Gordon Parks: American photographer and activist

Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was a seminal figure of twentieth century photography. A humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, he left behind a body of work that documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life.

Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.   Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta and Arnika Dawkins Gallery. © The Gordon Parks Foundation 

Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. 
Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta and Arnika Dawkins Gallery. © The Gordon Parks Foundation 

Born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Parks was drawn to photography as a young man when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine. After buying a camera at a pawnshop, he taught himself how to use it and -- despite his lack of professional training -- he found employment with the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.), which was then chronicling the nation’s social conditions.

American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

Parks quickly developed a style that would make him one of the most celebrated photographers of his age, allowing him to break the color line in professional photography while creating remarkably expressive images that consistently explored the social and economic impact of racism. 

When the F.S.A. closed in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer, balancing work for fashion magazines with his passion for documenting humanitarian issues. His 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader won him widespread acclaim and a position as the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine, then by far the most prominent photojournalist publication in the world.

Parks would remain at Life for two decades, chronicling subjects related to racism and poverty, as well as taking memorable pictures of celebrities and politicians (including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael). His most famous images, such as Emerging Man (1952) and American Gothic (1942) capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century America and have become iconic images, defining their era for later generations. They also rallied support for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate as well as a documentarian.

Black Panther Members at Chapter Headquarters, San Francisco, 1969.

Black Panther Members at Chapter Headquarters, San Francisco, 1969.

In 1950, Parks returned to his hometown in Kansas to make a series of photographs meant to accompany an article that he planned to call “Back to Fort Scott.” Fort Scott was the town that he had left more than 20 years earlier, when after his mother died, he found himself—a teenager and the youngest of 15 children—suddenly having to make his own way in the world. He used this assignment to revisit early memories of his birthplace, many involving serious racial discrimination, and to reconnect with childhood friends, all of whom had attended the same all-black grade school as Parks.

Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950.
Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

One of the most visually rich and captivating of all his projects, Parks’s photographs, now owned by The Gordon Parks Foundation, were slated to appear in April 1951, but the photo essay was never published. This exhibition represents a rarely seen view of everyday lives of African American citizens, years before the Civil Rights movement began in earnest, and is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

For additional images, visit the Gordon Parks Foundation Archives

Redlining: Race and Inequality in America

"For every measure of well-being and opportunityfrom cancer rates, asthma rates, infant mortality, unemployment, education, access to fresh food, access to parks, whether or not the city repairs the roads in your neighborhood—the foundation is where you live." - House Rules, This American Life 
"The segregation in America between a largely dark inner city and a largely white suburban community is not something that just magically happened from market forces. ...When the government instituted rental housing in inner cities (in the form of public housing projects) for poor minorities, and then developed home ownership in low-cost, suburban communities for low-income whites (where you could put almost nothing down) they created this incredible wealth gap." - Dalton Conley, Professor of Sociology at NYU



It is fair to say that most people living in the United States today are not fully aware of our country's history of redlining. Perhaps the term and practice is not even all that well understood. No problem, but we're going to change that, right now. 

The term "redlining" was coined in the late 1960s and refers to the practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate areas (historically non-white neighborhoods) where banks were warned not to invest. The term was later extended to refer to the discriminatory practice of denying, or simply charging more for, services such as banking, insurance, health care, or food at supermarkets to particular groups of people.

Since film is such a great way to learn things, this short (6 min.) clip from California Newsreel's series Race: The Power of an Illusion provides a compelling (albeit frustrating and embarrassing) history lesson: 

If you don't have time to watch the video or if you simply prefer to read, here are the key takeaways and a few extra facts: 

  • After WWII, new federal policies and funding initiatives (e.g. the G.I. Bill) were created to offer veterans a chance to buy single family homes at affordable rates.
  • However, real estate practices and federal government regulations directed government-guaranteed loans toward white homeowners, and away from non-whites
  • The underwriters for the Federal Housing Association (FHA) warned that that the presence of even one or two non-white families could undermine real estate values in the new suburbs, and these government guidelines were widely adopted by private industry (e.g. real estate developers).
  • Using this scheme, federal investigators evaluated hundreds of cities across the country for financial risk and gave the highest rating (marked by the color green) to communities that were all white, suburban, and far away from minority areas
  • Communities that were all minority or in the process of changing were given the lowest rating and were marked by the color red (thus "redlined"). As a consequence, most mortgages and loans went to suburban America, which was being developed along explicit racial lines that benefitted the white community. 
  • To give some staggering context, from 1934-1962, the federal government underwrote $120 billion in new housing funding. Less than 2% of this went to non-white families
  • And these decisions were most certainly avoidable: “A government offering such bounty to builders and lenders could have required compliance with a nondiscrimination policy,”wrote Charles Abrams in 1955, but “instead, the FHA adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremberg laws.” (The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic, June 2014). 


wealth Disparity and Home Ownership

As one might expect, the legacy of these policies can still be felt today in this country, where the net worth of the average black family is approximately 1/8 that of the average white family. And since children of families of similar income levels continue to show differences in performance and achievement, less-informed people may try to attribute these differences to something cultural or innate, when it really is fundamentally a question of longstanding and historical inequality: 

"We're not comparing blacks and whites on an equal footing if we don't take into consideration these wealth differences in addition to the income differences. ... And that's what's driving these seemingly cultural or behavioral differences in the next generation ... inequality." (from An Interview with Dalton Conley, Professor of Sociology at NYU)

Policymakers also tend to focus primarily on income levels when measuring economic progress among groups, instead of looking at differences in wealth, since income rates show less disparity. In a recent paper published by the Urban Institute, the authors argue that: 

"Policymakers often focus on income and overlook wealth, but consider: the racial wealth gap is three times larger than the racial income gap. Such great wealth disparities help explain why many middle-income blacks and Hispanics haven’t seen much improvement in their relative economic status and, in fact, are at greater risk of sliding backwards."

From here, one must ask: why are policymakers avoiding this conversation about wealth disparity? While there is no straightforward or singular answer, a skeptical mind could assume it has something to do with avoiding responsibility. Since our government has made many historical decisions aimed at keeping opportunities to accumulate wealth significantly farther out of reach for non-white families, it could be argued that our government is responsible for compensating for past harm, which is a provocative and charged topic. For more on this, read Ta-Nehisi Coates' article, The Case For Reparations, published last year in The Atlantic magazine

But for now, let's look again at racial disparity since some readers might be able to skim over the term "1/8" and not fully grasp how big of a difference this is. Thankfully, for those visual learners, we have some tools to help clarify this further. Below is a graph that illustrates the rates of average family wealth split out by race and ethnicity over a 27 year span (1983-2010). Not only is the difference great, sadly it has also increased over time: 


So where does this huge difference come from? As one might expect, the dramatic split in net worth of black and white families in the United States is largely based on the differences in how valuable a family's home is estimated to be (assuming a family owns their home).

The benefits of owning a home—and more so a valuable one—are many. First of all, by owning a home, a family pays less in income tax (see this guide to the benefits of home ownership from Forbes magazine). Secondly, since owner-occupied communities tend to have higher real estate value than renter communities, the property tax base is likely higher, which means local services are going to be better. This can include something as simple as free and regular garbage services and more frequent street cleaning. It can also mean superior public education, since funding for public schools remains strongly tied to the income generated from property taxes (Chetty and Friedman, 2011).

Thirdly, once a family has built equity by paying back their mortgage, they can borrow off this equity to finance other projects or pay their children's college tuition. This financial support makes it less likely that these children will have to take out and carry huge student debt, thus freeing them from common pitfalls: "Debt costs you time in savings, pushes back when and whether you can buy a home, start a family, open a small business or access capital," says Lauren Asher, the president of TICAS (from a recent article in Forbes Magazine). As a result, children of homeowners are in a strategic position to have their education paid for (even if only in part), to more easily save money, to more quickly buy their own home, and to be more likely to raise their family near good schools. This puts them in a prime position to start the cycle over again and further the divide. 


Rental Markets

Just as housing discrimination continues to exist at significant rates within the real estate market, it should be no surprise that people of color are also often denied access to homes and apartments within the rental market. 

To this point, the radio show and podcast This American Life devoted an entire episode—entitled House Rulesto discussing the impact and importance of where a person lives. Working closely with ProPublica reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to illuminate the history of race-based housing discrimination in the United States, the episode's first segment details the work of an organization in NYC called the Fair Housing Justice Center.

Through in-depth research on contemporary segregation in the United States, Hannah-Jones found that "housing discrimination based on race is a lot less pervasive than it used to be ...[but] it still happens," and at higher rates than expected since bias practices have become more covert and harder to pick up on. In order to build a case against a potentially discriminatory landlord, the Fair Housing Justice Center hired testers to visit particular buildings and pretend to seek an apartment, while their conversations were recorded and compared. Since testers did not know which buildings were suspected of discrimination and which were simply part of the control group, the findings of some of the tests were quite surprising: 

"It wasn't that she couldn't believe someone might have discriminated against her in enlightened New York City, but she thought of herself as very good at reading people, how they were responding to her, and she had detected nothing."

In this particular case, the person accused of bias had been very nice and the conversation was normal, with no overt red flags, making the findings all the more disturbing for this tester:  

"I was surprised, and I was like, but he was so nice to me. He was cordial. He wasn't throwing me a party, but he was cordial, and he wasn't rushing me out ... When he told me nothing was available, I took him by face value. ... It's jarring. It's very jarring. ... It's hard for my brain to realize that there was nothing that I could do. And for a while I had a feeling of like, well, does that mean I'm misjudging other people in my life? You know, are there other people who don't want to be near me because I'm black? What does that mean? Am I just completely misjudging the people around me?"

Without instilling too much paranoia, this is deeply upsetting and it is hard to believe that today in New York Citya city purported to be so progressivethere is a fair chance that a person of color might be discriminated against and have no idea that he or she has been treated differently or denied access to opportunities. 


Racism Without Racists & community isolation 

To complicate matters further, many people who discriminate in subtle ways have no idea that they are even doing it. In his 2003 book, Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes about this very phenomenon: namely that the absence of overt racism has pushed people to deny and overlook their own small, everyday discriminatory decisions. With all that has been discussed in the media lately (e.g. Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland), CNN recently published a piece about the way that many white people subconsciously perceive and interpret the behavior and culture of others—particularly those of racial minoritiesto be fear-inducing or negative. Sadly, as we've all now learned so vividly, a person's fear-of-the-unknown can have lethal affects when it is a driving force in a confrontation. 

A significant portion of this fear can be attributed to a simple lack of exposure and familiarity with people of racial groups other than one's own. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the continued lack of integrated communities in this country. From the same This American Life episode, producer Nancy Updike describes that: 

"Black and white Americans still live substantially apart in this country. ... In hundreds of metropolitan areas, the average white person lives in a neighborhood that's 75% white, and their neighbors who aren't white are not likely to be African American." 

Not surprisingly, this continued separation of communities along race lines can easily be traced back to discriminatory structural decisions—including redliningthat offered important opportunities only to particular communities. It is a full circle of influence, one that has been tragically under addressed in the media and among communities that can be conveniently unaware (see white privilege) (and this) (and this). 


Additional Reading, Resources and Organizations 

White People and the Appropriation of Yoga

Being “positive” isn’t necessarily positive when you’re stepping all over something. Appropriation is still appropriation even if it’s well intentioned. ... I’m hoping people will then start seeing the same pattern in other industries because my project isn’t even about yoga really, it’s about colonization. Yoga’s just the vehicle. - Chiraag Bhakta

As an Indian American who grew up in New Jersey, artist Chiraag Bhakta couldn’t help but notice after moving to San Francisco that “the Bay Area has this bizarre relationship with Asian culture/spirituality” (Bold Italic). Similarly, as he started finding (and collecting) new age-y yoga ephemera from the ’60s through the ’80s, Bhakta noted the absence of South Asian people among the imagery. 

During the summer of 2014 his impressive collection was on display at the Asian Art Museum as part of its Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibition. The installation, called #whitepeopledoingyoga, is a response to the commercialization, appropriation, and white-washing of yoga in our culture through an Indian American lens.

Below is a dynamic and brief (7 min.) presentation by Bhakta that focuses on California's role in the adoption, evolution, and popularization of yoga today.

The Agronomist: Radio Haiti and Jean Dominique

A provocative view into the life of a formidable figure, The Agronomist (2003) offers a glimpse into the life and legacy of Jean Dominique, who ran Haiti's first independent and free radio station during multiple repressive regimes.

Despite living most of his life in the capital city of Port-au-Prince and working as a journalist, Jean Dominique was a trained agronomist and devoted his life to giving voice and recognition to the poor and marginalized people of Haiti, particularly agricultural workers. 

Directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Stop Making Sense), The Agronomist is powerful and insightful, particularly for viewers less familiar with the social and political history of Haiti. In a piece about why he decided to create the film, Demme writes:

“when I called Jean upon his arrival in New York in the early nineties to propose the idea of a documentary portrait of a journalist in exile, I really thought it was a good idea for a film. But the greater truth was, I was seeking an opportunity to hang with Jean, to really get to know a guy who I felt was one of the most intriguing, exciting people I had ever come across. … I found Jean to be brusque, all business, insanely professional and focused, brilliant at the microphone.“ 

But intriguing and exciting are understatements: Jean had a fiery personality and an unmatched intensity. From the look in his eyes and the gravel in his voice, it is clear that he had just enough crazy to keep him on the front lines of a longstanding political battle for a more just and democratic Haiti, a battle that eventually cost him his life. Demme writes: 

“When we received news of Jean’s killing on April 1, 2000, everyone who knew Jean, who cared about Haiti, was devastated. It seemed like the final coup-de-grace to the effort to get Haiti moving forward again... Daniel Wolff proposed that the only positive thing we could do was to finish our little film, to honor Jean’s spirit and the country he so loved, by completing the work he had—however grudgingly—participated in, permitted." 

Jean Dominique was survived by his wife, Michele Montas, who began her journalism career in Haiti in the early 1970s with Jean. After his assassination, Montas took over the station, but had to shut it down in February 2003 and flee to New York after receiving several death threats. Montas later served as the Spokesperson under UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Periphery Center is hosting a private viewing of this film on November 12 in Oakland. RSVP via Facebook or email us directly for the address: peripherycenter@gmail.com. Wine and snacks will be served, but feel free to bring any additional food or drinks you'd like.

David Johnson Retrospective in San Francisco

"David Johnson, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., was the first African American student of Ansel Adams. In Adams’ school he was advised to photograph his own neighborhood and document the faces and places with which he was most familiar. He subsequently became an important chronicler of black life in San Francisco in the middle part of the 20th century." 

This retrospective of his work is being shown at the Harvey Milk Photo Center in San Francisco through October 19th. 

Barravento: Bahia in the 1960s

Barravento (commonly translated as The Turning Wind), was filmed in 1962, but was not shown in the United States until 1987, when it premiered at the Public Theater in New York City. It was the first feature film made by the highly regarded Brazilian director Glauber Rocha, who died in 1981 at the age of 42. 

Barravento is an exceptionally beautiful work, shot in dramatically filtered, black-and-white photography. The film tells the story of Firmino -- part revolutionary, part devil -- who struggles to free the fishermen in his village from capitalist exploitation and the religious superstition that prevents social change. (Read more about the film in this 1987 article in the New York Times). 

While fictional in script and production, the film offers viewers a glimpse of traditional cultural traditions from Bahia, including traditional samba music (13:18), samba de roda (13:29), capoeira (17:06), puxada de rede (5:30), and scenes from a Candomblé ceremony (20:53), along with an overall glimpse into life on the coast of Bahia in the early 1960s. 

For those folks who speak Portuguese or Spanish, the film is available in its entirety on YouTube in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles. For English-only speakers, the scenes marked above are a good way to see a bit of dance, capoeira and Candomblé ceremony.  

Too Poor for Pop Culture

"Where I live in East Baltimore, everything looks like 'The Wire' and nobody cares what a 'selfie' is."

"I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell. ... Miss Sheryl doesn’t have a computer and definitely wouldn’t know what a selfie is. Her cell runs on minutes and doesn’t have a camera. Like many of us, she’s too poor to participate in pop culture." - D. Watkins  

This insightful and eye-opening piece by D. Watkins sheds light on a reality that many, if not most, people in the United States are not aware of. 

Read the full article here.