Written by Samaria Bailey for the Philadelphia Tribune
April 22, 2015
A collection of portraits depicting Black single mothers and their sons are on display through May 31, as part of the “Post Ferguson — My Son Matters!” art exhibit at the Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG).
The 35 portraits in the collection — some of which include only Black male youth — were taken by Denise Allen, a photographer, educator and single mother. Allen said she was inspired to create “Post Ferguson” upon the spate of killings of unarmed Black men and youth at the hands of white men, who went unpunished.
She wanted to communicate a sense of humanity and a positive image, something she said was missing from the narratives in the media.
“I’m a single mom and when I adopted my son, I had a list of what I wanted to teach him,” said Allen. “When Trayvon Martin got killed, it [became] a whole different piece that I was not touching on and it needed to be [discussed].”
Allen’s first project, “By the Content of My Character,” which responded to the Trayvon Martin case, was the photography of 20 Black male youth, wearing hoodies in various settings — at church, school, playing instruments and in the gym. She showed these portraits at a Glenside art gallery in 2012.
Then, she said, as the “murders kept happening,” she observed how the media would “stick the microphone in the mom’s face” and ask them how they were feeling. This observance led her to create “Post Ferguson.”
“This show is to erect a platform to celebrate our sons and document some of the concerns we have while raising our kids,” said Allen. “How do we explain what’s going on and don’t stifle our sons’ spirits?” She added that she chose to depict single mothers because it reflects her own experience and because “single women go through so much.”
The portraits of the sons and their mothers show various expressions, some are smiling, others are pensive and straight-faced and some are embracing. All the photos are accompanied by brief paragraphs or essays about how the mothers discuss race and racial profiling with their sons.
One mother, “Vashti,” wrote of the difficulty she has had with teaching her son about the issue, since his dad died in a car accident. Part of her essay stated, “He wonders why I pressure him about grades and all this other stuff when he has to travel home on high alert for police or criminals who might view him as a target for different reasons … He resents the role-plays I’ve tried to offer to prepare him for a police stop. I wish for his father in these moments.”
Andrea Lawful Trainer said she discussed racial profiling with her two sons at an early age, a move she believes paid off in the long term. “I started the conversation when they were 7 years old and I’m glad I did,” she said. Trainer explained that her eldest son, when he was a teenager, had his hand broken by a police officer who arrested him on a misdemeanor charge of “resisting arrest.”
Trainer fought the charges up until they were thrown out. She said she knows her son’s spotless record was one of the main reasons his name was cleared.
“I teach them what you do on the front end will help you on the back end. That police officer walked out of court with his head down,” said Trainer. “We fought until his [her son’s] record was clear, because I knew if we didn’t, it could follow him for the rest of his life.”
JeNa’ Nickerson, a mother of a son and daughter, said she teaches her son a similar approach.
“The area we live in is a mixed area and there are more [whites]. I come from a mixed background, so when I speak, I have to speak to both sides,” she said. “It’s a lot of racial profiling I see and I just want to teach him, in every aspect of his life, he has to carry himself in a way that he’s not labeled or stereotyped.”
Allen said she hopes when people view “Post Ferguson” they are more enlightened.
“It’s a plea to other mothers, saying ‘help, look at what I have to go through,’” she said. “Once people know, things have got to get better.”
Image Credit: Samaria Bailey