December 5, 2014

Mindful of Rice, Garner and Brown: Gordon Parks's Two Black Boys and One White Boy

Gordon Parks’s color pictures of everyday life under segregation, having gone missing for 50 years, have gotten a lot of attention recently. The gist of these color images is that whites and blacks were less separate in the deep South in the ’50’s than popularly believed. The images are all fascinating, but the shot above is the one that has lodged in my mind since I first saw it a month ago. I wish I could tell you how I would have read it before. Instead, I its acquaintance while immersed in the photos from Ferguson. Now, in the midst of the eruption over the Eric Garner “non-indictment,” the photo fascinates me even more.

The point, I believe, was to illustrate how much black kids and white kids did their share of hanging out. It wasn’t about differences or distinctions, it — as they stand at the fence, the arms of the right two touching — was about being aligned. Fast forward to today, however, and the intense preoccupation on dead black kids and free white cops. Accordingly, what I see are two black boys dressed uniformly and acting close enough alike to risk indistinguishability, each brandishing a toy gun (perhaps like the one that did in poor Tamir Rice in Cleveland the other day). That doesn’t mean that the white kid isn’t thoroughly enjoying the company or couldn’t as easily have been hamming it up with his own gun. The fact he’s “the one that’s not like the others,” however, so fair and innocent when it comes to stereotypes of the day makes me wonder if there isn’t cultural symmetry to that, too.

(8:45 am PST – edited for clarity).

(photo: Gordon Parks. caption: Untitled, Alabama, 1956.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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