Introduction by Anonymous
The phrase “the Davidson bubble” is a ubiquitous description of life at this small liberal arts college in the Deep South, a few miles outside of Charlotte, NC. Davidson College, a historically white, historically male institution founded by Presbyterians in 1837, first integrated in the late 1960s, and has been very slowly diversifying its faculty and student body ever since. With the creation of the Davidson College Africana Studies Department and the founding of the Commission on Race and Slavery in the early twenty-first century, Black students, faculty, and staff at the institution have called for a reckoning with Davidson College’s social, racial, and historical identity, and the anti-Black actions that the College has taken to forge it (Mellin, 2020).
This paper attempts to enter this discussion through images. Davidson is deeply invested in its own image, and in the story that pictures of hammocking students, engaging lab sessions, and brilliant falling leaves tell (@davidsoncollege, 2020). In this essay, I draw heavily on the work of HD Mellin, whose senior thesis “Beneath The Bricks” (2020) discusses Davidson College’s active and ongoing support of white supremacy and settler colonialism. Mellin uses the term “Davidson canon” to describe a series of books from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries written about the College by white employees and their family members. Works in the Davidson canon operate extra-institutionally –outside the Office of College Communications– to advance the College’s narrative of itself, a narrative of exceptionalism and social progress (Mellin, 2020.) In this story, as reflected in the College’s mission statement, Davidson thinks of itself as an incubator to create educated, well-rounded scholars “prepared for lives of leadership and service.” This narrative proposes that the College’s positive contribution to the world comes in the form of liberal-arts-educated young people, whom the College’s Presbyterian founders imagined to be white, wealthy, slave-owning men (Mellin, 2020.)
The College does not, however, see itself as part of the local community, which isn’t to say that the College does have a hand in what happens in Davidson, Cornelius, and Mooresville. Instead, the College considers its setting to be an amenity that it provides to students. Prospective students should look forward to the small-town charm of Main Street. Students can participate in Service Odyssey or another “experience” offered by the Center for Civic Engagement, excursions designed to enrich students’ understanding of social issues, as well as their resumes as future well-rounded professionals. During an election year, students are encouraged to vote locally, to learn about political engagement in a protected, interactive setting. The College’s “holistic” approach to learning –educating the whole person– involves treating the surrounding people and land as sites of learning/knowledge acquisition, without considering itself as an actor in the community, whose actions have histories and consequences.
Before there were Black students enrolled at Davidson, and before the creation of the Ethnic Studies concentration and the Africana Studies Department, there were Black people living, writing, thinking, and building community in this place. In what ways did Black townspeople and employees of the College practice Black study, of and against the institution? What do photographs from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries tell us about both personal and institutional self-making? And what can we learn from, or ask about, how Black women and families attended to questions of historical memory, assessed and subverted regimes of power, and built structures of knowledge and care in service of liberation?
Methodology by Anonymous
This essay examines photographs of Black townspeople and employees from the mid-twentieth century, late twentieth century, and early twenty-first century. In Davidson history, this time period covers the Civil Rights movement, the end of de jure Jim Crow, gentrification in West Davidson, the political rise of neoliberalism locally and nationally, and the racial subject-formation of the College in an “integrated society” leading to the establishment of the Africana Studies Department and the Commission on Race and Slavery. The essay follows themes, observations, and historical contours, as opposed to moving chronologically.
In thinking about photographic analysis and media studies, I am indebted to Black femme scholars who have pushed the boundaries of media studies. In In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe (2016) applies critical race theory and cultural studies to the photograph of a young girl, gesturing at the turbulent crosscurrents of racial capitalism and media studies. Leigh Raiford’s Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the Black Freedom Struggle (2011) attends not only to the composition of photographs, but to the conditions of their creation, dissemination, and circulation. As Black study is so fundamentally interdisciplinary, there are several angles from which to approach an image.
This essay barely scratches the surface of the images collected here. Given the time and resource constraints of a compressed semester in the midst of a pandemic, there are depths of information that I don’t even know how to plumb. I have not been able to speak with any of the subjects of my photos. I have not done extensive archival research, in the way that HD Mellin did in their thesis, Beneath the Bricks, or in the way that Maggie Smith did, in their scrapbook spanning decades. As a white student, who did not grow up in Northern Mecklenburg County, I am writing about a community of which I am not a part. I cannot and will not pretend that I “understand” these pictures, or that the stories I gesture at here are complete or mine to tell. Instead, I put together theory, analysis, and historical context that change how we might think about this institution and its relationship to Black people, whether in a historical, social-scientific, cultural, or theoretical dimension.
The research process has sharpened my own ability to parse stories from fiction, fact from truth, and inclusion and representation from justice and accountability. In the end, I hope the theory, photos, and historical information that I have combined here help us (people connected to Davidson College by place and space) to ask harder questions and forgo easy answers.