For two years, starting in 1936, the United States government deployed writers throughout the country to collect the life stories of the formerly enslaved. The writers worked for the Federal Writers Project (FWP), part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the largest of the New Deal agencies created by president Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression. As part of the FWP, out-of-work writers were hired to collect the stories of everyday Americans, including ex-slaves. The result of the slave narrative initiative is a rich, invaluable, and ultimately imperfect collection of over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 photographs.
In addition to interviews, many of the writers also photographed their subjects. For these images, the FWP provided specific art direction. In a 1937 memo, George Cronyn, the associate director of the FWP, wrote that:
We would like to have portraits wherever they can be secured, but we urge your photographers to make the studies as simple, natural, and "unposed" as possible. Let the background, cabin or whatnot, be the noimal [sic] setting—in short, just the picture a visitor would expect to find by "dropping in" on one of these old-timers.
The photographs produced reflect these instructions. Men and women often sit or stand in front of brick and wooden walls, with just hints of daily life in the background; a horse, a mailbox, a flowering garden. The women occasionally hold children in their laps; the men often have their hats in their hands.
The narratives assembled represent a sprawling compendium of memories that depict the everyday alongside the harrowing: The sound of guinea fowl at daybreak, song lyrics, and stark descriptions of torture and abuse. One interviewee, 82-year-old William Moore, reported that it was common for his former owner to stake slaves to the ground and beat them with a bullwhip until their “blood run out and red up the ground.” He would then salt their wounds until “the man slober and puke. Then his shirt stick to his back a week or more.” Of his former owner’s fate, Moore offered this pronouncement: “I ‘lieve he’s in hell.”
When I first encountered the Federal Writers’ Project collection of slave narratives, the photos were so striking and familiar, I knew this was the source material I wanted to respond to.
I was drawn to each image for a different reason. The photographs had a familiarity in the eyes of their subjects, in their expressions and their presence. The pain and truth in their faces reminds me the people I love, grew up with, and encounter on a day-to-day basis. It is difficult to explain, this spiritual connection that people of the same place and experience share, but it’s what my work as an artist and storyteller is all about.
Over the last four years, much of he focus of my work has been in the service of the Black Lives Matter movement. I like to think I use my art as a weapon to fortify and protect the spirits of black people, to defy and resist their destruction. In a similar vein is an ongoing interdisciplinary project I call Darker Gods, which diverges from current events but is still rooted in Blackness, now in the realm of the surreal.
Darker Gods is the story of black deities that rule over a parallel universe—a world without white supremacy, where black people aren’t subservient—and the followers, shamans, troubadours, witchdoctors, the humans that worship and interact with them. The stories, photographs, and music in the project are all about reimagining black identity through hybrid of mythologies—including southern black folklore, Greek and Roman gods, and Yoruba spirituality—to create a universe of deities that embody different aspects and tropes of ideas around blackness.
With the mythological world of Darker Gods in mind, I wanted to write a new story for the people in the WPA photographs. These people that had seen and survived so much, what did they do to keep their souls and spirits protected? Who would they pray to in the realm I was creating? Who would they have been in a world where black people were not in the background, but front and center?
Much of my work incorporates the use of digital distortion to play with the continuum of history. When I glitch (or pixelate) portions of these old images, I feel like I am creating a conversation across time and space. It’s my way of creating a future relic, something that is both temporary and timeless. It speaks to the idea that our culture exists today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Darker Gods is an exercise in Black Surrealism; the magic, beauty and struggle of real people and real lives, reimagined in a new way.
Damon Davis was born in 1985 in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an American multimedia artist, musician, and filmmaker. His 2014 public art installation “All Hands on Deck” was collected by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He is one of the founders of FarFetched, a St. Louis-based artist collective. He is also co-director of Whose Streets?, a documentary about the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
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Hole in One
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Public Service Announcements
Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.
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The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
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Wall to Wall
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After the Curtain Calls
Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.
The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool
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The People of the Land
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Letting Sleeping Children Lie
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The Cycle of a Woman’s Life
A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.
More Federal Project No. 2
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