A recent post in a Facebook genealogy group about a portrait offered on eBay sent members speculating and lamenting and made me think of something I wrote years ago:
Urban Provisions is the first and only little home decor and furnishings shop in my gentrifying town on the edge of Atlanta. An older black woman stopped in one day and asked Ben if this was where you could get help with your ‘lectric and gas. He said, “No, ma’am.” “Well, it say Urban,” she huffed, and stepped back out.
As Ben was telling me the story some hours later, the same woman poked her head in the door and beckoned us outside. She and her husband began pulling old family portraits out of their backseat. They were for sale. One was a framed commemorative newspaper (50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) depicting Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. It was in bad shape. The best of the lot was a large, well-preserved, beautifully framed photographic portrait of two women. The husband said they were his great-grandfather’s sisters and insisted they were Siamese twins. (After some grime-wiping and hard squinting, I could see that, unless split zygotes cling shoulder blade to clavicle, this was not the case. They didn’t even look much alike.) The great-granddaddy was named Willie Brown, and he lived near Edison and Morgan in Calhoun County, Georgia.
I asked the husband what he wanted for the portrait, and he told me to name a price. After some hard internal dialectic, I named $100. He said I ought to at least give him $125. I said, “Wai’ min’te, now,” and he caved. “I got to pay bills,” he explained, and I rode my bike up to the bank to get his money. I told Willie Brown’s great-grandson if he ever wanted to get his people back to stop by the store and let Ben know. The wife said, with finality, “We ain’t gon wont ’em.” She had other pictures to hang now that these were out of the way.
I collect photographic portraits of black people. The older, the better; I go for those in original frames with original glass. I have paid a lot for some and a little for others. I know the provenance of a few, but most have entered posterity in forlorn anonymity. One hundred years after the photographers bulb burst in their stoic faces, these stiff brides and babies and black-suited gentlemen regard me in tight-mouthed silence. Had they already bitterly foreseen their eternity in a stranger’s dining room? I am guiltily aware of my lack of kinship with these ghosts.
How does this happen? How do such prizes manage to break loose and drift away from their moorings in some proud, hardworking, veil-lifted family? I do know, of course, for I’m the one hoarding my family’s remaining sepia-toned snapshots — none as grand as the Brown twins — protecting them from indifference or disdain or desperation. For some, family exists only three-dimensionally, in the here and now. Sentimentality may be unaffordable. Maybe I tether these unknowns, give them a nice, black, ancestor-worshiping home, to make it up to my own, whose frames warped irremediably on back porches, their fragile, charcoaled images rotting in country sheds or shredded in the buck teeth of cellar rats. Are any of my people hanging dusty in the dimness of some junk dealer’s lair, pawned for baby’s shoes?
The “Siamese twins.”