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SPOTLIGHT: Photo Archive Captures Narratives, Nuances of Black Florida

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Ms. Emma with her grandson at their home in Eatonville. Photo: Black Florida, Johanne Rahaman.

Ms. Emma with her grandson at their home in Eatonville. Photo: Black Florida, Johanne Rahaman.

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From the comfort of her living room couch, Ms. Emma adjusts her stocking cap and reminisces about the mules her father owned; her big city trip to New York decades ago as a teen; and the highs and lows of her twenty two years as a security guard.

“I’ll never forget, I worked six weeks and didn’t get a paycheck and didn’t get a raise, and that’s what really set me up. It set me off and I went off,” she grits her gold plated teeth in thought. 

Johanne Rahaman snaps photos, occasionally nodding as Ms. Emma continues her stories. Working class central Floridians like Ms. Emma have become the striking figures in Rahaman’s visual archive that has gained national acclaim. The project, called Black Florida, captures the lives of black men and women in Florida’s rural towns and bustling cities. Rahaman, has traveled from Miami to Fort Pierce, Palatka and West Palm Beach with one vision: to capture the lived experiences of ordinary working class black folks. Nowadays she is spending more time in Eatonville.

“If I’m doing a project called Black Florida, I have to come to the most prominent black community in Florida, you know, the first incorporated black town in America,” says Rahaman. 

Photo: Black Florida, Johanne Rahaman.

Photo: Black Florida, Johanne Rahaman.

Her photography process is organic. It is honest. It is Ms. Emma in a stocking cap with white socks and sandals.

“The narrative of the working class black communities has mostly been negative, so I try to counteract that by telling other stories—personal stories, people’s personal journeys; how they arrived to the place where they are now,” says Rahaman. 

She describes Ms. Emma and the other men and women of Eatonville as folklorish with larger than life personalities and active imaginations.

“And they’re also really passionate about their community and the town and its importance within Black history and America.”

Their stories of migration, settlement, struggle, and self discovery are intricately connected to Rahaman’s path. She understands it because she lived it growing up in Levantille Hills, a poor working class community in Trinidad. She left there for the United States and has found bits of herself in Ms. Emma and others. Because of that, they are more than subjects through her camera lens.

“They become an extended family member to me,” she adds. 

Rahaman navigates Eatonville like a traveler coming back home during our visit. I follow her from one house to the next. She waves to people in the streets along the way. We stop to sit on a chair under a tree in front of Ms. Carina’s house.

“Black Florida is every single person I meet; it’s us sitting out here in the front yard of the home of someone who’s not here, who’s supposed to meet us in a little bit, but the comfort of knowing I can do this. I don’t have to ask her to do this because if she were here, she’d give permission for it,” she tells me. 

Soon Ms. Carina appears with bags of groceries. She teases Rahaman for missing her phone call.

“I want the outside gaze to learn to suspend judgment on a community just by using this project as an example. If this brings you joy to see that the working class black community is so nuanced, then challenge yourself to suspend judgment on other communities.”

In order words—to look at the bigger picture.


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About Renata Sago

Renata Sago