Three years ago, I participated in a project led by Anaïs Duplan of the Center for Afrofuturist Studies and Katie Parry of The Fabric Workshop and Museum. The project was called Endgame: Black Artists for an Urgent Black Future, and my collaborators included Duplan, Amber Rose Johnson, and James Allister Sprang.
Through our collaboration, we sought to create a program that invited the public to work with us to “collectively generate strategies for catalyzing the immediate and radical futures of marginalized peoples in the current pressurized climate of the United States.” Our collaboration was in response to Jacolby Satterwhite’s solo exhibition Room For Living at The Fabric Workshop and Museum as well as friendship albums made by 19th-century African American activists in Philadelphia.
One day in late November 2019, the four of us met up at The Library Company of Philadelphia and sat at a long table, gingerly sifting through racist cartoons and black and white photographs. Among the gems we found in the muck were the extremely rare friendship albums of Mary Anne and Marina Dickerson, who were sisters, and Amy Maltida Cassey. All three were Black women and Philadelphians tied to abolitionist movements and changemakers. These albums contain what may be the earliest known signed paintings by Black women.
Here’s how we collectively described the albums for our project:
Friendship Albums were an early form of social media that were popular in the mid-19th century. Beautifully bound books inscribed with calligraphic script and made with fine paper, the albums were like scrapbooks passed between communities of women who inscribed them with drawings, watercolor paintings, songs, and poems, sometimes original but mostly copied from magazines and literary journals. Friendship Albums were a way to practice penmanship, mark major life events, share political views, and contemplate the future. In the Library Company of Pennsylvania, we poured over the friendship albums of Amy Matilda Cassey and Martina and Mary Anne Dickerson, free African American women who lived in antebellum Philadelphia and were connected to abolitionist circles. Reminiscent of Jacolby Satterwhite’s collaborative relationship with his mother’s handwritten text and drawings, these albums highlight and preserve the protective and generative friendships between Black activists and artists on otherwise historically blank pages and empty frames. A way to collaborate together across time and space, friendship albums are a nod to futurity and its reliance on slips of serendipity and brotherly love/sisterly affection.
Out of our collective research and individual reflection came the idea for a Saturday program at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in January 2019. We invited participants to create their own friendship albums in a “Room for Error” that we organized in a tiny nook of the museum. Our Room for Error was a non-judgmental space for gathering, making, writing, and exchange. The space included typewriters and various kinds of writing utensils and paper. We offered attendees the following prompts to generate the beginning pages of their albums:
[prompt 1]: Use the materials (& possibly, people) in the room to make, write, type, sketch, draw, doodle, or stamp pages of your friendship album. Make delightful, funky mistakes in the moment. Don’t look back or erase. Just be & do.
[prompt 2]: Copy down the best advice you’ve ever been given. Or the lyrics of your favorite song. Keep the page for yourself or give it to someone else.
[prompt 3]: Write a letter to your best friend.
[prompt 4]: Write a letter to a friend in your future.
[prompt 5]: Create a secret, telepathic script with a stranger in the room.
(Try a few of these on your own and see what happens…)
After visiting the Room for Error, each participant created a friendship album out of their writings by binding the pages together and screen-printing a cover in Fabric Workshop’s print studio. Each of us left with a near-empty book to fill ourselves or with others’ help or to pass on to future generations.
So yes, long before Facebook there were friendship albums, artifacts/archives of sisterly affection and activism. I marvel at this tool for creative collaboration and the ways we, as Black folks, can continue to pass on information that’s key to our survival and joy.
I recently invited a few friends to share pages for a nascent friendship journal I am building. My friend/sis Jaléssa Savage contributed these sparkles:
I also think of the carefully preserved scrapbooks and diaries of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and I am humbled by the ways Black women of the past thought enough of themselves to preserve their own work/thought/belief/craft, even as others ignored or denigrated their intellectual and civic labor. I dig their regard for the future us/the future of us. Let’s pass it on.