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This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue of National Geographic that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us. Tell us your story with #IDefineMe.

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In depictions by Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop, the black struggle for freedom is as global as the history of protest yet as personal as each protester’s story.

It’s so personal, in fact, that Diop himself plays every male role in the photo series “Liberty,” vignettes he created based on visual and written sources in Africa and the African diaspora. The scenes, set apart by time, geography, and scope, present a vibrant, visual chronology of these consequential events.

This story helps launch a series about racial, ethnic, and religious groups and their changing roles in 21st-century life. The series runs through 2018 and will include coverage of Muslims, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

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THE WOMEN’S WAR, NIGERIA, 1929 To protest oppression by British colonial rulers in southeastern Nigeria, women from the Ibo ethnic group rioted. After two months of unrest, the rulers agreed to reforms. Diop asked friend Khadija Boye to play the women in the photo series: “We have a striking physical resemblance, which sort of makes her look like my female alter ego.”
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THE DAKAR-NIGER RAILWAY STRIKE, WEST AFRICA, 1947 During an era of French occupation in West Africa, African railroad employees faced unfair and discriminatory working conditions, including worse pay and benefits than French railway workers’. A strike by African workers represented a turning point in the struggle against racism and colonialism on the continent.

The images in “Liberty” commemorate slave revolts, independence movements, social justice quests, and the events that sparked them. Subjects range from Queen Nanny and her brother, Quao, who rebelled against British colonialists to establish a community of former slaves in 18th-century Jamaica, to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teen whose 2012 shooting by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.

Diop composed scenes using multiple images of himself—but “the picture would be far from complete if it didn’t feature female characters,” he says. “Black women played a role as important as their male counterparts’ in the struggle.” His friend Khadija Boye poses as all the women in the series.

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THE FREEMAN FIELD MUTINY, INDIANA, 1945 The only black bomber group created during World War II was at Freeman Army Airfield in southern Indiana when its officers tried to integrate an all-white officers’ club. More than a hundred men were arrested, and three were court-martialed. Historians consider it a significant turn in the campaign to end racial segregation in the U.S. military.

From his vantage in Senegal, Diop designed his latest project to draw a parallel “between the chronology of protest movements on the continent and that of similar movements in the diaspora happening at similar time periods.” He did so, he has said, in hopes of “trying to have a more universal reading of the history of black protest, in order to build bridges for a better understanding of the question.”

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THE SONACOTRA TENANTS’ STRIKE, FRANCE, 1975-1980 Since the mid-20th century, immigrants to France—many from former French colonies in North Africa—had been concentrated in public housing run by the Sonacotra agency. For five years starting in 1975, dissatisfied residents waged a rent strike to demand better living conditions at lower cost and the right to represent themselves in talks with management.

Diop’s images are rich with telling details, based on the careful study of historical clothing and textiles as well as the symbolism of local plants and flowers. The distinctions challenge the Western tendency to see Africa, and the lives of black people throughout the world, as monolithic—as an “abstract concept rather than a reality,” in Diop’s words. His meticulous re-creations remind us that protests are more than physical actions. They’re also cultural events in which clothing and style are a form of political expression, from the flower garlands worn by Selma marchers, a gift from a Hawaiian clergyman as a symbol of respect and solidarity, to the signature berets and leather jackets of the Black Panther Party in the United States.

By recasting history and posing as its subjects, Diop makes the past come alive in the present. He focuses on our collective humanity, affirming the debt we owe to the efforts of our ancestors. And he reminds us that historically, this activism didn’t just affect the lives of participants—it altered the destinies of future generations.

Diop’s meditations on the historic quest for freedom are at once sobering and exhilarating. Like the events that inspire them, these dramatic scenes are haunted by the specter of violence, murder, and oppression—but they also resonate with optimism and hope. In the end, “Liberty” celebrates the power of black resistance, in its many forms, to change the world.

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THIAROYE CAMP, SENEGAL, 1944 African soldiers from the French Army’s Tirailleurs Sénégalais units, returning home after being imprisoned by Germany in France during World War II, were promised back pay for their service. When France didn’t fulfill its promise of payment, soldiers at a military camp in Dakar staged protests. Authorities responded by massacring scores of the soldiers.
Omar Victor Diop produces fashion and advertising photography as well as fine art photo projects. He is based in Dakar, Senegal. Maurice Berger is a cultural historian. He writes a series of essays, “Race Stories,” that appears on the Lens Blog of the New York Times.


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