My sons are 15 and 12. We don’t do it every day, but frequently we sit down and talk about events. We talked about George Floyd, because I was in Houston to photograph the funeral after George died May 25 with a policeman’s knee on his neck.
I started out by saying to them that when I was allowed to go into the church and photograph George, I did not photograph him for 12 minutes. Like, people were behind me going, Dude, let’s go. You know, the line of people waiting.
But for me it was important to tell George’s body thanks. Thanks for his life. Thanks for the opportunities that we’re all going to get because of his death. Thanks for what is going to shift the narrative, what’s going to be changed because of his death. And it was important to do that.
I wanted them to understand that moment—that you’re not going to get Angela Davis on the front of Vanity Fair, or Breonna Taylor does not go on the front of a magazine, just because. We’re getting all of this influx of interest in racial justice, and this attention is coming because of all these names, all these hashtags. And so it was important for me to let them understand what that death means for us.
That it’s not just, he’s dead and gone, and here is another dead, hashtagged person. That his death is going to allow us new life, a new voice, a new push, and that our job is to be a part of this struggle and a part of this fight in a very positive way.
My sons, they can’t go anywhere; they understand what that is. I do not allow them to ride around the block in Cleveland. They cannot go take their bikes and go outside without me or their mom watching them. That’s their reality.
I keep telling my boys that they have to be about loving—loving who they are and loving their culture. My sons have the distinction of having a mom who is half Chinese. And so they do adopt parts of the Chinese culture. And I am Jamaican, so they do adopt a lot of the Jamaican culture. And they are Americans, so they live in an American culture.
I’ve always tried to give them this very holistic way of being in the world. But as they’re doing that, they have to start loving and appreciating their culture and not believe that what’s outside of theirs is better than theirs. We have to get to the space where we truly love our culture enough to be able to live in it.
EMBRACING A HISTORY WITH PHOTOGRAPHS
Ruddy Roye’s first assignment for National Geographic was to photograph people who donated artifacts to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 2016. “For me it was a huge deal,” Roye says, “because I was photographing people who have lived with Nat Turner’s Bible, they have lived with their ancestor’s free paper, they have lived with the clothes and belongings of James Baldwin. And finally, these items were going to be put in a space where they could be shared.”
Roye recalls the assignment as “really tough” because many artifacts came with painful stories, and the items’ faithful guardians were now aged and infirm.
“I felt honored and humbled by them,” Roye says. “Meeting Elaine Thompson, a person who had preserved her ancestor’s free paper—and then knowing that she died a few months after I had photographed her. There’s nothing in my life that can rise to that moment.”
For years, Roye says, he vowed “that I would never go to anybody else’s museum until I had one. So finally I get to embrace a history that I thought was lacking. It was beautiful to me.”
Roye feels a duty to tell these stories as well as photographs can. He relates that to “a saying my mom always said: ‘If not you, who?’ So I embraced the responsibility with a lot of grace and gratitude.” —PG
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