Explore what it means to portray Black elders—the pillars of their communities—in an accurate and respectful way.
Knowledge, it is believed in many cultures, lies in abundance in the elderly. Their advanced age gives them a wisdom the youth can only hope to achieve one day, after living a full life. The Black community, specifically, places their elders on a pedestal in any way they can:
Black elders love us fiercely in part because they know how hard life has been for their Black loved ones. Capturing the essence of Black elders in photography and in media means doing so with intention when the project calls for it.
Where Were Our Elders During Pivotal Years in History?
The racial and social justice movement of the 1950s and 1960s put feet on the ground and paved the way for living in our modern times. Our grandparents, our older neighbors, our professors, and members of the community were young people then. Their eyes were open and their ears were in tune to the societal change that was occurring around them.
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My grandparents were young adults in their twenties and became young parents during the days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their neighbors and coworkers alongside them served as witnesses to the civil rights movement as it unfolded. Every television news report and newspaper article detailed the daily journey to liberation.
Today, my grandparents are in their eighties. Freedom Riders, those who marched on Washington and fought for equality during those decades, are now in their sunset years. Many have passed on. Their efforts to make the world a better place for their family and friends have been documented on film, in letters, on TV, in movies, in songs, and by mouth.
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How to Depict Black Elders in Media
Unless a project has to do with a sensitive subject matter, an over-reliance of sullenness is inappropriate. Black elders are celebrated by the family and community who lift them up and should be given the same grace in media. Contentment, happiness, and joy should be extended to older Black subjects, just as they would people of any other racial background.
“Respect your elders” takes on a bigger meaning when depicting the older Black community. In their youths, Black elders were people at the forefront of the civil rights movement. They marched, attended protests, met during meetings, and spoke out against injustices when they were able to. While the theme of a photo or video ultimately determines the mood of the resulting visual, treating your subject with respect and esteem is vital.
Sensitivity and Being Treated With Care from Others
Sensitivity is one of the most human emotions we can afford each other. Because everyone’s story differs, being cognizant of different sensitivities can make the visual creating process a more enjoyable experience. Older Black people came of age during a time when their lives were less valued than today. They weren’t afforded the space to receive empathy. We need to prioritize this empathy and sensitivity through photography today.
Remembering and Showcasing the Love in Their Lives
Honoring an elder’s life is another intentional goal a creative person should seek to accomplish. Black people have always made their lives full of love and fulfillment—and will continue to do so. However, the shortcomings of the world have unfortunately intercepted that, so showcasing love and personal achievement is paramount.
Today’s elders were yesterday’s youth. One day, we’ll be the elders others will learn from. But today, we are the ones who continue to carry on the legacy of those who came before us. Showcasing Black legacies with purpose, through the lens of sensitivity, honor, and respect, should be at the forefront of every project centering this particular group with their particular history. To do so is what they deserve.
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