A guest posting by Bancroft researcher E. Rafael Perez
We are happy to present a guest posting by researcher E. Rafael Perez, who shares his experience viewing original photographic negatives in the Bancroft reading room. Negatives, often with no matching prints extant, are made available by appointment with a week’s notice. Researchers may make their own reference snapshots for personal study, as illustrated below, and may place photo orders for high quality digital imaging of selected items.
Since being acquired by the Bancroft Library, the Eldridge Cleaver Papers have given scholars a glimpse into his eclectic experiences. Spanning his early days as Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, continuing into his time in exile as head of the Black Panther Party’s International Section, and following right on through to his eventual return to the United States—after which he served time in prison, became a born-again Christian and made appearances in support of the Republican Party—the Cleaver Papers and the Eldridge Cleaver Photograph Collection provide context into a complex and layered life. The rarely-seen photographic negatives found in the Eldridge Cleaver Photograph Collection provide consequential traces of life events not covered by other parts of the collection.
For the uninitiated, photographic negatives are the in-camera originals of 20th century photography, in the form of sheets or strips of film in which the darkest areas of a photographed subject appear lightest and the lightest appear darkest. At the Bancroft Library, negatives are stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent relative humidity. Interested parties make an appointment ahead of time to schedule a viewing, as negatives must spend some time acclimatizing before use. This process highlights archivists’ challenge of balancing the best practices of presentation to the researcher and the best methods of preservation. Nevertheless, examining the over 480 35-millimeter negatives of the Eldridge Cleaver Photograph Collection provides fertile ground for historical exploration.
In 1970 Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver traveled to North Korea, in part because Eldridge had helped organize the United States Anti-Imperialist Delegation. The delegation traveled between North Korea, China, the USSR, and Vietnam in search of models of self-sufficiency during the Cold War. The delegation consisted of representatives from various political and media organizations. (A full list of delegation participants is available online via the Wilson Center.) At the time, North Korea sought to project itself as a model for postcolonial development to the decolonizing world. Cleaver’s own disillusionment with this vision of North Korea would not come until later, a shift that is also covered in the Cleaver Papers. While some may believe the photographic negatives to be the unfinished and inconvenient templates of the photograph collection, the negatives provide more possibilities for analysis through their many unprinted strips.
One example of the usefulness of the Cleaver negatives is a series, reproduced in part here, that depicts a birthday party held for Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver’s son Maceo. The negatives provide an intimate portrait of the event, as the family is flanked by Korean and American attendees. Though these photographs were apparently not printed by Cleaver, we see through them a new thread of information that helps us piece together the visual history of Cleaver’s travels and, more broadly, the exchanges between the Black Panther Party’s International Section and solidarity movements among nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Rather than using images to simply supplement textual evidence in historical writing, this instance reveals the possibilities for expanding narratives through visual histories. How might we more frequently incorporate the use of photography in its rawest and least edited form—the negative—as a source in the study of history? How might we seek to incorporate visual resources into narratives while still maintaining a critical lens regarding these events? To begin to answer these questions as a community, researchers might begin to look for similar threads within their own source bases.
- Bloom, Joshua and Waldo E. Martin. Black Against Empire: The History and the Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press, c2013.
- Malloy, Sean. Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism During the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017.
- Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun. Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013.
- Young, Benjamin. “Juche in the United States: The Black Panther Party’s Relations with North Korea, 1969-1971.” In The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 12, No. 2, March 30, 2015.
E. Rafael Perez is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. He is a recipient of the 2018 Mellon Fellowships for Dissertation Research in Original Sources, administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). For more recommendations that reflect the recent rise of rigorous historical research related to the Black Panther International Section, please contact him at erp1[at]uchicago.edu.