Growing up in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1960s, photographer Jamel Shabazz remembers the close-knit community spirit of the times. “It was one of the latest public housing projects in Brooklyn, and everyone was neighborly,” he recalls. “Nearly all of my friends lived with their mothers and fathers, and many of the fathers were military veterans. We had an Olympic sized swimming pool and track, beautiful parks and baseball fields. It was a very green environment. At the heart of the projects, we had a bakery and it smelled like cinnamon in the middle of any given day.”
Shabazz, his older sister, and his younger brother lived in a two-bedroom apartment, while his grandmother lived in the building across the way. His mother, a nurse, worked the evening shift, while his father, a photographer, collected art and books, built model airplanes, and kept the family photo albums. Shabazz attended a primarily Irish and Italian Catholic school with his cousin who lived in the neighborhood. “One thing I can say about that school is that I never experienced racism,” he says. “It was my first time leaving the projects and interacting with Irish and Italian people. We were all innocent. What their parents might have felt was one thing, but amongst kids, we were all the same. We didn’t understand race at all.”
But when it came to learning about history and current events, the school all but ignored the subject of race as well as the larger political climate of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. “I was very conscious of Vietnam because people in our community were [drafted] to war. In addition to the newspaper headlines and TV news, protest music helped me develop my consciousness early,” says Shabazz. “In school, we learned about Lewis and Clark, George Washington and the presidents, but I never learned anything about who I was as a person. That’s what drew me to the library and to read my father’s books.”
What’s Going On?
At the tender age of nine, Jamel Shabazz picked up the signed copy of Leonard Freed’s seminal 1968 book, Black in White America: 1963-1965, which his father proudly displayed on the coffee table at home. Paging through the book, he discovered things neither his parents nor his school had ever told him about. With a dictionary handy, Shabazz began looking up terms he had never seen before like “racism,” “segregation,” “rape,” “castration,” and “lynching,” as well as the unconscionable slur white people have long used to denigrate Black folk.
“When I opened Freed’s book, at first it was the images that captivated me. The first photograph in the book was of a Black soldier stationed in Germany. That immediately caught my eye because at that time my uncle was stationed in Germany. He would write my grandmother letters, and I would look at his photographs in her home,” Shabazz recalls, “I started going through the book, looking at the people, and being introduced to other areas for the first time: Harlem, Mississippi, South Carolina. I was seeing Jim Crow segregation in the South for the first time, signs that said ‘White Only.’ It was baffling to me but I was eager to understand what was going on.”
Shabazz read and reread the book, going through the photographs, then the text. “It opened me up to a whole new language that I was not being taught,” he remembers. “I started looking at why Black people were being brutalized and began making connections between the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, the prison system, and racism. It became like pieces of a puzzle as I would go through the book and was shocked at the things I was uncovering. It resonated with me more than any book that I read in school because it gave me a historical record of Black people in this country. It helped me to understand why a man was holding up a sign that said, ‘We must have justice’ at Civil Rights marches.”
Inner City Blues
Leonard Freed’s Black in White America: 1963-1965 provided Jamel Shabazz with a broad map of the historical, sociological, and psychological impact of racism at a formative age. Long before Shabazz picked up a camera as a teen, Freed’s work helped shape his awareness of the deeper structural issues around race in America.
In the early 1970s, Shabazz and his family moved to Flatbush, the neighborhood where Freed once lived — but the burgeoning photographers grew up in very different times. Freed came of age during the 1930s and ‘40s when Flatbush was a Jewish-Italian community and the childhood home of performers including Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond, crime novelist Mickey Spillane, Neil Diamond, and chess champion Bobby Fischer.
In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, housing reform legislation began to break down de facto segregation, which shaped all areas of the nation outside the South and made it impossible for Black people to move into white neighborhoods through discriminatory practices like redlining. During the 1960s, Afro-Caribbean and Black Americans began moving to Flatbush and white middle class families began to flee, driving housing prices down. In a curious twist of fate, KKK rally attendee and father of the 45th president, Fred Trump — who was sued for housing discrimination by the Justice Department in 1973 — built many of those now-affordable homes.
Many white families that remained in Flatbush simply could not afford to move and boldly put their bigotry on full display. “It didn’t matter that we lived in the neighborhood and went to school with them. The Italians would come in cars with baseball bats and call us [redacted],” Shabazz reveals. “I was never called that in Red Hook, but moving to Flatbush I experienced what it was like to be hated and chased for the first time. That’s when what Freed’s book was saying came into play. I had friends that were bussed to white schools and had to fight every single day. We saw that the problems of the ‘60s were still very prevalent in the ‘70s — and we’re not talking about down in Alabama or Mississippi. We’re talking about right here in Brooklyn.”
What’s Happening Brother
In 1980, Jamel Shabazz returned home after serving two years in the Army to discover everything had changed. Guns had made their way into the community, followed by drugs, tearing apart a new generation of young Black Americans. Shabazz’s parents had divorced, and he stayed with his dad, an experience that brought them closer together.
“I came home with my camera and my father saw I was taking it seriously,” Shabazz remembers. “He was really excited about that because of his love of photography. He was known as the photographer in the family and now his son was embracing the craft. He didn’t push it on me; it just happened that I was interested. He put me on assignment and one of the first things he did was tell me to look at Leonard Freed’s Black in White America: 1963-1965 to study light and composition. I remember being fascinated again because I was revisiting the book that inspired me early on and now, all these years later, I was using it as a guide.”
But above all things, Shabazz wanted to be out in the world, camera in hand, connecting with the people who caught his eye and engaging in meaningful conversations. Long before raising the camera, he would take out one of the carefully curated photo albums he carried to different neighborhoods across New York, engaging young Black men and women in discussions about their lives and futures. When the conversation was over, he would make a photograph to memorialize the encounter, capturing the spirit of beauty, power, and pride that came about during these exchanges.
“On a roll of film, I’d shoot things that interested me, like street portraits, and documentary photographs because I knew my father would be looking at the work,” Shabazz says. “I made it a point to do the things he told me, like shoot the landscape, the trains, and the stores and I’m glad I did that. A lot of that early work has been lost but I have a few contact sheets and prints, which might be some of my best work from that time.”
Mercy Mercy Me
As Jamel Shabazz began traveling through New York with his camera, he took note of the word on the street — the hand-scrawled messages of hatred and bigotry that ran sloppily alongside masterpieces of graffiti. Shabazz became sensitized to the writing on the walls first in high school, then in the military. “It gives you a feeling of what’s going on. I noticed some of the graffiti in train stations in my neighborhood was racist and it reminded me of the ‘Whites Only’ signs I saw in Leonard Freed’s book. I started to document it. I realized there were a lot of problems going on. I had to navigate through all of it and photography became a way of life for me,” Shabazz explains.
“My father told me early on to carry my camera everywhere I go so that it would become a part of me. Looking through the viewfinder, I looked at the world differently. It allowed me to look through the third eye. I saw things people didn’t see because I had been away for a while. Looking at Freed’s work, I saw how photographs could be made from a different perspective, not just people but from the environment. I started to explore new communities like Harlem, the West Village, and Times Square. The camera became a compass that guided me and gave me purpose.”
As Shabazz set forth, his mission became clear: to learn the world by engaging with it every day. Driven by a blend of curiosity and humanism, he set forth to meet people and find stories that helped him understand the issues at hand. Shabazz also carried a tape recorder to preserve the conversations he had. “One of the things I learned from Leonard Freed was that he would go to places with concern for people, and not fear,” he says. “I took that from the book and wanted to be helpful. I wanted to try to understand prostitution and homelessness. I worked at a men’s shelter for a short time and saw the conditions that Freed spoke about in real time. I was looking at the spirit of broken men who came from the South trying to find words, harboring the scars of racism.”
Over the past four decades, Jamel Shabazz has forged a singular path, using photography as a tool to build connection and community in a world that has misrepresented, marginalized, and erased the history and contributions of Black Americans. The author of 7 books, including the forthcoming expanded edition of his 2005 classic A Time Before Crack, Shabazz transcends time and space with his work, building bridges between generations around the world today.
As a former New York City Correction Officer, Shabazz worked in the city’s jails and rehab facilities during the height of crack and AIDS during the 1980s and ‘90s, doing what he could to mentor the most vulnerable. With the understanding that photography could be used as a form of “visual medicine” to help uplift, empower, and inspire young Black men and women at a time when they were increasingly falling victim to the school-to-prison pipeline, Shabazz embraced a sense of ministry with his work.
With the new exhibition “Eyes on the Street,” Shabazz brings together 150 major works made in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Red Hook, Brownsville, Flatbush, and Fort Greene, in Harlem, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and in the Grand Concourse section of the Bronx, creating a kaleidoscopic look at everyday life on the city’s streets in the tradition of Mary Ellen Mark, Gordon Parks, and Leonard Freed. “It brings me great joy to know that I’m continuing the conversation of so many photographers who came before me,” Shabazz says. “It’s always been my hope that my work would have the same impact on young people as Leonard Freed’s book had on me.”
And indeed, his work has done just that. “Many people have written to me to say they’ve been inspired to pick up the camera after seeing my work because now they’re looking at people in their communities and thinking about preserving their history and culture through photography,” Shabazz says.
“It’s a wonderful feeling because this has never been just about me. It’s about sharing this vision and journey with others. But more importantly, the families of the people I photographed can go through my books and see a photograph of their mother, father, sister, brother, or themselves — and how it makes them feel, especially in this day and time when so much has been lost. I was very fortunate to capture a time of innocence that serves as a historical record of not only Black American history but world history and culture so that future generations could learn from how things were.”
“Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Street” is on view through October 2, 2022, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
A Time Before Crack will be published on September 6, 2022, by powerHouse Books, $39.95.
Black in White America: 1963-1965 is published by Reel Art Press, $59.95.