Escaping to Freedom, in the Shadows of the Night
A new series by the photographer Dawoud Bey summons a time in African-American history when the journey to freedom was made largely under cover of night.
In his poem “Dream Variations,” published in 1926, Langston Hughes yearned for a time when the African-American worker, exhausted by the daily grind of hard labor and discrimination, might be truly free. This liberation, he imagined, would be achieved not in the glare of daylight, but rather under the brooding, protective cover of night. Inverting a dominant literary conceit, blackness and not whiteness functioned as a metaphor for hope and transcendence — a “Night coming tenderly/Black like me,” as Mr. Hughes wrote, that abetted the struggle for racial equality and justice.
This metaphor is central to a new series by the photographer Dawoud Bey, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” which draws on Mr. Hughes’s lyrical poem. The project, Mr. Bey’s contribution to the Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art(July 14 to Sept. 30), is site-specific. Installed in St. John’s Episcopal Church, a stop on the Underground Railroad known as Station Hope, it summons a time in African-American history when the journey to freedom was made largely through the shadows of the night.