To be Black is to know love. When singer-songwriter Sade released her debut studio album, Diamond Life in 1984, the single “Your Love Is King” made a beeline for the top, dominating charts in her native England, and across the pond in the US. In the lyrics, a singular, unnamed person is the giver and cause of all adoration and affection. Listening to the song was like eavesdropping on a secret conversation between two lovestruck individuals. On Black Is King*, the Disney release helmed by Beyoncé-Knowles Carter, love is not individual, nor is it the romantic kind for a duo; it’s expansive, generational and eternally archived in a visual album whose imagery is both contemporary and historical, a curated attempt at redesigning a collective future. Here, Black skin, faces, arms, and lips were not illuminated by the chilling red and blue strobes of surveillance, or the harsh glare of a pointed flashlight perusing your face for expected criminality. They were shot instead with painstaking attention so as to be seen, marvelled, praised and ultimately loved.
It hasn’t always been possible to see Black subjects so well lit, and there remain contemporary instances where it has been maddeningly apparent that the photographers knew so little about capturing Black faces. Their work is egregiously shoddy and makes one wonder that if it remains difficult to find competent photographers in an era of incessant documentation, what must it have been like decades earlier for those who needed photography to reflect the changing course of their new lives?
In 1904, Addison N. Scurlock, a Washington D.C. transplant from North Carolina, opened a photography studio in his parent’s house on S Street in the northwest part of the city. He remained at this location for two years and in 1911 he opened his standalone family-run studio along the U Street Corridor, a favorite haunt of Washington’s Black elite, and the pulsing creative hub known as Black Broadway. For the families who wanted portraits of their children, elders who wanted to see images of their faces for the very first time, and politicians seeking control of their projected narratives, Scurlock’s studio was the go-to place for moments to be framed, recorded and seen. Four decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, America’s Black citizens were looking towards laying claim to the land many of them had bled upon, and also keeping their eyes focused on the gift of posterity.
For the 400 years that Black people were debased and traded, looking at Black skin and the photographs found in newspapers and advertisements meant seeing pain and shame staring back; the implied inferiority to justify degradation. A lens controlled by someone whose interest was not perverse consumption in the name of pseudoscience, but upliftment and acknowledgment made photographs an obvious and prescient weapon of choice. In front of the camera Black Americans could choose how they looked, who would see, and to what end their images would be shared. Photographs were not just about engaging in the vanity of a youth one wanted immortalized for nostalgia, but a quiet guarantee that when history was rewritten as it so often is, there would be proof that while the state worked efficiently on policies to dehumanize Black skin, Black people patiently but constantly stood still for a while so they could be seen as they really were—a lineage of survivors.
In Black Is King, Black faces are a constellation in the frame, winking at the camera, flirting with spectators while refusing to be on display. They are not being watched in as much as they are letting you see. Mirrors, ostentatious chandeliers, water, sunglasses, twirling tinsel and brown, black, eyes reflect quick-moving Black dancers performing intricate choreography. They show Black women in leopard print outfits and towering head wraps that are as structural as they are practical. And they are honest, projecting Black skin not as some challenge to light but something that is illuminated and made radiant by its presence. For dark skinned women who are constantly told to run from flaunting bright colors, Lupita, Naomi, Kelly, model Adut Akech and South African singer Moonchild Sannelly are effervescent in potent reds, vivid blues, and flashing oranges. For Black children who are now grandparents and who grew up knowing pool water as a fenced attraction which quickly emptied if they even dared dip a finger to cool from the humid air, we see Black girls in bright pink suits who are at home enough in the water to spin, somersault and luxuriate in ecstasy. And for Black girls who considered alternative online forums of media as sources of moodboard inspiration, Black Is King teems with images that rejoice, reframe, and ultimately retaliate against systemic erasure and decades of standing in front of the camera and only being seen as shadows. It’s undeniably lavish.
Writer and editor Niela Orr recently wrote a tender and uneasy elegy in The Believer on the last few months of 2020, reflecting on the images of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and the fractured moments that connect their deaths to the Philadelphia bombings and burning of 1985, and the stifling and deadly Red Summer of August 1919. “When we are flipping through history books in 2070, will we see sections on this moment and its misogynoir titled ‘the Long Sudden Death,’” Orr wrote, “to memorialize Breonna Taylor’s murder? Maybe we call this spring ‘Winter in America,’ for the ways that the song is being figured into the mood of the past month, and the entire Trump era.” Orr was writing not only about remembrance but how what we remember is largely informed by what we see. In 2020 we have seen less of those we love, and bid farewell to those whose faces remind us of democracy’s shifts—its failures and at times its capacity for great change. We have seen death, some for the first time, for others a reality as American as amnesia.
In a world on fire, Black civilians have found solace in the images of our civil disobedience as we caused good trouble. In the images of our elders as they shared teachings on activism and those of our children as they witnessed the force of what it means to mobilize for justice. And we also garnered pleasure when we settled into the imagery presented by creators whose ethos is unabashedly to root for everybody Black, in the music that is as femme as it is knife-edged, and make-up that is both playful and precise. Black Is King coming out in 2020 is serendipity at its finest and most necessary. For a while all social media was awash with images celebrating the almost intoxicating joy of loving your Blackness; no doubt Giphy, from the foundation set by Jasmyn Lawson, will have an unending number of Black Is King clips perfect for use in any conversation, to portray whatever reaction.
In a year that has shown us much of what it means to mourn, with Black Is King, maybe history will remember July 31 as a day we exhaled online. If only for a little while.
Tarisai Ngangura is a journalist and photographer who documents Black lives around the globe—their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Lapham’s Quarterly, The New York Times, Longreads, The New Republic, New York Magazine, Literary Hub, among others. She is currently a writer at Vanity Fair.
* Editor’s Note: Jezebel Culture Editor Clover Hope cowrote Black Is King; she recused herself from this piece.