Photograph by Calliope Arkilic
Picture the life of an African American teenager in 1948. Racism and discrimination are overwhelmingly prominent forces, and poverty is likely at play, too. In order to combat these forces, there’s a natural impulse to create a strong community, occasionally in the form of gangs. Gangs had been popping up since the 1920s, but few people noticed their potential danger.
However, one man recognized the danger and realized he had a specific advantage in confronting it — a camera. That man was Gordon Parks. Parks set out to raise awareness about gangs through photojournalism and successfully produced a series of thought-provoking pieces.
The series first came to light in a 1948 issue of Life Magazine. A version of the series with additional images that go much farther in depth, called Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument, is currently on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). This visual window into 1948 gives insight into the issues facing our country today.
Both in the past and in the present, the media has found a way to criminalize African Americans, and, more often than not, they don’t draw the line at children. Parks followed a Harlem gang called the Midtowners, led by Leonard “Red” Jackson. Jackson was only seventeen. However, in Life Magazine, he was portrayed as a fully grown man.
His mature depiction is not due to his appearance but rather the editorial decisions made by Life Magazine. Stephanie Cannizzo, the curator of the BAMPFA exhibit, said, “At seventeen, you’re still considered a child, but Red is presented as this criminal. That shapes people’s perception of him before he even has a chance to become an adult.” This directly relates to the media’s tendency to depict white people as young and innocent, while black people of the same age are depicted as fully grown and inherently threatening. This remains as true today as it was in 1948.
The pictures Life Magazine chose speak volumes about how editorial choices can further racism. They opted for images of explicit violence over images of love or tenderness in the community.
The decisions of Life Magazine furthered the narrative of the “dangerous” black man in America. Cannizzo said, “It wasn’t presented as young boys playing and fighting, but instead as gang leaders.” This is a ploy from the media we’ve seen time and time again. The depiction of the African American community as a dangerous thing, in order to justify criminalizing them. Cannizzo pointed out how different the Life Magazine series would have been if different images were chosen: “[It could’ve] been presented as young people with leadership qualities, creativity, and skill.”
Parks had plenty of images of Jackson in his everyday life, but most of the images in the magazine painted a picture of a violent, unhappy life. There was an impulse to criminalize Jackson because he was a young black man, just as there is today.
Despite the poor representation of African Americans in media, there will always be forward thinkers like Gordon Parks, who pushed for proper representation of African Americans his whole life. Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument in its entirety is a passionate, contemplative reflection of a black teenager’s life in 1948. Moreover, many of Parks’ films have the same beautifully introspective quality with a focus on activism.
Parks’ films, such as Moments Without Proper Names, The Learning Tree, and Shaft can be viewed at BAMPFA. Kathy Geritz, film curator at BAMPFA said, “Although a lot of his more personal film work seems rather gentle, he still said he was using the camera as a weapon against poverty and against racism.” Parks devoted his talents to an accurate representation of the black community.
Now more than ever, the public depends on the media to understand social movements and constructs. It’s important to understand the underlying political agenda of these depictions and also to provide a strong counterpoint to negative imagery that’s prevalent in popular culture. Forerunners like Gordon Parks provided a powerful and necessary counterpoint for their time that is still critical and culturally important today, which is why his legacy is cemented as one of the great artist of the twentieth century and should be celebrated.