first person / place

How Eudora Welty’s Photography Captured My Grandmother’s History

Natasha Trethewey on experiencing a past not our own.
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Though things were changing, the remnants of the Jim Crow world my grandmother had grown up in, the world Welty had photographed, were everywhere around us. “Poverty in Mississippi, white and black,” Welty said, “really didn’t have too much to do with the Depression. It was ongoing. Mississippi was long since poor, long devastated. I took the pictures of our poverty because that was reality, and I was recording it.”

Photographs of the place where I was growing up would have shown many of the same material conditions as in Welty’s photographs of black Mississippians in the 1930s. My North Gulfport was impoverished and still partially rural, but it was also a place of resilience and joy. I woke most mornings to the crowing of a rooster, hymns in my grandmother’s resonant alto, her laughter as she chatted in the yard with Uncle Mun—a man, deaf from birth, who spoke only in percussive syllables, choked and guttural. Beneath our house, an expanded shotgun propped two feet off the ground on cinderblocks, I could hear pigs rooting in the dirt. There were chickens and hogs, often loosed and roaming; a skinny cow behind a fence in our neighbor’s yard; fig, pecan, and persimmon trees; a church across the street where I learned recitations for the various pageants put on throughout the year; shotgun shacks and unpaved roads.

My own experience of the place had provided a glimpse into what had become a rapidly vanishing past, but the Mississippi I was trying to document—to see, my grandmother’s—was far in the distance, blurred and impressionistic. A young writer, I was like a nearsighted watchman, absent my corrective lenses, straining the limits of my vision.Though in my mind’s eye I could imagine the nearly vanished world from my grandmother’s stories, I had not been there, had not seen: the street scenes, the candid expressions and subtle interactions, the intimacies and ordinariness, the details on a dress or apron (my grandmother had proudly described floral-print clothing sewn from cotton cornmeal sacks). Nor had I realized, amidst the constant barrage of cultural images diminishing or rendering monolithic a people—my people, southern, black, of a particular time and place—that there was evidence of another way of seeing: a vision rooted in an unvarnished attempt to show reality. Eudora Welty’s photographs provided that other way of seeing, the visual, historical evidence: “a record,” she has said. “The life in those times.”
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