Owens Daniels wants his “Brown Paper Bag” photography exhibit to open up a dialogue about the damage caused when people are separated by “isms.”
His exhibit opens Feb. 3 at Unleashed Arts Center, 204 W. Sixth St. It explores “colorism” that occurred in black culture and “how it has influenced our perception of ourselves in social value, beauty, status, education, economics and many other aspects of black life,” Daniels said.
“I refuse to believe that racism is a one-way street,” Daniels, 59, said. “You can’t be honest with society if you’re not honest with yourself. I picked a subject within the African-American community that was obscure in the white community. Hurt people hurt people. Whenever you have an ‘ism’ you have to look into that thing and see what other thing is there.”
Behind “isms,” Daniels said, is the belief that, “As long as one person has something and one person doesn’t, then the gods must like me, and therefore there’s a reason for me to be superior over you.”
“The lesson is ‘isms’ create ‘isms’ and that’s what you have to be aware of. Racism creates its own problems. It will make you hurt people. It will make you seek a way of superiority of yourself. It will enslave people. It gets passed down. If you don’t air it out there for debate, now you can’t see out and they can’t see in. There’s something deeper here.”
Daniels expanded the exhibit to include a variety of other art forms, including music by singer Diana Tuffin and percussionist Bill Smith. Nathan Ross Freeman, playright, filmmaker, and co-founder and artistic director of Authoring Action, said he will be “deliberating on the term colorist.”
“Everything Owens does is ground breaking,” Freeman said in an email. “It will be a nuance exhibit and presentation by iconoclasts.”
Winston-Salem Writers will invite writers to view Daniels’ photography and choose an image that speaks to them to write an essay or poem.
“We partnered with Owens for an ekphrasis event for his ‘Birth of the Cool’ exhibit, and it was a great experience,” said Judie Holcomb-Pack, a member of Winston-Salem Writers’ board of directors. “It is challenging and rewarding to try to express in words what he has captured in a photograph.”
Daniels said he is not seeking to start conflict or controversy. He hopes to open a dialogue about how the black community struggled and overcame the practices and misguided values of colorism.
A hidden hurt
Daniels’ idea for the exhibit evolved in the aftermath of HB2 and social turmoil that erupted after police brutality was reported in the news, and the term “racism” became widespread.
“It came out of the social issues that were around me, injecting a conversation into a conversation. It is to open up a dialogue and conversation about what effects racism can have.”
It wasn’t that racism hadn’t been there, he said, but “it came bubbling to the top as the cover for everything that happened. I got tired of looking at the TV and being told what racism was. I remembered racism is a two-way street. It’s not a one-way force. I remember having a conversation with my wife and talking about the brown-paper bag as a part of racism in the black community. It’s not something you see every day, but it’s there.”
“The ‘ism’ divides people everywhere — any time you have a have and a have-not situation,” he said, and each culture has its own way of trying to differentiate power, resulting in “its own negativity.”
Daniels said that in 1982 Alice Walker “coined the phrase ‘colorism,’” also known as shadism, which refers to discrimination and social meaning based on skin color.
“The brown-paper bag was a way for middle-class blacks to differentiate themselves from lower-class blacks,” Daniels said. Lighter skin meant “the closer you were to the master; the darker you were, the closer you were to the field slave.”
“The brown-paper bag test was a real thing. This was the creature eating itself from the inside out. That was another way for them to say ‘I’m better than you.’ If you were dark, you couldn’t live in certain places in the community.”
Daniels said a brown-paper bag was placed on a door post. Skin color determined which college a person could attend and which fraternities or sororities could be joined.
“If you wanted to come in, you had to be lighter than the brown bag. That decided professions, that decided if you were going to be a deacon. Darker actors played salacious roles and villains.”
A lot of blacks would try to pass as white, he said, because “life was just easier.”
Daniels interviewed old and young people to learn about their perceptions of colorism and how it influenced their lives. He anticipated stories from the older generation, but he was surprised to learn that three black women who recently graduated from Wake Forest University Law School felt it.
“They knew about it,” he said. “One of them was light, one was medium, one was dark. The lightest one said she paid the price. She was caught between two worlds. I was shocked. She felt a lot of pressure because she felt a separation from her darker-skinned friends. She felt white people absorbed her into the group, but took her for granted. The dark-skinned girl, she came to law school to prove ‘I’m just as good.’ The residue of that situation is still there.”
“People have lived those lives and passed and would not come back. The unifying thread I’ve seen among these conversations is the lighter-skinned people pay a higher price. They do get some benefits, but they have to pay with their soul.”
The art of the brown bag
Daniels photographed six black models of different shades with an assortment of brown bags.
“I needed shades to make the bags stand out,” he said. “I took the brown-paper bag, and I wanted it to become its own personality. When I went to arrange the bags, the person only became a prop to the bag. I wanted to make it fine art. I wanted to make it sexy. I wanted the bag to be educated. Instead of it becoming an object of your scorn, I wanted to create a conversation between the subject matter. It’s open interpretation how you react to the bags. It provokes that without me being confrontational.”
Daniels wants his exhibit to spark conversation and education about how and why people separate themselves from one another in order to move past hurtful division.
“I’m an optimist,” Daniels said. “As long as you become self-confident about who you are and your contribution to society and your culture in the fabric of humanity, then that gives value. Then you can’t be devalued because you know your value is intrinsic, and your value adds to humanity, and humanity adds that fabric to the world.”