Turning points in life aren’t always recognizable. Sometimes they are a series of events, like mine, that last a year. The year I graduated from high school was a year of mini-revelations that were in fact harbingers of the life that lay ahead.

I grew up in an economically disadvantaged African-American neighborhood. Students were bused to the all-Black Carver High School, which was fifteen miles away. Understand, I’m not complaining, because we were well-educated, and I was part of the “Talented Tenth,” as W.E.B. Du Bois would call our class leaders at the school. I excelled at everything—math, chemistry, music—though I was no athlete.

During my senior year, I was forced to attend the newly built and integrated, yet predominantly white, MacArthur High School. Suddenly, my life changed. For the first time, I realized I would not be judged by my abilities, or my promise, or my dreams, but by the judgments others made because of my race. I was sentenced to an English class that was similar to my eighth-grade experience, while my former classmates at Carver were interrogating Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Proust. There were also band traditions at Carver High School that I missed. I was a member of the Four First Trumpets. Each year the band played Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests,” in which there are a number of trumpet solos. At graduation, there were three trumpets because one was in the graduating cohort. Our solos were to honor that graduating soloist. I missed having that honor for which I had waited since my freshman year. I continue to think about that some forty years later.

"Twins" and "Marco and Irma" by Titus Brooks Heagins"Robert" and "Chris & Xavier" by Titus Brooks HeaginsWhen George Wallace was shot and survived, the school’s flags were lowered to half-mast. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, the principal refused to lower the flag. Annie Booker and I, another Black student, staged a sit-in in the main office until the flags were lowered. Unfortunately, throughout my life I have met a great many situations where I attempted to participate and hoped my knowledge and skills would be appreciated and rewarded, but those rewards have been parceled out stingily and infrequently.

The complexities of race were as embedded in America in the ’60s as they are today. At that time in my life, I held hope that America and Americans would see past prejudices and that my life would change for the better. But, in fact, my life would be determined at the intersection where the gatekeepers of access and opportunity met my race. I was far too young to understand that those events were road bumps of trauma, uncertainty, disarray, and would shake many of the foundations of America I had come to believe. Racism was and continues to be the norm of my beloved country.

Twenty years ago, I became a documentary photographer. My work is purposeful and informed by the experiences of my youth. The goal is to visually portray the potential of people who live in neighborhoods such as those where I lived during my youth. Typically, the portraits I create are a product of extended relationships. You see, I have photographed some of my sitters for more than ten years. But even in the briefest of encounters, I look to find visual elements of their beauty and resilience in what are often difficult lives.

Perhaps I find this important because I came to photography late in life with personal experiences that led me to understand that I, and most African Americans, suffer from racial trauma. As poet Paul Laurence Dunbar said “We Wear the Mask.” The messages my portraits put forward are examples of the internal strength of my people.

Heagins ’89 is a documentary portraitist who lives in Durham.


Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor