I walked around the High Museum of Art solo, smiling at the images that covered the walls before me. Something about them gave me a feeling of warmth and at times they made me feel even more proud of my culture and heritage as an African-American woman. The emotions that came over me were unusual because most of the people that I saw in the photos were complete strangers and living in deplorable conditions, but I still felt a connection to them. Not simply because we share the same skin color, but the fact that these individuals seemed to know the importance of family, caring for those that are close to them and cherishing the small things that you cannot place a dollar amount on.
Back in the 1950s the late photographer Gordon Parks discovered something different in the black community. He saw something greater and more important to document besides the constant reminders of blacks suffering from oppression, disenfranchisement and poverty. Parks was able to shed light on positivity among black Americans and he decided to put this at the forefront of his work. When I look at his portraits, I believe that he saw black males as role models and leaders of their families, and he viewed black women as the support system and backbone of their households. The photographer illustrated his visions through photography, the images that he documented tell a story that anyone can interpret and learn from—through it all the black race finds a way to live a resilient lifestyle no matter what we are faced with.
Ironically the exhibit titled, “The Segregation Story,” includes a collection of more than 40 color photos by the late Gordon Parks. They are on display at the High Museum of Art until June 2015. The title reflects what was going on in America during the 1950s. But the photographer took a journalistic approach by covering both sides of the story, the good and the bad. He pictured African-Americans dealing with segregation but he put these issues in the backgrounds of the images and he still manages to keep the family as the focal point, showing that black lives matter and our families are important to us. His images represent people of color as a unit and they are displayed in color prints instead of black and white something that other photographers were not doing at this time.
Take for example a photo called “Window Shopping,” it shows Ondria Tanner and her grandmother out window shopping in 1956 in Mobile Alabama. They stand before a window looking at several mannequins that are positioned high above ground. The mannequins are white and they don’t reflect the lives of the viewers. This photo represents what was taking place back then and even today in 2014 – all men and women are not treated like equals, but we have a choice of the lifestyle that we want to display.
Another photo shows a black man entrepreneur who has created an in-home barbershop. As he shaves his client who sits in his chair, the barber’s children are sitting on the floor playing with their toys together. The father sets an example for his children by allowing them to see him working and leading a home business but still making time for his family.
Race played a big part of segregation especially America. White people were elevated just because of their skin color, and black people were shot down because of theirs and held in small degrading positions no matter how knowledgeable they were.
One of Parks’ photos called “Outside Looking In,” was taken in Mobile, Alabama. This particular image is included in Life magazine’s 1956 photo essay called “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” In the photo, a group of six black children stand outside of a fence peering through a gate as they stare into the park longing for the opportunity to be able to play inside of the park just like the white children were able to do. Even though the children are clearly saddened by this, they still huddle together in a time of distress.
Gordon Parks was an amazing man, who died in 2006. In Parks’ lifetime he broke several barriers, he was the first African-American photographer for Life magazine, and in 1944 he was the only black photographer working for Vogue magazine. Parks also co-founded Essence magazine and he became hollywood’s first major black film director.
When it comes to the “Segregation Story,” I think the black community needs to take a hint from our elders and work to make our situation better by taking action and creating change, before lives are sacrificed and dreams are shattered. The black community is notorious for being reactive, but now is the time to be proactive. Our ancestors had the knowledge and courage to do it back then and here we are in 2014 with the world in our hands (literally) so what’s our excuse?