Fred Deese at Work, 1983
Authored by Sarah Jane Kline ’21 in “Who is Included? Black Staff and Study at Davidson College“
last updated 02.09.2021
The notion of access continues to amplify reading Black study into these photographs of Black staff. “Fred Deese at Work” (1983), which pictures custodian and grounds worker Fred Deese in 1983, captivates the eye: shining keys, smiling man, blurred glasses, laid back lean (“Fred Deese at work,” 1983). Initially, I am drawn to the large set of keys that dangle off of Deese’s pants clipped to his hip (“Fred Deese at work,” 1983). The mere weight of a “key” as a tool that grants access to something – a door, a heart, a building, an opportunity – gives Deese a tangible, visible, and viewable amount of control over the spaces of Davidson. Indeed, his multiple keys of access emphasizes the extent to which his access is essential hence his ability to open any door he needs. Burke (2020) notes how even in our current historical moment, “Nonacademic, nonadministrative staff members often are left out of conversations about higher education … But these university workers are the wheels upon which a college runs. They are … in nearly every sense of the word … essential” (para. 6). Being essential to Davidson means likewise being essential to Black study at Davidson, especially considering the fact that Black workers began taking positions outside of physical plant staff including faculty and student admissions roles (DCASC, “Always Part of the Fabric: A Supplement, 1962-present,” n.d.). Consequently, I speculate how Deese’s keys being attached to his physical body signifies the integral connection between his necessity to Davidson and Black study as his tenure and position on campus supports, now in the 1980s, Black students and faculty.
Recognizing Fred Deese as essential to rather than on the periphery of Black study at Davidson brings me to investigate the glasses Deese wears, the window behind him, and the window cleaner he holds as objects for theorizing Black staff as “framing” black study through vision, sight, and imaginative thought (“Fred Deese at work,” 1983). The glass in both Deese’s glasses and the building window are obscured, blurred to the point of smudgy reflection rather than translucence (“Fred Deese at work,” 1983). In taking Deese’s glasses as the literal lenses through which he better sees, or envisions, Davidson college, I question how the reflection of campus appears on his glasses. To the viewer of this photograph, we see a distorted version of reality, a surreal image. In thinking about the image of Davidson Deese sees, I invoke Kelley’s (2002) notion that “the map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes” (p. 2). Thus, this photograph pushes the viewer to imagine that through the surreality portrayed on Deese’s glasses he might imagine through a type of third eye a campus where even though Black employment began to expand from solely janitorial staff, that that Black staff is not forgotten as a resource for supporting and adding to Black study. Burke (2020) quotes Georgetown Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò who says, “‘I don’t see much point in decolonizing a reading list on a campus that is forcing Black people out of their homes,’” Táíwò continues, “‘I don’t even think hiring Black faculty to give more radical discussions at fancy conference centers and ignoring the people who clean up after them is a politics that makes sense…” (A Changing Campus section, para. 4). Perhaps Táíwò’s sentiments ring true for Davidson in 1983 considering the 1984 Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Concerns focused on the experiences of students primarily (DCASC, “Always Part of the Fabric: A Supplement, 1962-present,” n.d.). Consequently, then, if we accept the metaphorical weight of Deese’s glasses, then their frames allude to the ways in which his positionality at Davidson also frames visions of a more expansive Black study on campus that does not privilege students, faculty, and decolonizing reading lists, but involves Black staff as well. Indeed, Deese’s glasses and their frames perhaps help him see through Davidson’s particular lack of “imaginative leaps and bounds” or “imaginative blackness” as Crawley (2018) suggests (p. 215).
To return to the glass in the photograph, the surreal image on Deese’s glasses connects to the window he stands in front of (“Fred Deese at work,” 1983). Student Thurston Hatcher titles his op-ed in The Davidsonian from March of 1983: “Fred Deese Sweeps Memories…” in which he quotes Deese: “‘Twenty-three years on a job gives a man a lot of time to think about a lot of things while he dusts and sweeps’” (Hatcher, 1983, p. 14). This quotation bridges the gap between my analysis of Deese as contemplative and his actual proclivity to think on the job. In the window behind Deese, there is a similar reflective landscape to his glasses, framed by the white wooden panels that obscure a full picture (“Fred Deese at work,” 1983). Recognizing that Deese spends most of his time thinking while on the job, if we conceptualize the glass window as an extension of Deese’s glasses, then two things become clearer: the window acts as a barrier layer which is fragmented by large white frames. These white frames, different from the frames of Deese’s glasses, are built by Davidson and solidify the window-as-barrier and fragment the vision/image/reflection of Deese that the window might show. Thus, like Deese’s glasses that help him see clearer, and envision clearer, the value of the window cleaner Deese holds becomes evident; He could wash and clean the windows as much as possible in an attempt to better view his reflection and vision – to make the image clearer, to remove the stains. However, so long as the white frames divide the picture, that is the imagined Black study that reflects Deese in the center, remains distorted, stained, and fragmented by white structures. He turns away from the window, from Davidson’s building, and places his visions elsewhere (“Fred Deese at work,” 1983). Hatcher (1983) writes of Deese, “That’s Fred Deese. He cleans up the Union,” but I contend through this photograph and his work in a predominately white working environment, Hatcher’s description necessitates a correction: That’s Fred Deese. Thinker (p. 4).