I don’t know what I expected. I just knew I was five years late to the show.
The draw was the Gordon Parks photography exhibit at the Mobile Museum of Art (MMoA), something tentatively planned for a downtown space half a decade ago. That initial opportunity passed, so the MMoA crew made room at their Langan Park facility instead.
For the unaware, the photos are from a 1956 photojournalism assignment for Life magazine. Parks befriended Black Alabamians and chronicled their lives in rural Shady Grove and Mobile. For a lot of Americans, Parks’ superb eye and aesthetic skills lent brazen testimony to the constant deprivations and humiliations of Jim Crow’s scaly grasp.
A late spring afternoon was my first chance to catch the exhibit since it opened in January. The pandemic’s hurdles and precautions took priority.
The images were no surprise. Parks’ work has long enjoyed international renown. Artists and filmmakers have riffed off its segregation era compositions in the elevated racial reckoning of recent years.
More unexpected is the degree to which the show warped time and place. One photo of a neighborhood — ramshackle houses in front of a muddy road — appears to be a rural locale until you see that it was taken in town, in Mobile. It was a stock representation of infrastructure in a Black neighborhood during the same era our nation launched a space program.
A schoolhouse with worn wooden desks surrounding a wood-burning stove looks as if it was from the late 1800s rather than the mid-20th century. The same with a shot of overall-clad youngsters on a riverbank under Spanish moss. What might be glossed over with bucolic sheen is really subtext for how little the Black experience changed over Jim Crow’s decades, how inherently unequal Plessy v. Ferguson was.
In another photo, three grade-school-aged boys stand at a fence. One, towheaded and shirtless, smiles at the photographer while his Black buddies play with cap guns. It only hints at the complexity of Southern racial relations. Those boys were approaching the age when society would escort them into respective racial castes. Friendships would shift and change, replaced by more widely acceptable dynamics as they aged. The cap guns, initially innocent, summon the memory of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by police in 2014 for brandishing a toy weapon.
The cumulative sum of the photos generates the exhibit’s weight. A Black woman and a young girl window shop, gazing at white mannequins in a store where they might not be allowed. The separate drinking fountains, the separate entrances, the drumbeat of indignities that build to a psychological din.
If you’re of a certain age, Parks’ work is awash in added hues from personal memory. It’s a stark reminder of its reality’s uncomfortable proximity.
I entered the world along with the landmark Civil Rights Act outlawing de jure segregation. That’s less than 10 years after Parks’ photos. Though laws change, habits and perspectives aren’t so easily displaced. Shifting the South’s bedrock would naturally come at a geological pace.
That means the world Parks captured was still alive throughout my formative years. I recall all-White public schools and the shockingly open bigotry, the weariness I glimpsed in the eyes of older Black people who safeguarded themselves through ingratiation.
It’s why my eyes roll when 20-somethings proclaim “nothing has changed” regarding American racial dynamics. To truly believe such a statement is to denigrate the endurance and perseverance of those who lived under Jim Crow’s full burden, when people picnicked at lynching sites, medical care was segregated and a person of color’s refusal to step aside on the sidewalk or give up their place in line to a White person was a codified crime.
That’s not meant as a placebo, but potential. Change is possible.
A schedule of connected events finally begins this month after the pandemic’s delay. A June 24 extravaganza at Davidson High School features dance, poetry and film in salute to Parks. Lectures from historians are slated for August and September. Alabama Contemporary Art Center will screen three of Parks’ films in July, September and November. You can register for all the events at MobileMuseumOfArt.com.
Mobile Opera (257 Dauphin St.) will hold an open house on June 5, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., in conjunction with a celebration of their 75th anniversary. There will be live entertainment, refreshments and personnel ready to welcome visitors and talk all about the upcoming season.
Facebook updates will begin June 1. For more information, call 251-432-6772.
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