2014 was declared the “year of the selfie” by Twitter, for what it’s worth.
Since then, selfies have only increased in popularity – and ubiquity. After a recent trip abroad with students, I sifted through dozens of their photos searching for shots of the places or people we’d visited. What I had, though, were selfies. Students duck-lipped past mountain ranges, tipped their heads jauntily with protest murals just out of frame and in local restaurants threw meaningless hand signs before blurred plates of local delicacies.
In many shots, you couldn’t tell a thing about where we were. For all the money, effort and time spent, we might as well have set up at the corner of Broad and Main and snapped the selfies in a single afternoon.
This spring, self-declared famous person Kim Kardashian West published a collection of her selfies as a coffee table book titled (appropriately) “Selfish.” A master of the form, Kardashian West pouts her lips repeatedly in the almost 500 pages, her frozen visage weirdly divorced from place, season or any visible signs of other life on Earth.
Just like my students.
I haven’t read the book, but the Amazon reviews are hilarious. “One of the seven signs of the Apocalypse” is among the least grumpy.
Truth be told, the selfie isn’t new – and it’s not always a sign that the end of civilization is near. A new exhibit just opened at Durham’s Scrap Exchange (and there through December 12) demonstrates the power of the selfie to explore and challenge our notions of identity and also stand for something beyond contemporary beauty standards or self-absorption.
Assembled by the brilliant Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project, the exhibit features Pauli Murray’s own selfies, taken when Murray, raised in Durham’s West End and a member of the prominent Fitzgerald family, was a young and ambitious lawyer and human rights advocate in the 1930s and 1940s.
Murray wanted to attend UNC, which her great grandaunt, Mary Ruffin, supported with her fortune. But Ruffin was a slave owner who’d owned Pauli’s great grandmother Harriet, raped by both of Ruffin’s brothers. UNC turned Pauli down because she was black. In turn, Harvard rejected Murray for being female. Those identities – those “selfies” – doomed Murray in the real world of white male supremacy.
She refused to let rejection define her. Murray was all of those identities and more in her busy life – black, white and Native American; a woman who loved women; a tireless justice thinker and crusader; and a gadfly, restless traveller and, at the end of her life, the first African-American woman to be ordained into the Episcopal ministry.
Full disclosure – I was an early supporter of the Pauli Murray Project, part of the Duke Human Rights Center @ the Franklin Humanities Institute, which I co-direct. But that doesn’t mean I’m any less surprised at this fascinating take on “selfies.” As Lau discovered at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, where Murray’s papers are housed, Murray was a selfie addict. Lau found the photos pasted and labelled in an album Murray titled “The Life and Times of an American called Pauli Murray.”
“How rare to find images, like these, that reflect Pauli’s journey of self-discovery,” Lau told me about her discovery. “They are playful and serious, intimate and provocative. As the centerpiece of our exhibit, they invite visitors to see Pauli the way she saw herself.”
There’s “The Imp” – a Peter Pan gazing at off-camera mischief. “The Dude” is Murray in male clothing, her hair in high-and-tight brilliantine. “The Crusader” has Murray in lawyer garb (she was the only woman in her class at Howard Law), with briefcase and folded newspaper. Murray was integral to the civil rights movement and in 1940 was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of a Virginia bus. She’s the author of States’ Laws on Race and Color, considered “the Bible” for civil rights lawyers.
In Durham, Murray is perhaps best known as the author of the brilliant memoir, “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family,” the story of her family’s struggle with racial prejudice and racial belonging. In their Carroll Street home, the Fitzgerald taught their granddaughter about their ties to North and South, Black and White culture. Throughout her life, Murray refused to privilege one identity over another – let one “selfie” define her. As she writes in “Proud Shoes,” even the violence of her great grandmother’s enslavement and rape is part of her essential self, what she calls “the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.”
At a time when Durham is also shifting identity – from tobacco town to foodie paradise, from mill worker houses to high-rent condos – this exhibit prompts us all to think of our own identities. Murray herself would challenge us – who are you really? Where are your people from, and how have they shaped you?
And what are you willing to do for justice for the least among us?
Robin Kirk, a writer and human rights advocate, teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at email@example.com