We had to know who we were; We had to know who we weren’t
For as long as there have been “Southerners,” there have been southern Jews. An understudied and to some, an entirely unknown community, Jews have occupied an unsteady, undefined place in the Deep South’s perceived racial binary. They have frequently attained a degree of provisional whiteness and benefited from the privileges that come with it, only to be periodically reminded that their whiteness is fragile and contextual. My work seeks to explore both the historical and contemporary Jewish experience of race, place, and memory in the Deep South through photography and oral history. The goals are twofold: to preserve the memory of Jewish communities where they no longer exist, and to understand the Jewish experience today.
Western epistemology has delegitimized most sources outside of the written word, leaving what anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot refers to as “bundles of silences” in the historical narrative. It is my goal, then, to begin filling this particular silence in the Southern archive with the voices of those who have deep roots in this place, but who have often been left out of its history and present. My images seek to create a more complete story. This work is a record of the places Jews once raised their families, built their businesses, prayed, lived, and died. It is also a record of the places Jews remain. The pairing of these images and oral histories creates an immersive experience for the viewer. By viewing these places while listening to the voices of people who won’t forget them, the stories become individual and personal, pulling them out of broader historical trends and statistics.
This work is also about memory, both the preservation of the stories that I gather in each town and about seeking an understanding of what each individual has sought to preserve. Oral history often occupies a space between memory and history. Stories are told and retold between generations, family members, and friends. Memories may solidify, move, or fade, but they very rarely stay still. As these stories travel, they may depart from history that one would find in an archive, but become no less truthful in their importance to individual and communal identity. The sites change too. I only photograph the moment when I am there, I can never capture what they were before or guarantee I will see what they might become after. I can simply remember and share what I saw during the fraction of the second the shutter opened.
As a Chicago native, I feel this is not my story to tell alone. Instead, I see my role as that of an artist, gatherer, and archivist. Although I am not from the region, I am deeply invested in Jewish voices being a part of the Southern story, in no small part because I am Jewish myself. My work is informed by our traditions, practices, and culture, which are often tacitly undercut by a fear of disappearing and being forgotten. A fear that is perhaps entirely reasonable, as a population making up less than 0.2% of the world, and in the South, in particular, a fear that is informed by a precarious acceptance into whiteness punctuated by periods of antisemitic violence and discrimination. It is with this in mind that I pursue this work, gathering these stories and documenting these places—every school auditorium that was once a synagogue, parking lot that was once a Jewish family’s department store, and cemetery so overgrown that the grave markers are barely visible. So that our stories are brought to the fore of the Southern story. So that people might not forget that we once lived in places like Osyka, Mississippi and Plaquemine, Louisiana.
Pam Muno Dewitt
Macy & Susan Hart
Rabbi Scott Looper
Anita Wynne May
Dr. Amy Milligan
Dr. Joshua Parshall
Scott & Emily Strasser
Ed & Susan Youngblood
Dr. David Wharton
Allison WilliamsonThank you for your time, candor, and generosity