“Raking Autumn Leaves,” (n.d.)
Authored by Sarah Jane Kline ’21 in “Who is Included? Black Staff and Study at Davidson College“
last updated 02.09.2021
As with the photograph “Fred Deese at Work” (1983), there is always a risk in extrapolating stories out of images, particularly those which necessitate a degree of imaginative thought. The way in which I attempt to read Black study into photography of Black staff at Davidson, often necessitates a certain contextualization to bridge the gap between image and time; there are some photographs for which the dates are unknown. “Raking Autumn Leaves” (n.d.) depicts an unknown Black grounds worker raking leaves at an unknown time. As a result, I am drawn to enquire: Who is he? What year is this? Why a rake and not a leaf blower? What came before? What came after? How old is he? Has he always worked at Davidson? How is he connected to Black study? What if there was no campus building (“Raking Autumn leaves,” n.d.)? Does he have a family? Part of my previous theorizing includes the extent to which Black staff workers are physically and peripherally excluded from academia at Davidson but are nevertheless involved in Black study themselves as learners and thinkers but also as sites for knowledge production. Therefore, in “Raking Autumn Leaves” (n.d.), I attempt to put into practice the type of annotative work Sharpe (2016) reminds us “might open this image out into a life, however precarious, that was always there” (p. 120).
What came before for this man? What if the building was not in the background? There is something to say for an image of a Black man working the land on a large piece of property with a history of slavery. In 1861, Davidson required that its enslaved “College Servants” be “employed to improve the College grounds every evening” (“Faculty Minutes,” 1861, p. 213). The labor present in “Raking Autumn Leaves” (n.d.) compounded with a conceptual removal of the college building in the background appears eerily similar to the labor present in historical images of those enslaved persons depicted in images of slavery take, for example, “In the cotton field.”
While there are many differences between the two images (the time periods, the job, the clothing, and the company), the similarities between these two images remain (the hat to block out the weather, the outdoor location, the labor, and the tools given to workers to aid their jobs) (“Raking Autumn leaves,” n.d.; Stephens, 1863). Indeed, the reproducibility of the relationship between “Raking Autumn Leaves” (n.d.) and the images of slavery via the simple act of taking this photograph of an everyday task for Black staff, invokes Wilderson’s (2020) notion that “Slavery is a relational dynamic – not an event and certainly not a place in space like the South” (p. 228). Connecting slavery as a “relational dynamic” to Sharpe’s (2016) reckoning with current “quotidian … insistent Black exclusion” as a conceptual frame for understanding the way in which perhaps the everyday life of a Black grounds worker was one of reckoning with the fact that, as Wilderson (2020) theorizes, “Blackness is coterminous with slaveness” (Sharpe, 2016, p. 14; Wilderson, 2020, pp. 225-226). What is at stake in reading “Raking Autumn Leaves” (n.d.) as a narrative, as a memoir, as another medium other than a photograph? What is gained? I cannot presume to make assumptions about the literal lived experience of the man pictured in the photograph, other than the things that I do know; this man, nor likely his children, would have easily been able to go inside that college building to learn. Consequently, the affect of this photograph cannot go ignored; the loneliness, the isolation, the exclusion, the desire to tap him on the shoulder and play together in the leaves types of feelings. With these feelings however follows the immediate and aversive feelings of the reproduced images of slavery, also felt from this photograph. This allusion of affect comes at the hands of Davidson that excludes Black staff from campus life and potentially excluded this particular man from Black study as a person worth knowing and studying – an essential physical person and body to the operation of the college (“Raking Autumn leaves,” n.d.). Rather, now, Davidson takes his labor as a process of beautifying the campus grounds for the betterment of its brand’s aesthetic capital and likewise reproduces the photograph on Twitter for the social capital gained from the seasonal aesthetic of this man’s photograph:
(Davidson Archives [@DavdisonArchive], 2020).
There is more to this photograph than merely the photograph itself raising serious questions about the ethical practice of reproducing images such as these, but that is for another project.