Reflections on Reflections on The Notion Of Family

 

By Omar H. Ali, Ph.D.

I first saw images of Latoya Ruby Frazier’s riveting book of photographs, The Notion Of Family, in an NPR article about six months ago entitled “A Rust Belt Story Retold…” I wasn’t sure what to make of the images, as they felt a little distant at the time, despite my being familiar–as a historian of black labor and politics–with some of the history of those communities living “in the shadow” of Carnegie steel mills.

And then, this week, after receiving and reading through Latoya’s book, I read the reviews and commentaries by Michelle McCleary and Dr. Jessie Fields, among others, on P4P.

I’m not sure which impacted me more–the book or the commentaries. This is not to detract from Latoya’s truly extraordinary book (few artists capture, which such honest detail, poor people’s lives by poor and working people themselves–making their stories their own). But reading through the snippets of Michelle and Jessie’s lives as part of their reflections made the images in the book feel closer.

You see, I know Michelle and Jessie. They are two of my long-time political colleagues–extraordinary women–who have spent many years building an independent political movement in the United States to empower ordinary people, poor people, the outsiders, the forgotten, the survivors. I don’t know Latoya. But Michelle and Jessie are helping me to better understand her work.

While each of their experiences are different from the other’s, there are similarities in their experiences and the roles that women played in each of their lives–their mom’s, grandmothers, aunts, or great aunts–in helping each of them thrive.

Michelle writes, “I had come to realize that the feelings of pain and shame that I and millions of people experienced were manufactured and NOT in our heads nor were our fault.  Those manufactured feelings were designed to keep us in our place.”

I then see one of Latoya’s photographs …

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier Pg 131, Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier Pg 131, Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007

And I hear (read) Jessie’s words “Ordinary people, though poor and abused are leading and fighting.” Part of that leading is giving expression to the plight of the voiceless, nameless, and unseen–here voiced, named, and seen through new performances.

Thank you, LaToya, for your book of photographs; thank you Michelle and Jessie, for your beautiful, painful, and moving words; thank you, Cathy, for giving us P4P and a space to reflect and support those who “stand in the rubble and fight,” as Jessie poetically writes, as Michelle explains, and as Latoya photographs.

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D., selected as the 2016 Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in North Carolina, is a historian and community organizer who teaches black labor and political history at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail: ohali@uncg.edu 
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Dr. Jessie Fields reviews The Notion Of Family

 

The book, Notion Of Family touched and engaged me deeply in so many ways.

I grew up in the Black working class communities of South and West Philadelphia. Like Latoya Ruby Frazier I was raised by multiple generations of women. From a very early age I lived in the country in New Jersey with a great-grandmother, Cora Sparks who was a midwife. My mother was only 15 when she had her first child, my sister and 17 when I was born. Eventually I was brought to Philadelphia and lived for some years with a “grandmother” we called “mom”, really my great aunt, Adel Chandler, who had taken my mother in when her own mother lost custody of her children due to neglect. Grandparents, great aunts and uncles have often been life savers for young children, offering a level of support and stability that is difficult or impossible for a teenage parent to provide.

Adel Chandler in front of Del's Restaurant Photo by Dr. Jessie Fields

Adel Chandler in front of Del’s Restaurant
Photo by Dr. Jessie Fields

Mom Adel did that for me, she had migrated north from Florida to Philadelphia, part of the Great Migration, and came to own and operate a 24 hour soul food restaurant in the heart of the South Philadelphia Black community. It was she who worked endless hours, employed and fed people in her restaurant and supported the civil rights movement. She brought that spirit of climbing and aspiration of millions of African Americans leaving the south to build a better life.

The relationship between Latoya Ruby Frazier and her mother so beautifully captured in the book made me think especially of my own mother who grew up poor under the most abusive conditions and died in 2012 of metastatic uterine cancer that had spread throughout her body.

It was my mother who pushed me to work hard and it was because of the determination and discipline she and Mom Adel inspired in me that I became a doctor and community organizer.

Jessie and Kay

Jessie and Kay

Photographs in the Notion of Family, such as the photos: page 94, 97 and 106, 110, 111 expose in a very intimate way how the environment of Braddock manifest on the human body, the author’s own and that of members of her family and community.

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier pg 111: Video Stills from Detox Braddock, UPMC, 2011

I practice medicine in the Harlem community where I am very close to the community and to my patients.

Dr. Jessie Fields with patients in Harlem

Dr. Jessie Fields with patients in Harlem

The book speaks of how important Braddock Hospital was in the lives of the people of Braddock, and tells the story of the demise of this hospital, the only medical facility in Braddock. The people of the town fought, but the local political process did not respond to allow the hospital to be saved.

As a doctor and independent I felt proud of how the people of Braddock stood together and strongly protested the closing of their hospital.

 

 

 

image

The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier, pg 78: UPMC Global Corporation, 2011

Ordinary people though poor and abused  are leading and fighting.

I believe hospitals and medical professionals can build partnerships in independent efforts to create innovative programs that help empower communities.

This I dedicate to my mother and all who stand in the rubble and fight.

~Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

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Reader’s Forum-Kathleen Delaney

For our exploration of The Notion of Family, several Politics for the People members have chosen a photo from the book to respond to with thoughts, words, a photo or a poem. Today our next installment is from Kathleen Delaney.

The Notion Of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier pg 15 Grandma Ruby Smoking Pall Malls, 2002

This image of Ruby, caught unposed, surrounded by her dolls and anticipating the pleasure of a cigarette, offers some relief from the brutal images of poverty and hopelessness. Perhaps her strength brought relief at other moments not depicted.

FullSizeRender (3)~Kathleen Delaney is an emergency department physician and educator in Texas and New York City.

 

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Reader’s Forum—Allen Cox

For our exploration of The Notion of Family, several Politics for the People members have chosen a photo from the book to respond to with thoughts, words, a photo or a poem. Today is our third in the series and is from Allen Cox.

The Notion Of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier pg 29; Gramps on His Bed, 2003

I grew up in the projects, South Jamaica Housing  Projects in Queens.  My summers were spent in a working class community in Cincinnati Ohio, where my mother grew up.  I think it was called Evenston. There was a Coca Cola plant nearby that many people in the community worked for. When I went back after many years a highway had been built in front of my grandmother’s house, a place where homes once stood, now gone.

I’m writing about Gramps in his bed. This picture reminded me of my stepgrandfather, who was known as Mr. Friason– my grandmother’s second husband. When I was eight or 10 years old I spent my summer vacations at their home in Cincinnati, Ohio. I look forward to hearing Mr. Friason’s booming voice calling out “Ice Water” Ice Water, to my grandmother from his bed after his early morning ride on his bicycle, to this very day I don’t know where. As a kid I never thought of Mr. Friason’s behavior as strange, he just kept me laughing all the time. His bed seem to be his sanctuary, I never seen him leave it except when he came home from his bike ride and to go to the bathroom. He was always laughing and called kids baba. He used to smack his thighs so hard you could hear the smack from anywhere in the house. I just found out recently that Mr. Friason was very famous, he was one of the few Americans who walked across the United States and he also got honors for fighting in World War II. This is what Gramps in the bed reminds me of and I want thank LaToya Ruby Frazier for bring back these fond memories of Mr. Friason.

 ~Allen Cox
Allen Cox with Dr. Jessie Fields in Harlem on Primary Day.

Allen Cox with Dr. Jessie Fields in Harlem on Primary Day.

Allen Cox is a community organizer and independent activist.  He is a member of the NYC Independence Clubs.

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LaToya Ruby Frazier Makes Moving Pictures | ART21 “New York Close Up”

A Documentary Series on Art and Life in the City

Released February 10, 2012

In this video from New York Close Up, LaToya talks about her collaboration with her mother.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/36565215″>LaToya Ruby Frazier Makes Moving Pictures | ART21 &quot;New York Close Up&quot;</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/art21″>ART21</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

If the video does not appear, click on this link or visit the blog.

From the video, some thoughts from LaToya:

People think that families struggling economically don’t add value to society.  It became about making a family album of images, day to day that defies what I see in the media….”

I was combating stereotypes of someone like my Mother and I who are often depicted in the media in the most dehumanizing was, as poor, worthless or on welfare. We found a way to deal with these types of problems on our own through photographing each other.  I realized it’s important to give the camera to my family and also become the subject of the work….

I’ve always been in the shadow of the steel mill.

 

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Reader’s Forum–Michelle McCleary

For our exploration of The Notion of Family, several Politics for the People members have chosen a photo from the book to respond to with thoughts, words, a photo or a poem. Today our second installment is from Michelle McCleary.

Gallery Image

The Notion Of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier, pg 21: Home on Braddock Avenue, 2007

I felt a familiar wave of depression descend upon my body like warm honey moving through my veins as I perused Latoya Ruby Frazier’s book The Notion of Family.  The somber faces, bodies mangled from neglect and destitute living conditions reminded me so much of my life growing up in Harlem.  The picture in Latoya’s book on page 21 brought back the memories of the destruction of nearly every poor, black and brown community in America.

I remember the early morning when my family had to climb down the fire escape because my building was on fire. I was eight years old.  I can still remember my mother’s sharp shove and anxious command to ‘get up.’  Smoke was rapidly filling up our apartment as firemen came through the door and helped usher my family down the fire escape stairs.  I honestly don’t remember where my family and I stayed until day light but I do remember that I went to school that day.  I remember that I was silent and didn’t tell a teacher nor any of my wealthy classmates what I had experienced that morning.  I was a gifted scholarship student at a private school on the upper east side of Manhattan.  Even at the tender age of eight years old I had already begun to experience the vicious rejection of being poor, black and female in America. I had also begun to learn an ugly truth: You don’t talk about your suffering because no one wants to hear about it and no one really cares.

I moved back to Harlem 18 years ago.  Harlem was still in its pre-gentrification days.  As I walked the streets, tears filled my eyes.  Nearly every building on every block had been deserted, burned down and neglected for decades. I could literally still smell the smoke.   I was no longer a naïve little girl trying to figure out why some people seemed to have everything while others had nothing.   I had spent years reading and learning the lessons of writers who eloquently wrote about the nightmare of the American dream.  I had also spent decades involved in political activism both on the college campus and in poor and wealthy communities around the country.  I had come to realize that the feelings of pain and shame that I and millions of people experienced were manufactured and NOT in our heads nor were our fault.  Those manufactured feelings were designed to keep us in our place.

I recently participated in a march through Harlem with dozens of caring people from all around New York City.  We were marching to protest the New York City Housing Authority’s plan to basically get rid of its poor residents.  I cried tears of anger and pain as we marched and raised our voices in protest.  As we marched and chanted the people who lined the sidewalks chanted with us.  I had the spirit of my mother, a woman who was raised as a sharecropper and never learned to read and write, and millions of women like her with me.  I had the spirit of my father, a black man raised in the midst of vicious southern racism who came to New York alone at the age of sixteen in 1945, like so many other black and poor men, to try to make a life in a world that did not want him.  In the midst of my tears I remembered that ordinary people in America and around the globe had changed the world in big and small ways.  We were marching and chanting in solidarity with the children of Birmingham, Alabama, some as young as five years old, who had faced the viciousness of jails, dogs and fire hoses to say NO MORE!!

One day WE. WILL. WIN.

~Michelle McCleary

photo (3)

 

Michelle McCleary is an independent leader with the NYC Independence Clubs and Independent Voting. She is the President of the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA Association.

 

 

 

 

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Reader’s Forum—Josephine Coskie

For our exploration of The Notion of Family, several Politics for the People members have chosen a photo from the book to respond to with thoughts, words, a photo or a poem.  Josephine Coskie, a member from Long Island kicks off this series with her thoughts on Grandma Ruby and Me.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, pg 59 The Notion Of Family

LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Notion Of Family, pg 59: Grandma Ruby and Me, 2005

 

Remembering My Grandmother

 
Grandmothers are the keepers of tradition.

The 2005 photo of Grandma Ruby sitting on the floor of her living room with the author inspired me to recall fondly the memory of my grandmother.

My family lived in a back apartment of the Brooklyn home of my grandparents. My father, a World War II veteran, was the oldest of five children born to my Italian immigrant grandfather and Brooklyn Irish grandmother.

As the oldest of three children living in that household, I would help my grandmother get the dining room table ready for our traditional Sunday dinners. Memories and activities of childhood stay with us. I realize now that my enjoyment of setting a lovely table originated back then in the 1950’s. After dinner, my visiting aunts and uncles would play several games of poker and I would play my grandmother’s “hand” whenever she went into the kitchen to get more food for the table.

My grandmother loved the holidays and always had a live, tall Christmas tree decorated with old-fashioned ornaments. I recall painstakingly hanging tinsel piece by piece on the numerous branches. At midnight on New Years Eve, she would open the front living room window and bang an old frying pan with a spoon, then go downstairs, open the front door, and “sweep out the old year” with a broom.

She would speak of the old days when there were gaslights along the streets. I was fascinated by her history lessons and my interest in old New York continues to this day.

Frequently, we would travel together to the downtown Brooklyn shopping area, stop for lunch in the dining room of a large department store, and finish the day at Howard Johnson sitting at the counter, enjoying ice cream sodas.

The time spent with my grandmother enriched my life as I believe it was the same experience for Latoya Ruby Frazier. I am grateful this photo helped me relive those wonderful childhood memories of her.

—Josephine Coskie

Josephine Coskie, NIcholas S. Johnson Independent Spirit Award 2013

Josephine Coskie is an independent activist and was the 2013 recipient of the Nicholas S. Johnson Independent Spirit Award given by the NYC Independence clubs to recognize outstanding volunteers.

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PBS Art Beat Looks at The Notion Of Family

PBS NEWSHOUR

ART BEAT

A bird’s-eye portrait of what was once a thriving steel town

BY CORINNE SEGAL  November 16, 2015 at 5:18 PM EST

"Hopper Cars and Railroads along the Monongehela River 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Hopper Cars and Railroads along the Monongehela River 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

Many people have never heard of Braddock, Pennsylvania, an industrial town on the Monongahela River, just a 20-minute drive from Pittsburgh. Just over 2,000 people live there. The town’s defining feature is itself a remnant of outdated industry — Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill, built in 1872.

But photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier‘s work tells a story that weaves Braddock into the social and economic fabric of the U.S. — one that began when Braddock was a thriving mill town and center of culture.

Frazier’s family dates back four generations in Braddock, having arrived there in the early 1900s as part of the Great Migration of more than 6 million African Americans from the South. Braddock was a hub of industry and commerce, with Carnegie’s mill operating in full force and one of his famous libraries serving Braddock since 1888. That was the life her grandmother knew while growing up in the 1930s, Frazier said.

“Some people remember, this is the place that had all the theaters, had all the bars, had all the shopping centers. That’s why people came to Braddock. They came to shop and for entertainment in that period,” she said.

"Railroads and Shipping Containers On the Monongahela River 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Railroads and Shipping Containers On the Monongahela River 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

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,” she said. “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, Frazier said.

“What’s interesting is that 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,” she said.

"The Bunn Family Home." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“The Bunn Family Home.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

For 12 years, Frazier has captured these changes in a series of portraits of the town and her family entitled “The Notion of Family.” But one home, she said, tells a unique part of this story: the Bunn family home, which sits in the neighborhood that residents call “The Bottom” just a block away from where she grew up. The home rests on a lot that used to hold multiple black-owned homes and businesses, including a cleaners and cafe that Frazier’s great-grandmother ran.

Over roughly the past decade, those buildings came down, leaving room for the lot to become a dumping-ground for city construction, according to Isaac Bunn, the third generation of his family to live in the house.

In 2000, Bunn said he filed an application through the Vacant Property Recovery Program to obtain the vacant land adjacent to his home, but described coming up against bureaucratic red tape multiple times, both in Allegheny County and later in Pittsburgh, where he traveled to check the status of the application.

Eventually, the block dwindled, leaving only his house there by 2009. “I’m trying to hold on to the land and gain a voice for the people, but it was very stressful and draining,” he said.

"The Bunn Family Home between Talbot Avenue and Washington Avenue 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“The Bunn Family Home between Talbot Avenue and Washington Avenue 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

For Frazier, the Bunn home is the latest chapter in a history that has disadvantaged people of color in industrial suburbs like Braddock. Bunn said he does not intend to leave the house, where his family has lived since 1949, and founded the Braddock Inclusion Project to organize residents’ input on city policies and development in 2013.

When Bunn — who she described as “extended family” — told her what had happened to the land surrounding his house, she rented a helicopter and photographed aerial views of the home to help raise awareness and resources for the Braddock Inclusion Project.

“I will continue to fight to hold onto the property as a means to preserve my family’s legacy and the history of a once-thriving African American community,” Bunn wrote in an email. “Without any black controlled assets [or] land … the future of Black America is bleak.”

Check out the images below for more aerial views of Braddock and the Bunn home.

"Edgar Thomson Plant and The Bottom 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Edgar Thomson Plant and The Bottom 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

"Braddock Hospital Site 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“Braddock Hospital Site 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

"United States Steel Clairton Coke Works, C.I.T.E. and Monongahela River 2013." Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

“United States Steel Clairton Coke Works, C.I.T.E. and Monongahela River 2013.” Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier

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From Kansas City, MO to Braddock, PA

A Review of The Notion Of Family 

by Natesha Oliver

The Notion of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier, pg 53: Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005

Brightest Blessings To All:
Out of all the books that bring me into the reality of the working class struggle within my own race of people, The Notion of Family is the most honest and transparent view of how Black America, specifically although not exclusively, has suffered indignities in a form of racism that has been to long overlooked and ignored by elected officials charged with ensuring a fair and just economic presence by corporations “investing” in the communities…

Latoya Frazier’s unapologetic photographic depiction of her life takes away ALL excuses that have allowed corporations AND governing bodies to hide the truth of their involvement in the demise of a promised and expected prosperity in African American communities and the generational destruction that it leaves on families trying to cope with the struggle of losing a solid financial foundation within a political culture that already makes it difficult to live beyond impoverished conditions set up by the same Institutions brought in to the community to help…

The fact that Braddock, PA is one of many communities that has had to suffer from a lost of viable economic support that is gained by working is a testament to why HOW we vote is becoming more important than who we vote for.  Whether we vote Democrat or Republican is irrelevant when both parties partake in the systemic corrosion that result in communities murdered…

Whether there is strength to endure or drugs to numb the self defeating results of poverty, there has to be a change in HOW Americans allow the officials we vote in to office to remain bias and short sighted… Not supporting Bill Cosby but what He says, in respect to The Notion Of Family, ” The proof is in the pudding”, or in this case the photo…

To Latoya Ruby Frazier, Stand Strong My Sister, Stand Strong!!!
In Love & Light

Natesha Oliver

Natesha Oliver is from Kansas City, MO and is the founder of Missouri Independents Stand Together (MIST).

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

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With Her Camera, MacArthur ‘Genius’ Tells An African American Rust Belt Story

Below is an NPR interview with LaToya Ruby Fraizer from September 29th, 2015 on All Things Considered.

 

(If the audio does not appear in your email, either come on over to the blog or you can listen to the interview through this link.)

Grandma Ruby on Her Recliner, 2002

Frazier’s grandmother grew up in Braddock in the 1930s and ’40s, when “it was prosperous and a melting pot,” Frazier says. Here is what Frazier shared with NPR host Ari Shapiro about making this photograph:

It was just one of those powerful, stoic, transcending moments. My grandmother Ruby was a woman of very few words, was very serious, didn’t like to talk about the past. … So I’m leaning over her, she’s in her recliner. She really didn’t like me to make photographs, she only cooperated on maybe five or six, and this was one of them. And so it’s a Saturday afternoon where I’m leaning over her with my 35 mm camera and we just pause and she actually looks into the lens, but she’s really looking, gazing through the lens directly at me, almost like she’s transferring some type of history without speaking a word. And as she looks at me intensely with that pensive stare, I clicked the shutter.

The selection of photos below from The Notion of Family were those chosen for viewing on the NPR website alongside the interview.

  • LaToya Ruby Frazier has been taking pictures of her hometown and family for two decades. Pictured here: Huxtables, Mom and Me, 2008.
    LaToya Ruby Frazier has been taking pictures of her hometown and family for two decades. Pictured here: Huxtables, Mom and Me, 2008.
  • Grandma Ruby And Me, 2005.
    Grandma Ruby And Me, 2005.
  • Aunt Midgie And Grandma Ruby, 2007.
    Aunt Midgie And Grandma Ruby, 2007.
  • Gramps On His Bed, 2003.
    Gramps On His Bed, 2003.
  • Grandma Ruby's Installation, 2002.
    Grandma Ruby’s Installation, 2002.
  • Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005.
    Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005.
  • Mom's Friend Mr. Yerby, 2005.
    Mom’s Friend Mr. Yerby, 2005.
  • Momme (Shadow), 2008.
    Momme (Shadow), 2008.
  • Mr. Jim Kidd, 2011.
    Mr. Jim Kidd, 2011.
  • Rally To Protest UPMC East, July 2, 2012.
    Rally To Protest UPMC East, July 2, 2012.
  • United States Steel Mon Valley Works Edgar Thomson Plant, 2013.
    United States Steel Mon Valley Works Edgar Thomson Plant, 2013.
    Courtesy of artist LaToya Ruby Frazier

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

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