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by Brian Lanker
Civil rights activist Rosa Parks is part of the current exhibit at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Brian Lanker/National Portrait Gallery
Black Women

‘I Dream A World’ celebrates the timeless, urgent vision of Black Women

Photos and words from three decades ago speak precisely to this moment

There is a timelessness to the 14 black-and-white portraits of Black women evenly spaced along the walls of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. The images, part of an exhibit titled “I Dream A World,” draw you in with a precision and resonance that feel custom-made for this moment, even though the photos are decades old, and some of these women now belong to the ages. It makes it that much more powerful to look into their eyes, and to feel them speak of courage anew.

“Don’t be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it’s just death,” reads the quote accompanying the portrait of Lena Horne. The Tony Award-winning actress and singer, the first African American to sign a long-term contract with a major movie studio, is as regal and as composed as we remember her, framed by gauzy linens and nestled in pastel cushions. She is dressed all in Black, gazing into the near distance, and the net effect is to amplify her elegance with steadfastness, reminding us of her refusal to lend her beauty and talent to the reductive, stereotypical roles Hollywood had in mind for her.

Courtroom lights play across the long black robes in the portrait of Constance Baker Motley, an NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund lawyer who in 1966 became the first Black female federal judge. “Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade,” she told us, she Black told us, and her words helped conjure the seat Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to occupy.

The images are part of a 75-portrait collection, “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” first published in 1989 by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker. (The title was taken from a poem by Langston Hughes.) They were acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2019, a gift, in part, from Lanker’s widow. The gallery is exhibiting 27 images from the collection in two installments.

“Most of the women that were selected for this installation and that will also appear for the second iteration that’s going to open in February, if they weren’t super well known back in the ’80s, they are now,” said Ann M. Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the gallery. She cites the portrait of Motley as especially fortuitous. “We chose that portrait for the show before Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated for the [Supreme] court, so it was just like, yes! It’s so great that she should cite her as a mentor and someone she had admired and someone she should pattern her aspirations after.”

It is a testament to the vision of Lanker, who spent two years photographing and interviewing Black women — writers, entertainers, athletes, activists and politicians. The current exhibit includes photos of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, opera luminary Leontyne Price, Leah Chase, “the undisputed ‘Queen of Creole Cuisine.’ ” There is also actress Beah Richards, who said, “It is up to women to change their roles. They are going to have to write the stuff and do it. And they will.”

It includes poet and author Maya Angelou, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker and jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, who I remember my mother taking me to see at a Chicago theater as a young child, and whose transcendent artistry makes every sound of her voice a wonder.

Even in her stillness, her bare shoulders, her simple gold hoop earrings, Wilma Rudolph, who battled illness as a child and became the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals in 1960, appears poised for movement. Her gaze is fixed, yonder, perhaps on races yet to be run. “I feel that my contribution to the youth of America has far exceeded the woman who was the Olympic champion. The challenge is still there,” Rudolph said. (She was one of three athletes in the collection, including the first African American Grand Slam winner, Althea Gibson, and Wyomia Tyus, the first person to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter dash.)

There is Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, who also ran for president. “I went to the Democratic convention in 1972 and did my thing and began to open the way for women to think that they can run [for president],” she said.

That their ideas now feel preordained or blessed can allow you to forget that they were among those who first sang or spoke them or thought them. Or that they led the chorus charged with telegraphing brave ideas to succeeding generations. 

“I felt the need to prevent these historical lives from being forgotten,” Lanker wrote of his original project. “Many of the women opened ‘the doors’ and many advanced America through the modern civil rights and women’s movement.” 

Their distinctions are part of their timelessness. But an almost eerie resonance to the portraits testifies to the vision and struggle of Black women’s lives, in ways both grand and prosaic, that always include a fight for justice. And whatever that justice looks like, it is always just beyond us, wherever we are. It gives Black women’s lives an eternal quality that comes with the work of speaking things into being. Of placing yourself on the right side of a history, a herstory, knowing it to be something you will not likely live to see.

The signature image of “I Dream a World” remains the cover of the original book, a portrait of educator and activist Septima Poinsette Clark, her face turned in profile. She helped the NAACP win pay equity for Black and white teachers alike, and helped train generations of community leaders through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  

Her hand, underneath her chin, is an extension to the uncompromised set of her jaw, her grey hair, cornrowed from the beginning, extends to wispy, unfinished ends. “I’ll tell children of the future that they have to stand up for their rights,” Clark said.

And just as powerfully as it did three decades ago, her words, her visage, the rightness of her being feels certain to remain resonant, viscerally true, precisely up to date, at whatever moment you are able to see her.

Liner Notes

Part I of “I Dream a World: Selections from Brian Lanker’s Portraits of Remarkable Black Women” will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and G streets NW, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 29, 2023. Part II will be on view from Feb. 10, 2023, through Sept. 10, 2023.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.