CHICAGO — I’m able to make out a picket fence, a porch, a bramble grove, a tree with all its leaves, a river, a path. There are muted highlights, but everything is a shade of darkness. The black and white photographs I am looking at in the Art Institute of Chicago that are all created around Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, are meant to represent the stations, the properties and areas said to have constituted stops along the Underground Railroad. They register as the visual records of someone able to see at night with a cat’s sight. But people generally don’t. The darkness must have been darker than how it is represented here. I suppose some runaway slaves would have been lost on the way, stumbling on animals endowed with teeth and venom, claw and night sight. Still, they ran away, because the circumstance they were leaving behind was so annihilating, they welcomed the risk.
There are two basic sleights of hand underlying this series of photographs by Dawoud Bey: one, that the landscape might have appeared like this to one fleeing a former master by way of the Underground Railroad in the well of night. I think of how I negotiate my own living space in the dark trying to find my way through the kitchen to the bathroom, and though this space is my own, I still sometimes get it painfully wrong. The second trick is that these are not really images of the territory that was traversed by escaping slaves. It’s an approximation made by Bey who wants to evoke that clandestine, dangerous, almost mystical journey undertaken by US slaves who were using the hooded cape of night to steal back their selves from someone who had no right to claim ownership of that self in the first place. This is all imagined. But the act of escaping one’s enslavement is also an act of imagination — to envision what it might be like to not live in fear, to presuppose having one’s will have meaning in the world.
Bey’s invented images of that passage, expressed in huge, engulfing, exquisitely made black-and-white prints for the exhibition Night Coming Tenderly, Black mean to alter the ways the viewer might think about the night. Most viewers will likely know the night — how it conceals acts of appalling violence, provides a space to work out carnal desire, is the means for escape. Bey makes it apparent that the night is all these things in one: a membrane a person might run, walk, or crawl through, to get to some other side.
One can read this journey as a narrative. Outside the exhibition proper there is a wall with several other artists in the Art Institute’s collection that Bey has gathered to give his own work scope and context, and perhaps a sense of story. I recognize that some of these images might represent the before: images of a slave’s back, gnarled and branched with scar tissue used in the work of Carrie Mae Weems. And there are several that might constitute the after: There is a photograph of Frederick Douglass, a man who became a public intellectual and world traveler and came to exemplify the promise of all Black people who escaped bondage. There is an image by Danny Lyon of another civil rights warrior, John Lewis, kneeling and praying in protest at a segregated pool in Cairo, Illinois. It occurs to me that an image of a Black man peering out of a partially lifted up manhole cover (which has been used for the cover of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) can signify Black people who are emancipated legally, but still marginalized socially. There is also an image of a lynched body hanging from a tree. That too, occurred with barbaric frequency after Black people won their liberation. Finally, there is an image of three figures on a bucolic road the winds into the distance through a middle-class housing subdivision, manicured and serene. That too is what Black folks have hoped for and worked toward as we pick our way through various kinds of night.
The subtle supposition of Night Coming Tenderly is also that the night won’t go on forever, that the runaway slave will reach the dawn in a new place. Night will come to an end. Then the work of reinventing the self will begin again, having had its start in thoughts of the dawn one has to believe would come. Dawoud Bey, born David Edward Smikle, knows this intimately. What gives us a new day — if these days come at all — is the real, felt potential of finding what exists in ourselves to do and be, and having the opportunity to make that self known in the world.