Moving Beyond the Familiar Through Photography and Poetry

I came across a video of Michelle and Barack Obama at a basketball game with their daughter, Malia and VP Joe Biden sitting beside them. After realizing they were on the “kiss cam” and getting a little extra encouragement from Malia, Barack leaned in and kissed Michelle on her lips, then forehead. Michelle blushed. Malia smiled and laughed with glee. It made me think of my own parents and how I have no memory of seeing them embracing or sharing a kiss.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted my mother and father to end their marriage. Even at 28 my relationship to their marriage is still a sort of kidnapping of peace similar to when I was 10 or 20 years old. My father’s relationships to my sisters, my mother and I have been somewhere in the root of that. The internal battles he experienced translated into a never-ending war in our home.

At some point in my youth, I decided that when I grew up and got married I would need to find someone else to walk me down the aisle because my father couldn’t possibly be that person.

Later, whenever I thought of marriage it went from “when” to “if” I ever got married. Seeing my parents unhappily married and me being in a long-term abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend who eventually wanted to marry me made marriage seem like a death sentence of which I wanted no part.

These days, what’s different in how I feel about my parents’ marriage, my father and marriage, in general, is that I walk with an understanding and knowledge I didn’t have in my younger years. Poetry is largely the reason why I made it here.

Through my poetry, I’ve had to work through the messy things I’ve experienced and witnessed in and out of the apartment and neighborhood I grew up in. In my writing, I got to a point where I could no longer be content with writing poems that crucified certain aspects of my life without showing a fuller, more complicated story aiming to serve the poem. I’ve had to begin learning how to grow beyond my own needs and hurt.

Reading things like A Marriage Poem by Ellen Bryant Voigt and Redbone Dances by Mahogany L. Browne make me reflect deeply on the marriage and parenthood I was raised by. Mahogany’s poem makes me weep every time I read or hear it.

And now through photography, I’m challenged to create and stretch in a similar way.

Upon revisiting the work of LaToya Ruby Frazier, I was moved by her choice to create images of herself, mother and grandmother as a form of resistance and a re-establishing of agency despite the invisibility Black women are so often rendered to, especially if they’re members of lower economic classes.

I remember LaToya discussing how it was important for her to document the hazardous environment in the small town of Braddock where she and her family lived, and how it affected their health. I thought of the mold on our bathroom ceiling and the peeling paint that was on a wall in my parent’s house and the bus depot down the block from us and the caution tapes randomly placed on trees throughout our housing project.

I started thinking about my own family photography project and how I’ve been photographing them more and more lately, particularly my mother and father. One of my best friends had been encouraging me to do so, and it took some pushing, but I finally started the project. My 29-year-old brother-in-law’s sudden passing in October has also created more urgency for doing so.

But it also occurs to me that no matter how much I may wish my parents’ marriage no longer existed, it’s still something that needs to be in photographs.



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