Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities through the Lens of Charles Chamblis (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $25.95) is proof positive that, as the saying goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well, even a coffee table book. Accordingly, this admirably fills the bill, a catalog of richly compelling images chronicling Black Minneapolis and St. Paul circa the 1970s and ’80s.
Davu Seru, who wrote the text, clearly knows the subject and has done his homework well. What makes Sights, Sounds, Soul a must-have to leave laying around when friends and family are over is the brilliant, eye-catching photography.
More than a mere collection of pictures, the photography captures a sense of community starting from the faces of people bonded not just by color, but by life itself. The book is true conversation starter to say the least.
By and large, Seru sensibly stays out of the way and lets the historic imagery speak for itself. He judiciously steps in every now and then to frame the context thereby actually enhancing the book’s already significant content.
“In Charles Chamblis’ photos, churches, night clubs, city lakes, well-groomed yards, hotel rooms and street scenes speak of…a community in full possession of itself.” Seru sagely notes that though the Mississippi River separates the two towns, African Americans have lived the Black experience as one.
“North Minneapolis, like the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, the longtime center of Black life in the Cities, has carried a peculiar burden: To those who gaze from outside the interpretative circle, it is a violence-ridden slum. For those like Chamblis, who operate from within, it is imagined as two Black worlds, one bearing more of the responsibility for the other, but also as everything that humanity is capable of at once.”
That said, there are no shots of thugs, no pictures of protest events — the book is a warm-heartedly celebratory look at the times. We all know and aren’t about to forget the bad. This simply is an opportunity to appreciate the good, to indulge in fond remembrance.
In this vein, there is a good number of shots featuring folk out on the town, having a high old time at the club, along with photos of entertainers hard at work having fun.
The chapter “Black Beauties” could’ve been subtitled “Stylin’ and Profilin,'” and several pages of soul folk strutting their sartorial stuff. From models like Patricia Anderson in a sizzling hot pants suit, fluffy ‘Fro and a sweet smile; Rozenia Hood Fuller brandishing haute couture and Angela Burkhalter winning Miss Black Minnesota 1979 to club-goers lounging in a booth or cutting the proverbial rug to friends fooling around at Lake Calhoun, it’s a splendid study in the colorful ways to let your hair down.
“Race Men, Race Women” depicts church attendees, business owners, civic activists, family reunions and more, including the everyday man and woman — bus driver and stewardess — who comprised the community Seru aptly called in full possession of itself.
Ultimately, Sights, Sounds, Soul, more than merely a book, is a cultural keepsake.
One of the most annoying aspects about this time of year is looking less than forward to trying to find just the right gift for that person on your list who’s either a picky pain or simply has everything. Put this under their tree, then pat yourself on the back. For that matter, while you’re at it, put it under your own tree — you’ll thank yourself.
“Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities through the Lens of Charles Chamblis” launches Nov. 15, 6:30-9 pm with a book event and the opening night of a companion exhibit. The exhibit runs through March 31, 2018 at Mill Commons, Mill City Museum, 704 & Second Street South in downtown Minneapolis; Tuesday — Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, Sunday noon to 5 pm. The event is free. Go here for more event information.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.