Part of the Family
Okay, I give up. I’m a poet, playwright, and oral historian who’s protected her personal privacy like a museum guard protects the art on kindergarten-field-trip day. I’ve managed to somehow keep my public life separate from my private life. Yeah, I’m finally on Facebook—but I only talk about stuff related to writing and performance. And when I first created an account, I used an alias so I could participate while still hiding out! The idea of people posting photos of me or my family on the internet freaked me out completely.
Time to get over that! When Cave Canem contacted me to participate in a poetry reading inspired by Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, they didn’t know what they were asking of me, but I knew I had nowhere to hide. In that spirit, through Teenie’s lens, let me introduce you to…
my dad, Eugene Stevens (pictured on the left, from August 1945, Exhibition No. 301)…
…my uncle, Tim Stevens (pictured on the right, from 1972, Exhibition No. 967)…
…and my aunt, Marlene Stevens McEnheimer (pictured in the doorway, from December 4, 1960, Exhibition No. 816).
The photo above shows the opening of Jones Funeral Home, where my grandmother, aka “Big George,” used to take us to visit the deceased, regardless of whether she knew them or not. This subject was so mesmerizing to me that it inspired me to interview about thirty people who knew her so I could find out more. The result, my oral history manuscript, Big George’s Wylie Avenue, sheds light on the workings of family and community in The Hill during its heyday.
Because these three people remembered Teenie so fondly and repeatedly urged me to contact him, one of the people I interviewed for Big George’s Wylie Avenue was Teenie himself. I didn’t realize at the time that all my subsequent literary work would be in conversation with his work.
So there you have it! Teenie’s work got me out of my comfort zone and gave me a chance to show you who I am and where I come from. Not only do I not regret it, I’m actually feeling pretty good about this! Despite being squeamish about family photos on the internet, there’s no denying that I’m proud to be descended from the people in these pictures, and I’m proud that my voice is descended from their voices.
Teenie also photographed so many friends of my family that, to me, Teenie Harris, Photographer: an American Story actually feels more like an extended family album than an exhibit. And I think it will to you too—even if you’re not directly related. Because Teenie’s work has the potential to make anyone, anywhere, feel like part of the family. His eye shows us the truth—we are related, all of us. If you haven’t seen his work yet, go. And if you’ve already seen it, go again. You won’t regret it.
KELLI STEVENS KANE is a poet, playwright, and oral historian whose grandparents were friends of Teenie Harris. In fact Teenie and her grandfather, Jasper Stevens, both played on the Pittsburgh Crawfords and are pictured together on the cover of Rob Ruck’s Sandlot Seasons. Kane’s literary works—an oral history manuscript, Big George’s Wylie Avenue; a play, I Never Laughed So Much at a Funeral; and a poetry manuscript, Hallelujah Science—represent four generations in her family, all rooted in the world that Teenie documented. Kane is also an August Wilson Center Fellow and the recipient of an Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Grant. For more information about her upcoming readings and performances, visit www.kellistevenskane.com.
Related Event: Don’t miss your chance to hear Kelli read some of her work, along with poets Terrance Hayes and Yona Harvey, this Thursday, March 29, at the Cave Canem Poetry Reading.