One experiences a reverent, if not deceptive, silence upon entering The Black Vernacular—a gallery-worthy Tumblr site exhibiting ancestors of the Diaspora. The subjects have all passed on, yet the images speak in resonate, hushed tones: a slight tilt of a head or arch of a smile; backs erect or hunched with age; the cock of a fedora; an ageless stare. “There are elements of resurrection,” says Dwayne Rodgers, conceptualist and curator (a title he often shares with the viewers who submit photographs for the site).
Accordingly, the snapshots of famous and everyday people are a spectacular representation of the vernacular genre, which embraces and celebrates the amateur photographic eye. And while each image is singularly compelling, together they weave a rich tapestry of a collective history and shared mother tongue.
As Rodgers recently prepared for the third major update of The Black Vernacular, he spoke with Brianna Hyneman Jones for EBONY.com about the site as a “collective altar” and what the future holds for the archive.
EBONY: What inspired the creation of The Black Vernacular?
Dwayne Rodgers: I wanted to find a way of talking about history outside of the hero paradigm. I always think of James Brown when this question comes up. As amazing as he is, he didn’t pop out of a void. The Black Vernacular doesn’t take his contributions out of the equation, but recognizes the people upon whose shoulders he stood. I wanted to create a democratic space where our ancestors are acknowledged in that way.
EBONY: You sometimes refer to people who submit photos as “co-curators.” How did this come about?
DR: For each submission, a relative of that person has to make the effort to find the photograph, scan it and send it to me. In many cases they have to do the work of researching the person’s name or their relationship to them.
EBONY: Why did you decide to only include names and not biographical information?
DR: I wanted to create a minimal space where the viewer is allowed to participate imaginatively. In some ways, omitting biography creates a different kind of dialogue. It allows the viewer to enter a meditative, solemn space where you can sit with these people quietly.
EBONY: Like a memorial?
DR: One way I think of it is as a collective altar. I like the idea that you have multiple people in communion with each other across all sorts of space and time.
EBONY: Why a digital format?
DR: The Internet seems like this space where one can find everything there is to know, but there are certain people whose digital trail is limited or never existed. We both know how many gaps there are in our history; I wanted to fill one of those gaping holes.
EBONY: What happens next with The Black Vernacular?
DR: This project has no end. I would like for it to become a larger altar and archive while remaining true to its basic ethos, which is to use and engage technology in an interesting way. We’ve entered the “pixel zone.” Rather than reject that space, let’s bring our ancestors along with us. Used properly, that space not only becomes a mode of transferring information but of spirit.
Brianna Hyneman Jones is a freelance writer and event producer currently living and working in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @briannahyjones.