Looking back at the black American experience, in 17 definitive photos

In February and July of 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture released the first three parts in a multi-volume collection of books featuring some of the most definitive photographs that chronicle the black American experience for more than a century as part of its “Double Exposure” series. The collection culls through an expansive archive of images by famous photographers, such as Gordon Parks, Wayne F. Miller, Ernest C. Withers, Charles Moore, Spider Martin and more.

“We decided early on that photography would be the major item of the museum,” NMAAHC founder and director Lonnie G. Bunch III told In Sight. “In many ways photography is one of the ways people have come to history. They look at all of the images and ask themselves, ‘What were their lives like? Were they happy? Did life treat them fairly?’ That begins to allow us to unpack history as you unpack the photo.”

The first volume in the series, “Through the African American Lens,” introduces the trio of books and reveals the ways in which African Americans have used activism, community and culture to fight for social justice and create a better life. And like the experience of black Americans themselves, the books go beyond focusing on hardships and discrimination. They reflect shared moments of love between family and friends, fashion’s significance among the community, musical and literary giants, achievements across sports and entertainment. They stand among a century of photographs etched forever into the thread work of American history. In addition to the more known names of photographers represented, the collection also gives voice to the  ‘unknown’ subject or ‘unidentified’ photographer whose images also contribute to the narrative. “I think equally important is to introduce you to people who fall outside the narrative, not the MLK or more known figures,” Bunch said. “So much of America’s history is carried on the backs of those labeled ‘anonymous.’ We want to call their names by giving them this visibility.”

While the role of men has often dominated the narrative of the black experience when contextualizing it within the civil rights movement, entertainment, and work or family life, the museum does a brilliant job of extracting the singularly unique experience of black women throughout the 20th century by dedicating the third volume, “African American Women,” solely to them. “As a scholar, what I realize is when you illuminate the story of woman, you really illuminate the story of an entire community,” Bunch said. “In some ways I felt we were narrowing but expanding it and exploring it through a different lens.”