MIAMI — The double portrait of father and son presents an extraordinarily intimate experience on the usually busy public plaza surrounding the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami which is currently closed. On a recent weekend, the plaza was a lonely place baking in harsh sunlight, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions against people gathering in groups. Closed due to the pandemic, MOCA commissioned photojournalist Carl Juste to create a large-scale version of his photograph “I Am A Man,” originally published in the Miami Herald. “I Am A Man” is sited on the plaza, near the museum’s entrance, overlooking a reflecting pool. With this placement, few distractions prevent passersby from coming face to face with Memphis sanitation workers Elmore Nickleberry and son Terence. They’re captured in a historic moment, one that’s densely layered with memories of battles against racial injustice.
In 2008, Juste and his Miami Herald colleague Leonard Pitts, Jr. traveled to visit Memphis to cover the 40th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, meeting the elder Nickleberry who had taken part in that strike. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Memphis to march with the workers on April 3, 1968; he was assassinated in that city the following day. When Juste and Pitts traveled to Memphis, Barack Obama was campaigning to become the first Black president of the United States.
In the summer of 2020, the world has been rocked by unprecedented twin crises of a pandemic, that disproportionately affects Blacks and people of color, and Black Lives Matter protests. These events play out against the drumbeat of racist rhetoric and actions issuing from the Trump administration. Magnified by the situation of severely limited public access to art indoors, Juste’s black and white photograph is both haunting and timely.
“I Am A Man” evokes grievous wounds to spirit and body as well as the resilient determination necessary to face down repeated assaults on human dignity.