Sometime in the mid 1990s, around Easter, I stumbled upon a VH-1 showing of the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I caught it in the middle, but I sat mesmerized, watching what appeared to be a rag-tag bunch of 1970s hippies and yippies singing and dancing a passion play. In the desert (!?) Before I knew it, the film had ended. But, being VH-1, it naturally started up again. So I watched it a second time. A few hours later I couldn’t deny it. I was hooked. And most shocking of all, the character who affected me the most wasn’t the guy playing the requisite Lord and Savior. It was Judas.
In 1900 a black laborer named Robert Charles set off a massive manhunt after an altercation with New Orleans police. Before all was done, Charles would shoot well over 20 whites sent to apprehend him, killing several. Altogether, 28 people (the exact number is truly unknown) would die in riots, including Charles, who made a last stand in a burning building. The violence that surrounded him continued to swirl and claim others even after his death. The last turbulent days of Charles life would make him a monster to many and a folk hero to others. For black musicians, he became one of the legendary “bad men”–those near mythic black anti-heroes of superhuman capabilities, whose acts of defiance were both celebratory, captivating and frightening.
painting: Cruel Old Stagger Lee, by Van Orno
“…many Negroes and Mulattoes the property of Citizens of these States have concealed themselves on board the Ships in the harbor … and to make their escapes in that manner … All Officers of the Allied Army … are directed not to suffer any such negroes or mulattoes to be retained in their Service but on the contrary to cause them to be delivered to the Guards which will be establish’d for their reception …Any Negroes or mulattoes who are free upon proving the same will be left to their own disposal.”–General George Washington, October 25, 1781.
Much of the mental imagery we conjure of the non-Western world in the past century come from endless photos–often of varied peoples in fantastic headdress, wrapped in “exotic” clothing and striking regal poses. For artists, creators and those looking for “authenticity” or understandings of cultures and peoples seemingly “lost in time,” these images are invaluable. But how authentic are such glimpses of the past? Especially when constructed through a colonial lens? Can photos…lie?