Digital Diaspora Family Reunion documents Black history

Multi-media show at Gatehouse of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project..
By Tequila Minsky

New York-based documentary filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris is merging his filmic skills with oral traditions and new technologies into a cross genre project of enormous social value.

The Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project seeks out those of the African Diaspora to share their family photos–many buried for decades in attics and closets–and the stories that go with the photographs.

Word spread among members of the metro New York community who made reservations to bring photos from their family collections to The Gatehouse, across from City College, in late February. Handled with white cotton gloves, Harris and his team met with 19 community members and culled through 800 images and documents eventually selecting and scanning 250 of them.

From the 75 photographs Linda Holmes of New Jersey arrived with, 15 were selected. “He’s not just interested in the photograph,” she said. “It’s the story behind and around it.”

Harris filmed the community members telling the accompanying personal narratives–some hidden or recently discovered–that go with the photos.

Following the accumulation of these images and wrapping up Black History Month, in a multimedia celebration of Harlem’s hidden histories, video clips from the Photo Roadshow were screened at The Gatehouse. Many of those who participated were in the audience and some were called up to tell their stories during the event.

While historical photos and military documents were projected behind them, mother and daughter, Donna Cashman and Shannon Danzy, told a story of Donna’s GI father who was supposedly court-martialed during World War II for refusing to follow orders, which would have resulted in certain death for him and his troops. However, her father received an honorable discharge; there is obviously more to this story than the family currently knows.

Among those who shared their histories were educator Dr. Georgina Falu from Puerto Rico who embraces her African heritage, Voza Rivers, the founder of Impact Repertory Theatre, and Arianne Edmonds, the great great great granddaughter of J.L. Edmonds, a former slave who in 1904 in Los Angeles started the newspaper The thank you Liberator.

The Digital Diaspora Family Reunion website offers a look into many of these shared stories. It also offers the opportunity for the visitor to “Create a Story” and after registering at the site: ddfr.tv/socialnet/pg/register, one can upload their own family photos. Through this interactive multi-dimensional marriage of image and stories, one can become a part of an archive that reflects the long, rich, and varied African Diaspora history.

Mastermind Harris is also finishing his latest documentary film project “Through a Lens Darkly” that explores the role of photography in shaping African American identity, aspirations, and social emergence.

The Digital Diaspora Family Reunion team is also in talks to schedule future Roadshows in Washington DC, Detroit, Oakland and Brooklyn. More info: www.ddfr.tv

The founder of the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project Thomas Allen Harris speaks with often collaborator NYU professor and art historian Deborah Willis.

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