Documenting Black Life…and Why It’s Important

(Gordon Parks postcard display at the National Gallery of Art)

A few weeks ago, I attended the Gordon Parks exhibit, The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950, at the National Gallery of Art. Before walking in, I was pretty equipped with pretty basic knowledge of the famed photographer. If needed, I could spot him in a crowded textbook or recite his legacy over a lunch date. The name Gordon Parks was NOT an unfamiliar one.

(*Gordon Parks, Washington, D.C. Government charwoman, [August] 1942, gelatin silver print, Prints, and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph.)

But, while Parks' photographs grabbed my attention, something else caught my eye. In one of the large exhibit rooms stood a display of Mr. Parks’ early work. Along with a Julius Rosenwald Fund application.

(Copy of a 1942 Ebony Magazine. Article: “Problem Kids: New Harlem Clinic Rescues Ghetto Youth From Emotional Short Circuit”.)

This application included Mr. Parks’ name, address, telephone number, and ‘Plan of Work’ — all handwritten.

In this Plan of Work, he writes, “I plan to spend one year portraying the Negro in his intellectual, professional, educational, social form and urban life…”. He later writes, “My plan of work would be to travel throughout the country and photograph various aspects of the Negro life.

(Copy of Mr. Parks’ Julius Rosenwald Fund Application. Viewed at National Gallery of Art. *Courtesy of Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections.)

There it was. The focus on Black life.

(*Gordon Parks, Washington, D.C. Grandchildren of Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman (Children with Doll), July 1942, gelatin silver print, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph.)

Mr. Parks’ desire to document Black life was intentional. Not just intentional but inspirational. Not just inspirational — — but necessary. The impact of Blackness is traced globally, Black people, unfortunately, are not.

This is why documenting Black life is important.

(Museumgoers view Mr. Parks’ photography)

The Black experience is WELL layered. From Black Twitter to ‘Black Wallstreet’. From Wet-Nursing to Whitney Houston. Black people have moments. We have history. We have NOW.

But how do we know?

Through documentation.

The photos, the stories, the writing, the word of mouth. They link us back to our beginnings ; to ourselves.

(Museumgoer views Mr. Parks’ Ebony Magazine photographs)

Through depiction, we conserve memories. Through documentation, we create blueprints.

By Instagramming your family and tweeting your mother's commentary, you preserve your legacy. Asking your father about his father and sharing your childhood memories with your cousins are steps in the right direction, too.

But, don't just stop there. WRITE those stories down — -in a journal or a notebook. SAVE your social media content — - to your phone or iPad. UPLOAD them to your computer or external hard drive; PRINT them out. YES! Print. Them. Out. The photos. The captions. The tweets.

Printing can be done from home, a local library, or a CVS photo kiosk. Once done: store them in a (physical) (safe) space — -a photo album, a folder, a box.

More digital? Download those documents, curate them on your computer, and/or save them to an external hard drive — -as stated above. Tell your friends and family to do the same. Let them know where your documents are. The goal is to mark Black life present. With intention. Like Mr. Parks.


Citations referenced from the National Gallery of Art.

Photography: Diamond Newman (@diamonddailyyy)

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