Professor shifts the lens on race through portraiture, new book

What is blackness? What does it mean to be black? Is blackness a matter of biology or consciousness? Who and what determine who is black and who is not?

"(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race" by Yaba Blay, photography by Noelle Theard MA '10.

“(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race” by Yaba Blay, photography direction by Noelle Theard MA ’10.

A new book by Yaba Blay, co-director of the Africana Studies Program at Drexel University, and Noelle Theard MA’10, adjunct professor in the FIU African and African Diaspora Studies Program, explores these questions and challenges society’s narrow perception of blackness and what it looks like. Titled (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, its name is a reference to the “one-drop rule” from the early 20th century, meaning that anyone with 1/32 of “African black blood” was black.

“Although we live in a ‘post-racial’ society with a president of mixed-race ancestry and a lot of strides have been made since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we still live in a society where issues of race and racial identity are salient,” Theard said. “There is a tendency for folks to not want to have conversations pertaining to issues of race.

“I think this book will get a conversation going and open people’s minds to the different possibilities and ranges of ‘blackness’ that exist,” Theard added. “We can’t say being black is one homogenous identity, because it has many facets and multiple variations. We’re better served to be inclusive when talking about race, as opposed to exclusive in regards to skin color, hair texture and other phenotypic traits.”

The book combines narratives and portraits – all taken by Theard and a team of photographers directed by her – of 60 contributors from 25 countries who self-identify, at least partly, as black. They include Zun Lee, a photographer and physician of Korean and African-American descent; Angelina Griggs, a pale-skinned centenarian; black/Latina journalist Soledad O’Brien; and Liliane Braga, a writer and educator from Brazil. These contributors respond to a series of questions, among them how they identified themselves; whether assumptions were made about their race; whether their blackness was questioned by others; and whether the light complexions that many have afforded them social privilege.

Some of the many faces of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. Photos by Noelle Theard MA '10.

Some of the many faces of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. Photos by Noelle Theard MA ’10.

“Photography has the power to communicate in ways words can’t,” Theard said. “Portraits have a powerful pull because viewers are drawn into the eyes of the people photographed. The quote ‘The eyes are the windows to the soul’ is very true, especially in portraiture. Looking into the subjects’ eyes testifies their lived experience. And it’s their lived experiences what makes them black as opposed to what’s on the surface.”

(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race was released in late November by Blay’s independent press, BLACKPrint Press. It was recently featured in the New York Times (NYT) blog “Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism.”  The book is part of Blay’s multi-platform project called (1)ne Drop, which includes an online and traveling exhibition to raise social awareness and inspire conversation about the complexities of race and blackness as an identity and lived reality. The project was the inspiration behind “Who is Black in America?,” the fifth installation of CNN’s Black in America documentary series in 2012, on which Blay was consulting producer.

Theard earned a master’s in African Diaspora Studies from FIU and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Parsons, The New School for Design in 2013. She currently teaches “Africa in Films” and “African Visual Arts” at FIU. She also teaches photography at the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; she is the photography discipline coordinator for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts; and she is co-director of FotoKonbit, a non-profit created to empower Haitians to document their community and experience through photography. Theard’s images of Latin American hip-hop were featured in the Miami Herald’s series “A Rising Voice: Afro-Latin Americans.”