“Marjorie Torrence Cooks”, 1985
Authored by Sarah Jane Kline ’21 in “Who is Included? Black Staff and Study at Davidson College“
last updated 02.09.2021
As seen in “Raking Autumn Leaves” (n.d.), it is possible for photographs and images to connect through a “dominant” image or representation, so in “Marjorie Torrence Cooks” (1985), I proceed with extreme grace and caution considering the limitations of my own identity in extrapolating a narrative from the first photograph in my archive of a Black woman/femme, Marjorie Torrence (“Marjorie Torrence cooks,” 1985). “Controlling images of Black womanhood take on special meaning,” writes Hill Collins (1998), “because the authority to define these symbols is a major instrument of power” (p. 346). Therefore, I proceed with caution and rely heavily on Black feminist scholars to support my analysis that Torrence, as Black staff member at Davidson, is subject to this controlling stereotypical image even though her existence and role on Davidson’s campus, and in Black study, is one of necessity. The chef hat and apron Torrence wears makes her role evidently clear; Torrence was working in the kitchen, and in this moment, was stirring something in that big metal pot (“Marjorie Torrence cooks,” 1985). Because of the position of Torrence in the kitchen, donned in hat and apron, this photograph is reminiscent of one of Hill Collins’ (1998) controlling images of Black women, “the mammy” (p. 348). She writes the mammy is the “faithful, obedient domestic servant” who symbolizes “piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity” (Hill Collins, 1998, p. 348). “Marjorie Torrence Cooks” (1985) reproduces this image of the mammy through Torrence’s positionality and proximity to the domestic sphere of cooking while she labored over the preparation of this food that will provide sustenance to a majority of white students and faculty.
This brings me to wonder: Why is she smiling?
I want to know more: “Does she know the photographer? Does she like her job? Is she submitting to the pressure of performing happiness for the sake of the photograph? Some of this I will not be able to deduce, but her smile is happy. As she looks directly into the camera, she is not afraid of the photograph that will be produced after the photographer snaps the shot. She leans into the prospect of her photograph being taken. She looks it in the eye. The afterlife of this photograph, then, sets up the anticipation for Torrence knowing her food will fill the bellies of hungry people, it will nourish the minds and bodies of those who eat it, and this fills her with joy. Indeed, my hope here is to, as Nash (2019) articulates, “care for black women as knowledge producers, as subjects” (p. 80). Considering this is the first photograph in my archive of a woman or femme who is also an “auxiliary” Black staff worker, her pose, similar to Enoch in “Enoch With Science Equipment” (1950s), exerts a level of control over her domain (“Marjorie Torrence cooks,” 1985). Her hands grip tight to her stirring utensil, so instead of reading Torrence as an outsider or object, I read her into the narrative of Black study at Davidson as insider and subject despite her being deemed “auxiliary.” While potentially treated by Davidson as “auxiliary,” supplemental, and thus on the periphery of everyday operations, Torrence in this photograph, reveals that her support for Davidson as an academic institution legitimizes her status as vital organ to the operation of the minds and bodies of study.