Connecting the Past and Present: One Artist’s attempt to Create Inter-Generational Dialogue

The mother smiled to know her child/ Was in the sacred place,/ But that smile was the last smile/ To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,/ Her eyes grew wet and wild./ She raced through the streets of Birmingham/ Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,/ Then lifted out a shoe./ “O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,/ But, baby, where are you?” [1]

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The Baptist Church, after the bombing

On September 15, 1963 four young girls died in a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and white individuals including a police officer, in an unrelated incident on the same day, shot two other boys to death. This tragedy has caused a myriad of reactions throughout the years, whether it was marches and sit-ins during the 1960s, civil rights legislation, or how Dudley Randall chose to express his emotions through the poem above. Photographer Dawoud Bey created an art exhibition entitled “Birmingham Project” to display using photography, his response to the Birmingham bombings, 50 years later.

The art exhibit originally ran at the Birmingham Museum of Art, where 50 years ago African Americans could only attend one day a week. [2] In the exhibit Bey produced a series of black-and-white diptychs pairing portraits of African Americans the same ages as the victims of the 1963 killings with pictures of adults at the ages that the victims would have been in 2012.

The project is in part Bey’s response to seeing, almost fifty years earlier, a black-and-white photograph of bombing survivor Sarah Jean Collins, confined to a hospital bed, her face mangled. The image had immediately gripped the young Bey, who, as an African American child, understood that it could have been him lying there. [3]

Bey described his reasoning for wanting to create the exhibit as a way to make the history more alive in today’s society:

The four little girls – unless you have seen the photographs– are almost anonymous. Being here for all those years gave me a sense of the actual history. I wanted to make photographs of young people and adults who are living in Birmingham now, to give some tangible face to the physical presence. [4]

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Dawoud Bey installing the exhibit at the Birmingham Museum

While this exhibition was originally mounted at the Birmingham Museum of Art, a few of the diptychs traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York City. To accompany the photographs, the Whitney created a program for students and teachers to use either in conjunction with visiting the museum or only in the classroom setting. Teachers can download the free Teacher’s Guide from the museum’s website. It is a simple, yet powerful program.

The first part of the lesson is to observe the photographs. Have the students look closely at Bey’s photographs and compare the sitters. What do they notice about these people? What kind of expressions do they have? How are they posing? How would students describe their gestures? What are they wearing? What is similar or different about them? Next the teacher would have the students research Bey’s “Birmingham Project” and the events that took place in 1963; then compare that information to current civil rights issues such as discrimination, affirmative action, and immigration. To go even further students could choose a local, national, or international current event and brainstorm five questions they would like to interview an adult and a peer about said event. The students can compare the similarities and differences of the responses. [5] 

The program connects Bey’s representation of the continuing issues of civil rights and the different perspectives that each generations may have. The dialogue Bey is creating is extremely important and the Whitney’s expansion of that dialogue into a school program connects the past to the present, showing how historical events relate to contemporary issues.

Photo Credits:


[1] Graham, Ruth. “Ballad of Birmingham.” Poetry Foundation.

[2] “Reimagining a Tragedy, 50 Years Later.” The New York Times.

[3] “Dawoud Bey.” Whitney Museum of American Art.

[4] “Dawoud Bey’s Photography Exhibit Reconciles Birmingham’s Tragic past witht eh Present Day Reality (gallery).”

[5] “Activities: Different Perspectives.” Whitney Museum of ARt.

One thought on “Connecting the Past and Present: One Artist’s attempt to Create Inter-Generational Dialogue

  1. Art like this is so important. It’s one thing to hear these sorts of horrific stories, but art can connect it on a far deeper level. Not only the photos, but the poem at the start of this post. That was one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve ever read. It really drives home the human cost, and the suffering of those who survived.

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