Standing out in his photography books, including this one, is the amount of text. But the words aren’t Richards’, and they don’t come from an eminent scholar or a celebrity with a pet cause. The women and men in his photographs speak directly to you in their uninterrupted recollections.
We hear about their struggles and frustrations, the harrowing racism and violence they endured. We listen as they recount their accomplishments, too, such as raising children and grandchildren and even starting a business.
What stands out the most to me, in the cataclysmic months of protests over police misconduct, political unrest and wild conspiracies, are the tight restrictions Black people lived under. Most Americans, even white kids growing up in the suburbs, learn about the legal racism that led to the civil rights movement. Bird’s-eye views of history, however, rarely carry the weight of one person’s searing memory.
“People don’t understand, when I was coming up, was against the law for more than two black people to be standing there,” Stacy Abram recounts. “We could be arrested if we assemble on the corner, three or four of us. The federal laws came during that time,” the Civil Rights Act, “so you had the freedom of assembly. But since we wasn’t human — was always three-fifth human — we didn’t have the freedom of assembly.”
It wasn’t the only right in the First Amendment that had been denied to Blacks. Abram continues:
“We had the freedom of speech, the First Amendment of the Constitution give, but we couldn’t speak. We had the freedom of the press, but we couldn’t take our stories to the press, because we wasn’t human.”
Listen to his voice. He’s explaining the past through the rights he couldn’t exercise. You could read it in a history book, and you probably did, but in the cadence of his sentences, in the repetition of Americans’ rights and the repetition of Blacks’ restrictions, you can hear his anguish.
And in case you don’t, he makes the point even clearer.
“A dog was considered a dog, a cat was considered a cat, a cow was considered a cow, but because from the Supreme Court came the ruling that we was to be counted as three-fifths of a man, you couldn’t consider us human.”
The most telling words, like Abram’s, tend to be spoken from the heart. Bringing out those feelings from a source takes time and sympathy, and the result is a road map for Richards’ photography.
So how does he take those feelings and turn them into visual journalism? In “The Day I Was Born,” it’s through spare images of the Mississippi River Delta.