In one of the many photographs that Johanne Rahaman took in Perrine, Florida as part of her Black Florida series, a woman gazes into the distance, bedecked in a blue, green, and red dress. Parts of it are so fluorescent they seem lit from within; the woman holds a certificate from her alma mater, Hastings Colored Vocational Training School. There’s something subtly regal about the shot: the woman’s steady gaze, the marble coffee table at her side, the plush red chair she’s sitting on.
In one image alone, Rahaman captures both the history of segregation and the day-to-day experience of someone who lived through it, a stately woman who appears throughout the series, speaking and gesturing with her hands. The woman’s name is Jean Townsend, born in Hastings, Florida; she moved in 1960 to Perrine and has lived there ever since. She’s one of hundreds of subjects Rahaman has photographed for the Black Florida archive. In an email, Rahaman told Hyperallergic that Townsend often reminisces about Overtown in its “Harlem of the South” heyday.
“The histories of Black communities in the United States have been undervalued, suppressed, erased throughout time,” Rahaman said. Each series in the archive centers on a different neighborhood and community; they are uploaded to her website, where viewers can peruse them at length. She retraces these narratives visually, building on what’s been lost.
“My intention in Black Florida is to explore the personal histories like a genealogy chart,” she said. “This is done solely through memory, as the African Diaspora, having been robbed of definitive histories, depends mainly on narratives passed down through oral histories.” Black Florida has been profiled and lauded by NPR, Vogue Magazine, Oxford American, and The New Yorker; before it was even given a name, the archive became part of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Rahaman grew up in Trinidad and lives in Miami, and she’s photographed the daily life of black Florida residents for the past five years, spending her weekends traveling to various cities around the state. Much of her online archive includes information about some of these neighborhoods — the black histories of places like Coconut Grove, Eatonville, and Perrine. Many of the neighborhoods in Black Florida have distinctly black histories: Perrine, once incorporated, elected a black mayor (the all-white city council then moved to dissolve the city), and Eatonville was one of the first self-governing all-black municipalities in the country.
The images are at once empathetically composed and spontaneously off-the-cuff, like family photos snapped during conversations or meals. Many are taken in the late afternoon, between outdoor activities and dinner, when Florida glows with a special light. A boy in Pahokee gets his hair buzzed in front of a tangerine building. The gold uniforms of a Brownsville, Miami high-school color guard team become jewels under the sun.
Subjects go to church, ride scooters, throw their head back in laughter, chat. If the photos seem candid, it’s because most of them are. Even when Rahaman doesn’t know her subjects, she feels like she does. “There’s more home in the spaces I enter than my own living space,” she said. “I assume the role of observer in places outside of Blackness. Blackness is my comfort zone.”
Rahaman is often granted access by the subjects themselves, who reach out after learning about Black Florida. “This is a valuable indication that people are accepting the importance and urgency of the work of recording memory,” she noted. Florida is a many-headed beast, postcard-beautiful but also politically corrupt; so much of its dense tapestry is made up of black and brown stories.
The gaze is always intimate, but not voyeuristic. It reveals a sublime normalcy more typically afforded to white folks: bicycles, snacks, bibles, family outings, the pause before a woman puts away her groceries. In their composition, many of the images seem like Norman Rockwell paintings.
Some subjects, one guesses, have been here a long while, going to church, celebrating milestones, visiting the barber, giving birth to children. “Black communities have historically been on the receiving end of voyeurism,” she said. Here, in Black Florida, they’re not objects, but flesh-and-blood, brimming with their own experience. Rahaman’s subjects, she said, “are allies and collaborators in the process of creating the work.”