This photographer grapples with things unsaid for too long and overdue for a reckoning

Julia Clark, vice president of the Black Student Movement at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, leads a demonstration on campus to protest the university decision not to give Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. Their demands included tenure for Hannah-Jones, who was later offered tenure but declined, more diversity on the board of trustees, a memorial for James Cates Jr., protection for the Unsung Founders Memorial and safety for Black students on campus. (Cornell Watson)
Julia Clark, vice president of the Black Student Movement at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, leads a demonstration on campus to protest the university decision not to give Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. Their demands included tenure for Hannah-Jones, who was later offered tenure but declined, more diversity on the board of trustees, a memorial for James Cates Jr., protection for the Unsung Founders Memorial and safety for Black students on campus. (Cornell Watson)
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Back in January, I got an email from photographer Cornell Watson. He had just finished up an artist residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and wanted to share the outcome of it.

While in Chapel Hill for that residency, Watson completed a photo essay called “Tarred Healing.” It addresses many things, including not-so-distant events in which the university was caught up that garnered a lot of national attention. But it addresses so much more that isn’t tied specifically to current events, even though it informs them every single day, things that many of us avoid but have been due for a reckoning for far too long.

Instead of trying to hash everything out here in my own words, I think it’s best to let Watson’s photos, and his artist statement for “Tarred Healing,” do the talking:

“There is much to celebrate about the Black community's contributions to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and America's oldest public university, The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The Chapel Hill Nine and the Freedom Fighters helped shape America into a more idealized version of itself. Black leadership is embedded in our history through pioneers like Howard Lee, one of the first Black mayors in the South. We also remember the multitude of trailblazers that shattered ceilings at UNC such as Leroy Frasier, John Lewis Brandon, Ralph Frasier, and Karen Parker, the first Black students and first Black woman student enrolled in this prestigious university.

“Through their work, we also acknowledge the physical contributions that, in stone and mortar, are the foundations of the institution which are inherently the result of chattel slavery. The blood, sweat, and tears of our enslaved and free ancestors have seeped into the soil, floors, walls, and stones of this community and university. It is only through their determination to survive and persist that we are here today. Their spirit of unbroken resilience continues within us because there is still so much healing and trailblazing work to be done.

“James Cates, who white supremacists murdered on campus, still needs us to fight for justice. Nikole Hannah-Jones showed us that we still need to fight for equity and equality. The UNC board of trustees showed us that we still need to fight for diversity. Rogers-Eubanks still needs us to fight against environmental injustice. Our ancestors still need us to fight for our history to be remembered and honored. We still need to fight and dismantle institutions of white supremacy. We still need to fight for reparations. We need to recognize with intentionality the many forms in which our diverse community seeks healing.

“This photo series, a combination of conceptual and documentary photography, is a reflection of our truth through places, people, and systems in Chapel Hill. It is an unapologetic archive of our feelings and emotions. It is a vessel for self-healing. Despite continued obstruction by whiteness, we will heal, even if it is tarred.”

You can see more of Watson’s work on his website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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