What can historical photographs tell us about the lives of African-Americans serving as nannies to white families? What clues in these portraits can be found by examining the lighting, period dress, body language, and facial expressions of the subjects?
Dr. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Emory University’s Associate Professor of American Studies and African American Studies, addressed these questions as the featured speaker on February 18th in the Oxford College Library’s Fran Elizer Exhibit Space. Dr. Wallace-Sanders, the curator of the exhibit “Framing Shadows: Portraits of Nannies from the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection” drew an audience of faculty, staff and students into the shadows of each photograph on display for a keener, deeper understanding of the lives of those raising white children.
Dr. Wallace-Sanders selected 20 portraits dated from the 1840s to the 1920s from the 12,000 photographs of Emory’s Langmuir African American Photograph Collection at the Rose Manuscript Archives and Rare Book Library. She shared her research, her thoughts, and her mission to tell the stories of the women, girls and men in the photographs. She invited the audience to challenge common assumptions and stereotypes, to look past the easy archetypal perspectives to the humanity and individual dignity of the nannies themselves.
“The more you look, the more you will see.”
Dr. Wallace-Sanders also admitted that with in-depth study of each photograph, it often only reveals more questions. Pointing to another portrait of a nanny that accompanied a note about the child in the nanny’s care, she said, “Again, she is in the photo, but there is no mention of her. That is the other thing—the anonymity and the invisibility of these women—that they are invisible; no voice.” Dr. Wallace-Sanders wants to give them a voice, tell their stories, and encourage every visitor to honor these nannies for their labor.
Dr. Wallace-Sanders is continuing her research and continues to be inspired by every new piece of information that she uncovers. “That is the thing that drives me… that we know something about them.” She hopes the exhibition will inspire visitors with relatives who served as nannies to come forward with their stories, as well.
Framing Shadows will be on display in the Oxford College library through the end of 2020 and is open to the public during visitor hours.