.
She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
“Grandma Ruby On Her Bed” (gelatin print, 20” X 24”), 2007, is a striking image of a magnificent woman, Grandma Ruby, in her golden years. The brass bed frames the stunning beauty of this strong, wise, courageous woman who has seen many decades of joy, pain, humor and love. The play of light on her face and body bathes the goodness of her entire being. Pillows, soft sheets and a velveteen pleated bed skirt enthrone Grandma Ruby with regal warmth and comfort. Through it all, she has endured– and is symbol of the strength and hope of her family, of her people and of humanity.
Rick Robol is an attorney and activists for the Independents movement.
He currently serves on the National Electoral Reform Committee of independentvoting.org, as well as Vice President of Independent Ohio.
Feeling profoundly transformed in a short period of time, I honor LaToya Ruby Frazier’s ability to capture through photography and only a few words, a vivid story that paints a compelling declaration – personal, familial, historical, sociocultural and political!
With a book entitled The Notion of Family, I was caught a little off guard as I opened the pages, and the family I was beholding had very little in common with my own. I’m number eight of nine children, where faith, family and community were always interwoven, and we never felt alone or alienated. Though my family’s gender roles were traditional, my father and mother had a genuine, loving, respectful relationship, and my father was fully engaged in our lives. My childhood memories are only positive, bright and joyful. I spent some of my childhood in sheltered, predominantly white communities in Utah, and some of my childhood in Mexico and Colombia. I went to high school in Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, where at least 80% of my graduating class was Hispanic. So while I had interactions with poverty and some minority cultures, my home was always a haven from the storm outside. Though I was accepting of everyone, my young innocence internalized very little of the difficulties that people outside of my home were experiencing.
Going through the book, I focused on the art of the photography, appreciating the exposure I was getting to something different. Grandma Ruby was intriguing, and I was feeling sympathy for LaToya and her family – but I wasn’t really personally connecting or empathizing . . . until everything changed at page 36. When I read the words at the end of page 37, “Day and night, BOC Gases emits an industrial hissing sound that reverberates throughout the borough,” my mind returned to a conversation I recently had with a member of my community.
I’ve spent most of the last year fighting a proposal by Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, to construct a huge, high pressure natural gas pipeline from the fracking fields of PA to Dracut, MA (most likely for overseas export). We found out last December that it was slated to cut right through my neighborhood, with our home in the “incineration zone” if there were to be an accident. It will permanently clear-cut many forested areas; cross numerous rivers, streams, conservation lands and residential properties; and bring in compressor stations and other unsightly noise and pollution-producing facilities that will destroy the beauty, cohesiveness and way of life of numerous communities along its path. It’s been a living nightmare of sorts for all of us impacted; we’ve had to spend all of our excess time researching, writing reports, attending meetings, waving signs, writing letters to the Editor and to public officials, informing other members of the community — doing anything and everything to fight a system that rubber stamps the agenda of the big corporations and gives them the benefit of eminent domain for their profit-making ventures. We can feel so helpless as common citizens against the collusion of big money and elected officials. My street has doctors, lawyers, respected businessmen, renowned scientists and involved members of the community. We got the attention of our Board of Selectmen, and they formed a pipeline task force comprised of many of us, including a member of our conservation commission. We raised such a stink, and understood where the most effective ways to put our energy were, that we were able to make a small change for the better. If we had not gotten involved, the pipeline would have surely torn across our neighborhood and the river behind us and other town conservation land. We haven’t been able to stop the pipeline yet, but we’ve influenced them to move the route enough that it won’t come through our neighborhood or the conservation land, and will be far enough away that we won’t be so deeply and personally impacted by its negative effects.
Yet, back to the conversation with the member of my community. A retiree, she and her husband’s property was directly in the line of fire. The new map now has their property out of the direct route, but they will still be in the “incineration zone,” may likely have a new gas-fired power plant erected by their home, and will be close enough to feel many of the negative effects of the pipeline. Our taskforce had lobbied the company to move the route further away from them as well, but to no avail. My friend said to me, paraphrasing, “We live closer to the industrial area, on the other side of the tracks; we’re not as affluent as your side of town; nobody cares about what happens to us. Now the rest of town will go about their life and let our neighborhood and lives be completely destroyed.” I felt for her, but I had already lost so much of my time, fighting. We did what we could, and it could be worse . . . most of the other towns didn’t even accomplish that much. But when I saw that picture on page 36, and read that line on page 37, “an industrial hissing sound that reverberates throughout the borough,” the whole book took on a personal meaning, and I knew clearly that I have a moral obligation to keep fighting on her behalf, and on behalf of all of the others in neighboring communities.
To me, BOC Gases on page 36 is a symbol of the nature of political change . . . when enough political pressure builds up, change happens, but because it’s done due to pressure and not out of a deeply rooted inner change and moral desire to altruistically improve human lives and create greater equality, the change is really a façade. It may put out a temporary fire, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem, and creates new problems or even greater problems for others, usually those without a voice. We must use our power to bring about real, systemic change that gives everyone a meaningful voice. I thank LaToya Ruby Frazier for what she’s doing, and for influencing me to keep fighting, too.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.
Politics for the People Conference Call
With LaToya Ruby Frazier
Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST
C ALL IN NUMBER