Over twenty years ago poet Patricia Smith happened upon a nineteenth-century photo of a Black person in a flea market -- a dim, water-streaked image of a slyly smiling woman wearing a large hat. Smith felt distressed by the woman's silence, by the fact that her story was untold and unknown. Over the years Smith collected over 200 photos -- known as cabinet cards, daguerreotypes, cartes de visite, ambrotypes, and tintypes -- of African American who lived 120-180 years ago. These types of photos are hard to find because so few Blacks back then had money to spend on something so frivolous -- a photo of themselves.
As Patricia Smith looked at the photos in her collections, the faces behind the photos seemed to be calling out to her "aching to be remembered and heard." Smith knew about this need for 'story' from her own lived experience. When she was growing up, her mother, who had migrated from the South to Chicago, refused to share anything about her own past. Smith said, "Looking behind me, I see nothing that says: This is where you come from. This is who I am. But I'm not the only one surrounded by silence. Many African American of my generation tell similar stories." Because of this she became obsessed with giving voice to each of the individuals in the photos and expressing their connections to mankind.
Unshuttered is a collection of 43 poems, alongside the particular photographs that match, which tell a story and give words to those who otherwise would be unremembered. Many of the stories are heartbreaking and devastating. In giving each person a story, Smith is saying he/she/they existed. He/she/they mattered. That makes for powerful poetry. Here is what Patricia Smith said about the creative process:
In Unshuttered, the narratives are attached to the images—but, then again, they’re not. There is absolutely no way I could say “Here’s exactly what this person sounded like, and here’s exactly what they would say.” Instead, I thought about ways their 19th-century lives paralleled ours—the ways they grieved, professed love, wrestled with sexuality, confronted or succumbed to injustice...Though some of the more visually arresting images insisted on their own narrative, the majority of poems didn’t arrive as readily. While it’s been said that the images “spoke” to me, that’s not entirely true. Each poem conjured a current—a mood, an atmosphere, a message—and that current conjured a face. I looked through the images until I found the face that came closest. Then that person lives alongside the story, and hopefully they complement each other (Chicago Review of Books, March 2023).
Smith fights against the current move to eradicate Black history with her poems and by sharing these photos in Unshuttered. She hopes that her collection will be displayed in a public setting somewhere, hopefully in Chicago, her hometown. A plan had been made to do something with it for the past Presidential inauguration, but other circumstances got in the way. "Not only was Covid on the rampage, but the volatility of the political landscape gave us pause—who’d have time for poetry if we were furiously fighting the downfall of democracy?" Indeed.
|Sample page format. Picture on the left, poem on the right. I am not sure if this is Smith's first picture of her collection, but as you see it is a woman wearing a big hat.|
Good poetry always give me a chance to pause, to reflect, to feel, to grow. This collection does all of that and more.