We’re grateful (and also a little amazed!) to have John Edwin Mason introduce this powerful, legendary photograph by Gordon Parks. John’s been hard at work on his book, Gordon Parks and American Democracy, and was a featured speaker at a Gordon Parks symposium at the Ulrich Museum in Wichita earlier this month. This edition is also a fitting followup to John’s ingenuous pairing — and introduction — of two Marion Post Wolcott images that we released in the fall. Then, as now, John gave us so much to work with and lots to think about.
— Jen Bekman, 20x200 CEO
Gordon Parks’ first great photograph is also his most misunderstood. He made Washington, D.C. Government charwoman, his iconic portrait of Ella Watson, shortly after his arrival in Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1942 to join the staff of the Farm Security Administration’s [FSA] photographic unit. Parks himself once called the portrait “an indictment of America,” and that’s the way generations of viewers have seen this image of an African American “government charwoman” posed in front of the American flag. When Parks showed it to Roy Stryker, his new boss at the FSA, Stryker suppressed the image, believing that white Americans — especially the congressmen who funded his agency — would be outraged. The portrait became famous only in the 1960s, when many people were ready to accept its bitter commentary on American racism.
To understand Washington, D.C. Government charwoman as a commentary on racial injustice is correct, but it’s only half of the story. Parks’ anger at the racism that he and his people endured certainly fueled his desire to made the portrait. But so did his profound belief in the promise of America. The portrait fuses anger and a deep sense of betrayal.
The experience of growing up poor and black during the first half of the twentieth century had taught Parks to be deeply skeptical about the American Dream at the same time that he was also a true believer in the American Dream. He shared this contradiction with millions of other African Americans who believed that freedom, justice, and equality were splendid ideas and that putting them into practice would be even better. As the nation emerged from the Great Depression and entered the war against Fascism, there were signs that the racial climate was beginning to improve. Parks had every reason to believe that he was a primary beneficiary.
He had arrived in Washington “optimistic and bulging with new strength,” as he once put it. A fellowship from the liberal Rosenwald Fund allowed him to join Stryker’s unit at the FSA. There Parks would serve a kind of apprenticeship, learning the art and craft of documentary photography from Stryker and from the now legendary photographers whose work filled the agency’s filing cabinets — Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Marion Post Wolcott, among others.
Parks, that is, seemed to find himself in the highly improbable circumstance of living the American Dream. Less than a year earlier he had been an immensely talented yet struggling photographer whose principal source of income was a wretched job as a dining car porter on the Chicago and North Western Railroad. Now he was the only black photographer on the FSA’s staff and one of the few black professionals to be found anywhere within the federal bureaucracy. The distance between his job on the railroad, with its constant racial slights and a wage that barely fed his family, and a position with the FSA, was both vast and exhilarating. In important ways, it was too good to be true.
Looking back 20 years later, Parks wrote that “had there been a god of naivety, he would have smiled upon me with rapturous pride….” Stryker sensed this innocence when Parks walked into his office for the first time. Despite having spent his first 15 years in the segregated town of Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks had come of age in the relatively open racial atmosphere of St. Paul, Minnesota, and, more recently, Chicago. Neither place had prepared him for Washington, a town whose white citizens were no less committed to white supremacy than their counterparts in Dallas, Birmingham, and Atlanta.
Stryker felt that he had to burst Parks’ bubble for his own good. It’s a story that Parks told many times, in many places. Get acquainted with the city, Stryker told him. Have a bite to eat at a downtown lunch counter; see a movie; buy yourself a nice overcoat at Garfinkle’s. The rest would have been predictable to everyone in the city, except Parks. The lunch counter turned him away; the theater insisted that it didn’t admit blacks, not even into the balcony; and the salesmen at Garfinkle’s refused to wait on him. Parks stormed back into Stryker’s office vowing to use his camera to fight discrimination.
Stryker sent him to the FSA files. For weeks, Parks studied the photographs that Lange, Shahn, Wolcott, and the others had produced. He came to understand the power of both the single image and the photo-essay.
Late one evening, when the building that housed the FSA’s offices was nearly deserted, Stryker pointed down a hallway toward Watson, who was scrubbing a floor, and suggested that Parks introduce himself to her. Initially, Parks has written, it was an awkward encounter, but the two warmed to each other. Soon Watson was pouring out her life story. It had been rough, and now she was struggling to raise grandchildren and an adopted daughter on her meager earnings. She was qualified to work as a stenographer, a job which paid much better than mopping floors, but the color of her skin made it impossible to find a position.
Parks made at least two portraits of Watson that night. The American flag is visible in both. The less successful of the two is a full length portrait that shows Watson in front of the flag, surrounded by the tools of her trade and clutter of a busy office, with one hand resting on the back of a typist’s chair. In the iconic photo, Parks stripped away all the unessential elements. There’s nothing in the frame except a black woman, her mop, her broom, and the flag.
While the portrait’s original title was Washington, D.C. Government charwoman, its transparent evocation of Grant Wood’s widely recognized painting earned the photograph its more familiar name: American Gothic. Wood’s double portrait of a Midwestern farmer and his daughter was only a dozen years old, but it was well on its way to being seen as an image that captured fundamental truths about the American condition. (Just what those truths were is something that people have been arguing about ever since.) Parks had undoubtedly seen reproductions of the painting and had perhaps also seen the original. Wood’s painting was part of the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago when Parks lived in the city and frequented the museum.
In his portrait of Watson, Parks set out to capture his own essential truths about America. One truth was about racial injustice. But another was about the nation’s chronic failure to live up to the magnificent creed that it and its citizens professed: “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Parks’ Washington, D.C. Government charwoman is indeed an indictment of America, but, more importantly, it’s a challenge.
John Edwin Mason
John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on South African social history and the history of photography in Africa. His most recent book, One Love, Ghoema Beat, combined archival research and his own photography to explore the past and present of the New Year’s carnival in Cape Town, South Africa. He is now writing a book about the American photographer, Gordon Parks.
Gordon Parks was a photographer, musician, writer, and film director. His best-known work was in documentary photojournalism, consisting of images he made in the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1970s, focusing on issues of civil rights, poverty, and the lives of African-Americans. His work as a photographer and filmmaker was barrier-breaking: he was the first African-American photographer at LIFE and Vogue, and one of the first African-Americans to produce and direct major motion pictures.