Monday, January 14, 2019

Capturing Black and White America

“The youngest of fifteen, Parks arrives stillborn
And is nearly left for dead until a dip
In ice water shocks his tiny heart to beat.

The baby is named for the man who saved his life, Dr. Gordon.”

Gordon Parks would grow up to become a professional photographer, cataloging American life on film for the Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information, Standard Oil, Ebony, Vogue, Fortune and Life.

His early work (1940-50) is the focus of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from November 4, 2018 until February 18, 2019. He is also the subject of Carole Boston Weatherford’s biography, Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America.

For Gordon Parks, photography was the tool he used to expose “the unfairness of segregation,” and the African American struggle against racism. “He not only documented but also served as an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement.”  

Parks photographs often featured everyday Americans in their daily lives, including cleaning woman Ella Watson – a photo that became known as American Gothic. “In one iconic photo,” writes Weatherford, “Parks conveyed both the African American struggle against racism and the contradiction between segregation and freedom.”

“Standing before
the flag of freedom,
cleaning lady Ella Watson
holds the tools of her trade
and the hopes of her grandchildren.” 

·       Ella Watson lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s.
·       What do you think she hoped for her grandchildren? For students whose grandparents are living, have them find out their hopes for their grandchildren. Write about it or share those hopes with the class.  Students can also imagine what they might hope for their own children.
·       Ask students to write about three things in their own daily lives that they would photograph – and why they selected these people, events or places. 
·       Perhaps a few single use cameras could be purchased to enable students to photograph a story about their school that could be published online, in the school newspaper or in a local community newspaper. (This would be an opportunity for students to learn about obtaining the rights  to print photographs of other people.)

Parks was not only a photographer. He wrote a novel, directed a film and wrote poetry and music as well.

·       If you wanted to change people’s minds about an issue in society, what do you think would be the best medium and why? 
Gordon Parks is one of many famous Americans profiled by Carole Boston Weatherford. She is the 2019 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award winner  and will speak in Washington at the award celebration on May 11, 2019.  Make plans to come and hear what she has to say – students welcome!

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