Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. She is currently a scholar-in-residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library. (September 2018)
Guyana’s landscape, especially its vast, undeveloped interior, has long invited fantasies of riches and peopling, from Raleigh’s conquistador visions of it as “El Dorado,” or the realm of gold, to an abortive proposal to resettle Jews there during World War II. It also had a specific hold on the African-American imagination that seems still to live—a black radical tradition of investing Guyana with the glittery allure of an imagined homeland, one that Jim Jones exploited to build his promised land gone horribly awry.
At the entrance to the Met’s exhibition of mid-twentieth-century African-American photographs, a small placard politely asks for help: “Does someone look familiar? Please kindly send your suggestion.” A sense of loss shadows the request to identify the subjects. It is a reminder that these portraits were mislaid or discarded and eventually ended up at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in California and other resting places for the forgotten, where the Met’s buyers eventually found them. Though salvaged, the images remain tinted by this history, their anonymity like a kind of sepia.