Our Own Storyteller: An Interview with Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

By Binta Kane Diallo

Photographers hold history in visual form. Their eyes capture moments that reflect the truth of their time. They create images that document movements and archive dynamic shifts in the world. Although there are iconic images of Black Muslims, most famously Gordon Parks’ photographs of the Nation of Islam, Black Muslim women photographers — image makers — are not nearly as celebrated. We spoke with the brilliant photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn to discuss her perspective on the importance of photography,  storytelling and documenting the trials and triumphs that Black people face.

© Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Binta Diallo: Where did you grow up? How did this influence your work overall?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: I grew up in a neighborhood called Brownsville, Brooklyn. When I grew up, there was conversation about apartheid and dismantling that: there was a whole movement of creating Black consciousness and awareness in the music, specifically hip-hop. Then, there was the continuation of the Black Arts Movement through the generations, the next generation of children that came from parents who lived through that. So, there was a push for consciousness; there was a push for liberation; there was a push for Black solidarity. There was just an overall push for the well-being of Black people. Drugs were basically planted in our communities. So, that’s what I grew up with in the ’80s in Brownsville. 

I am a second generation New Yorker in my family. My grandmother came up from South Carolina. My grandfather also came up from South Carolina. They were both from the same region of the state, which is the low country. They were descendants of the Gullah people. 

I identify as a Black person who is deeply diasporic and who connects with the international Black community. So, both. You know, Black American, who is diasporic and sees herself as part of an international Black community.

“So, there was a push for consciousness, there was a push for liberation, there was a push for black solidarity.  There was just an overall push for the well-being of Black people.”

BD: How did you discover photography as your medium of choice?

LAB: I recognized the photograph itself as an object; an artifact; a document of history, culture and identity. I recognized the importance. I recognized how that object transmitted all of those things and preserved all of these things. Looking at my family photo album, and imagining some of my relatives who were in those photographs, I was able to feel a connection to who they were. This made me understand who I was as a Black person, as someone who has Southern roots. Living in New York City, those photographs helped me understand that part of my identity and helped solidify that part of my identity and gave me proof of my roots. These are my people. And, here they are in these photographs. 

Along with the photographs, my family who knew them were able to share stories about them or who they were. So, they became more than the photographs, they became people with stories, lives and genes. That’s when I discovered the power of imaging and photographs.  My dad bought me my first camera. My mother always had a camera; she was always taking photographs for people who came to our house, and that’s how she amassed the family archive. 

I took photographs of people who lived with me, my neighbors, my family, and I began to kind of build my own story, or my own perspective of the people around me, and the people I had been around. Taking photographs of the structures in my neighborhood also helped me understand the community, the history of the community that I lived in. Yeah. So, I began to create my own archive. I began to create my own narrative. 

“Looking at my family photo album, and imagining some of my relatives that were in those photographs, I was able to feel a connection to who they were… Living in New York City, those photographs helped me understand that part of my identity and helped solidify that part of my identity and gave me proof of my roots.”

© Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

BD: Speaking of your narrative, as you know, the voices of Black women are often dismissed or met with a lack of recognition. Since 2011, you curated the solo exhibition “Her Word as Witness: Women Writers of the African Diaspora.” How do you use your art to amplify the voices of these women?

LAB: Art is political. Art is a reflection of what we’re experiencing at the moment, our reflection of ourselves. As a Black woman, who’s oftentimes dismissed, or flattened or simplified, for me to decide to set my voice and my representation in whatever medium and have it engaged by an audience, I think that is big in itself. That’s significant in itself because the wall… I think society really just tries to flatten us through many different modes of oppression. So, for me to know that my voice is important enough to be shared and to understand that the work, the lives and the ideas of Black women are important enough to be collaborated with and shared is important and significant within itself. 

As a Black woman, I constantly feel that my voice, my identity, my life, my wishes and my desires are being dismissed, flattened, or simplified. For me to still see through that and to still present myself and my voice as important, as significant, as healing, and all of these affirmative ways is very powerful in itself. For me to see that in other Black women, and know that their lives matter, and their presence, their art and their work is important, it’s hugely political and is really an act of resistance. So, I think that that is in one way that I amplify the voices, by just acknowledging that the voice is important,  and it’s significant and is worthy of a platform. It’s worthy to be shared and engaged. 

“I think society really just tries to flatten us through many different modes of oppression. So, for me to know that my voice is important enough to be shared and to understand that the work, the lives, and the ideas of Black women are important enough to be collaborated with and shared is important and significant within itself.”

BD: How does the Muslim community respond to your work? How does the broader art world respond to your Muslim identity?

LAB: I think it’s interesting. A lot of what it means to be Muslim and how it looks to be Muslim, of what Muslim culture is, is represented by people from the Middle East and North Africa. So, that’s what we see,  overall like mainstream culture. So, when I am engaging in a mainstream situation, then my Muslim identity isn’t recognized at first, until I present it as such. 

When I’m in my community, around Black people, I don’t have to explain so much that I’m a Muslim, they recognize that;  they recognize that through my name, they recognize that through my aesthetic, they recognize that through my art. So, it depends on the audience and the situation that I’m in at the moment. So, it’s interesting. I think there’s a lot of conversations to be had around people understanding how expansive the Muslim world is and how expansive the Muslim identity is.

A lot of my work is documentary photography. Storytelling, and recording what’s naturally occurring, but what I choose to record is mainly narratives from the Muslim world and particularly the Black and African Muslim world, because I think those stories are extremely important.  We have a tremendous history with this state (the United States)  in terms of culture, in terms of liberation and activism. These narratives, I don’t feel are told as much; they’re not represented; they’re not engaged; they’re not analyzed. So, that has been my commitment for a very long time. I think it’s fascinating. Being a Black woman, I’m interested in myself; I’m interested in the stories that are connected to my history and my identity. And so, that’s why I do it. And, I think that…and the responses have been positive. 

© Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

“We need Black storytellers, Black stories from the continent and throughout the African diaspora to be present because erasure is very real.”

BD: In June, you published a photo essay in the New York Times about Dashinque Hall, the Minneapolis-based tattoo artist who is donating proceeds from her work to George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna Floyd. Your photos have also been used in a number of other publications and your Instagram is filled with your photos documenting both the current uprisings and the impact of COVID-19 on Black communities. What motivates you to take these photos, despite the risks.

LAB: Wow! It’s important. What motivates me is our stories being told and being present in the archive and in the history. We need Black storytellers, Black stories from the continent and throughout the African diaspora to be present because erasure is very real. People will erase and say, “oh, that didn’t happen” or “Black photographers weren’t there.” He who controls the archive is the person who has a lot of power. If we are not present, our history gets erased. 

I’m really happy that so many photographers came out and understood how important it was to document this moment in all the different ways. We had many photographers documenting the uprisings where people went out to the streets, took it to the streets and demanded justice, and made themselves present and visible. And I think that there was movement behind that. I wasn’t so much at the protest, but I was very interested in some of the stories that were adjacent to and surrounding the protests. I was interested in all of the different ways that people were fighting for liberation and seeking justice. 

BD: What did you learn through the process of creating your latest exhibition “Baye Fall: Roots in Spirituality, Fashion, and Resistance”?

LAB: I’ve been taking photographs of the Baye Fall for about 20 years. I learn so much on each trip. Each trip has a different focus. I’m a different person when I go. I’m looking for different things. I’m open to learning different things. There’s so much that’s revealed to me, too. So, sometimes I just arrive and I follow. I pay attention to what wants to be told and certainly what needs to be photographed at that moment. The stories that need to be told, I capture. 

“I learned about Black beauty and resistance through spirituality. That was a huge affirmation for me as a Black person in the diaspora. We resisted in many, many, many different ways.”

BD: What would you say is one thing that you learned about yourself through the process of your many trips there and studying and working with the Baye Fall community?

LAB: Wow, that’s an interesting question. I learned that I do love archival photographs. I learned about how important the archive was. I learned about Black beauty and resistance through spirituality. That was a huge affirmation for me as a Black person in the diaspora. We resisted in many, many, many different ways. There are narratives out there that present stories that we were comfortable being in bondage and we were not comfortable being in bondage. I think being in Senegal and learning about the many ways that Senegalese people resisted French colonialism through very direct means and through spiritual means. I learned how expansive and complex our lives are and how we choose to live and show up in the world.

BD: What do you want the larger audience to come away with when they view your work? 

LAB: I want people to come away from my work with a larger understanding of humanity. I’m interested in people seeing us seeing one another in a very nuanced way. That’s what I want my photographs to cultivate: respect, love, humanity and truth. I want people to feel  to be their own storytellers, so they can also be storytellers for themselves and their communities as well. They don’t need permission. 

Featured Image: © Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Binta Kane Diallo: An artist, advocate and the Arts & Culture Manager for Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), Binta draws from her Senegalese and Gambian roots to create various forms of art. Whether she is writing articles, songs or creating visual art, Binta is passionate about utilizing art as a means to offer a healing service for the community. At IMAN, she creates safe, welcoming, and accessible spaces for community members and artists across socio-economic divides. A 2020 recipient of the DCASE artist grant, her upcoming album, Rooted, is in English and Wolof. Binta has a master’s degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management and is a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. 

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  • As a ‘white’ guy (according to the American racial order), I’m always curious to hear about other perspectives. I came to this interview after reading an article that Barrayn wrote elsewhere. Her experience is particularly interesting to my mind, as my father’s paternal family lived for generations in and around New York City, whereas my father’s maternal family came up from the Deep South. My grandmother was born in Texas, but earlier on that line of family lived in South Carolina. After marrying, my grandparents moved to Indiana where my father spent most of his early life in a sundown town (Alexandria) that not long before had been controlled by the Second Klan — there literally was a sign outside of town that warned blacks about being their after the sun set, a sign he and his parents had to have seen. While there, they weren’t nobodies but held an important place in the social order, as my grandfather was a minister and my grandmother a school teacher.

    After graduating college from Purdue, also in a sundown town, my parents left Indiana; a state notorious for being reactionary, right-wing, and racist; the national center of the Second Klan. My brothers and I were born elsewhere and my family lived in various states across the Midwest, until middle school. Part of my interest in what Barrayn talks about is for the reason that the second half of my youth and early part of adulthood was spent in South Carolina, along with several summers in North Carolina. As a GenXer, I grew up in the desegregated South and went to desegregated public schools. But in always carrying an internalized Midwestern mentality, I never quite fully grasped the Southern racial order, very different from the Midwest, specifically how it mixes with the class order where poor whites have their own separate position.

    Having moved back to the Midwest in my 20s (here in this liberal college town, Iowa City) and remaining ever since, I’ve continually had the Deep South in the background of my thoughts. But it’s taken me decades, now in my upper 40s, to really grasp what kind of country this and what kind of region is the Deep South. Despite (or maybe because) of having lived in South Carolina, I never could see it clearly nor could I resonate with what makes it tick. Southern culture has always felt alien to me, in spite of having such intimate familiarity with it. My own whiteness didn’t help growing up, since Southern society had a way of dividing social reality where the races typically lived in separate worlds. I had black friends at school, but once school was over they were bussed back far away to other parts of town (and Columbia is a large city). There were no black families in our neighborhood or in my family’s church.

    So, I’ve spent my adult life coming to terms with the racist legacy of this country and of my family. As I said, my father grew up in a sundown town; and I too spent some early years (early-to-mid-1980s) in a sundown suburb of Chicago (Deerfield), although technically racial segregation was illegal by then. My grandmother grew up in the Jim Crow South, including her teen years in a Klan center, only to move to the major Klan state of Indiana. From 1650 in Virginia to the Civil War in Texas, her family owned slaves and that would’ve probably still been in her family’s living memory during her childhood. At one point as a little girl, she lived a short distance from Tulsa when the race war happened. Yet no one in my family has ever talked about any of this.

    I had to piece together all of this on my own, much later in life. But it’s not like this is ancient history. My father remembers experiencing Jim Crow firsthand when, as a child, he visited his grandmother (drinking fountains that said ‘colored’, grown black men being called ‘boy’, etc). All the rest draws a blank in his mind, as if he didn’t see what was happening all around him. Even when my parents were in college, some of the professors and fellow classmates joined the civil rights movement in the South. The Black Panthers also came for a visit to Purdue at that time. To my parents, though, it’s as if nothing unusual was going on. Maybe the local media, in such a conservative state, entirely blacked out these larger national events. Anyway, that is why I’m here. Listening to someone like Barrayn helps me see the world for what it is, reminds me of how narrow is my place within it all.

    By the way, a fairly interesting book is Joan Walsh’s “What’s the Matter with White People?” It’s been a while since I read it, but Barrayn’s talk of the American black diaspora made me think of it. My own white family, including the poor whites of my maternal line, was part of the diaspora that left the South in the generations following the Civil War. To reference yet another book, consider The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. She mentions that, where slavery was once most concentrated, inequality and poverty remains high today for both blacks and whites. Slavery was a force not only of racism but also class war. Anyway, Walsh discusses her own Irish family as part of diaspora, with more people of Irish descent living in the US than living in Ireland. She mentions that, in the 19th century, the Irish in Ireland were sympathetic to the anti-slave cause; whereas Irish-Americans generally were not.

    That is the sad story of history. It reminds me also of how some blacks, in gaining relative freedom after abolition, joined the military to fight in the imperial genocide of Native Americans. And one sees a similar pattern with the Jews, having escaped Nazis, only to form settler colonialism and apartheid in Israel; ironically targeting the Semitic Palestinians who descend from the original Jewish population that never left the Holy Land. That is how the victimization cycle goes on and on, as so well explained by Derrick Jensen, another great writer on American and Western history. Some of the various lines of my own family were escaping oppression, persecution, violence, and war. Then, in ending up in America, more than a few of them quickly joined in with slavery, genocide, and land theft. It seems people never learn, as trauma distorts the psyche.

    Similar to the author, I’m a GenX American who grew up in that historical moment as the Cold War was ending. The focus on a larger global perspective, diasporic or otherwise, seems to be an increasing focus of the younger generations this past half century or so. This is true as much among whites as blacks. For example, for the first time in US history, one demographic, that of white liberals (correlated to younger whites), have an outgroup bias. That means younger whites, different from most older whites, are less likely to primarily identify as white, and instead are more likely to include non-whites as part of their identity. This indicates that the perceived racial order is beginning to shift into new kinds of identities. I’ve long had this sense that I have no idea what it even means to be ‘white’, other than as a social construction that is forced on people.

    The same goes for American blacks; considering 5-10% more than half European genetics and 5.5% with no detectable recent African genetics (within the past 6 generations); a total of about 1 in 10 or 1 in 7 American blacks. That throws up into the air what it even means to assume someone is ‘African-American’ simply based on skin color. A significant number of American ‘whites’ have a greater percentage of recent African genetics than a significant number of American ‘blacks’. Across the US, around a third (30%) of white Americans has the equivalent of three African ancestors in recent centuries (2.-20% African genetics), adding up to 74 million Americans. This translates to twice as many white Americans than black Americans with recent African ancestry. The African ancestry among whites is even higher in the South, an important point for my own family. In doing genealogy research, I’ve apparently come across at least one African ancestor.

    So, do I descend from slaveholders or slaves? Maybe yes and yes; as is true of a large part of the American population. White people can easily have as much as 20% or more of African genetics without it necessarily being physically apparent. Meanwhile, some people identifying as black have barely any African genetics at all, sometimes below 1%. This is caused by the hidden history of blacks passing as whites, or in some cases those of mostly European ancestry passing as blacks, and it gives whole new meaning to diaspora. Most of racial ideology is about the narratives we tell about ourselves and about others. It’s fiction, if that doesn’t make it any less powerful and oppressive. Barrayn is talking about telling her own narrative. That is ultimately what freedom is about, the autonomy to choose a story of one’s own. But this is not only an individual action for, as an entire society (national and global), we are in the process of developing new narrated identities.

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