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  • Ashley Anderson

Not So Far Apart: A Harlem Family

Time is a peculiar thing. It has a perplexing ability to distort the memory to feel like so much has changed, when really, much as stayed the same. We still face many of the same issues present 60 years ago. In honor of black history month we are going examine how Gordon Parks, the first African-American LIFE correspondent, brought two topics that still dominate the American conversation today, racism and poverty, into one powerful photo essay.

I will warn you ahead of time, the story I'm about to tell you is a real punch in the feels. However, I encourage you to stay through to the end because, like most sad stories, there is a silver lining or two.

The history books (or at least the ones in my school) had a scant, two page spread on the Civil Rights Movement. They covered the major events like Rosa Parks' bus ride and MLK's famous I Have A Dream Speech. Alas, the lessons taught to us hardly scratched the surface. Whole generations of students glossed over the source issues that propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Then, at the end of the lesson, we were made to be uplifted by the ending of segregation.

The truth is, there is so. much. more. to the movement. Even in the thick of it, many white people still didn't understand why African-Americans were protesting every month. There were too many cultural and governmental blinds set up that guided their vision away the root causes that set minorities up for cyclical hardship. For a black hole of poverty and racism.

Gordon Parks was asked to make LIFE's largely white audience understand that the protests had real stock and weren't just paper tigers.

Parks himself was no stranger to racism and poverty. He grappled with discrimination daily as a child. When he was forced to live on his own with no shelter in the bitter Minnesota winter, the bigotry and poverty only expanded. With each slight, his anger grew redder. He built up a set of defense mechanisms such as fast-talk and a flash paper temper at any criticism thrown his way. Finally, Parks began having "conversations in the mirror" and realized that he needed to channel his bitterness into something constructive. At a pawn shop in Seattle in 1938, Parks chose his weapon in the battle against intolerance. A camera.

Parks was one of three photographers sent out on special assignment for LIFE in 1967. His personal history and proven ability to create powerful photo essays made him an easy choice. While his colleagues chose to cover broader subjects, Park's zoomed in on one family, the Fontenelles.

A dark black and white photo of Richard Fontenelle from Gordon Parks' 1967 photo essay, A Harlem Family. The photo essay was published in LIFE magazine. Richard's lips are cracked from eating the plaster to stave off hunger.
Richard with cracked lips from eating plaster. @GordonParks

The Fontenelles were a family of a ten living in a dilapidated 4th floor apartment in Harlem. When Parks met them, the raw Harlem winter had set in and the only heat in the apartment was the oven. Norman Sr, the father, had just lost his job. As an immigrant man of color, he was the first to be let go when his company was laying people off. Parks' grabbed the reader's attention from the very cover of the magazine, which featured one of the children crying out as an impossibly large tear rolled down her sweet face.

For 25 pages, Parks and the Fontenelles took away all the blinds and gave it to the reader straight. The emotive photographs are stripped down to show nothing but the truth and they strike right to the heart. Parks gave the story legs with his 1st person account of the situation. He worded the essay in a fashion that makes the reader further understand that this situation wasn't just one family's, but many. Even his own.

"For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself. You are weary of the long hot summers. I am tired of the long hungered winters. We are not so far apart as it might seem. There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white. It is our common search for a better life, a better world." - Gordon Parks, A Harlem Family 1967

There is a lot to take away from this photo essay, and I have found that it speaks differently to each person. For me, one of the things I see are the coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms that any of us might rely on in the same situation. Each member of the Fontenelles had their own way of getting through each day.

Chronic hunger drove the younger children to eat the plaster from the walls. A need to escape put their oldest into a hospital for drug addicts. Norman Sr., like a pendulum, would be affectionate with his family while sober but would turn into a ball of rage when drunk. Bessie said, about her husband, that he was a good man but "every time they fire him or lay him off he takes it out on me and the kids. He gets his little bottle and starts nipping. By the time he nips to the bottom he's mad with the whole world." And Bessie, it seemed, would become so overwhelmed by "all this needing and wanting" that she was beaten down by it day after day. She would become paralyzed.

Part of Parks' genius is that through his striking imagery and no-frills text the reader can imagine themselves turning to the same methods of coping; the reader can begin to empathize. Fighting to stay alive is one of the oldest and most basic codes written in our DNA. Why not eat the plaster to stave off hunger today, even if means a trip to the hospital tomorrow? We all have our little ways of escaping the worries of the world, but what if those worries never abated? What if they only multiplied? To have anger in one hand and racism and poverty in the other doesn't leave a lot of room for peace, calm, and rationale. And, finally, what if each day you tried to shed one worry but someone places two more in your hands? How could you ever move forward?

Gordon Parks and the Fontenelles showed his largely white audience that they really weren't so far apart. That nobody, no matter the color, should have to struggle with finding a roof over their heads or filling their bellies. Parks' publication was so powerful it caused an outpouring of compassion, love and money from their audience. Even LIFE responded to the emotional story and helped Norman Sr. get a job. Additionally, they took the funds sent in for the family, added to it, and bought the Fontenelles a house.

Soon after the publication of A Harlem Family in 1969, the Fontenelles moved into their new home. Complete with heat and no holes in the walls. For the better part of a year the family lived anew, but old habits die hard. After a night of celebratory drinking Norman Sr. fell asleep with a lit cigarette and started a fire. He and their son, Kenneth, perished in the fire. Bessie was able to get the rest of their children out, but she was badly burnt. The family moved back to Harlem and lived in an apartment purchased by LIFE. In the following years Bessie and all but one of her children died. The only one to live past 30 was Richard.

Remember I told you there would be a silver lining? It's Richard. Parks' time spent with the Fontenelle family was an intimate one and Richard, in particular, became attached to Gordon. Parks didn't stop talking with him after the publication of A Harlem Family. In fact they talked frequently and Gordon taught him many things for decades to come. Richard moved out of Harlem, got married and started a family of his own. Hope and determination were his coping mechanisms. Two things, I think, he saw in Gordon Parks.

I highly recommend that you read The New York Times article on Richard and Gordon. You can find it here. It will bring a smile to your face.

Gordon Parks was a renaissance man who will definitely be getting a blog post all his own some day. He had many talents and we got to see at least two of them shine in this most effective photo essay. In one assignment Parks made the message of the entire Civil Rights Movement heard loud and clear; that American society needed, and still needs to, acknowledge the needs of all citizens, including African-Americans. Don't ignore them or forget that their needs are the same as yours. For one glorious moment in our history, America remembered that we really aren't so far apart.

That, folks, is the other silver lining. We have done it before, so lets do it again. And let's do it every day.

By Ashley Anderson

See the entire project here. Watch Gordon Parks' documentary on the project here.


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