By Shane Rocheleau, from Remnants of an Exodus, by Al J Thompson
Al J. Thompson was born in Jamaica in 1980. He and his family moved from the island nation to the village of Spring Valley, New York in 1996. After high school, Thompson lived in several other New York City suburbs and the Bronx until he eventually settled upstate with his wife and children. In 2017, he returned to see Spring Valley. This book reveals what he found.
What follows in this essay is a tapestry of history, contradictions, observations, facts, opinions, and free associations all provoked in this reader upon looking at and considering Thompson’s lyrical vision of the remnants of an exodus. Thank you, Al, for your vision.
Photographed from below, the two statues loom above. A mantled mother of Christendom — after two thousand years of bleaching — looks down upon the reader.2 Her empty, stony look confutes her head tilt’s beckon for your trust. The picture’s black background compels a masculine protrusion of this figure into the reader’s space. At her front, perhaps held forward, the eyes and head-top of another figure break the picture’s bottom frame, though I doubt this second figure is an offering; rather, she is a shield. It is a violent entitlement that the central figure’s judgment should not be reciprocated: then, neither can questions be posed nor prayers sent.
I feel muted, but don’t feel inclined to listen, not to her, at least. I feel more inclined — whether or not in silence — to confront and defy the lies and myths of power. This is the entranceway to Remnants of an Exodus.
Spring Valley, New York is a suburb 22 miles north of New York City near the intersection of Interstate 87 and the Hudson River. Between 2000 and 2010, the village’s proportion of African American residents decreased from nearly 60% to just under 37%.3 The Remnants of Thompson’s project are those of the African Diaspora who remain in Spring Valley after decades of prescribed, persistent gentrification.
Or, these Remnants are an inversion of the aftermath of the forced exodus of eight million Africans from their continent: the pieces of that continent bound now to these parceled lands. Perhaps they are those left shackled by new systems of oppression after President Abraham Lincoln declared chattel slavery a crime against these United States. The Remnants could be ghosts still haunting that desert — stretched out from 1619 to today — whereupon no freedom is secure and no Canaan rises from the private property declared so by genocidal land robbers under the banner of the Lord. But these Remnants are not white; that I know. Whiteness is historically unassailable, the whole cloth from where no pieces have been ripped; America’s forefathers and their white posterity have enforced and ensured this.
That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.4
Rise up, rise up, Sister Rachel, and see the Lord’s deliverance! He done brought us out of Egypt, just like He promised, and we’s free at last!5
Sgt. Charles’ body faces us, decapitated by the picture’s top frame.6 The state has a name, not a face. A mere breath separates holstered from discharged. So “I can’t breathe.” 7
But for the beheading, it’s a fairly standard representation of a policeman: hand on gun, subtle Superman pose, direct address. The decapitation deprives him his specific identity but allows for, hence, an accounting of this familiar object — the policeman — and my associations with it. The nuance proceeds from my subsequent mapping of my own evolving conception of the meaning of this object.
Curious to learn more about Spring Valley, I navigate to its village website, and I’m confronted top and center with a color photograph, ostensibly recent. A line of tightly cropped, rightward angled police officers salute parties unseen off-frame.8 There’s unintentional sincerity in foregrounding such a picture on the website of an actively gentrifying village. Capitalism enables — necessitates even — gentrification, and the police, in turn, enable Capitalism’s elite by protecting their newly acquired properties. In this equation, the dispossessed cannot go home, and a pilgrimage back would be terminated by deputized, armed, uniformed persons — such as those foregrounded upon Spring Valley’s homepage.
Education, wealth, health, and safety gaps are buttressed — by the hegemony through policy and police through force — to ensure the othering, expendability, and exploitation of Black Americans and give rise to an unstable population always at the whim of white profit.
Those who remain in Spring Valley are left to bear witness to the yield of Capitalist prayers, nay dreams, of unfettered profits and fettered Americans.
His hand cradles the Zuzu’s leaves, tends them gently.9 He slowly cultivates a pastoral otherwise often denied to black Americans, especially those in urban environs, where space is more often articulated by fence and concrete than by green pastures and majestic views.
The hooded man may be hiding at the edge of Spring Valley Memorial Park.10 So too may the woman purposefully pressed into the vines.11 Or are they instead taking a place from where to bear witness? Someone has to see or no one will ever know. The photographer does not appear to have disturbed their unflinching gazes but is an intimate in each confined photographic space. Thompson is welcome, and across this project he bears witness, too.
Remnants are described early in the American logos. Article I Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States of America ends with: “…three fifths of all other Persons”.12 Three fifths a human being? Three fifths. America’s founding document tears remnants from whole human beings. The enslaved could not own land but were, instead, property themselves. The Federalism designed by the Constitution gave states the right to decide who could participate in what many mistakenly call this Democratic Experiment. Generally, states offered suffrage to land owning men.
America’s constitutional founding is a dot on the through line from Jamestown at the beginning to Spring Valley, New York (e.g.) today whereon black bodies are systematically dispossessed of their legal humanness and, hence, their rights to agency and to participate in this experiment.
Spring Valley Memorial Park’s ground undergirds nearly half of the pictures; indeed, the park is the book’s primary setting. But there’s no true establishing shot. Thompson photographs upwards at the sky or downwards at the grass or pavement, thus continually fragmenting the space. When he photographs wider, the view of the park is interrupted by dense foliage. To the reader, this could seem miserly. But I can’t help but see this deprivation as generous. If the people of this project have seen other families dispossessed, can foresee that such dispossession may await them, then Thompson leaves the park in their possession as symbolic home.
The Munsee subtribe of the Lenape people call much of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania their ancestral home.13 Theirs may have been the first exodus from Spring Valley. Five-hundred treaties have been signed between Native Americans and The United States of America (or its colonial forebears). The United States has violated or broken every one of those treaties.14
(Q: Is redlining a modern manifestation of broken treaties?15)
The portrait is of his shadow, two dimensions, a ghost there but by the grace of the hot white sun to be extinguished by the cold white clouds.16
The emphasis on the black man’s shadow recalls a long history of the reductive, objectifying, dehumanizing representation of black bodies, from the faux taxonomies of Louis Agassiz to Gauguin’s nymphs to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to, arguably, photographs by contemporary artists such as Viviane Sassen.
This picture should be understood against the many counter-stereotypical pictures within this book: a picture, for example, of two black men in slow embrace;17 or, of a man whose calm introversion belies the stereotype of the muscular, black body that is rarely granted sentience nor superhero-ism but is instead often reduced to an exotic other or, perhaps worse, into a rapacious, reactive antagonism to be endured or thwarted by the white victim, protagonist, or reader.18 This latter dynamic is an exact, intentional inversion of American historical truth, writ large.
Two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order Nº15 in which he promised that,
The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.19
But no reparations have been made, no property given, no forty acres, and nary a mule. Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma was razed, though, in 1921, by a mob of deputized white thugs. (These are the police.) The richest black community in the United States could not stand. Hundreds of black Americans were executed for the crime of building and settling their Canaan.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 31 — June 1, 1921: another dot on the through line (but just one dot of so, so many).
Should I list all of those dots? Honestly, I’m not sure it’s even possible. And what if a list of race massacres distracts from the truth? What if it suggests only isolated incidents? Indeed, these dots are a kind of fiction. The line is reality. While those flashpoints must be remembered, they mark only particularly violent historical moments when America’s forefathers and their white posterity stole, raped, pillaged, tortured, and hung black bodies as an explicit deprivation of black life, liberty, and property. We must remember that the deprivation of black life, liberty, and property is not a series of isolated events in these United States. Black deprivation — the slow and flash alike — is enshrined here.
Here’s the true list, then: United States of America (and its pre-nation colonies), August, 1619 — present.
And what is gentrification if not a slow moving race massacre? Gentrification anchors the other end of the continuum of the violent deprivation of Black Americans of their life, liberty, and property. The sacred American documents proclaim that Canaan is Whites Only.
The United States cannot fulfill its promises so long as its very foundation is the whole cloth of white supremacy. The ideals of these promises can only manifest if we together grow something that doesn’t lie to us all.
But who’s together if the United States of America is apart? I wish I had some grand idea. I wish I knew how to burn the whole cloth and sew new parts into something that would ensure equality, mend the value gap, and reinforce the wholeness of each black person. I fear the hearts of too many white Americans are hardening at this desperate time when this country needs for their hearts to soften.
Composed of long, drooping branches and thin, spiraling leaves, an anthropomorphic form emerges at the center of a Weeping Willow.20 Its back is arched, arms outstretched in rejoice or in despair. This form also appears hung (itself an echo of Thompson’s re-staging of African Americans’ transgenerational trauma of lynching21).
It is this form with whom I commune, for the picture provides only the Willow and a foreground for my approach. In this moment of intimacy, I ask what unspoken memories this veil of leaves hides? What have you seen, tree?
Later, at another Willow, I’m directed above its wind blown leaves.22 I see a lone bird too distant to be but a silhouette. I wonder, if a bird loses its flock,23 is it free?
I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.24
I like people because I think that they have something; yes they do, I know they do. They have something they don’t trust. If only they could trust that “thing,” they would be less afraid of being touched, less afraid of loving each other, less afraid of being changed by each other. Life would be different. Our children would not be victims that they are now, we would not be either. But for some reason love is the most frightful thing; something that the human being is most in need of and dreads most.25
To ground the conclusion of this essay, I’d like to define a term: Love (verb). I think love becomes action in the expression of the following traits toward both self and other: honesty; a developed conception of wholeness, embracing and confronting strength and flaw alike; vulnerability and a wholehearted disavowal of objectifying and mythologizing in favor of earnest, complicated communion. Succinctly: Love (verb) is confronting self, other, and our shared space-time without defense or manipulation. This active Love dissolves the distinctions of self and other, thus begetting Love (noun).
I feel rather self-conscious suggesting that love could be a new foundation for this nation. It feels too cute coming from a white man even if this white man tends to believe it. But I think Al — who told me that “Love is tethered to community” — would suggest as much. Love is uniquely suited, for white supremacy is spun from its inverse. If you love, truly, a grand construction can begin anew. Then maybe Canaan can be built, after all. Maybe. It would have to hold and tend all Americans for the country to become what it falsely proclaims to be.
I hear Love in Al’s pictures of Spring Valley. And it’s on readers to listen, to revise what love and community means to them. The pictures in Remnants of an Exodus challenge my image of blackness — the one projected on the whole cloth to trick us. The project demands a humanizing and de-othering of the black bodies (and their experiences) encoded for four-hundred years as exactly other, as divinely enslaved, as three fifths, as undeserving of American Dreaming and property and agency, and as subject to dispossession, destruction, and death at the whims of whiteness.
Taken in the aggregate, the photographs of Remnants of an Exodus are defiant: those pictured are complicated, manifold Americans deserving of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.26 Al J. Thompson bears witness, and it is this act of love that both asserts and embodies the wholeness and humanity of Spring Valley’s Remnants.
This book is an invitation for you to love, too, actively, honestly, and courageously.
In the spirit of unity: Godspeed.