Doris Ulmann

Doris Ulmann, from Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933)

No man possessed of a life-giving idea can be silent about it. No thought becomes clear, no idea completed until it is shared. The closer a person is to nature the stronger is his instinct to reveal the vision which enchants him. His mind dwells upon it and as he considers its possibilities he builds all sorts of air castles in which to house it.

Julia Peterkin, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933, p. 122)

Doris Ulmann

I’ve got grander plans in mind (I always do), but I’ve decided to share what I have thus far. It’s been a long time since I updated the hypertext chronology I was working on a year or so ago as I was trying to get my thoughts about my research together. I wanted to do a page about Doris Ulmann, but I got distracted. My scanner works much better with my Mac than it ever did with my PC, so I decided it was about time that I contributed more online material regarding the image/texts I’ve been studying. Last night, I started scanning Roll, Jordan, Roll, by Doris Ulmann and Julia Peterkin. Thanks to George H. William’s pointer to an excellent Web Album Generator, I’ve now placed these illustrations online in record time.

Roll, Jordan, Roll is an interesting book for several reasons. It presents a look at Gullah culture in North Carolina at a time when standards of representation were rapidly changing. Ulmann began her career as a pictorialist photographer, and while many of the photographs are unabashedly sentimental, the photographs and text also mark a pronounced turn towards the personal and specific—away from the racial “typing” which was prevalent in the early twentieth century. They provide a warmer look at African-American culture than another contemporaneous text I’ve scanned, Georgia Nigger. Instead of the handful of images reproduced in Spivak’s 1932 text, Ulmann and Peterkin use 71 images (in the trade edition I possess—the limited edition photogravure version has 91).

I hope to add more in the way of links and bibliography on Doris Ulmann’s work soon, but I just couldn’t resist announcing that I have placed all 71 images from Roll, Jordan, Roll online. I’m still transitioning between two servers, but for those people who have linked it the permanent home of my hypertext chronology is now at visible darkness. I’ll leave the version on this domain in place until I get more moving done. I’ve included relevant bits from Peterkin’s text in the presentation, but I must mention that none of these photographs were captioned or indexed—they are directly conjoined with the text on separate facing pages often without any overt reference to the image.

As for the title of the book, Peterkin describes its source in this way:

The familiar “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” sung at a funeral and accompanied by heart breaking wails of grief that dictate a slowly beating rhythm is a dirge that expresses mankind’s helplessness in the face of death; sung by plowmen who patiently follow their mules up and down the long cotton rows on a hot summer afternoon, it is stamped on their own resignation; at Christmas watch-night meetings which celebrate the birthnight of Jesus, who was born in a manger, poor like themselves in material things, rich like themselves in close kinship to the Creator of the Universe, the old song is shouted triumphantly, for little Jesus contrived the plan by which souls of men whose bodies die can cross Jordan’s dark stream safely and reach an eternal home where all is ease and peace. When the tied of life fills the breast of the earth in the spring and the cool sap of plants flows out in leaves and blossoms, the warm red blood in men’s veins is quickened and “Roll, Jordan, Roll” expresses exultant joy in the fresh surge of life which proves that death dissolves old forms in order to nourish new ones. (131)