Sage Advice: Family Wonders What to Do with Racist Photo

By Amy Dickinson | April 18th, 2018

Dear Amy: I am in a quandary. When my husband and his three brothers divided up what was left of my in-laws’ possessions after my father-in-law died, we received the majority of photos. I finally have time to go through and sort them.

In the process, I came upon a very large photo that was taken in 1934 and it showed everyone from my mother-in-law’s Halloween office party.

Almost everyone in the photo is dressed in a costume, and that’s where my problem comes in.

There must be about 50 to 70 people in the very large photo, and four of them are in blackface. Although I am appalled by this, I also feel that it is a piece of my husband’s family history. I have told my children about it and, while no one is OK with it, they are also torn because it is part of the past that is appalling, but their grandmother is in the photo.

I feel it’s something that needs to be addressed, because (to paraphrase a great quote), if we don’t learn from history, we’re bound to repeat it.

– Photo Finished

Dear Finished: I just finished reading an article by prominent African-American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates (also the host of “Finding Your Roots,” on PBS) on whether artifacts such as this should be kept, or burned in a massive hellfire.

After outlining both sides of the argument, Gates comes down on the side of saving these heinous reminders of racism that Americans have both inflicted and endured, for the exact reason you cite: the need not to repeat history.

You should consider donating this photo to an archive that will place it into context. Harvard University houses an extensive collection called: “Image of the Black in Western Art archive,” comprised of over 26,000 images, some of which are quite obviously and overtly racist. You should also discuss this openly in your family; it is a perfect illustration of how racism is shot through our country’s history, revealed even in something as benign as an office Halloween party.

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

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