Monday, November 2, 2015

Alysia Burton Steele's Delta Jewels

Oxford, MS-based photographer Alysia Burton Steele has published Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom, Steele's project to document -- and learn wisdom from -- the folks Steele calls the Jewels in the Delta.

We've discussed Steele's work previously on this blog (go here), where we learned that Steele's Jewels in the Delta are the church mothers of black Baptist congregations in the Mississippi Delta, over 50 of them, who have shared their stories with Steele while she made their portraits.

Church mothers are leaders in their church communities, recognized for their skills in organizing programs, providing comfort and support to those in need, helping preserve traditions, and inspiring young women in their communities.  
Steele's grandmother was a Delta church mother, so the story of the Delta Jewels is also Steele's story, and a story about a remarkable group of people through whom we can come to understand the role of women in Southern religious culture. 

In Delta Jewels, Steele finds a way to do a number of things simultaneously -- to bring us beautifully seen images of women of courage, fortitude, and a sense of their place in history -- but also to understand through these folks at least something of Steele's grandmother's generation and the role of women in Southern religious culture.

The publisher's blurb for Delta Jewels gets the book just about right.

The book documents "ordinary women [who] lived extraordinary lives under the harshest conditions of the Jim Crow era and during the courageous changes of the Civil Rights Movement. 

"Steele [has] recorded . . . living witnesses to history and folk ways, and shares the significance of being a Black woman--child, daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother in Mississippi--a Jewel of the Delta."

As I've said frequently, Southern photography is about making meaning of the experience of the American South, in all its tragic complexity. 

The experience of the South can often lead us to bitterness or anger, even  to despair.  

Steele, in these images and in the stories of the women she photographs, finds reason for hope. The faces of the women we see in Steele's images are the faces of people who have found ways of living lives of dignity and purpose and meaning, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

If you want to explore further the kinds of histories and and legacies these women embody, check out a performance of Crowns, by Regina Taylor, when it comes to a theater near you. 
When Delta Jewels was published, there was a gathering of church mothers at the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Mound Bayou, MS,  which was attended by over 300 people, and you can read about that gathering here.

Congratulations to Steele for her fine work, and for this outstanding contribution to the legacy of Southern photography.  

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