Earlier this summer, I read Maurice Berger’s article in The New York Times about the discovery of a series of Gordon Parks photographs believed to have been lost. The photographs chronicled the daily life of an extended family in Mobile, Alabama in 1956. According to Berger, the found photographs expand upon themes established in that same series of 20 photographs published in Life magazine. Contrary to the documentary photographs from the civil rights period showing brutal inhumanity in black and white, Parks’s photographs reveal the dignity and humanity that black people procured for themselves as they made their lives as rich as they could, amidst demeaning circumstances, in full color and thus vibrancy. Berger contends that the full scope of Parks’s work captures the spirit and will of people committed to living fully in the face of grueling oppression.
The photograph above shows one of Parks’s photographs and confirms Berger’s contention; too, it reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston’s observations about black life–interestingly as she observed it in Mobile. Thus, in “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she offers the following:
On the walls of the homes of the average Negro one always finds a glut of gaudy calendars, wall pockets and advertising lithographs. The sophisticated white man or Negro would tolerate none of these, even if they bore a likeness to the Mona Lisa. No commercial art for decoration. Neither the calendar nor the advertisement spoils the picture for this lowly man. He sees the beauty in spirit of the declaration of the Portland Cement Works or the butcher’s announcement. I saw in Mobile a room in which there was an over-stuffed mohair living-room suite, an imitation mahogany bed and chifferobe, a console victrola. The walls were gaily papered with Sunday supplements of the Mobile Register. There were seven calendars and three wall pockets. One of them was decorated with a lace doily. The mantel-shelf was covered with a scarf of deep home-made lace, looped up with a huge bow of pink crepe paper. Over the door was a huge lithograph showing the Treaty of Versailles being signed with a Waterman fountain pen.
It was grotesque, yes. But it indicated a desire for beauty.
The Thornton home looks nothing like the Mobile homes Hurston describes as “average Negro” abodes. These sitters strive towards respectability. Hurston’s observations put me in mind of the Parks photograph largely because they situate diversity in black life while at the same time acknowledging a common “desire for beauty.” I saw this desire not only in the bouquet of flowers placed on the coffee table and formal wear of Mr. and Mrs. Thornton but also in the neatness and order that so marked their uncluttered space.
I’ve been learning to take greater pride in my own efforts to maintain a well-ordered environment. Rather than as a chore to be done, I now think about how in sweeping the floor, vacuuming the carpet, washing the dishes, and cleaning the commode I am not merely doing what needs to be done but I am making a claim about the value of my space. I better understand now that in maintaining my environment, I am making an assertion regarding its value. Under Jim Crow segregation, Mr. and Mrs. Thornton were not supposed to think that they led lives of value. The photograph of them shows that they had another idea about that–they disagreed with their culture about the measure of their lives. For those of us who live anonymously in small homes without great material fortune, we have a similar fight to declare the meaningfulness of our lives.
I am keenly aware of how little regard I am supposed to have for myself as a result of the trappings of success that I lack. It would seem impossible not to know this. Popular voices in American culture assume a common starting point for measuring success and so much of what you read or view in the culture trumpets money and the loot it affords as the standard for judging human value. If you are at all critical, however, the absurdity of this standard through the lens of popular culture undermines itself. For example, I was reading an article on a celebrity news site about boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s release from prison. Apparently, the night before his release, his current girlfriend had a birthday and Mayweather paid for the cake to look like an expensive bag, he bought her expensive jewelry, and perhaps he paid for everyone’s meal. I have to admit, I was confused about the gifts and can’t be sure if he also bought his girlfriend the purse that the cake was based on or if the cake itself was expensive and that’s what was supposed to be the fact to acknowledge; all I know for sure is that he spent a lot of money. The author of the piece did make clear that readers were supposed to be jealous because we weren’t similarly feted; but of course, this was completely absurd–at least to me. Floyd Mayweather was in prison for having attacked his ex-girlfriend while his children watched. Expensive goods do not replace this fact. His purchasing power does not eclipse the fact that his ex-girlfriend was not a worthy contender for the boxer leading authorities rank as the best pound for pound in the world. To me, the ex-girlfriend is lucky to have escaped with her life. Given that precedent, I do not envy his current girlfriend anything.
Maybe Floyd Mayweather, his current girlfriend, and the author of the article all have a “desire for beauty;” maybe we all do. The critical point is that we are living at a time when acquiring beauty is thought to be available only to those with money. The Mayweather example highlights the difference between acquiring beauty and spending a lot of money. The goods that Mayweather purchased for his current girlfriend, whatever they were, were certainly expensive but they actually may cost too much to be beautiful if they were given by an unchanged man. I can afford everything in my life and that’s what lends those things value. And when I am broke, without a dime to spend, I can always straighten, clean, wash, cook, or iron something that will then provide me with the beauty I desire. The Thorntons showcase the availability of beauty in the most oppressed circumstances to those invested enough to invent it.