I’ve been a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy for over fifteen years, but it wasn’t until last month that I noticed the girl shielding her face from the camera.
The photograph hangs in the English Department’s Dudley Randall Center for Print Culture, named after the powerful and influential poet and publisher Dudley Randall, who worked as a reference librarian and served as poet-in-residence at the University of Detroit from 1969-74 (missing by two years Joyce Carol Oates, who taught in the English Department from 1962-67). A key figure in the Black Arts movement, Randall founded the Broadside Press in 1965, printing poems on a single sheet. Soon, poets like Gwendolyn Brooks were publishing with Broadside, and in 1973 Audre Lorde’s poetry collection From a Land Where Other People Live (Broadside) was nominated for a National Book Award.
But we remembered Randall for his kindness and generosity as he served as judge for the Dudley Randall Poetry Contest, held each year for students at the University. I only met him once, in 1996, delivering the student poems to his modest home not far from the University. He was frail but strong, his hands large and warm. “Nice to meet you Nick,” he said, and you knew he really meant it. At this time, I was new to the University and Detroit, my head awash in the unfamiliar, and I hardly knew anything about Randall’s legacy. This did not matter. We met, man to man, in a city that I was beginning to fall in love with. A few weeks later, we received the poems back from Randall, ranked in winning order, with his short comments on each one that cut to the exact vessels that made them beat.
And so last month, alone in the Dudley Randall Center, my eyes happened to fall upon the photograph for the thousandth time. Except now, I looked. I really looked. I don’t know when it was taken or where, though I’d guess it’s from the 1970s, in a high school classroom. The red of his shirt and the red of the apples. “Fruits of our Labors.” And the girl hiding her face from the camera.
Who is she? What is her name? Why does she cover her face? Does she remember this day, this moment? She was part of something, but what? Perhaps she covers her face not to shield herself from the camera, but to shield the camera from herself. After all, we still see her, and there is a beauty in seeing her like this, in her protective moment, shielding not just her face but the story she carries in her head. Seconds after this photo was taken, did she turn around and smile to the student behind her. Did she laugh? Was there mock embarrassment? Did she see this photograph? Did Randall see it? Are the apples there because it was Fall, or because they illustrated the Fruits of Our Labors?
Sometimes the force that moves you, moves you to tears even, is as simple as a photograph, so familiar that you don’t bother with it. But then, one day, something in it speaks to you, and you reach out. Of course, you can’t reach out. The moment has passed, gone forever. So you write about it. You don’t know why, but you do. You try to touch this feeling you have with words. They are all you’ve got.