Late last summer, Lawrence Photo Alliance members were asking each other how they could participate in the Langston Hughes centenary celebration.
Rachel Flowers, alliance president at that time, suggested the members create new works inspired by Hughes' poetry. The idea was enthusiastically embraced.
The resulting exhibit, "The Lawrence Photo Alliance Langston Hughes Exhibit," will be presented Friday through Feb. 15 in the art gallery in the Kansas Union on the Kansas University campus. The show features new work created by 17 photographers.
The exhibit is in conjunction with the "Let America Be America Again" symposium at KU.
Photographer and exhibit coordinator Shakura Jackson recalls thinking she would skim through Hughes' poetry and find a suitable inspiration for her photograph. What actually happened was somewhat more complex. Jackson found herself drawn in to the poetry. Unable to just browse, she devoured the verses, reading every poem.
After reading Hughes' depiction of the African-American experience, Jackson began to clip articles or portions of them that seemed to resonate the sense of exclusion that Hughes described on behalf of his community decades earlier.
She was overwhelmed by how easily and rapidly a collection of evidence of prejudice grew.
"Black people talk about how they're not free in America," Jackson said. "It was so easy to find the evidence in the newspaper. I hadn't been aware of the scope of the prejudice; it became more clear personally."
Since August, when the alliance embraced the project, Jackson has been including selections of Hughes' poetry in the organization's monthly newsletter, in part to maintain enthusiasm for the project and to help members select the poems from which they would individually draw inspiration.
Jackson chose for creative inspiration Hughes' poem titled "My People."
"The Night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people."
The Lawrence Photo Alliance formed in 1980 and now boasts of 65 members from as far away as Kansas City, Overland Park, Baldwin and Topeka. The exhibition is the alliance's first collaboration with KU.
Selections from the exhibit also will be displayed at the Lawrence Public Library Feb. 16 through March 31.