Occasional Paper Series #45

What Can We Not Leave Behind? Storying Family Photographs, Unlocking Emotional Memories, and Welcoming Complex Conversations on Being Human

by Esther Ohito

You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our “flooding.”

Toni Morrison (1995, pp. 98-99)

Everyone was startled by the flood that burst forth from my previously dry tear ducts, even me. What was supposed to be an ordinary oral presentation of a culminating assignment for Wendy Luttrell’s popular graduate school course on visual methodologies, Doing Visual Research with Children and Youth, had morphed into a strange waterworks festival starring me as the headlining performer. In addition to Wendy, a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, the audience included Tran Templeton and several other peers who were also my fellow doctoral students at Teachers College, Columbia University.1 The course drew on Wendy’s work with children and youth in a public elementary school located in a working-class city in the Northeastern United States (Luttrell & Clark, 2018). Wendy’s intent was to inspire a “need to know more stance” (Luttrell, 2010, p. 233) about children and youth, that is, to cultivate a curiosity about how young people (re)constructed their lives and represented themselves, particularly with regard to the complex intersections of social identities, such as class, race, gender, and immigrant status. The assignment directions were seemingly straightforward: Wendy asked each student to peruse her extensive archive of photographs and videos, choose a focal child, then provide a visual analysis based on a video recording of that child making meaning of their own photographs.

About the Author

Esther Ohito is an assistant professor of curriculum studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the inaugural Toni Morrison Faculty Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research, and a 2021 Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program Fellow at Maseno University’s School of Education in Kisumu, Kenya. An interdisciplinary scholar, Esther researches the poetics and aesthetics of Black knowledge and cultural production, the gendered geographies of Black girlhoods, and the gendered pedagogies of Black critical educators. Esther’s oeuvre centers Black women and girls and amplifies Black voices and knowledges.

Esther Ohito

“Ungrasping the Other: The Parent, the Child, and the Making of Solidarities. A Response to Esther Ohito”

by Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández

The child reaches forward with his toes, extending to touch the world from the comfort of his mother’s lap. She smiles, wide brown eyes into the camera, left hand resting on her left knee while the index finger of her right hand clinches the child’s overalls near his belly, holding him in place. He smiles, wide eyes into the camera, right hand resting on her right wrist while the index finger of his left hand points forward. He feels the warmth of his mother’s chin resting on his nearly bald head, nested in the safety of her crossed legs. The blades of grass reach up like threads bracing them both to the land. A scribble behind the photo, likely in my abuela’s handwriting, marks the date, 8 noviembre 1972, 48 years ago today.

Read Full Response Essay (pdf)

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández