Difficult Histories: Wendel A. White


as preached April 14, 2024

“I turn my camera to the silence.” The photographer Wendel White included those words in the lecture he gave at the Glassell School when he was visiting us a few weeks back. “I turn my camera to the silence.”

Silence has long had a place within religious life. People often come into a sanctuary seeking it. We pray in silence. We sit in silent meditation, trying to calm our minds, experience a deeper connection, and, perhaps, find something of our selves. God, for some, is found in the silence. Great hymns praise it. “Silent night! Holy night!,” we often sing at the turning of the year.

Poets sometimes celebrate it. “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy,” William Shakespeare once told us. Other times they warn us that it contains terror. “I have know the silence of the stars and of the sea, / And the silence of the city when it pauses,” wrote Edgar Lee Masters, describing the horrors in the world in the face of which “we are voiceless” and “cannot speak.”`

Gazing up at the heavens, the philosopher Blaise Pascal, confessed that “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” In the Hebrew scriptures God breaks that silence with the words, “Let there be light.”

The musician John Cage rejected the very possibility of silence. “[T]ry as we may to make a silence, we cannot,” he observed for, as he wrote, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.”

“There is always something to see, something to hear,” Cage. “I turn my camera to the silence,” Wendel White.

Silence, it is my pleasure this morning to break it and share with you a few reflections on our exhibition for this year’s FotoFest, “Difficult Histories: Wendel A. White.” His work invites us into the practice of casting questions into the silence and show that there is no such thing as true silence. He prompts us to question, in the face of stillness: What difficult history, unspoken story, is found in the silence? Where is the sacred in the silence?

What unspoken story lies in the silence? Where is the sacred in the silence? For those that do not know, this is the third time we have served as a participating space for FotoFest. It is a city-wide photography festival. One of the largest in the world, it runs from the beginning of March until late April. It is an opportunity for photographers to come together, share their work, build community, and learn from each other.

We are one of the few religious communities that puts on an exhibition. We are the only one that makes an effort to bring the work of nationally or internationally known artists into our sacred space. This makes us somewhat unique in our engagement in the arts in the city. I hope that it has offered you the opportunity to experience the intersection of art and spirituality in a way that you might not have had otherwise.

There is something about living with art that is different than just going to view it in a museum. And that is what I think we do during FotoFest, we live with art. For eight weeks we meet in a sanctuary, and hold religious education programs in a room, filled with powerful photographs. Viewing the same image over-and-over again–looking at something while you are zoning out during the sermon or milling around after the service–can provide an experience that is distinct from passing an image quickly in a museum.

I see more, see differently, each time I took at the work. And seeing differently, experiencing the world differently, is something that the best of art challenges us to do. Indeed, one of the critical things that art offers us is the opportunity to see or experience the world through the lens of another human being.

“I turn my camera towards the silence,” we have selections from two distinct portfolios here at First Unitarian Universalist. Both are invitations to look and experience the silence in another way. “Red Summer,” here in the sanctuary, bids us into the historic silence of landscapes. “Manifest,” over in the Fireside room, summons us into the sacred silence of objects.

The silence of landscapes, the focus of last month’s Lives of the Spirit programming, Mary Brave Bird offered us reflections on this matter. In her memoir Lakota Woman, she wrote, “Our land itself is a legend… You can’t walk a mile without coming to some family’s sacred vision hill … an old battleground, a place where something worth remembering happened.”

A place where something worth remembering happened, the folksinger and Unitarian Universalist Utah Philips used to say that “the long memory is the most radical idea in America.” In his work, Wendel White asks us to engage with that long memory. He does so through an invocation W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of the “double self.” Do you know what I am talking about?

It comes from the opening pages of his 1903 text The Souls of Black Folk. In one of the most famous passages in this country’s literature, Du Bois describes the African American experience. It is to be born “gifted with second-sight” and “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Wendel White’s photography, as he tells us in an essay about another of his projects, is an invitation to see through this double-consciousness, this twoness, and see what really is, to gaze at, in Du Bois’s words, “a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” It is a challenge to see what is and what has been rather than look away or forget what has occurred.

“Red Summer” looks at the nation’s landscape through the lens of this second sight. In it, Houston’s Memorial Park is transformed from an idyllic site for pleasant strolls, vigorous exercise, lush greenery, still waters, serene trees, blackberry foraging, turtle gazing, boisterous children, quiet contemplation, and urban park life into a space of profound racial violence. It is not just Memorial Park. It is Camp Logan, the location of one of Houston’s great events of racial injustice.

You might know the history. During the summer of 1917, the 24th Infantry regiment of the United States of Army was stationed at Camp Logan. The regiment was all Black. The camp was strictly segregated. It was the height of Jim Crow, a period we might better call American Apartheid. Much of the city’s White population took exception to the presence of armed African American soldiers in the heart of the former Confederacy. Clashes between the soldiers and the city’s all White police department were frequent.

On August 23rd the tensions exploded. Police officers assaulted two soldiers. Rumors circulated that a White mob was approaching the camp. The Army men took their weapons, left their barracks, and prepared to defend themselves. Nineteen people died in the ensuing conflict. In the aftermath, 110 soldiers were court-martialed and convicted. Nineteen of them were executed and more than sixty sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment. The executions were the largest act of mass execution of African Americans in the nation’s history.

This past November, the Army set aside all of the convictions and granted the men posthumous honorable discharges. Army Secretary, Christine Wormuth, admitted that the men “were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” in a statement accompanying the discharges.

But visit Memorial Park and you will find scant mention of this. In a little corner, far from the center of the park or a place you might regularly go, is a sign from the Texas Historical Commission that admits, briefly, that an “armed revolt” occurred there “in response to Houston’s Jim Crow laws and police harassment.” There are a few ambiguous plaques. How are we read Ilona Benda’s words? They run:

Whatever may come
or now be made
of our Camp Logan,
we never can escape the fact
that once upon a time…
the very heart of our nation beat
within this sphere.

Are they a reference to the racial violence that happened there? Do they speak of something else? I do not know.

The other signs in the park that I have found which make mention of Camp Logan do not refer to the horrors connected to the site. Those horrors sit in silence.

Whiteness, the social construction of race, requires such silence. It tries to gag, tries to throttle, the voices which tell the legends of the land of which Mary Brave Bird wrote. It attempts to blind the second sight that Wendel White invokes in his work.

But his photography refuses such erasure. At a time when the Governor of Texas wants to lies, sanitized unreal history, to be taught in classrooms, Wendel calls for a remembering, a seeing, of the actual history of the country. “Red Summer” offers this second sight through the juxtaposition of historic newspaper clippings and what art critic, Renée Reizman, writing of our exhibition, has named “unassuming photographs of parking lots, train stations, and chain link fences.”

An image of Memorial Park is not just a mixture of water, trees, and slick greenery. It is Camp Logan. A nondescript parking lot in East St. Louis is not only a place to put cars or contemplate still blue skies. It is were one of the most disgusting incidents of racial violence in the country’s history occurred. Millen, Georgia is not only home to small country church. It is the place where seven people were killed after Whites incited violence. A lakeshore in Chicago is not just a place to stop on a bike ride and gaze into the calming, rhythmic, waves of the water. It is the spot where Eugene Williams was murdered after he accidentally drifted into a White swimming area. It is the location where two weeks of fighting left almost forty dead and more than a thousand African American families homeless. A crosswalk in Omaha, Nebraska, well you get the idea.

This is the second sight. It is seeing the landscape of the United States for what it is, a site of profound, ongoing, racial violence, rather than a pristine locale. It is a recollection of what the civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson named the “Red Summer” of 1919. It was a period of brutal white supremacist violence and terrorism. It contained dozens of attacks on African Americans and African American communities across the country.

The “Red Summer,” as Wendel White’s work tells us, was not just 1919. It really stretched from 1917 to 1923. In the North, Whites routinely attacked African Americans as they migrated looking for better work. In the South, they targeted Black soldiers who returned home from serving in the Army during World War I.

“Red Summer,” “I turn my camera towards the silence,” the exhibition is asks us to break the silence and recognize what has been done. Rather the erasure of memory, which Whiteness demands, it is a recollection of the true nature of the United States.

What sort of spiritual experience, what sort of connecting with that which resides within each yet is greater than all, might open up for you if you allow yourself to be present to this second sight?

Here we might listen to a snatch of Eve Ewing’s poem “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery stores.” Her words are an invitation to imagine a world free from the violence that Wendel White asks us to recognize. Emmett Till, the victim of a brutal lynching, is alive and well and just minding his business, working at a grocery store like a regular person.

I called out his name
and he spun like a dance, candy bar in hand,
looked at me quizzically for a moment before
remembering my face. he smiled. well
hello young lady

  hello, so chilly today
  should have worn my warm coat like you
  yes so cool for August in Chicago

         how are things going for you

oh he sighed and put the candy on the belt
it goes, it goes

It goes, it goes, it is not an image of anything particularly profound. Just a man, probably elderly, going about his day, making polite banter of the sort that people often make while waiting in line and, well, that is it. Peaceful, alive, free from horror.

In Wendel White’s work, though, the horror is never far away. Let us turn from “Red Summer” to the other body of work we have, “Manifest.” A large selection of it will shortly be on view at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. Our selection is just five images: a lock of Frederick Douglass’s hair; a fragment from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; a manuscript from Zora Neale Hurston; a curtain ring that Harriet Tubman once owned; and a set of slave shackles.

They are ordinary objects, really. Without the captions you might mistake them for trash or clutter. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. But here the second sight invites us into an experience of the sacred. For these are objects are anything but ordinary. They are relics.

Relics are religious objects lifted up for veneration and infused with a sense of the holy. The term relic comes from a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to “leave behind, or abandon.” And they have long been thought of the objects that the saints, the holy ones, have left behind following their earthly sojourns. The exaltation of relics is often understood as an vehicle for getting closer to sacredness of the saints. It is an opportunity to experience something of their holy power.

Looking at strands of Douglass’s hair or a tiny bit of Harriet Tubman’s bathroom we are invited to experience something of their power. If this country has saints, people worthy of emulation and veneration, then Douglass and Tubman count amongst their number. What they have left behind remind us that for all of their extraordinariness they were in some sense ordinary people. Douglass got hair cuts just like anyone else. Tubman took showers. Mortals whose earthly deeds have earned them immortal glory. As long as there are humans with tongues and texts there will be words for Douglass and Tubman. Are the objects they have left behind not sacred objects, items worthy of veneration?

We end this morning’s sermon with an invocation of questions. Art like Wendel White’s is less a matter of definitive statements and more a matter of questions. His work shows us a landscape and asks, “What should be seen here? What should be remembered?” His work shares with us ordinary objects and prompts the query, “What is sacred? What is worthy of worship?” And so, I finish my sermon there, with an invitation, after the service, to go and look and see what you find when you gaze upon images that come from someone who has turned his camera towards the silence. May something stir within you and may you see the world a little differently afterwards.

In the hopes that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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