Julia Rendleman's "Commonwealth"
*This story was posted in partnership with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism
Since moving to Richmond in 2016, a good number of my news assignments have been about history - commemorating it or changing how it is told. I’ve covered Lee Jackson Day and MLK Day, decaying plantations and 1619 ceremonies, the destruction of old monuments and the unveiling of new statues, historic battlefields and new battle lines.
As a school girl growing up in Indiana, Illinois and Maryland, I loved history. So much of what I learned in books happened right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was excited to visit the hallowed places, but became troubled to see what was venerated: Confederates on horseback lining Monument Avenue, well-tended and preserved Civil War cemeteries and plantations.
Meanwhile, when I explored the Southampton County courthouse for the history of Nat Turner's rebellion, I found a statue and a plaque to Confederate soldiers who were fighting "Northern Invaders" and fought to "preserve the principles on which our country was founded." Only a part of Virginia's history was on display.
In the quiet, in-between moments, though, I could feel living history all around me, breathing on my neck. Every artifact, every shadow was whispering about the past, saying it was “present.” This little collection of images is my diary of those feelings. It is open to your interpretation - how do you see your place in the history we make today?
Julia Rendleman's "Commonwealth" Photographs Say the Past Is the Present
By John Edwin Mason
We ignore most of the photographs that we see. An endless stream of images flickers past us on our phone and computer screens, in newspapers and magazines, on TV, on billboards, and in stores. We register some for an instant, only to forget them just as quickly. A few, because of their beauty or their sheer spectacle, stop us in our tracks. They tell us a story of joy or suffering in a moment or two, and we move on. Only rarely will we linger on a photograph and try to see beneath the surface of things.
The photographs in Julia Rendleman's "Commonwealth" series ask us to linger. We sense that a great depth of meaning and emotion is hidden under their surfaces, but these images reveal their secrets slowly. To understand them, to solve their mysteries, we slow to a stop. We must abide with them.
Rendleman aptly says that these are photographs of "quiet, in-between moments." She made them during the last four years, a tumultuous period in Virginia and the nation as a whole. We have seen the reappearance of an often violent strain of white nationalism, protests that asserted Black Lives Matter in the face of police killings of unarmed African Americans, and, more recently, a pandemic that has killed over 6,000 Virginians, 400,000 Americans, and 2,100,000 people worldwide. Although Rendleman covered many of these events in her work as a photojournalist, few of those images appear in "Commonwealth." Instead, these photographs take us away from the shouting, tears, and anger and into a more contemplative place. They ask us to think about how the Virginia of this troubled moment came to be. That is, they ask us to see the past as well as the present in these images.
Rendleman has written that, as she made the pictures in "Commonwealth," she "could feel living history all around me, breathing on my neck...whispering about the past, saying it was 'present.'” Her words echo those of W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African American historian and activist, who wrote over 70 years ago, that "the past is the present; that without what was, nothing is."
We ignore history at our peril. Without history we cannot explain why some people cling so fiercely to the Confederate flag, why African Americans are so often the victims of unwarranted police violence, or why African Americans and Latinx suffer disproportionately from the Covid-19 virus.
Fleeing from the past prevents us from seeing the present clearly. What we do not understand we cannot change. At the same time, our failure to acknowledge history keeps us from knowing ourselves. As James Baldwin put it during an equally unsettled time in the life of this nation over a half century ago, "the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways... history is literally present in all that we do."
We are reluctant to grapple with the past because so much of it is a history of violence inflicted and suffering endured. We, as Virginians and Americans, carry within ourselves the genocidal pursuit of Native American tribes, two-and-a-half centuries of the enslavement of African Americans, and close to a century of Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination. This history lives on in the present as trauma that is re-experienced by each generation. Too often we obscure our history with legends, myths, and ideologies that justified conquest and enslavement. They live on because they comfort us in ways that history cannot. They absolve our ancestors of their crimes and legitimate present day injustice.
Looking the past squarely in the face is a necessary act of courage, as Baldwin knew. It is "with great pain and terror" that we begin "to assess the history which has placed one where one is." History's claims and demands on us are impositions that we try to wish away in the same way that we tried to wish away the white supremacists who caused mayhem and death during the Unite the Right rally, in Charlottesville, in August 2017. But history will not be denied. We rub shoulders with history's ghosts every day of our lives. They remind us that we are because they were.
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It might seem odd to suggest that we can see deep into history by looking at photographs that were made so recently, imagining that photographs can only show us what something looked like at the moment of exposure. It is true that photographs are literally superficial and that they cannot explain themselves. That is why photojournalists and documentary photographers use captions. We see an image of someone laughing. We wonder who the person is, where they are, and why they are expressing joy. A caption can tell us. The photograph, by itself, cannot.
In "Commonwealth," Rendleman has captioned her photographs, although not in the way that she would if she intended them to be seen as photojournalism. The captions simply locate people and places in time and space. They do not try to explain. They are clues to the photographs' mysteries, inviting us, the viewers, to seek our own meaning in them. These images are akin to fine art photography and are, as Rendleman says in her introduction, open to our interpretation.
The act of discovering meaning in these photographs cannot be a passive experience. If we are to do them justice and honor the vision and creativity that shaped them, we have to work at it, bringing out entire selves -- body, mind, and spirit -- to the process. If we do, we will find ourselves looking at these photographs as if we were reading a poem, seeing beneath the surface of things.
Sometimes emblems of the past are the first thing we see in "Commonwealth's" images -- a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, for instance. Before the summer of 2020, it might seem to have been, on its surface, a memorial to a great military commander and the honorable cause for which he fought. Yet we know that interpretation has always been contested. Soon after the monument was dedicated, 1890, John Mitchell, Jr., who had been born into slavery and who then edited The Planet, an African American newspaper in Richmond, wrote that the glorification of the Confederacy and men, like Lee, "who represented that cause...will ultimately result in the handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.”
Rendleman made another photograph of the Lee monument, last July, that brings the struggle over its meaning to the surface. In this image, we see that Black Lives Matter activists have transformed the monument and the plaza that surrounds it. Multicolored graffiti covers the statue's massive base. Although the graffiti is not legible in this photograph, most Virginians -- indeed, most Americans -- will have seen other pictures that show that it denounces white supremacy, police violence, and Lee himself. The plaza, renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle by activists, after a young Black man who was killed by Richmond police, in 2018, has become a site where people protest injustice, rather than pay homage to Lee and enslavers' republic that he fought to preserve.
Often we have to work harder to find the layers of history beneath the surface of Rendleman's photographs. She has captioned one "Joseph Rogers portraying James Apostle Fields at Point Comfort, Hampton, Va. August 2019." In the photograph, Rogers, an African American, seems to gaze out into the waters of Chesapeake Bay. Point Comfort's name might ring a bell. At this spot, in 1619, "20 and odd" African captives arrived in Virginia aboard a British privateer. They were the first enslaved Africans to enter British North America. We wonder if Rogers can see that ship, the White Lion, in his mind's eye, and hear the clank of the chains that bound the captives. Perhaps he is looking beyond the Chesapeake and beyond the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. Or perhaps Rogers is instead thinking about more recent history. He is dressed to portray James Apostle Fields, who was born into slavery, in Hanover County, yet went on to become a lawyer and, briefly, a member of Virginia's House of Delegates. A simple photograph yields layers of possible meaning.
History saturates all of the images in "Commonwealth." If we understand the Atlantic slave trade and recognize the resilience of enslaved people, we will see traces of Africa in two of the series' photographs. Gifts and tributes left for the dead, on or near their graves, show the survival and transformation of centuries-old African cultural traditions. In another photograph, we see a fireplace and mantelpiece at the Belmead mansion, once a plantation's "big house." We might wonder how many enslaved workers, over how many years, built the fire, swept away the ashes, and tidied the elegant room. We might ask if they had children and parents and grandparents and if the white people who enslaved them cared about their family ties. We see a burial ground for the enslaved and want to know -- but can never know -- whose remains are in that soil.
This history is hard. We wish that we could celebrate Thomas Jefferson's words -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident...all men are created equal...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" -- without acknowledging that he enslaved and exploited scores of his fellow human beings, among which were his own children. But there is inevitably pain and terror in this engagement with the past, as Baldwin said. Despite its burdens, it is a duty that Americans, especially white Americans, should not shirk. The last four years, culminating in the violent white supremacist insurrection at the Capital, in Washington, D.C., on January 6th, reinforce the power of Baldwin's insight that the unwillingness of so many white people "to face their history, to change their lives...hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world."
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One of my great-grandfathers, a Virginian who was born enslaved, is buried in Lynchburg's Old City Cemetery, just beyond the walls of the Confederate section. During the Civil War, he fought for the United States, against the Confederacy, in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, a fact that is noted on the plaque that marks his grave. He was one of 180,000 Black men who wore the uniform of the U.S. Army in the war. I try to visit his grave every Memorial Day. By the time I arrive, a volunteer has already placed an American flag next to his marker. Volunteers have, in fact, put flags on the graves of all of those who served in uniform. The last time I was there, in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, American flags, not Confederate flags, also decorated the graves of the Confederate dead.
In 1863, when the outcome of the war was still in doubt, Abraham Lincoln visited the bloody battlefield at Gettysburg. There he asked a question that we, as a nation, have never fully answered. Can a nation "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...long endure?" The question was still pertinent three decades later, at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, when Monument Avenue was conceived and the Lee statue erected. Much more recently, its enduring relevance has been impossible to ignore as the politics of white nationalism have reemerged, sometimes violently. What will America be: a white man's country or a multi-racial democracy?
The American flags that volunteers placed on the graves of both United States and Confederate soldiers give me hope that this country will choose democracy. They are a small but significant sign that many white people are putting aside their allegiance to the myths and legends that legitimate white supremacy. The flags are a gesture in the direction of democracy. We can see similar dynamics at work in the activism and political debates that have brought down Confederate statues in many parts of Virginia. At the same time, histories that have been slighted for too long, especially those of African Americans and Native Americans, have an increasingly prominent place in the classroom and in the public sphere. It is a hopeful trend and one that history assures us will continue. It will face stout opposition, as well, for history's path is never straight.
Virginia is a commonwealth, a political community dedicated to the good of all its people. The word appeared in its first constitution, in 1776. Like the vision of America that Jefferson outlined in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, it has always been more imagined than real. For over two hundred years, however, people have fought to make the idea of commonwealth a reality, and they have won victories along the way. The photographs that Rendleman has assembled in "Commonwealth" show us this shared past -- the pain and suffering that some of our ancestors inflicted and that others endured, the fight for and against freedom. Although this history manifests itself differently in our contemporary lives, it binds us to each other, making us a commonwealth of grief and grievance. This is a terrible place to be. Rendleman's photographs remind us that we honor the past by continuing the struggle to make Virginia a commonwealth in the best and truest sense of the word.
Julia Rendleman is a freelance photojournalist based in Richmond, Virginia reporting on human health, poverty, resilience and the environment. Her work has been used to advocate for affordable housing reform and for harm reduction approaches to substance abuse and rehabilitation.
She has received three grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. One for a video story about the effects global economics have on Jamaican farmers , another for a photo essay about Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal and for a series about a woman navigating addiction recovery in prison. In 2010, she was named a Getty Images Emerging Talent Photographer. That same year she received a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography for a story about a women’s prison in southern Illinois. She is a Blue Earth project photographer.
Her work has been published in VCIJ, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, National Public Radio and other national news outlets. She is a member of Women Photograph.
John Edwin Mason
John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography. He has written extensively on early nineteenth-century South Africa history, especially the history of slavery, South African popular culture, especially the Cape Town New Year's Carnival and jazz, and the history of photography. He is now working on "Gordon Parks and American Democracy," a book about the ways in which Parks' Life magazine photo-essays on social justice and the books that he published during the civil rights era challenged Americans' notions of citizenship and, at the same time, made him one of the era's most significant interpreters of the black experience. He is also a documentary photographer with a long-term interest in exploring race and gender in American motor sports. Until recently, he was an active musician, performing with the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra, the Lynchburg (Virginia) Symphony Orchestra, and the New Lyric Theatre, among many other groups. He contributes regularly to Ellingtonia, the publication of the Duke Ellington Society.