The Bitter Sweetness of “Gordon Parks Segregated Story”

For many of us in metro DC, whether we’re US or foreign born, life bound by de jure segregation remains a thing of the past. For some of us, we gain our intimacy with segregation by gleaning from movies like “Selma” or “To Kill a Mocking Bird” starring Gregory Peck, thus making segregation’s presence a celluloid fantasy or nightmare depending on which water fountain you would’ve been expected to drink from during this tortuous period in the US.

(Photo credit: Gordon Parks courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation)

(Photo credit: Gordon Parks courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation)

Yet, Gordon Parks’ photographs comprising the “Segregated Story” exhibition at the Adamson Gallery remind us of the not so distant past, during the 1950s, when most of the southern US enforced Jim Crow laws that relegated African Americans and whites into two different social, economic, and political spheres. Some 200 negatives of Parks’ found posthumously by the Gordon Parks Foundation and subsequently digitally printed by the Adamson Gallery stand as a testament to Black segregated southern life.

Parks’ series was originally commissioned for a September 1956 issue of Life magazine. The series documents an extended African American family in segregated Alabama. The first Black photographer for Life magazine, Parks balanced the requirements of photojournalism with his desire to carve out his own aesthetics and artistry. His compositions might easily call to mind those of Walker Evans, a photojournalist for Time magazine during the 1950s. Or, Parks’ subjects are reminiscent of those of his African American contemporary, P.H. Polk, who like Evans shot in black and white. But Parks’ photos differ in two major aesthetics: his subjects were of a particular African American family and he shot with color film. It is equally worth noting that Parks’ images divert from the major event that dominated photojournalistic documentation of Black southern life at the time: the nascent 20th century civil rights movement. These images add another layer of complexity that behooves us to remember that the mundane activities of rural and semi-rural southern black life often lay beyond the purview of whites.

Hauntingly rendered, yet lovingly seen, the power of Parks’ eye through the viewfinder arrests the observer as you move from digitally rendered photo to photo at the Adamson gallery. From the 200 negatives posthumously discovered, 26 images cover the walls, in some areas in double rows, filling the gallery leaving no place to escape. Parks didn’t title many of the photographs; however, the images themselves speak volumes to the subjects being rendered.

(Photo credit: Gordon Parks courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation)

(Photo credit: Gordon Parks courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation)

Let’s take for example the one of two girls in gingham dresses. One girl presumably pours water from a light green cup into another light green cup held by the other girl. The girl pouring the water stands to the right, both feet submerged in water nearly reaching her calves, while the other girl has one foot in the water and the other on a wood plank. What at first appears to be innocent child’s play transforms itself into social commentary as the viewer’s eye is drawn to the structure in the background, which appears to be a house that seems unfit for human habitation. Within the context of Alabama during this time, according to James McGregor Burns author of the book The Crosswinds of Freedom (2012): “By the 1950s southern rural blacks, ravaged further by the [G]reat [D]epression, by pervasive segregation and discrimination […], comprised the poorest of the poor” (digital edition, unpaginated). It becomes easy to imagine an outhouse, lack of indoor plumbing, and open sewage as known vestiges of Black southern rural life in the 1950s when Parks documented it.

Of the titled photographs, “Willie Causey, Jr. Gun During Violence in Alabama, Shady Grove, 1956” suggests one of the many push factors that compelled black families, and black males in particular, to abandon the South and join the Great Migration northward to Chicago, Cleveland, Akron, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York. Willie Causey, Jr. appears to be 15 or 16 years old. In an open doorway, he sits leaning back in a ladder back chair, his bare chest exposing his ribs, and a rifle resting on his left leg. Two boys and a girl sit on a bed in the adjoining room bent over a book. Shot from the interior of the home, Causey appears to be standing guard. Yet Parks catches Causey’s gaze averted downward toward the rifle rather than outward towards the door of the house. The rifle remains an object despite Causey’s inattentive gaze toward external danger.

Although violence, poverty, and segregation predominate the themes in the photographs, Parks’ eye also entices us to remember the sweetness of Black life for example in “In-Home Barbershop, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956”; “Mother and Children, Mobile, Alabama, 1956”; and “Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956,” which portrays a patriarch and matriarch and their two grandchildren.

Capturing children seems to be Parks’ forte in this series. At times the children gaze directly into the camera, their expressions somber and their eyes soft. At times, the images disrupt the master narrative of segregation when Parks captures two black boys in white shirts and brown shorts thrusting toy guns toward the camera as a shirtless white boy stands beside them. Other times, Parks captures the children’s backs, perhaps being unaware that their forays down a railroad track with a toddler perched on the shoulders, or playing with both a black doll and a white doll seated in an in-home barbershop, or standing outside the fence of a white’s only playground as the children do in” Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956,” are being documented for time immemorial.

Parks accomplishes in these images what James Vanderzee does for New York City and what P.H. Polk does for Tuskegee, Alabama, and this is to render the complexity of Black life in America during the 1950s, one that can’t be reduced to a single monolithic image. Despite adversity, despite racism, despite poverty, Parks’ images remind of us Black life’s bitter sweetness, its tenderness, and its innocence amid domestic terrorism.

While viewing the exhibition, two gentlemen with heavily accented American English confessed to me that they were foreigners so they didn’t quite understand segregation in the US. As an African American woman who didn’t live and come of age during de jure segregation but is all too familiar with de facto segregation as a second-generation-born northerner, I could only suggest that they look at the images and read the photographs the best way that they could. I could have imposed my book-acquired knowledge on their experience, but I thought it best to allow Parks to do the teaching. And he teaches us so well through his vision.

Archival pigment print photographs in limited editions are on sale ranging in price from $5,000 to $15,000. Unframed and framed prints are also available beginning at $400.

“Gordon Parks Segregated Story” exhibition will be on view through June 27, 2015 at the Adamson Gallery located at 1515 Fourteenth Street, N.W., Suite 301, Washington, DC 20005. You can also view the exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia through June 21, 2015.

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