They could be any couple. The man appears to be talking or resting. The woman wears a furrowed brow, her face illuminated and surrounded by shadow. The title gives them away: they are Amina and Amiri Baraka, the celebrated poets and political activists, captured on film by Ming Smith. To mention the Barakas is to summon seismic political and cultural forces, but here they are simply two lovers, perhaps recuperating after a long day.
The photo looks the way jazz sounds, an enduring example of what Amiri Baraka called the “Blues Aesthetic.” Baraka saw the blues as an artistic form born of “social and historical motion,” of Black people “beginning to go up north, fleeing the destroyed reconstruction, the KKK, and looking for the new world.” Precarity, improvisation, and ingenuity are woven throughout the genre. It is cyclical, full of repeating patterns and melodies.
Cycles define our politics as much as our art. Hard-won freedoms are once again turning to ash against a backdrop of repression and violence. In Smith’s image, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, I see the elongation of time, and not just in her shutter speed. I see artistic genres colliding. I see the interdependence of Black art and struggle. I see two lovers with a yearning for freedom that cannot be suppressed or contained.
nia t. evans is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City.