Celebrating Black Visual Artists: Gordon Parks

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Gordon Parks

Some of the biggest issues  in America stem from the tendency to see things from a single perspective, an un-inclusive perspective, a white male perspective. Thanks to Gordon Parks–a great photographer, musician, writer and filmmaker–we can all benefit from a broader scope of American life during some of the most pivotal movements in history (1940s-2000s) as it relates to racism, classism and urban life.

Born in segregated Kansas in 1912, Parks came up poor. His first camera was bought at a pawnshop and he was completely self-taught. Yet, he would go on to become the first African American staff photographer for Life Magazine. Over the course of two decades at the publication, Parks documented such huge figures as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He captured gang violence on the streets of Harlem, Black Muslims as they worshipped, the Black Panther Party and the March on Washington. In other words, through his lens, he told stories most Americans would have otherwise heard lies about or may not have heard at all.  That’s what great art does. It reveals truth.

Malcolm X Holding Up Black Muslim Newspaper, Chicago, Illinois, 1963

Gordon Parks’ body of work is huge, and I recognized many of his pictures from both magazine and documentaries I’ve seen over the years. Still this image of Malcolm X, given the nature of our current events, struck me most. History isn’t just simply repeating. This same story of innocents being slaughtered by legal gatekeepers has never ceased. Did we stop paying attention for a while? Or did we stop shouting our truth at some point? Today, we all have cameras in our pockets and thank goodness for it. May we all point and shoot with the clarity and courage of Gordon Parks.

To learn more about Gordon Parks and his work, click here.

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