This is the American History I wish I had learned. Gordon Parks photographs. Jacob Lawrence paintings. Kara Walker cutouts. It is the American History – warts and all – concealed from me in my middle class, middle American, white, suburban upbringing which sought to indoctrinate me to a belief in American exceptionalism. Parks, Lawrence and Walker’s artwork teach an American History centered on what should be the the central theme of American History: race.
Above is a picture of institutional racism.
The confusion on the boy’s face is the result of institutional racism.
A black child, asked to pick between a white baby and a black baby, pointing at the white baby.
Does he choose the baby that looks like him, like the people he knows, validating his self-worth, or does he select the white child which a short life’s worth of external programming has already brainwashed him into believing is superior.
The outcome is clear. And heartbreaking.
The “doll test” was actually performed in the 1940’s. Psychiatric research on segregation and self-esteem put this question to African-American children in segregated schools. Children were shown a black doll and a white doll and asked to choose.
A majority picked the white doll.
The results indicated a lack of self-worth so patently ruinous to black communities that the study was cited by the Supreme Court when rendering its Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 which determined segregation of races in public schools was unconstitutional.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006) took the photo.
Gordon Parks Early Years
He attended a segregated school in Kansas.
Gordon Parks’ mother knew the damage segregation inflicted on black people. Her dying wish was for her son to leave the segregation of Fort Scott, Kansas for a better opportunity elsewhere, anywhere.
In 1928, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to Saint Paul, Minnesota to live with his older sister. Parks would never finish high school, but he would find photography and a career which would see him break barriers while traveling the world.
“Having personally experienced racism, poverty and discrimination, Parks understood and empathized with the people he photographed,” Allison Kemmerer, Mead Curator of Photography and Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, told me when I wrote about the Addison’s 2019/2020 exhibition of Gordon Parks photographs. “I think it is this understanding and sympathy that invests his images with an emotional power that transcends mere documentation to get at something more universal.”
During the 1940s, Parks blossomed from a self-taught photographer shooting portraits and documenting daily life in Saint Paul and Chicago to a visionary professional shooting for Ebony, Glamour, Smart Woman, and LIFE. He became the first African-American photographer at LIFE with his hiring in 1949.
“The fact that he could go from having never picked up a camera to becoming the first African-American staff photographer for LIFE magazine in just over 10 years certainly attests to his innate talent,” Kemmerer said. “Though he certainly benefited from interactions with the fellow photographers he met along the way, the development of his mature style and vision is truly the result of the experience gained from each phase of his early career—newspaper photojournalism, portrait photography, government work, corporate work with Standard Oil, and fashion/magazine work with a number of picture magazines.”
Parks’ career as a photographer was launched in 1937 when he was bewitched by photographs of Dust Bowl migrants he saw in a magazine. After buying his first camera in a pawn shop and teaching himself how to use it, he soon began making portraits for Twin Cities African-American newspapers.
“I think Parks’ earliest photographs—the majority of which were portraits—reflect an unusual degree of perception for a beginner and an innate ability to not only communicate the essence of his subject, but also engage the viewer,” Kemmerer said. “It is that combination of giving his subject a voice and eliciting the viewer’s interest and compassion that would characterize all of Parks’s work to come.”
As his career began, in addition to portraits, he found himself photographing fashion for a Saint Paul clothing store. Parks would go on to shoot fashion photography in Paris.
From Fort Scott, Kansas, he would also travel to Italy, Portugal, Puerto Rico and widely throughout the United States and Canada.
On to Chicago
After moving to Chicago in 1941, he came in contact with a vibrant local community of fellow black artists.
“His association with the South Side Community Art Center and subsequent immersion in Chicago’s Black Renaissance of painters, sculptors, writers, poets, educators and philosophers cannot be underestimated,” Kemmerer said. “The friendships forged with people like Charles White, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke not only offered artistic inspiration, but convinced him that art could indeed advance a social agenda.”
These artists encouraged Parks to take his camera into black communities to document the achievements of African-American culture and expose the injustices it faced.
Parks’ influence was not limited to photography. He directed 1971’s “Shaft” starring Richard Roundtree.
But it is his early work which set the stage for the astonishing achievements to come.
“Parks’s photographs from the 1940s are the foundation of his career and as a result give us insight into his development as a photographer, how he defined his point of view as an African-American artist and documenter of American life, and how he ultimately used his camera as an incredibly powerful and persuasive ‘weapon against poverty, against racism, against all kinds of social wrongs,’” Kemmerer said, quoting the artist.
American History is ugly, but that ugliness is the truth. Gordon Parks photographed it beautifully. Honestly.