I recently assigned bell hooks’ essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” from her 1995 collection Art on my Mind: Visual Politics, to my academic writing class. The essay is about “the place of the visual in black life—the importance of photography,” particularly the family portraits and snapshots that adorned the walls of African-American homes before racial integration. hooks believes these images offered a way for black people to see themselves differently “than the dominant culture” and that they were “a critical intervention, a disruption of white control over black images.”
It’s a really interesting essay. My students weren’t crazy about it, but it prompted a good discussion. hooks frames her essays with stories of her personal relationship to photography, which enriches and complicates her argument. It’s her personal story that I want to talk about. She begins by describing finding a powerful snapshot of her father that her sister “possessed”—a picture hooks had never even seen until she found it displayed in her sister’s house.
“In this snapshot,” she writes, “he is standing by a pool table. The look on his face is confident, seductive cool—a look we rarely saw growing up…There is such boldness, such fierce openness in the way he faces the camera. This snapshot was taken before marriage, before us, his seven children, before our presence in his life forced him to leave behind the carefree masculine identity this pose conveys.”
hooks was fascinated by the photo, and, in a sense, seduced by the intimacy it seemed to offer. She says, “Standing before this snapshot, I come closer to the cold, distant, dark man who is my father, closer than I can ever come in real life. Not always able to love him there, I am sure I can love this version of him…” Later she adds, “I want to rescue and preserve this image of our father, not let it be forgotten. It allows me to understand him, provides a way for me to know him that makes it possible to love him again, despite all the other images, the ones that stand in the way of love.”
Finding old photographs of your parents, especially ones that are B.Y—before you—can be exhilarating. It’s probably some sort of rite of passage, and probably one that gets a lot of page time in memoirs. I haven’t read enough memoirs to know, though I’m trying to change that. (I just read Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. Amazing and brutal. I can’t remember if there’s a “picture scene” in it.)
I assume most people who are close to their parents have more delightful experiences when looking at old photos. Look how awesome/terrible mom dressed! Look at dad’s beard! Etc., etc. But when you’re not close to your parents, it’s easy to become confused when you see a side of them in a photo that seems impossible given your experience. And while I admire hooks for being open to what is essentially a new relationship with her father, I’m struggling to do the same.
When I first started this project I wanted to get to know my parents, maybe even find a way to miss them. I’ve definitely lost sight of that goal at times, but it’s supposed to remain a sort of North Star. And I am getting to know my parents, learning things about them I knew nothing about. Their correspondences, to each other and to friends, have affected me far more than the photographs I’ve found. My father’s eloquent, loving letters to my mother reveal a side of him that I never could have imagined. I’m so happy to have these letters, but really, they’re also kind of a mind fuck.
The problem is, knowing my parents in this new way requires a tectonic mental shift—and it’s one I’ve been resisting. hooks makes it sound easy and tidy, but I’m sure it wasn’t, and I find myself intimidated by her grace. It’s one thing to appreciate a new “version” of a parent, and it’s another to be able to love it. Love is…such a strong word.
What is the correct or “true” version of a parent? Is it the one you experienced for years, one that you can substantiate with personal experience (which could be considered evidence) or is it the photograph or the letter that upends it all? The fact hooks would allow these versions to exist together, or have one to replace the other, shows that she invites another version, right? If you’re not inviting, does that mean you’re denying the truth?
It’s hard for me to let go of my original ideas about my parents. The letters my father wrote my mom are amazing, but also creepy and overdramatic—and not just because it’s gross to think of my parents in certain ways. I read dominance and insecurity into his longing for my mother. I wonder if I am seeing shades of his controlling nature. I wonder if my mother was in Europe not to learn German, but to get away from him.
Similarly, when I see pictures of my parents where they seem in love, I wonder if either of them are faking it (particularly my mother). Are they smiling but thinking, “What the hell am I doing?”
I second-guess all of these documents because so much of my experience contradicts it. But what’s the point of examining all of these artifacts if I’m not willing to believe what I find in them? hooks talks about letting the newly discovered image of her father replace the images of him that stand in the way of love. I’m trying to let these new images of my parents replace the ones that stand in the way of my grief, because I consider a lack of grief to be a lack of love. I wonder if it was hard for hooks to love her father again. It’s certainly hard for me to grieve for my parents, even though I’m chasing a desire to do so. I don’t want to love or grieve a version of them that’s basically my own fabrication. Is it really possible, or wise, to let the things I didn’t know about them, or images I never had, overshadow the ones I did? That seems like a form of magical thinking to me, one that’s seductive, but also a little dangerous.
Although I started this blog to figure out who my parents were, I quickly found another goal. Once I realized that my parents might have been “different” once, I’ve wanted to figure out why they changed. Everything I’ve discovered seems to point to my brother dying when he was 10 months old, two years before I was born. Sorry if you want to shout “duh,” but I really didn’t understand how that could permanently throw their marriage off the rails if they already had one child and then successfully had another. (Shows what I know about relationships, children, life). Because I didn’t understand how that could happen, I assumed things had never been very good; that my parents were always the people I’d known. Even when they were alive there was plenty of information to contradict my verdict of their unhappiness: my friends’ affection for my mother, my father’s sense of humor, their travels and photographs, their interesting friends.
Maybe the biggest thing to take away from this is that you can never know your parents, alive or dead. I don’t think children have the capacity, or the distance. That doesn’t mean our version of our parents is wrong, but it’s certainly not complete. We can’t know our parents because when they’re fulfilling their duties as parents they are playing a role. They have to tell us what to do, worry about us, try to protect us—it’s hard for some of them to stop, even when we’re old enough to take over the responsibilities ourselves.